Using Gilt Cream and Liming Wax

Monday 9 July 2018

At times, the use of colour on turned work is a hot bed of contention at grass roots level, with some advocating its use to maximise and enhance wood. Others say nothing should be applied to the surface other than a lacquer, wax, or oil finish to just warm the piece up.

As with all matters concerning turning, it is a question of personal taste and what one is trying to achieve. There is no doubt in my mind that colour can be used to enhance a piece of work, and can, at times, add dramatic effect to what can be a bland piece of timber. When I use colour I want to work with the wood, not obliterate it. My desire is to highlight and accentuate what is already there. So, exploring gilding paste/wax – a metallic wax substance which can be used to enhance the grain – or can be used to create a solid metallic surface covering similar to that of silver or gold leaf. In fact, it is used to repair gilt surfaces too. Liming wax – a white wax product – is a modern equivalent of an old widely used surface finish. There is a range of patinating waxes – a similar, coloured product – that can be used to accentuate the grain as well, or used to impart a shading to metallic or wooden surfaces to age them etc. but we will look at those in another article.

Whilst many do not like coloured work, it is interesting when they see limed or gilt-creamed work, as many people say they would give this a try. But is it because we are working in sympathy with what is already there?

Whichever ones you opt to use they are lovely options to explore, highlighting the natural open-grain in wood, and irrespective of which type you choose, the working methodology I use is the same for all. Below you will find my top tips to help you easily achieve the perfect results when using these products.

10 steps to creating the perfect gilt or liming wax effect

Step 1

The choice of wood is vital to any project and none more so than for this. If we are trying to accentuate the grain patterns, you need to pick a timber with a highly defined open-grain structure such as oak, elm, sweet chestnut or ash. There are other timbers available but these four give me consistent results time and time again. Shape the wood – ash in this case – as required, and sand it to a very fine finish so that there are no sanding scratches or surface damage present. If any sanding marks or damage is left on the surface the waxes will highlight it out

Step 2

Once sanded and all blemishes removed, open the grain with a bronze brush or a very stiff fine bristle nylon brush. The grain is opened in order to deepen the soft growth areas and allow more wax to be placed into the grain, thus providing a better pattern definition. If you do not do this, the effect will be gentler and subtler

Step 3

As I am using gilt cream to show the process, I think it is better if you use it over a base colour in order to have a high contrast between the highlighted growth patterns and the rest of the wood and fine ebonising. Colouring it black is great for this, but if you choose to colour the wood, pick a colour of your choosing and give it a go. This will provide a stark contrast to the accentuated growth patterns against the background colour. Dyes or a lacquer can be used, but it is important to make sure that the colour penetrates the wood and doesn't sit on the surface filling the opened grain. If you are using a liming paste, you can choose whether you colour the wood or not. If you do not, skip this stage and jump to the next step

Step 4

Once the piece is dry, seal with a sanding sealer and leave it to dry fully. I find spraying gives a more even coverage than brushing on a sealer. It also gives a lighter coat, so doesn't fill the opened grain so much. By applying sanding sealer, it is easier to get a sharp delineation between the softer wax-filled grain and the harder wood areas. You don't have to do this, but if you do not, you end up with a metallic or white sheen on the surface, depending on the wax used. This can look great, but I prefer the sharp contrast

Step 5

Using a piece of paper towel take some gilt cream – not too much, a little goes a long way – and coat the project with a gilt cream. Here, I am using St. Germain silver, but you could also use a liming paste, if you choose. Work it into the grain using circular motions until the whole surface is coated and the grain fully filled

Step 6

Have the cream to dry for 10-20 minutes, then take a piece of paper towel and dampen it with an mineral based oil, such as a Danish-type oil, and work it in circular motions over the surface. This will dissolve the wax that is on the surface of the piece. Work in a circular motion with the lathe stationary. Ensure that the towel you are using isn't too wet or you will dissolve and pull out the wax from the grain

Step 7

Having worked over the whole surface start the lathe up at a low speed, take a fresh oil dampened cloth and wipe it across the surface of the work to remove the excess surface cream. This process might need to be repeated a few times with a clean oil-dampened cloth to remove the final misty surface, finally leaving a clean cut

Step 8

Take a dry, clean piece of cloth or paper towel and buff up the surface with the lathe running. Don't press too hard

Step 9

Close-up of the filled grain detail to show the sharp contrast between the coloured harder areas and the filled grain

Step 10

Once you have turned the inside you will have to consider whether you leave the turned inside as natural wood, colour it, or colour and gilt cream it. I decided to ebonise it and seal it for a Japanese ceramic look, and I left it at that. Much will depend on the shape of the bowl, the rim size, and your preference. Experiment and have some fun

Liming wax

Liming pastes have been used for many years, consisting of chalk/lime, beeswax, and other such items to make the paste. Modern waxes are more consistent in use and easier to use. Limed oak (Quercus robur) is quite common and is seen on modern and old furniture in thousands of homes around the world. It has been a simple and effective way of accentuating the grain of the wood, showing the grain patterns by making them white and also imparting a soft milky effect to the wood. It can be used on sealed and unsealed wood, and as mentioned, coloured patinating wax can be bought, too. But, did you know that you could colour your own liming wax? The method of using liming wax is as shown previously. The thing is to have fun and experiment.