A Guide to Wax SealsOct 28, 2021
You might live under a rock, but if you are a default millennial living the 21st century and have an interest in arts and crafts, chances are you’ve found yourself on Instagram more often than you are sometimes willing to acknowledge. Instagram’s Lettering Community is like many others: a bunch of enablers, stationery lovers, with slight tendencies to hoarding and an ever-changing, ever-evolving common obsession. For a while now you might have seen wax seals make a comeback. Yes, the old school technique kings used to sign documents. Well, kind of. There have been a few upgrades here and there. In case you have not fallen down the rabbit hole, you will probably want to after this post (not making any promises, but that’s the way it was for me), or if you have, but everyone is sick of getting mail from you (how dare they?!) you’ll find a couple new ideas here.
Want to WOW your friends even more? Slip a handmade lettered insert into the envelope before popping a seal onto it. I mean COME ON.
Hey, I'm Myriam of @halfapx and I LOVE wax seals. Today, I'm bringing you a guide on everything you need to know to fall in love with this amazing craft.
Let's start with some background.
The whole purpose of wax sealing back in the day (and we’re talking way back, like Middle Ages and before) was to a) make sure a recipient would know if a letter or document had been tampered with and b) to identify the sender. Often times the impression was made using a signet ring, which would bear a family crest or other symbols people were able to clearly associate with the person it belonged to. Seals back then were hand engraved only. Hand engraving still exists (and is as gorgeous as ever!), but most seals nowadays are etched into the metal with a laser, which is why they are so affordable now. Hand engraved seals look a lot more three-dimensional though, and if you find one on ebay, definitely consider getting it. I mean, look at that fleur de lys for example, it has so much depth to it!
The traditional red sealing wax we know nowadays is not quite as old. Before it was invented, people used other kinds of sealing material. The historical sealing wax was also made to break. So cracking a letter open would literally make a sound. The wax we most commonly mail around these days is usually a lot more flexible and there is a reason for that. I have tried all common formats of modern wax, so let’s talk about that next.
Types of sealing wax and formats
Okay, there are two main types of sealing waxes still available: traditional and modern. The traditional sealing wax is highly glossy, whereas the modern wax has more of a satin look to it. What distinguishes the two in terms of formula is that the modern sealing wax usually has some type of plastic added to it that makes the seal more flexible. In other words, it is not going to crack or break, thus it is safe to put it through our modern mailing system. Traditional seals are not meant to be mailed, so if you want to seal something with it, you’ll also have to go the old mailing route and deliver it yourself or use an envoy to take your seal from A to B.
These two types of sealing wax can then be further broken down into different formats:
Candle-Style Stick with a Wick
Glue Gun Stick
The different types of waxes require different amounts of additional tools and each one has pros and cons.
Candle-Style Stick with a Wick
This is the traditional way and most traditional waxes still come in just this format. The way these are used is by lighting the wick, holding the stick horizontal to the paper and dripping the wax. This method is the oldest, thus it is – in my opinion – also the one with the most faults. Since the flame is really close to the wax, sooting can happen, which means the wax will be blackened in some spots. In today’s day and age, where marbling seals is exciting, we don’t really mind the soot as much, but it’s still not really something we want in our seal. The main problem I have is that sometimes the flame will die on you and relighting is a pain because it means that half of your seal is starting to set up while you are trying to melt more. I find the impressions to be of the worst quality because of the fact that the wax has already started to harden again. However, I tend to use it for my small seals like the fleur de lys shown earlier. This seal is very small in diameter and the wick usually melts just the right amount before the flame dies and I can get a good impression, even though there are some very small black bits in there sometimes.
Since we're talking all things magical (and yes wax seals ARE magical), why not grab this cute purrmaid lapel pin? While you're there, if you're thinking about what flourishes you could add to your seal (flowers, duh), check out Botanical Line Drawing - a simple way to add some extra interest.
