Sealing Wax recipes

2002

Like so many of these "simple" recipes, there's much more to sealing wax than you might first expect.

What sealing wax does

Tom Perigrin explains this below in rather more florid language, but sealing wax should do all of these:

Mould well
The wax should take a clean impression of the signet ring or seal.
Usually this requires it to shrink a little on cooling.
Be secure
Once set, the seal shouldn't be removable without destroying it.
This is a problem with beeswax seals. If the seal can be prised or melted off, it might be re-applied falsely somewhere else.
Stick well
Seals are usually applied to flexible materials like paper or parchment. They shouldn't fall off. The traditional use of a ribbon for the seal was one solution.

Ingredients of Sealing Wax

Tom Peregrin explains this (as well) in much more detail below, but put simply, a good sealing wax needs to be made from a mixture of ingredients.

Typically these are a mixture of wax and resin; usually (historically) beeswax and shellac. Shellac is comparatively recent though, a 16th century import from India. It's actually made from insect secretions (more detail here) and is still widely used for wood finishing. In medieval times, rosin from coniferous trees was used instead of shellac.

Recipes for Sealing Wax

Here's a couple of English recipes from around 1900
They're taken from the Newcastle Northern Echo's booklet, "300 Secret Trade Recipes"

Black Sealing Wax

3/4lb best black resin,
1/4lb finely powdered ivory black
and 2 oz beeswax.

Melt over a slow fire and form into sticks by rolling on a piece of glass.

Red Sealing Wax

1lb shellac,
3/4lb vermillion or venetian red,
and 5 oz Venice turpentine.

Editor's Notes:

When melting any flammable waxes, use of a double boiler is recommended. Certainly a "slow fire", or any source of open fire isn't recommended. Personally I use a thermostatically controlled electric hotplate.

Ingredients

Shellac (flakes) and turpentine (real turpentine distilled from wood, not a petrochemical spirit) are easily available from a good supplier of woodworking finishes.

Resin (pine resin or rosin) is a little harder to find, especially to find it ready-boiled, not just raw. A cheap source is just to scrape it out of freshly sawn pine boards, where it oozes out of hollow "resin pockets" on the first hot day.

"Black resin" as used here was probably bitumen. It's available today as a fine black powder that's fairly clean to handle, or a sticky mess found underground in places like the la Brea tar pits. You may also find a small piece from a road or roof repair, then pound it small in a mortar and pestle.

Venice turpentine is almost impossible to find these days, as there's no real agreement over what it is ! See the note below that discusses this further. It's a thick, viscous form of turpentine that seems to have been similar to the Canada Balsam still used today for making microsocope slides.

Colours

Ivory black and venetian red are all classical pigments. The easiest source today would be artist's pigments, as used for oil paints. Some of these still use the classic recipes for these pigments, others a modern synthetic dye. For this purpose, either should be just as good (although some artists have been worried about centuries-old preservation of their work with these pigments).

There are also a large number of red recipes using vermillion or cinnabar (if the description is Chinese), which is mercury sulphide. Don't use these unless you have a chemist's lab fume cupboard to hand! Cinnabar is not a safe material to work with, unless you know what you're doing. Modern pigments are much easier (and safer !) to work with.

Other colours

Medieval sealing wax also appeared in green. The pigment here was verdigris (copper carbonate or chloride)

Other Recipes

Encyclopaedia Britannica

From the Encyclopaedia Britannica (first ed./1771) under 'Wax':

"Sealing wax is made in the following manner: Take one pound of bees-wax; three ounces of fine turpentine; olive-oil, and rosin, finely powdered, of each one ounce: when they are well melted, and the dross taken off, put in an ounce and a half of vermillion, or red lead, finely ground, and stir them together till they are well incorporated: and when this mixture grows a little cool, roll it into sticks, or in any other form. If you would have it black, instead of vermillion, or red-lead, put in lampblack."

"The soft, red, and green-wax, used in large seals to some of our law-writings are thus made: Melt bees-wax over a gentle heat, with such a proportion of Venice turpentine as, when cold, will give it the due consistence: this is determined by repeated trials, first putting in but little turpentine, and afterwards more and more, till by dropping a piece upon a marble to cool, it is found of the true consistence. They then colour it with red-lead or vermillion, or with verditer, or whatever colour they please, the mixture in this state receiving any."

In general, vermillion will look 'brighter' than red lead, which tends to be dull and toward the orange side of red.
John Partrige, The Treasurie of Commodious Conceipts and Hidden Secrets, 1573

To make red sealyng wax.

