There are hundreds of ways to treat steel, each with their own pros and cons. I’ve always found the old fashioned ways of working with metal to be really interesting. Beeswax is actually a great way to give steel a durable, black coating that will protect it from corrosion.
Here’s an overview of how to blacken steel with beeswax:
- Clean the metal thoroughly with a degreaser and remove any rust. Make sure there’s no residue left on the metal.
- Preheat an oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit
- Put the metal on to a metal baking sheet
- Let the metal get hot in the oven
- Remove the metal from the oven and take it to a ventilated area
- Rub a mixture of beeswax and linseed oil on the metal with a cotton cloth
- Put the metal back in the oven for 20 minutes to allow the wax to smooth out
- Pull out the metal and let it cool
That’s the short version. The amount of time that the steel needs to spend in the oven will depend on how thick it is.
If you want more detailed instructions and explanations, along with a few tips, read on for my more complete guide.
The Full Explanation – Blackening Steel with Beeswax
Alright, so the main concept here is simply that you apply beeswax to metal when it’s hot. However, if you don’t take a few extra steps, the finish is likely to turn out pretty uneven and ugly.
This is why it’s important to clean the steel as best you can before you heat it up. Things like oily fingerprints and other things could show once your done and make your work kinda ugly.
You also need to blast off any rust. A wire brush usually works fine for this, although you could also try something like acid etching.
Cleaning the Steel
I really recommend using something like isopropyl alcohol, methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), or something else that will completely evaporate and not give off fumes, especially if you’re doing this in your house or a poorly ventilated area.
Heating the Steel
Really, you can do this however you want. I like using old ovens just because they’re easy to regulate, and I use them for things like tempering anyway. You could even use an old toaster oven.
Alternatively, you could also use a torch. There’s no need to get fussy here. If it gets hot, it’ll probably work. Torches work great for larger pieces.
I like to heat up the metal to about 400 F because that’s what’s given me the best results. Thinner pieces of steel will take less time to heat up than thicker pieces. That’s why I like to determine the steel’s temperature based on its color. At 400 F, steel just starts to change its color to a light brownish-yellowish straw.
Actually, 400 F will be slightly too hot, but by the time you take it out of the oven and start applying the beeswax, it’ll probably be at the perfect temperature.
Here’s a handy chart that will help you figure out the temperature that a steel has reached based on its color:
You can absolutely use pure beeswax to blacken steel. Personally, I like to add some linseed oil to thin out the wax, and I’ve had better results with it.
The ratio that I use is 2 parts beeswax to 1 part linseed oil. This can be a really rough measurement, I haven’t found that being overly precise really changes the results too much. Warm the mixture up in a pot or a can or something until the beeswax melts and stir it well.
Apply it to the metal by rubbing it in with a cotton cloth. 100% cotton is important. If there’s anything synthetic in the cloth it’ll melt, and you’ll have a really bad day.
By the way, make sure that you’re using gloves or something to handle the metal. Steel that’s 425 F is hot. Besides that, your burned-in fingerprints will mar up the steel.
The better you do at applying an even coating, the better the steel will look. You don’t need to drench it,a light coating will do the trick. Just make sure that you don’t miss any spots.
The fact that the metal if nice and hot will make sure that the wax quickly melts into a thin liquid that can penetrate and reach into any tight areas on the metal piece. Even still, you probably won’t get a totally even coating at this point.
That’s why I always take it one step further.
The Second Heat
Ok, this is my trick on how to get your beeswax finish to look pristine.
Once you’re done coating the entire piece of metal, throw it back in the oven at 425 F for half an hour. I’ve had significantly better results with an oven in comparison with a torch, since the oven heats the metal very evenly and will maintain that heat that burns the wax into the metal.
Make sure that you’re in a ventilated area, or at least that all the windows and fans are on, so you don’t smoke yourself out. But doing this will allow the thin, liquid wax to really even out so that the metal doesn’t look blotchy.
On something that’s hammer forged, it won’t make a difference. But if you’re doing this to surfaces that are ground smooth, machined, or otherwise shiny, you’ll notice any blotches right away. This step is how you prevent that from happening.
If you do it this way and get blotchiness anyway, then you’ve probably got a problem with your cleaning process. There might have been a residue left over from the cleaning solvent, or maybe it got messed up between the cleaning and the heating.
That’s pretty much the process. You should not have a black, shiny, rustic looking piece of steel.
I especially like to do this process to things like cabinet hardware, door handles, or other steel decorative pieces. It makes them look really rustic and cool.
Just make sure that the metal doesn’t have any coating. If there’s something like a varnish or chrome coating, this process simply won’t work unless you remove it first. It’ll only work well on bare steel and iron.
Other Processes to Finish Steel and Iron
Like I said earlier, there are a lot of ways to protect and finish steel and iron. Here’s a quick overview of my favorites:
This is an extremely popular industrial solution, but a lot of people don’t realize that you can do this at home. Black oxide is a thin and hard layer that protects the metal from corrosion and changes the color to a dull black or very dark charcoal. They sell kits online that will give you everything you need to get started.
What’s nice about this one is that the thickness of the coating is so small that it doesn’t interfere with any mechanical function of the metal. In other words, it works great on screws, bolts, and parts that need to fit together tightly.
Make sure you do your homework on the particular kit you buy, though. The home use black oxide kits aren’t as powerful as the industrial systems, so make sure to research/ask whether the kit will be able to handle what you have in mind. Half the time people just assume and then get cranky when it doesn’t come out like they imagined.
This is essentially the same process as seasoning a cast iron skillet. It’s also similar to the beeswax finish, except you’re using straight oil instead of beeswax.
Overall I have a preference of this oil seasoning over the beeswax finishing, but they’re both cool and it’s really just a matter of personal preference.
Some people use old motor oil and leftover junk like that to coat the metal, but that stuff is usually full of additives that can make it not turn out quite right. I’d recommend using pure boiled linseed oil instead if you want a great result.
The process for this is simple: heat up the metal to roughly 400 F and use a cotton rag to rub the oil on to the metal. If it doesn’t go on wet, the metal is too hot. Once it cools down, it’ll start to soak in and harden into a dark, protective coating. Once the metal is coated, heat it back up to about 400 F.
This process can be really smoky if you don’t do it just right, though, so I’d recommend doing it outside or in a very well ventilated area.