How Minwax found its niche in wood

Once in a while we hear of an accidental discovery - a lucky person stumbles upon a solution for some problem. Such is the story of Minwax.

Its founder, Arthur B. Harrison, was no stranger to solutions -- especially chemical solutions that protected surfaces from deterioration. In fact, he had created very effective waterproofing methods and seemed to have attained success. Yet when he looked up (or in this case, down), he serendipitously triumphed again.

After Harrison spent 12 years developing the art and science of waterproofing, his reputation earned him the honor of preserving an Egyptian treasure, a 3,500-year-old granite obelisk in New York's Central Park. To suit the unique requirements of the fragile stone, he liquefied a traditional paraffin formula so it could be applied with a brush. Thanks to the fluid (drippy) state of the special mixture and the observant workers who noted its effect on the wood scaffold, the stone-preserving product found a new purpose. The scaffold planks appeared to have a paste-wax finish from the spills, yet they were not slippery underfoot. This discovery would lead the Minwax company to its ultimate specialty: beautifying and protecting wood.

Although the monumental discovery occurred in 1916, the actual beginning of the Minwax story goes back to 1904. (I won't start with the story of the obelisk, known as Cleopatra's Needle, or we'd find ourselves in 1600 B.C.) While working for the Clifford I. Miller Co., Harrison invented formulas for waterproof and water-resistant finishes. He convinced Miller to diversify his plaster manufacturing business and add a factory to make the products. Six years later Harrison bought Miller's interests and eventually incorporated the business under the name Minwax. Soon recognized as an authority in waterproofing methods, the company produced and applied finishes for architectural and engineering projects.

Harrison's business grew, and in 1916 he moved it to a larger facility in Clifton, New Jersey. He and his Minwax products had achieved success, but he didn't stop there. After discovering the monument wax's beautifying effect on wooden planks, the company refined the formula for use on wood floors and woodwork. Architects of public buildings and fine homes were the first to use the finishing wax, and the product proved its merit in commercial applications.

During the late 1940s and early '50s, Minwax finish became a consumer product, just in time for the postwar housing boom. By replacing the wax in the formula with varnish resins, the company made the finish more usable for homeowners. The product, called Wood Finish, was reformulated to become the first modern "quick-drying" DIY finish. As word spread among consumers, the demand for Minwax finishes grew, leading the company to develop new colors and companion products.

Minwax has thrived in the DIY market by making a variety of stains and finishing products that yield professional results even for novice woodworkers. During the century since Harrison began formulating finishes, the company has branched out to serve, inspire and inform wood finishers and woodworkers through its Web site, printed materials and program sponsorships.

See the photo above. High mineral-wax content in Harrison's early products inspired the company's protective formulas as well as its name, according to a company publication from the 1930s.