There are a multitude of ways to use sticks. There is the hold-to-a-flame-and-smear-on-paper-method which I really do not recommend because nowadays using a wax seal is an expression of care and love for the recipient, and smearing ends up looking messy and careless in my opinion. You can also hold a lighter to the tip and let it drip, which is basically the same method as with a wick. The flame usually won’t go out if you use a lighter, but I find this method pretty inconvenient. Another way is using a spoon and using the stick as a stirrer. I almost never use that method because I like to mix, but for single colored seals it is a good option. You can cut these sticks up pretty easily and melt them in a spoon as a homemade granule (basically) as well. Just use a sharp knife (I beg you, BE CAREFUL!) and you’re good to go.
Glue Gun Stick
These can be used in the same way as the traditional sticks, but they are also made to fit into a glue gun. Make sure that you do use a low temperature glue gun – and that does not mean buy a low watt gun, you actually want it to say low temperature or be an adjustable temperature glue gun. I actually had to buy 3 glue guns before I got the right one. I cursed glue gun sealing a lot until I realized my gun was just the wrong type for what I wanted to do. The only downside to the glue gun method is that you can’t really marble these and if you want to change the color after one seal, you literally need another gun or melt the whole stick you got in there. So be wise with your color choices people.
Where to get supplies?
This is a question I get a lot and my answer usually surprises people (that have not completely fallen in love with wax sealing yet).
So, I talked to quite a few people and the sources range from all kinds of places and price classes. There are more boutique places that have gorgeous custom colors or other very fancy things done to their wax, which is great. But to be completely honest, most of us will get our day-to-day wax from places like eBay and Aliexpress, because those places will offer you wax for a fraction of the price. When you’re sending out dozens of letters, that might just be the more attractive option. Those sites are also great sources for getting your first seal if you can’t find any sealing supplies in local stores. If you’re unsure whether you’ll like wax sealing, you can get wax, a spoon and a seal for under $10 and still have the full experience. The seal below was $2 only, btw.
There are a lot of places to get custom seals made. I always recommend reading reviews first and contacting the manufacturer beforehand if you feel like things are unanswered. It’s usually a very good indicator to talk about the production and maybe even getting some tips on your design before it is etched into some brass. I also like to support people that provide good service all around, so if they are unfriendly when I ask them about a potential production it just makes me not want to work together. There are some gems when it comes to custom seals and some horror stories, especially when you’re in the cheaper realm. I had the incredible luck to find my favorite seal maker on Aliexpress when I first conducted an experiment of ordering a custom project on that site. Well, I’ve gone back to them because I love that my seals are cut so deep and highly detailed, and I usually get an answer within 2h max, even on weekends.
Okay, you are ready for sealing. But how do you actually make it good?
So there are a few mistakes I see happening quite often that can be really easily avoided. Problem number 1 is related to the consistency of the wax and number 2 to the amount of wax.
If you are not working with granule, it is very hard to anticipate how much wax you will need. My personal opinion is to rather have more than less, but not pour more out of the spoon when you clearly realized you went overboard. But let’s talk about this in order.
Yes, it does actually matter. It’s really funny how for once being extremely impatient was beneficial for me, because it made me realize that keeping the wax at a lower temperature made it a lot easier to manage. It will obviously cool down earlier if it is just barely pourable, so if you want to incorporate glitter or anything else, you’ll have to act fast. But if you don’t have wax that is bubbling and boiling hot, you will never experience smoking of your page and the wax running all over the place. If your wax is stiffer, it’ll pile up higher and thus you are actually making an impression into more material, which will always look better.
Hack: if you don’t want to have a dirty spoon with the remaining wax in there that’ll just be taken into the next seal, you can take a piece of parchment paper and pour all of your remaining wax on there. Once it’s cooled, you can take it away from the parchment and cut it into small pieces and incorporate that in another marbled seal some other time.
Creating a custom stamp – a few tips
Once you are in love with seals, the urge will arise. You'll want to create your own piece – it happens to most of us. But the question is how you'll approach a wax seal design. It’s actually not that difficult. Here are some tips:
Just work in black and white. This might sound weird, but working in black and white helps me a lot to visualize a stamp. I’ve tried working with color and even though I love my pink pen, I just can’t distinguish the lines as well as with black and white. The stamp will create a stark contrast and you want to replicate that.
