(Some of) The Story Of Mel’s Wax

I often describe the practice of conserving artifacts as “applied materials science with a dash of fine art thrown in.”  Virtually every conservator I ever worked with had a foundation of both hard science and fine art.  In my case that included a triple-major of Art History, Chemistry, and Studio Art all of which came after my forays into Political Science, Economics, and Architecture; (it took me three tries and a dozen years to get through college).  I mention all of this to say that many conservators have multiple competences, both “left brain” and “right brain”, and when these are combined with a healthy curiosity and willingness to “push the envelope” amazing things can happen.  Nowhere is this more true than when creating new approaches to old problems, say, for example, dissatisfaction with commercially available products for a specific conservation application.

This is where Mel’s Wax came into the picture.

Part of the ongoing care for furniture is the careful cleaning and polishing of it, bearing in mind that every instance is unique and must be treated accordingly.  In the Furniture Conservation Lab of my previous tenure my colleagues and I frequently tested, albeit informally, a wide range of maintenance polishes for furniture.  This included almost every available manufactured paste wax and liquid polish we could find.  Some were better that others, and some were even quite good.  The hitch was that even good products often used ingredients we did not especially care for, and the recipes might change without notice.   A prime example of this would be a paste wax containing toluene or other aromatic hydrocarbon solvents, which make the manufacturing process more efficient, even if they do impart an ingredient that can be unexpectedly deleterious to aged coatings.  And a more subtle instance is the use of ultra-high-powered emulsifiers to excess, in order to facilitate manufacturing and extend the shelf life of liquid polishes.  We found there were a multitude of instances where using an off-the-shelf product was a sketchy proposition.

Both my colleague Mel Wachowiak and I had a passionate interest in formulating products that suited our needs more precisely for tasks such as consolidating and preserving degraded wood, gluing wood together, finishing it, and for maintaining the surfaces of historic artifacts.   As a result we often (almost always, actually) formulated and blended our own furniture surface care products.   It just became part of what we did.

Sometime early in our tenure together (1987-2012) Mel and I brainstormed about creating a much-improved furniture maintenance polish.  We probably even made a list of the properties we wanted, I would have to review Mel’s note book to make sure, but at first it seemed like an insoluble problem. We wanted a product  that was inherently benign to the furniture (“archival” or as close as we could get to that while recognizing the constraints of reality), easy to use, AND very high performance (providing a good look,  good abrasion resistance, protective in a variety of situations, comparatively stable, reversible), and did I mention “easy to use?    It seemed that components that contributed to one beneficial aspect did just the opposite for another, but Mel was undaunted.

Over time my administrative duties took me in other directions sucking away almost all my time so my role in any further developments was reduced to one of making a few suggestions here and there, ongoing reviewing project progress, and making sure I kept the deck as clear as possible for Mel to proceed in pursuing our goals by applying his own considerable creative energies and insights to the problem.  Fortunately for us, I was Mel’s supervisor so I could keep him armed with the necessary resources (read: time) and freedom to continue.  For me to have been directly involved in the developmental process alongside him would have been an administrative nightmare; as a fiduciary agent everything I did was subject to paralyzing scrutiny (as it should have been), so Mel’s taking the lead was a perfect solution.  And he did.

Mel undertook a systematic analysis of the benefits and drawbacks of every single component in a furniture polish formulation, looking at hundreds of possible materials and combinations, both experimentally and with literature reviews, even spending hours on the phone with chemists for dozens of material manufacturers.   Eventually the picture of a final product began to emerge, and Mel mixed numerous formulations, painstakingly adjusting the proportions of each ingredient and tweaking the processes incrementally until we were satisfied with the result.  Actually, we were thrilled, and integrated its use into our daily work.  Mel was soon granted a patent for the formulation and process.

To sum up a long saga, the resulting product was assessed for performance by several major product manufacturers and as I recall we got conflicting responses like: “It’s the best thing we’ve ever seen,” and, “We just cannot figure out how to produce it at a commercial scale.”

Skipping forward a few years and leaping past the bureaucratic sturm und drang, as I was one week away from retiring Mel and I shook hands (literally) on a deal to be partners in a venture for me to manufacture what I now call Mel’s Wax.  I started laying some of the ground work for that to happen in that first year of life out here in the hinterlands.

By the following spring Mel was gone.   The illness we thought had been stymied came back with a vengeance and took him far too soon.

In hindsight, I now realize how this wasn’t just a period of sorrow, it completely discombobulated much of my working life.  My closest friend from work and my partner in this new and exciting venture was not going to be there to share in the delight.   His memory is however very much with me, and I still have the Program from his Memorial on the wall over my work bench.

In planning for an exciting retirement, I had two relentless and unforgiving projects already on my plate, the second volume of the Roubo translation and the Studley project which involved a full-blown exhibition as well as the book Virtuoso.   These were simply higher, or at least more urgent, priorities and for a time the polish would have to wait.

Finally, last winter I began having the time to resume the project, to refine the process that Mel built experimentally, and by early autumn of 2018 I had settled on my own manufacturing regimen.  Given the very fussy nature of making this product, and my current pace of life and involvement with many other things I will never be able to produce “commercial” quantities of Mel’s Wax.  I am hoping to be able to produce 2,500 units per year if needed, but if the demand requires me to re-address the status quo, I will.

Mel is still my partner in spirit, and his widow will receive quarterly checks for his share of the proceeds, for as long as Mel’s Wax is being made.

A handshake is a handshake.

Now you know, (most of) The Story of Mel’s Wax.

There are only two important questions remaining in the tale.  First, is anyone else as interested in this as we are/were?  And, who will play us if they make this into a movie?