Turpentine versus White Spirit in Beeswax Furniture Polish — and why it matters

Here at Cambridge Traditional Products we make Beeswax Furniture Polish to an original Victorian recipe.

Beeswax furniture polish and pure gum Turpentine

Using an original Victorian recipe means our polish contains pure gum Turpentine. After the beeswax, Turpentine is the most important ingredient in our polish. This is because pure gum Turpentine is the solvent that dissolves the beeswax and carries it into the grain of the wood.

Any good furniture restorer or antiques expert will tell you that Beeswax furniture polish from a traditional recipe, (i.e. one with Turpentine), is the best thing for polishing bare wood. (By which I mean wood that has not been varnished or lacquered).

The British Antique Furniture Restorers Association shares an article, "The routine care of historic furniture and fixed woodwork in churches." It states, "Only use a good quality, unstained beeswax with Turpentine polish," and that "Waxes containing silicone or aggressive chemical solvents must never be used..."

There are furniture polish brands on the market today that would like you to believe they also use an authentic traditional recipe. But they use White Spirit instead of the original pure gum Turpentine. The purpose of this post is to explain why this matters to us, why we do what we do and why we think it should matter to you too.

Beeswax furniture polish and the Turpentine, White Spirit dilemma

First, some personal history. I took over the stewardship of Cambridge Traditional Products about ten years ago. At that point the company was rolling along quite happily. It is testament to the quality of the product that our beeswax furniture polish sells itself to a certain extent. For a while it was quite easy. Then two things happened.

  1. The recession hit.
  2. The price of gum Turpentine, which had previously been fairly stable, went through the roof.

In 2008 Turpentine was around £200 a barrel (205L). By 2011 it was just under £600 a barrel. Mercifully, since then it has leveled off and become stable again. The price of our furniture polish was relatively low at that time, but as the price of Turpentine kept rising I wondered how high a price the market would stand. Just to keep up, we had to keep increasing our prices at six monthly intervals. We did not know if the price would level off, or if the necessary price of a jar of polish would reach a point where people would stop buying it. So I had a dilemma.

It had been suggested that one option would be to switch to using White Spirit, a cheap synthetic Turpentine substitute that is derived from petroleum. A quick sniff inside a jar or two of other brands indicated that was what some of our competitors were doing. For me, it just never felt like a good thing to do. For a start the smell was really not pleasant, and the smell of Turpentine in our polish was always one of the characteristics that people often said they liked. More importantly though, was the need to be true to our company ethic. We are Cambridge Traditional Products, because we make traditional polish. 

Switching a key ingredient for a cheaper alternative that we knew would make an inferior product did not feel like a good option. How could we call it “traditional”, if one of the two most important ingredients had been replaced with a modern chemical?

So, I decided we would 'sit out the storm', carry on doing what we were doing, and hope that the price of Turpentine stabilised before people stopped buying our furniture polish! Fortunately that is what happened. Our furniture polish ended up considerably more expensive. But, as I had hoped, it turns out there are enough people about who will pay a little bit extra for real quality. Also, it gave us a more well defined niche to occupy in the market — as the producers of the highest quality traditional beeswax furniture polish available.

White Spirit is not a traditional ingredient of beeswax furniture polish

A couple of years ago one of our sales agents alerted me to a problem. In several retail outlets he had noticed that one of our competitors had a polish that sat next to ours on the shelf. It claimed to be a traditional beeswax polish, made to an original 18th Century recipe. This, however, was one of the ones that had gone down the route of switching to White Spirit. White Spirit did not exist in the 18th century. So, it was not a traditional polish at all. The problem was that it was cheaper than ours (due to their cheaper costs from using White Spirit compared to our higher costs from using the original ingredient of pure gum Turpentine). If a member of the public looked at the two jars they would think it was a comparable product, essentially the same type of furniture polish. But the other one looked like a better deal and made ours look overpriced. 

The labeling challenges associated with beeswax furniture polish

Our sales agent also highlighted another issue. Not only was the other furniture polish cheaper, it also did not carry any hazard warning markings on the label. Regulations state that both Turpentine and White Spirit, and products containing them, should carry the same markings, 'harmful' and 'dangerous for the environment', and must be listed as 'flammable'. This is because, as with most solvents, Turpentine and White Spirit are toxic if swallowed or if the fumes are inhaled. It is potentially harmful to the environment if not properly disposed of and it is technically flammable. These are all slightly exaggerated risks — you would struggle to ignite our polish   but those are the rules. The 'dangerous for the environment' label is particularly striking, with its picture of a dead tree and fish. But our labels have to be the same for the polish as if we were selling pure Turpentine. What this really means, is that if you tipped a barrel of Turpentine into a river you are going to kill fish. And it would not be a good idea to empty a jar of polish into a pond! We have become accustomed to occasionally answering calls from concerned customers about the nature of the hazards. We have always been able to reassure people at put their minds at rest, just be imparting a little more knowledge. A most common response from people is along the lines of, "Oh, so its only Turpentine? That's ok then..."

Obviously if a competitor was not using these labels, any degree of reticence on the part of the customer about such things would lead them to choose the product that looks like it doesn't have any hazards associated with it. I had to agree with the agents. This was a problem that needed to be addressed.