If you are working on paper, work as large as possible to make scanning easier.
If you own an iPad, definitely work in super high resolution too.
Once you digitize your design, print it out in the actual size you want it to be in the end. This way you’ll immediately see if the design works or not. This especially applies to hairlines and small flourishing.
If you can, vectorize your work to get a better cut. Make sure to get the smoothest lines you can get, especially when working with the scan from something handwritten. Vectorizing it will smooth out the design. I am a huge advocate of using the pen tool when it comes to vectorizing in general. If you don’t feel comfortable with that, by all means use image trace and the smoothing tool. Just make sure that you love the end result.
Contact the seller you want to work with beforehand and ask them if a design will work. Chances are, you’ll be fine if you printed it out in the size and worked in black and white, but sometimes there will be limitations and it is better to know these before ordering something.
What and how to seal?
So once you got all supplies – how do you actually incorporate wax seals into your life? First of all, snail mail. It’s the original use case so of course we have to talk about it. There are different types of envelopes and different tips and tricks on how to make sealing an envelope stress free.
One of the first things to know is that you want to actually close up your letter like you would without a seal, so it is recommended to still stick it all together in case something happens to the seal in the mail and you don’t want all contents spilling out during transfer.
Snail Mail Envelopes
Of course you can buy envelopes and seal those up, but in case you want to make envelopes yourself (which is a lot of fun!) I recommend checking out Peggy’s Video on how to make an envelope from a heart.
Sealing Boxes & Bottles
When packing up presents, I love doing little boxes, packing them up and adding some ribbon with a wax seal. If I actually get a box that might be reusable I will usually slip a small piece of parchment paper in between the ribbon and the box, so the seal is not sticking to the box, that ensures that the ribbon and seal can be cut away and the box reused.
If you are like me and love giving away liquid stuff like homemade syrup, oils or ink, I love to get old bottles and dress them up with a seal. If you find a bottle with some flat areas, it is definitely possible to apply the seal directly. If it is round, I usually opt for bottle tags because I feel like it looks less messy.
These are some of my favorites. All you do is seal the ribbon on a piece of parchment so it’s a free-hanging seal that secures the tag in place.
Upgrading seals from boring single-colored is very easy. Here’s a few things you can do.
As I’ve talked about before, marbling is crucial for me. I always add at least two colors in my seals when I send them away because I just absolutely love seeing the colors mix and create cool patterns. Let’s be honest, a plain seal is kind of boring. Totally go crazy, sprinkle glitter in your seals before pressing, or do some “latte art” by placing a few shards of wax and letting melt. There are endless possibilities. Here are just a few of the things that I usually do.
You can actually use stamp pads to increase the contrast of your design, by putting stamp ink on the seal. Before pressing it into the wax, you apply some color to it and the raised design will be framed with the color you used.
Pigments & Markers
Another way of adding contrast is by using pigments or markers on your seal. You either color in the raised part with a marker or rub some pigment (or eyeshadow) on it with your fingers.
The last little upgrade I want to talk about is sooting a seal. Yes, I know sooting is not something we want to happen to our wax, but if we smoke our seal, it helps bringing out details. This does not work as well on modern seals that don’t have much depth, but looks really cool for hand engraved seals that have more dimension. It really brings out those details.
Already in Wonderland?
So if you’ve not fallen down the rabbit hole to Sealing Wonderland now, I don’t know what else to say… I mean you read all of this, so clearly something must’ve kept you going. I’m opening the door, all that’s left for you to do is take the next Step (or sip? – can you tell I’m a literature nerd?!).
Hi there, I’m Myriam - nice to meet you! You might know that I am an insomniac with a big love for coffee, which means I got lots of very awake time on my hands at night and I am slightly obsessed with research. I am also fascinated by the past and love seeing how old things are being translated into the future.