Take one pound of Wax .iii. ounces of cleare Tyrpentyne in Sommer, in Winter take fowre: melte them together with a soft fyre: Then take it from the fire and let it coole: Then put in Uermylion berye fynely grounde, and Salet Oyle, of each an ounce, and mix them well together, and it is perfect good.

A couple of Usenet contributions:

From: tip@lead.aichem.arizona.edu (Tom Perigrin)
Newsgroups: rec.org.sca
Subject: Re: Wax Seals (was Re: Site Tokens)
Date: 13 Jul 1994 19:58:24 GMT
Organization: AI in Chem Lab
hrjones@uclink.berkeley.edu (Heather Rose Jones) wrote:
> It's a mixture of wax and resin (you can smell the pine resin rather
> clearly when heating it). I imagine you could mix your own up at home if
> you knew the proportions. Just for the record: has anyone come across any
> period recipies for sealing wax? It would be fun to mix some up from
> scratch, but somewhat pointless unless I were using a period recipie.
>
> Tangwystyl verch Morgant Glasvryn

Good My Lady,

an a humble cleric may speak, I have the following reciept for seling wax;

The manufacture of a good and faithful sealing wax.

The purposes of a sealing wax are threefold; imprimus - to seal a missive so as to protect it against unwonted investigation, secundus - to seal a missive so as to invigilate against falsification, et tertius - to give witness that the missive comes from the hand from which it purports to arise, by carrying the imprint of a greater or lesser seal.

To accomplish these purposes, the wax must have certain and diverse qualities. It must adhere to the paper or parchement so tenaciously that it may not be prised off with impunity. It must be of such a nature so that when any attempt is made to prise or cut it from it's paper that it shall fly into a thousand shards. Yet it must also be so durable so that the passage of time or the thousand little insults that might ensue unto its normal life, shall not break or mar it.

A simple seal of beeswax can ne'r be pressed to serve, for that it is but childs play to cut it along the seam, whereby then to read the contents of the missive, and then to press the seal back together again with a heated spatula so as to erase any indication that one has assayed to breach the security of the seal.

On the other hand, a seal made of shellac shall also ne'r serve, for that it is too intemperate and hard and will too easily break upon the lightest blow. And belike as not, it will not adhere to a paper when attached thereto, so that oftimes it would pop loose without any encouragement, and bear false witness against the messager.

However, when two substances of opposite humours are married, then a union true unto it's purpose shall be obtained, suitable in all degrees and means. Thus shellac can be tempered with rosin, or turpentine, or beeswax, to obtain a good and true sealing wax.

To make thy wax, takest thou first 4 parts of shellac, and place it in a pan over a heat of the second degree. Once it begins to melt, then add by degrees 2 parts of good turpentine, and thereafter add 1 part of rosin. Now thou moucht cast thy colorant upon it; for red thou shouldst add 2 parts of vermillion, whereas for blue thou shouldst stir in 1 part of Prussian blue. An thou wouldst have a green seal, then thou shouldst add to a blue wax the halve of one part of yellow chrome, and 1 part of magnesia. Before thou dost cast in thy colorant stir it up first with a small measure of turpentine, so that a paste is formed. And at all stages have thy servant stir this mixture so fast is they may, so that none doth stick and burn upon the floor of thy pan. Once these matters have all been married, then thou may form it into sticks by pouring it upon a marble plate in the same fashion as a candy maker doth, and rolling it back and forth with a smoothed wooden block.

An thy wax be too hard, or not tenacious enough to thy paper, thou mayest temper it by adding up to 2 parts of goodly beeswax.

Dry shellac may be obtained from woodworkers supply houses. Use the least expensive orange flakes. Rosin may be obtained from music stores, or sporting goods houses, or by taking the gummy exudate from pine trees and letting it dry in the sun for a summer. Vermillion is mercuric sulfide, and you should be careful with it. Nowadays I might be tempted to use an inorganic pigment obtained from a paint store instead. Prussian Blue, Chrome Yellow and White Magnesia can all be obtained from paint stores or artist's supply houses. Chromium has been implicated in cancer... you might want to substitute that as well. When heating this mixture DON'T use an open flame, use an electric burner (unless you like second and third degree burns). If you don't have a marble plate, then cast the sealing wax into molds. If you add too much beeswax the sealing wax might stick to your seal. But if you are only dropping wax on a seam without impressing it, beeswax is a cheap filler (compared to shellac). The recipie is not perfectly reproduceable since each batch of shellac and rosin are a little different, so you should probably always start with a small batch and experiment before you make a large batch.

