Giving your project an artistic finish often requires using a glaze, stain, or wax that has a color to it. What is the difference between glazes, stains, and waxes? How do you decide which you should use for your piece? What does each one do? There are many factors to be considered and depending on the look you are trying to achieve, figuring out the right one is important for the perfect finish.
Waxes are easy to use and don’t require a lot technical skill. The most popular use for wax is antiquing wax that has a dark color and once buffed on the surface, can give the finish an aged effect. There are liming waxes that can give a whitewashed look as well, that highlights the wood grain and details. There are decor waxes that come in all kinds of pigmented colors, often metallic sheens and are perfect for decorative finishes. I often use the redesign with prima or art alchemy waxes for my carnival glass finishes or other colorful effects. There is clear wax which is used to seal chalk paint. The technique for applying antiquing and liming wax is best with a natural bristle brush to spread the wax on the surface and using a cloth to buff it smooth. For decor waxes, I often use my fingertips or a small artist brush because I am accenting small details and not the whole surface area. Waxes are easy to use for any skill level and the most popular go to for artistic finishes. I love using them with stencils because there is not bleed through and it so easy to apply.
Glazes are highly pigmented liquid solutions with a lot less binder or no binder at all and are usually layered between coats of finish. They are usually semi-transparent. Glaze, like wax rests on top of the painted surface, while a stain penetrates the surface like a dye. Glazes can be applied like paint, unlike wax because it is in liquid form. You can use a brush, sponge or wipe it on with a cloth. Glazes come in all kinds of colors that you can imagine and are used for decorative finishes. You can use glazes for antiquing with a dark colored glaze in black or brown. You can also use colorful glazes to give you more depth and dimension on the surface and to highlight details. Most glazes must be sealed as they have no binder. There are some glazes that do not need to be sealed, for example, I make glazes mixing mica powder and water-based polyurethane so it’s essentially a topcoat already. I love Modern Master’s platinum series glazing creams because they are easy to use and are slow drying so you have more workable time to blend it on the surface. They come in a large array of colors. Some people find glazes easier to use than wax because of the viscosity of glazes, which makes it easier to apply on the surface, however, some find that attribute makes them more difficult to apply.
Stains are like thinned out paint. Sometimes a dye will be added and these are sometimes called a dye stain. Stains penetrate the surface unlike waxes and glazes. Stains contain a binder, usually a thin oil-based product. Stains always have to be stirred while in use because they contain solid pigments that settle to the bottom of the can after a short time. Usually, some type of topcoat is applied on top of the stain to lock in the color and to allow for multiple coats of stain without lifting previous coats of stain. Stain cannot be wiped off like glaze so there is less room for error. Once applied it is on permanently. They can go on darker than glazes so keep that in mind. Stains are perfect for unpainted wood because they penetrate the surface and will give it an even color. Glazes will make it splotchy and uneven as it rests on top and does not penetrate the porous wood. Stains must be top coated as they have no hardening agent and will not protect the surface. Gel stains are thicker versions of stain. Oil based stains penetrate wood the most as opposed to water based stains. You can thin gel stain with a bit of mineral spirits to make them easier to apply and less dark. Use a foam brush or brush to apply and wipe with a rag afterwards. Stains can give you a lovely antique look just like a glaze or wax but the working time is less than it is for glaze or wax.
How do you decide which is for you? Based on what I have mentioned about the characteristics of each, one may suit your needs more. For me, it’s more about what I have on hand and is available at the moment. You can make any of them work for you but the technique will be slightly different for each as well as the effect you get. Glazes have more variety in colors with the exception of decor waxes. I usually decide based on what color I need for a project. If you are wanting an antique effect, wax or glaze is probably the easiest to use but you can certainly use the stain you have on hand too to get the same look. Wax is buffed unlike glazes or stains. You can play around with wax more but a glaze with a topcoat afterwards is more durable. Decor waxes from redesign with prima dry permanently but like any wax, can be scraped off as it lies on the surface. The advantage of glaze is that you can seal it immediately after it dries with a topcoat. Wax needs to cure before you can topcoat it which can take 30 days or more. The decor waxes need 24-48 hours to cure before applying a topcoat. Play around with each and see which works best for you. Depending on your budget, the availability of the product, and what you already have, you’ll be able to make the right decision for you.