Bespoke Shoes Unlaced – a shoemaker's blog

Friday, 30 September 2011

Thread Wax

Preparations for our trunk shows in Chicago and New York are in full flow. It is not long now and we are very excited. If any of you wish to come, or know anyone who might like a pair of our bespoke shoes, then please spread the word or make an appointment. Carreducker needs you!

Over the last couple of days, our friend the Shoe Snob has been polishing the shoes we are going to take. So they are gleaming, And today we started packing them. We are really looking forward to this trip - can't wait!

We were asked about the wax we use on our threads. I did do a post on this but I am going to repeat it for those newer readers amongst you.

The threads you use are very important. You can buy ready made, pre-waxed threads which work fine, but they are not made of natural fibres, I have been told. Being very traditional shoemakers, we prefer to use a natural fibre like linen or hemp. As a result of this, we need to use a thread wax to coat and preserve the threads. The wax penetrates into the fibres and stops them breaking or rotting.
We make this wax ourselves. And here is how.

For the natural colour wax, you will need colophony (distilled turpentine), beeswax and tallow. We buy ours from the marvellous LCornelissen & Son, artists suppliers. Love the packaging!

If you want black wax, substitute tar for the colophony.

So here is the recipe.

200g colophony

300g beeswax

a tiny fingernail of tallow

This is a winter wax, so I added about 20g more of beeswax. This has the effect of keeping the wax softer in the cold weather. In summer, add about 10g extra of colophony.

Place all the ingredients into a pan and place on the heat. Continue until all the ingredients are liquid. This gets quite hot and smells a bit, so open a window.

Next pic is about half way, with some melted and some still solid. It looks like liquid honey when finished.

The next stage is the fun bit. I don't know why you have to do this, but you do. It will not work if you don't. It stays brittle and unusable.
Get a plastic washing up bowl, put it in the sink and nearly fill it with cold water.
Pour the liquid wax into the water. It disperses a bit. You have to push it together with your hands. Be careful as the wax is very hot. The water helps stop it burning you. Turn the tap on when you start touching the molten wax. When you have a ball, start kneading and massaging it for about a minute. This makes it mix properly.
This next bit is a video, so don't miss it.

Now divide the ball into smaller ones, about 5 for this amount.

Having just watched the video, I think there is a way to improve the process. I think if you stir the water in the bowl round with a big spoon and when it is spinning really fast, pour the liquid wax into the middle, it will stop it dispersing so much. Like doing a poached egg. If any of you try this, let me know how it works. I am curious.

And that, my dear readers, is a wrap. Have a fantastic week, and until next Friday, happy shoemaking!


Anonymous said...

If you are using natural thread (i.e. linen or hemp), the addition of tar to your wax is a bad idea, in that tar is a petroleum derivative and can cause the thread to deteriorate.

Traditional shoemaker's wax utilized 'pitch,' which is a byproduct of turpentine production and is very dark brownish/black. The pitch is actually anti-microbial and helps protect the thread from rotting, which it can do when it gets too damp from foot perspiration (inseam) or rainwater (outseam).

I believe your 'colophony' is a type of purified tree rosin, made from the resin of pine trees (think the sticky stuff you can get on your hands when climbing pine trees); many shoemakers use this in combination with pitch and beeswax to make their shoemaker's wax. Alas, real tree pitch is hard to come by these days; Sweden traditionally was a great source, but no pitch is made there today.

Henry V.-The Engineer said...

Hey Guys,

You're doing a great job.
Keep up the work.
Question...When and where is the Trunk Show in NY?
I'm here in the city and would love to experience it in person.

Thanks in advance.

jimmyshoe said...

I absolutely agree with your comments, but as you say, pitch is no longer available (as far as we know). For this reason we use tar.
Having been making for many years, and having learnt the technique while an apprentice at John Lobb Ltd, we have been using tar. While it might make the threads deteriorate, we have never seen a shoe back with broken stitching. Indeed the upper leather will split and crack before the threads deteriorate so much that the shoe falls apart (the average lifetime of the shoes is about 20 years).
We tend to use the natural colour wax, but use the black on occasion.
In this case, it is a question of needs must.
Best, jimmyshoe

jimmyshoe said...

Dear Henry V, we are at the Plaza on Monday 17, Tuesday 18 (9am - 6pm) and Wednesday (9am -11am).
If you want to come, please make an appointment, as we will have a lot of people to see.
We look forward to meeting you later in the month.
Best, jimmyshoe

Anonymous said...

try using pine tar. it's been used for preserving rope for centuries and it is highly anti-microbial. smells good too!

jimmyshoe said...

I think the pine tar you mention could be the same as the colophony/ rosin (distilled turpentine) we use in the blog. It is a pine based product and smells very nice. Or at least, it sounds similar. Best jimmyshoe

Anonymous said...

they are different. the pine tar is much like petrol tar you would get from the asphalt crew, the rosin is crystallized.
i don't know the difference in distillation.
an example of the pine tar i speak of would be "bickmore" pine tar, used primarily as an anti-septic for horse hooves.

Al Muckart said...

Colophony and Rosin are pretty much synonymous. What you really want for black wax is pine pitch (the proper black stuff, not the rosin that gets sold as pitch all over the place).

As far as I can tell, Rosin is the solid bits left over after the spirit turpentine has been distilled out. Pitch is very different, it's what you get from the destructive distillation of wood - usually pine root balls I think. As far as I can tell tar is much the same, just with more volatile solvents left in.

About the only way to get something close to real pitch these days is to get stockholm tar and boil it down until it's nearly solid. That's needs to be done outside, preferably well away from anything you don't want to destroy as the smoke will condense out into brown sticky goo on anything it touches.

Jackie said...

I sew bagpipe pipe bags and make my own wax similar to that on your blog. I require the wax to be black and in the past used Thermo wax, Bee's wax, Bitumen and tallow.
Thermo wax is hard to obtain now-a-days and Bitumen has been replaced by liquid tar. Would you have any recommendations on replacements? Is there anything I might add to your recipe to make the wax ball black or dark brown?

Many thanks

jimmyshoe said...

Hi Jackie, in my recipe, you can replace the colophony with tar. But that is not that easy to get any more. I usually ask roofers when I see them. Same proportions. Best, jimmyshoe

Johney smith said...

Many shoemakers use this in combination with pitch and beeswax to make their shoemaker's wax.
Roof Repair Towson MD

Raphael Herrera said...

so how do you get tar in a solid form? i acquired some liquid roofing tar and let it set outside for days but never really solidified like my natural wax made from your recipe :(.

Bests wishes,
Raphael :D

Madame Shoe said...

All our roofers use it solid and melt it in a big cauldron on the back of their trucks. Never seen it liquid before. Sorry er can't help. James and Deborah

marlia mosral said...

Hi...can you sell it to me. I am from Malaysia. Its hard to get the ingredient here.

jimmyshoe said...

Yes we can sell it to you. Email us on Best, jimmyshoe