Newsgroups: rec.org.sca
From: leeu@celsiustech.se (Leif Euren)
Subject: Re: Real sealing wax?
Organization: CelsiusTech AB
Date: Mon, 24 Oct 1994 12:28:58 GMT
Dan Berger wrote:
>If you have a simple recipe for sealing wax, I would appreciate you posting
>it. I had not considered adding shellac.

My knowledge is mostly of post period uses of sealing wax,

Modern sealing wax is made mainly of shellac. I don't know if this is medieval practice, but I haven't made any real deep research yet. Anyway, I have some recipies from mid-17th century for sealing wax. And I have reason to beleive that if shellac based wax was used in period, this is a good approximation on their variant:

shellac 100 60 40
hartz - 40 60
turpentine 10 70 60
turpentine oil 5 5 5
cinnabar 65 45 40
chalk 15 15 20
plaster 15 15 10

All measures are weight, relative to each other.

The ingredients should be put in a pot, big enough to allow vigorous stirring, and slowly heated until the melt. Never over an open flame; if you don't have an electrical stove, put some sort of metal plate (preferrably cast iron) between the flame and the pot.

Be careful, because the ingredients an inflamable! Do not try to put out fire in the pot with water, but cover it with a lid.

When all the solid components are fully melted, and thouroughly mixed, cast the sealing-wax in brass molds, about half foot long, and half inch wide, producing a stick 1/2 x 1/2 ". The molds should be cold and well polished, as the wax will seep into any cracks and then be very hard to remove.

If you are planning to sell your wax, you may want to polish it. This is best done in an oven, hot enough to melt the outmost layer of the wax-stick, but not its core. The temperature in this oven is critical: a too hot oven will cause the surface of the stick to melt completely, drip to the bottom and catch fire; not enough heat will soften the stick throughout, causing it to bend. You could also do this by hand over on open heat source, but that will take some skill.

There is also the recipe based on bees wax:

bees wax 50
turpentine 15
cinnabar 10
glycerin 5

As the book I've taken these recipies from is a swedish translation of a german book, and I've made the translation into english myself, some precission may have been lost in the process.

I hope I have enlightened you in some way. As I've said before, sealing wax is is not my main area of study, although it might well be.

your humble servant
Peder Klingrode | Leif Euren Stockholm, Sweden
Holmrike, Nordmark, Drachenwald | leeu@celsiustech.se

I would be very interested in seeing any medieval recipes for sealing wax. The only one I have stumbled across is in Mappae Clavicula, and as it doesn't call for beeswax, it is somewhat irrelevant to the current discussion. It is for a golden sealing:

"Mix 2 oz reddish natron and 3 oz of minium. Grind with vinegar, add a little alum and leave it to dry. Then grind it and lay it aside. Take about half an obol of gold filings and 1 oz of gold colored orpiment, mix them all together, grind them and pour over them pure gum soaked in water. Take it out and seal what you want, whether a letter or tablets. Leave it for two days and the seal becomes hard."

Using Sealing wax

Making a seal or signet

A seal needs to be heatproof, capable of taking fine detail carving, and with a smooth surface that the wax doesn't stick to easily. Metal is good, and stone is good (but sometimes harder to work) but wood doesn't tend to work well.

A good starter for a signet is simply pieces of jewellery, or indeed a signet ring. Even coins, or cut-up pieces of coins can be used to make a seal. It's easier if you solder or glue a handle to the back of the coin and clean the front with a chemical metal cleaner.

If you want to carve your own, then a good material to start with is French Chalk. This is a hard chalk that's easily carved, but polishes to a smooth surface. It's available in narrow sticks (½") very cheaply from an engineering supplier - welders use it as a chalk marker for hot steel.

More practiced carvers might use soapstone, a traditional material for ink-seals on the far-East for millenia. Soapstone is sold through many craft suppliers selling it to carvers. If you do try wood, start with something hard-grained and dense, and start out by making a larger seal.

Applying seals to ribbons

From an SCA list:

Please don't apply wax seals directly to scrolls! This was done for one reign in the East recently, ending only a year ago, and I know of only one seal that has remained intact. (There probably are more, but I know of many that have fallen off.) A scroll that I received that reign still sits, unframed, because the ugly blotch left by the wax hasn't been dealt with yet.

A better way to seal scrolls is to cut a small horizontal slit in the bottom margin (I'd give it at least an inch below the slit for a large seal like the Eastern one), run a ribbon through this slit, and apply the wax to that ribbon, forming a sort of loop. (The wax will ooze around the edges of the top piece of ribbon to bind the back piece, or you can lay the two ends slightly off from each other.)

If any of these old chemical names are confusing, look in the glossary

Other sources of information: