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Beeswax: what a wonderful mess

Have you ever considered how wonderful it is, that there are still materials around us which are not yet completely understood by the scientists? This I learned this week while researching beeswax for encaustic use, scientist do not yet know all the more than 280 compounds (111 of them volatile) that are present in beeswax!!! I think that is why I love it.

In this post I am going to explain what is beeswax and how its nature rules the way we should use it in encaustic.

Did you ever thought it possible that the Germans never had a Beeswax DIN norm? (:-)) Did you know that there is such a thing as synthetic beeswax? To avoid being overcritical with EU policies and politicians just a statement: In Europa 2013 you can get anything under the name of Beeswax, and we are not going to change this I am afraid.

Therefore a minimum understanding of the main material  -beeswax- we will be working with is vital, specially if we live in Europe and all the references and encaustic wax providers that we find in the encaustic books and internet websites are in America.

What is a wax?

The term “wax” refers only to a substance having the following properties:

  • solid at room temperature
  • low melting point
  • solidifies when cooled
  • low viscosity at just above the melting point
  • insoluble in water

What is beeswax then?

I am going to try being very focused on what we need specifically for encaustic, other I may lose 90% of you in the way, I am conscious:

  • The bees produce wax to build their hives, honey is only the by-product. The bee workers consume between 3-4 kilo honey to produce one kilo wax. Now we can understand the price of beeswax in the market.
  • The bees produce white wax, that with the time is contaminated by pollen, propolis and dirt. The older the hive the darker the color of the wax. Although the melting point of beeswax is about 60°C, it is interesting to note that wax is secreted in a liquid state at ambient temperatures. The liquid wax crystallizes in this condition.
  • Different type of bees produce different types of wax (with different characteristics), Apis Melifera is the european bee and produce what we know in Europa as Standard beeswax, but there are Asian, African… and so on. With the global market all types of beeswax are also available in Europe.  Since the Chinese economic boom, the european markets are saturated with chinese  beeswax , they are cheaper and poorly labeled, but why not?, they might be worth testing.
  • The chemical formula is  C15H31COOC30H61, this meaning is made of  Oxygen, Hydrogen and Carbon in different proportions and bonds.
  • Beeswax floats in water, is relatively hard when solid,  it gets soft around 40 ºC and melts at 62-64ºC . Can burn when it gets over 200 ºC. Wax requires twice as much heat to increase temperature than oil and, what is more important, requires a lot of energy just to melt.
  • Crude beeswax needs to be filtered to get commercial wax, to do so traditionally wax hives were submerged in water in textile bags and applied heat enough to melt it, beeswax would float and the dirt would remain in the bag. Chemical extraction by solvents is feasible but contaminants, pollen and propolis are dissolved, thus the quality of wax can be impaired.
  • 100% Filtered beeswax still has a yellow color due to the carotene from the propolis, which is fat soluble.To get rid of this color, traditionally was exposed to the sun in very thin lamellae for days. Chemical bleaching is also possible but changes wax structure making it more brittle.
  • Although beeswax is a rather stable material (consider Al Fayum portraits), once you heat it, its volatile components (esters) change their chemical bonds, this meaning that  after heating the beeswax  what you get is slightly different from what you had. Probably that is the reason beeswax is so difficult to characterize (and probably why Chemical Engineers  don’t like it so much, most essays I have read where written by biologist ). Longer heating or higher temperatures lead to greater degradation and loss of esters. These changes also influence the physical characteristics of the wax.
  • The structure of beeswax is crystalline, the main crystallization process takes  3-4 months (but keeps crystallizing up to a year)
  • Beeswax has been used since millenniums, as candles or waterproofing. Today is very common to find beeswax also in the cosmetic, the pharmaceutical and the food industries.The only characterization available is that of the pharmacopeia, in America is called USP (-NF), in Europe as food additive E 901. But this, I can tell you, does not tell us too much. It only refers to cera flava (yellow) y cera alba (white) the latter being defined as “bleached” yellow wax.

What does these mean?

Tips for painting with beeswax : encaustic wax

  • Melting beeswax for encaustic. Try to avoid melting each time more wax than you need and specially avoid overheating, since your wax will become with time more brittle and dark. If you observed that your wax is not melting at the beginning be patient, don’t try to speed up the process, this effect is due to beeswax relatively high Heat of Fusion and Specific heat capacity, increasing the heat can only lead to overheating.
  • Health & safety in encaustic. The  volatile components of the beeswax evaporate when we heat the wax and can be harmful for your heath, so, again  do not  overheat the beeswax,  and always see to it that have enough ventilation in your studio. If you feel a light headache or you eyes itch, switch of the wax and ventilate thoroughly. Now you know that your ventilation measures where not sufficient and you will have to think of another solution for the proper ventilation of your studio.
  • Filtered encaustic wax. To get different effects in encaustic you can use the crude, the refined or the refined & whitened. The more transparency you want the more refined and whitened  you will have to use. The filtering  in Europe is not an issue (unless you buy the wax from the small local producer next door), the beeswax you get in the market (Amazon, Ebay etc) is completely filtered, you will not find solid rests in it, but don’t let yourself be fooled, it will still be very yellow.
  • Bleached encaustic wax. The real issue with beeswax is the bleaching. If you want white beeswax, but not bleached, I still have not discovered what the commercial name since the labelling of commercial beeswax do not specify the bleaching process. We should avoid bleached waxes mainly because of its brittleness, any slight bump on the panel will cause the splitting of the wax at the edges. Chemically bleached beeswax can also react with the new organic pigment generation. I would suggest to find a local store for restoration products or candle making and check the labelling, If it is not specifically mentioned that is not chemically bleached,  is probably so. If you, like me, do not find a commercial wax that fits you, just buy 100% pure filtered beeswax in pellets (or flakes) and expose it to the sun for a couple of weeks (it works wonderfully!)

The only texting laboratory for waxes in Europa is in Germany, it seems that waxes cannot be properly tested  unless you use very sophisticated equipment such as  Chromatography, perhaps I may get in contact with them sometime. But in the meanwhile  I am already working on “home testing” of the wax , but it will take me some time before I am ready to write about it, If you cannot wait, I suggest you order the beeswax in USA, at least at the beginning.

and good luck!

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