Hold On, Museum Wax Is On the Job

Jeff Stephens is an inventory specialist at iFixit, and he worked for six years as a supervisor of installations at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He has installed art everywhere from college art galleries to commercial galleries—even his own installations.

Museum wax

Every collector of kitsch, fine china, or fossils has wondered, “How do I make my cookie jars stay put so they don’t clock me in the head when the train rumbles by?” If earthquakes, passing freight trains, and bumps in the night are causing havoc with your collectibles, Museum Wax can help you get a grip.  Museum Wax is made of non-toxic, non-acidic, microcrystalline sticky stuff that can anchor your model Millenium Falcon or ground your grandfather’s carved Mallard drake. And that’s not all—Museum Wax will tackle those finicky nonmagnetic screws and crooked pictures on the wall too.

For collectibles and artwork, Museum Wax beats duct tape, cyanoacrylate glue, bailing wire, and chewing gum hands down. The key? It’s “reversible,” a favorite adjective of art conservators everywhere. Museum Wax provides a firm hold for large urns and small cups and is still reasonably removable.

In the decade I worked as a preparator installing artwork in California museums and art galleries, Museum Wax was my best ally in the fight against roaming temblors. Art conservation staff call it “seismic mitigation,” but we lowly preparators know this means, “Make sure it doesn’t fall over before the building collapses.” We had a plan: artwork was hung from at least two hooks anchored in a stud or plywood sheet, and the lower edge of every frame was locked down with special security hardware. Some three dimensional artwork required elaborate brackets and mounts fabricated from steel or brass and padded out with soft felt to safely manage their mass or delicacy, but usually we just followed a stick-it-to-the-deck-so-it-don’t-move-no-where plan.

Holding an egg cup in place with museum wax

And Museum Wax isn’t just for ceramics.  It’s good for glass, plastic, wood, bone, stone, papier-mâché, and metal… with a caveat or three:

  • If your object is delicate or has a thin stem like a wine glass, beware when you remove the object from its waxed spot. The hold of the wax may be stronger than the object itself. A little wax goes a long way, so use small quantities first before coating the whole base of that purple unicorn with a 1/4 inch slab of wax. Always remove objects with a slow steady twisting motion to release the wax, or slice the wax with dental floss or monofilament fishing line.
  • If your object is plastic or is painted, beware that anything oil-based (like wax) may react unpredictably with aging plastic polymers. Paint can peel off and that gummy plasticizer seeping out of Barbie may do strange things with the wax.
  • If your object has a porous surface like unfinished wood, bone, ivory, unglazed ceramic, or stone, the wax may become a permanent part of the surface. In most cases, a wood popsicle-stick or plastic spatula (or perhaps even a spudger?) will be adequate to remove the wax from the base of an object. If any wax remains on the surface it can be cleaned with mineral spirits. Keep in mind what you will have to do to get the wax off when deciding if that matryoshka needs to be goobered in place. Think about the finish on your shelf or table, too. In most cases the wax will clean nicely off finished wood with a buffing cloth, but use caution when planting an Arts & Crafts vase on your Stickley table.

For best results, stick with objects with a flat base and stick ‘em on flat surfaces. Wax is wax, and it will cold flow. Indeed, this property helps make Museum Wax reversible.  But don’t try mounting objects on a slope.  In my career at the museum I took a chance on waxing a setting of Art Deco silverware on a 2˚ slope inside a display case. I had to return twice in the three-month run of the installation to correct the slow downhill ooze of that silverware. The warm lights in the display case didn’t help. Heat makes wax go soft, so keep that in mind if your shelf is above a stove or heater.

The manufacturer also warns against waxing particularly tall or top-heavy objects.

Museum wax and tools

Other suggestions:

  • Crooked picture frames? Museum Wax won’t hold up frames by itself, but add a small bead behind each lower corner of a frame in addition to the existing hanging hardware and your world won’t go so cockeyed.
  • Having trouble getting that nonmagnetic screw into its hole? Stick a bead of Museum Wax on the tip of your screwdriver and insert that screw with one-handed surgical precision.
  • Is product photography your bread and butter? Museum Wax will keep that squirrelly mascara applicator standing on end ready for its close-up, and just think of the stop motion animation potential.

Ready America, the manufacturer of Museum Wax, makes other “seismic mitigation” products, too. Each has its own properties of stickiness and longevity; Museum Putty or Museum Gel may be better for you. iFixit doesn’t sell Museum Wax yet, but we’re interested to know if people would like us to. For now, you can purchase it on Amazon here. Read all of the manufacturer’s directions, liberally apply your own judgment (and a little less wax), and in no time your tchotchkes will know their place.