Posted in Restoration, Stories

To Wax or Not to Wax, Maybe Just Polish

People frequently confuse polishing with waxing or use the terms interchangeably. So why wax your pen? Well, the wax would appear to offer protective benefits for hard rubber and casein-based plastics (never apply it to celluloid) by creating a relatively impermeable layer to protect against moisture.

Spoiler Alert: from what I’ve read, waxing is not recommended for any pen, now let’s determine why!

The preferred method of restoration or cleaning is to polish a pen’s surface – please don’t ever use a buffer. I use a Sunshine cloth on everything. Some pen materials, such as celluloid, need to breathe and be stored in a place with good air circulation to avoid “celluloid rot”.

What’s the problem with wax?

Waxes have not been shown to benefit hard rubber, while they can damage celluloid by preventing the escape of the acidic gas by-products celluloid naturally produce. The wax seals the celluloid, preventing the nitrocellulose gas from escaping, it is retained in the celluloid hastening decomposition. As waxes age, they harden requiring extraordinary measures for removal. This is even more prevalent with hard waxes like Carnauba. Also, the wax will “yellow” or become cloudy with age impacting the pen’s appearance. Even the best microcrystalline waxes are subject to these same issues. Synthetic waxes are even worse, they are almost impossible to remove. Waxes that were once thought to be “museum-grade,” such as Renaissance Wax, are now known to be no better than other waxes.

Renaissance wax was developed by The British Museum to protect the items in their collection. A study showed that Renaissance wax is especially difficult to remove without harsh solvents. The wax is no longer used in museums.

The point to waxing is to clean (surprise), wax makers know this and their recipes contain more hydrocarbon solvents than wax. Neither the solvents nor the wax is beneficial or appropriate to use on a pen. There are products out there that have neither solvents nor waxes that do an excellent job of polishing plastics.

At one point I thought Danish Oil would be a good ebonite protectant until I read the small print, the oil I was using is 70% toxic solvents and resin ester. I now use 100% mineral oil and a Sunshine cloth. The mineral oil is a cleaning agent on ebonite only. Guess what, it is distilled petroleum and petroleum does not play well with some rubber (I know – “loser”). Sticking with oils, REM and 3-in-1 oils have also been shown to accelerate the gas deterioration process.

As mentioned, I do not use wax at all, I do not use a buffer and the only polishing I do is use a Sunshine Cloth. I am considering a polish that contains only a micro crystal abrasive in a water suspension – no wax or solvents. Micro-Gloss Liquid Abrasive appears to be a good choice. I bought a rare Esterbrook circa 1932. When the pen arrived it was clear the seller had applied a polish, I immediately got out 7,000 grit paper and did the best I could to remove any wax or polish residue on the pen.

  • Carnauba wax
  • Renaissance Wax
  • Johnson’s wax
  • REM (gun) oil
  • 3-in-1 oil
  • WD40
  • Mineral oil
  • Danish oil
  • Jewelers’ rouge buffing and polishing compounds

In Conclussion

I learned a lot and found that some of the things I have been doing could potentially cause long-term harm. One of the purposes of this blog is to help others learn from my mistakes. Celluloid is not a concern for vintage pen collectors only. Montegrappa and Visconti are making beautiful pens from celluloid today.