I decided to talk to our local Trading Standards officer. He was in complete agreement that this other producer of polish had created a market advantage through false advertising, and improper labeling. It took over a year for anything to happen. It was a slow process, but in the end the other company were ordered to change the wording on their website and add the necessary labels to their product. 

Understanding Turpentine versus White Spirit in beeswax furniture polish

So, lets take closer look at Turpentine and White Spirit. First, it is important to distinguish between Gum Turpentine and Turpentine Oil. Turpentine Oil is made from the pulped roots of felled trees. It is potentially more hazardous to health and mostly used in heavy industry.

US-NC(1891)_p654_MAKING_TAR_AND_TURPENTINE.jpg
Early Turpentine production   (Wiki-commons)         

Early Turpentine production   (Wiki-commons)         

1. Turpentine

Gum Turpentine is distilled pine sap, which can be sustainably tapped from the tree, much like rubber once was. The history of Turpentine is fascinating, if somewhat grim. Often referred to as 'Naval stores', there were several preparations produced from pine in the early days of the American colonies. The original use was pitch and caulking for boats — hence 'naval', but during the 19th century its uses in industry were extensive.

Turpentine became established as a major commodity in the days before cheap paraffin became available. Bearing in mind Turpentine is considered 'harmful by inhalation or if swallowed' today, it is fascinating to consider the incredible range of uses it had in the 19th century. It was a

  • Wood treatment
  • Solvent
  • Thinner
  • Cleaning agent
  • Waterproofing compound
  • Disinfectant
  • Liniment
  • Flea and lice treatment
  • Moth repellent
  • Soap ingredient

It was also taken internally for colds, parasites, and as a laxative, among other things! One of its its most common uses was as 'camphene', an illuminant made from Turpentine and alcohol, and extensively used in lamps until the production of paraffin (or kerosene).

Unfortunately, as so often seems to be the case, exceptional demand led to exploitation   both of people (slaves were used in production) and natural resources (over-tapping destroyed large areas of pine forest in the 19th century). More about the fascinating history of American Turpentine production can be found here.

In the 20th century the industry cleaned up its act with the American Turpentine Farmers Association formed in 1936. This lead to more sustainable management of resources and improved working conditions. The Turpentine industry, however, was already in decline due to cheap alternatives derived from byproducts of petroleum. By the 1960's the industry was a shadow of what it had been. During the 1980's Brazil and Portugal took over as the world's foremost producers and American Turpentine production ceased altogether in 2001. Read more on the decline of the American Turpentine industry here

2. White Spirit

White Spiritalso known as Mineral Spirit, or Mineral Turpentine. It is a petroleum-based cheap replacement for Turpentine. According to Wikipedia, "Mineral turpentine is chemically very different from Turpentine... and it has inferior solvent properties". It is essentially a lighter grade of paraffin (kerosene). One of the key differences in terms of its use, is that White Spirit evaporates much more rapidly than Turpentine.

Banner Chemicals states that Samuel Banner introduced White Spirit to the world in 1885. Another type called Stoddard solvent was created in the 1920's and was used in the dry cleaning industry until the 1950's. There are many grades and types of mineral spirits now available, but all are essentially the same compound. 

White Spirit, being petroleum based, has an unpleasant smell. Turpentine on the other hand, smells reminiscent of pine forests. It's not to everyone's taste, but many of our customers often comment on how much they love the smell. Some White Spirit preparations have had the unpleasant odour reduced. I do not know exactly what particular variant of White Spirit our competitors are using, but I do know that some of them are adding essential oils in an attempt to make their product smell better.

3. Why we stand by making our Beeswax furniture polish the traditional way, with Turpentine, and why this is better than White spirit

Years ago, one of our early advertising taglines was, 'We believe our ancestors knew more about caring for wood than a modern chemist'. It seems intuitive that a preparation made from tree sap would be a better choice for treating wood than one made from petroleum. I am no chemist, but it is not hard to imagine that on a molecular level, something that has been produced from tree sap would be more beneficial to wood than something derived from petroleum!

Probably the most obvious practical difference is the evaporation time. White spirit evaporates considerably more quickly than Turpentine, and this can cause wood to dry out. As Malcom Pipes, a bespoke furniture maker we supply, says, “Pure Turps polish soaks the wood and feeds it, its a natural finish.”

An American website, Fine Tools, contains lots of information about traditional tools and wood care. Expert John Kramer comments on the subject of Turps vs. White spirit. "Too often these days when I mention Turpentine, someone of the younger generation will answer, "Yes, I use that, I use Mineral spirits". These two are totally different materials — Mineral spirit is a petroleum derivative and is of no benefit to, nor is it compatible with wood". (Emphasis my own). He goes on to say, "Though there may seem to be some temporary improvement, since petrochemicals have nothing the wood can use, results are temporary. Turpentine comes from trees — it is natural to wood — its benefits are many and long lasting." And, finally, "Our ancestors figured out that when you keep things compatible it all works together — and works well. Wood stuff on wood works!" 

I cannot think of a better way of putting it than that. If you are going to polish a cherished piece of furniture, or valuable antique, you will want to be confident that the product you use is of the best quality available. Beeswax furniture polish with Turpentine is what the experts have been recommending since Victorian times.

At Cambridge Traditional Products we are proud to stand by the right way of doing things and make the best quality beeswax polish it is possible to make. There is simply no better way to treat wood.