shoemaker's wax

Home made with beeswax and rosin

Regarding Waxing of Thread for Hand Sewing

We all know that thread waxing is a vital process in creating durable hand sewn leather goods. But the details behind the wax’s purpose and its desired properties are often poorly understood. Many modern hobby books on leather craft recommend just rubbing beeswax into the thread before sewing, with the purpose of lubricating the thread to prevent fraying and deterioration of the thread while sewing. But that is just one of the several perspectives for the usage of wax on thread.

Some leatherworkers use a more sophisticated kind of wax, often known as coad (also spelt as code) or shoemaker’s wax. As the name suggests, it is most often used by shoemakers. This kind of wax has an added property of being sticky. The stickiness imparts a few added benefits. Al Muckart puts this across very well, and I quote him,

“Wax is sup­posed to be sticky, it is not a lubri­cant like plain beeswax is. As well as hold­ing the bris­tle on the thread the wax melts slightly as it is dragged through a stitch and then sets again. The stick­i­ness locks the stitches together in the stitch hole and con­tributes a sig­nif­i­cant amount of strength to the seam. I have cut the exter­nal parts of stitches off and still had to use pli­ers to pull the pieces of leather apart because they were held together with lit­tle pegs of waxed thread. This also stops the stitch you have just made from becom­ing loose when you release the ten­sion on the thread.”

There are several variations of shoemaker’s wax. Like baking cookies, the recipes and methods for making this wax are endless. There has been much debate regarding what is the “traditional” or “best” way to do it. By far the most highly touted method among shoemakers is to blend beeswax, pine pitch and rosin together via a process of melting, blending and taffy pulling. The rosin gives the wax its stickiness and the beeswax lubricates and makes the wax softer and more manageable. The pitch does a bit of both, and on top of that gives the wax anti-microbial properties which helps resist rotting. Of course this recipe is not without its problems. Firstly there is little information with regards to the “right” proportion. In fact there probably isn’t, as different proportion suits different uses and climates. Also, there is much confusion as to what constitutes proper “pine pitch”. Some say proper pine pitch cannot be found commercially any more, and the only way to procure it is to make your own. Furthermore, pitch makes the wax black which is not suitable for waxing light coloured thread. Other recipes include just pine pitch and rosin or just rosin and beeswax.

I chose to use shoemaker’s wax over plain beeswax as I feel that it provides significant added durability to the end product. The stickiness holds the bristles better and allows the thread to be plastered to the leather surface, reducing surface abrasion on the thread. It also allows for tighter stitches. Even If the thread is broken, it will be not be easy for the leather to come apart. In comparison, the thread tends to fray sooner and stitches are not as tight when plain beeswax is used.

The above batch of shoemaker’s wax was made by blending pure beeswax and rosin. Pine pitch was not used as it is not easy to come by. Besides, I use mostly light coloured thread and the pitch will blacken them. I have also read that modern linen thread are much more resistant to rot and should outlast the leather it holds easily. Hence pine pitch may not be that relevant in today’s context after all,  and hence I feel it should not be a major concern to omit it. It took me 3 tries to get it right, as for the first 2 time there was too much beeswax which made the wax too soft for Singapore’s warm climate. I also gave up taffy pulling after the second attempt, as I found that it is not as necessary if you mix the melted blend well enough – which was my case partly as a result of having to remelt and redo twice. So I just poured the mixed blend into a mould to cool and harden. It was this third try that I finally got it right – hard when left alone, but softens up enough when the thread passes through it, giving a fairly stiff and very sticky thread.

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