Bespoke Shoes Unlaced – a shoemaker's blog

Friday, 9 April 2010

Wax Miracle

I must be getting old and forgetful. This is a post from April 2010 that I wrote but did not publish for some reason. And it's a corker, with the first video we ever did. Better late than never I suppose. Hope you like it!

A week away from you and I am raring to go. Thank you to the Other One for taking over last week.

Last Friday was a day off, but if you run your own business, that is a bit of a misnomer (unless you are out of the country). So, on my 'day off', I did some very interesting things at home, including, painting, cleaning windows, replanting window boxes, and, most interestingly, made some thread wax (for coating the threads for welting and sole stitching bespoke shoes).

This is a bit of alchemy which takes you back to the old days, where shoemakers had to fashion everything for themselves. We have a small library of books with recipes for various concoctions which have been replaced by modern glues, waxes and polishes. These books are amazing, requiring unknown substances like gum tragacanth, borax, candelilla, moss gum, shellac, the list is endless.

Thread wax is the only thing that, so far, has not been replaced (you can get an industrial version but it is awful). So we have to make it ourselves. We use 2 versions, a black one and a natural one. This recipe is for the natural colour.

Before starting, I made a trip to buy the raw ingredients from one of my favourite shops in London, L Cornelissen and Son. Nominally an art shop, this place is amazing, like a Victorian apothecary, old shelves and drawers full of the ingredients from our ancient recipe book. It has the creakiest floor in Christendom, so people shuffle about, embarrassed, trying to avoid creaks, only to discover even creakier spots. It's very funny.
They do mail order, so you can buy there too.
Their packaging is beautiful, like paper Gladstone bags.

I bought colophony (distilled turpentine), beeswax and tallow.

So here is the recipe.

200g colophony

300g beeswax

a tiny fingernail of tallow

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.
Get a plastic washing up bowl, put it in the sink and fill it with cold water. Leave the tap running.
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. When you have a ball, start kneading and massaging it for about a minute. This makes it mix properly.

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

Let the balls cool down and you can then use them (after about 5 hours). You should do a test thread to see the consistency. If it is too sticky, repeat the process but add a little colophony. If it is too brittle, add some more beeswax.

If you want to make black thread, substitute the colophony for tar, the stuff they use for the roads. I just ask the workman who is manning the furnace for a lump. After explaining what it is for, they look a bit puzzled but hand some over. last time I asked was 8 years ago and I still have some left, so you don't have to do it very often.

Good luck with this and let me know how you get on.

On holiday next week, in another country no less, back in two. Barcelona here I come!