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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

J. Herbin Supple Wax and Goulet Custom Wax Seal Handles

Although I didn't originally set out to do a J. Herbin supple wax review, that's kind of how it's shaping up! I was actually just messing around with the wax because I was personally interested in it. My friend Sam (the same one I mentioned in the Technoscribe post) came over and we were messing around with our new wax seals. Sam was doing the red "D"s, and I had the silver "G"s (note that Sam has the knack of it a little better than me!).

Supple wax is essentially flexible wax, for use with modern postage. Original wax back in the 1600-1900's wax very brittle, intentionally. It was a security measure, to ensure that anyone that tampered with it would crack the seal. So when you received a hand-delivered letter, you knew no one along the way had read it if the seal was intact. Modern postal services are a little more....how should I say....careless with the way postage is handled. Original (aka Traditional) wax would bust apart into pieces in the mail, but supple wax remains flexible.

How it works is quite simple, really. You melt the wax (a butane lighter works best, candles or matches create unsightly soot), put the wax on the paper you wish to seal by either dripping or rubbing the melted wax onto the paper, and stamp your brass seal into the wax. It's best to try to spread the wax into a thin blob generally the size of the stamp you're using (as opposed to just having one big blob) before stamping. If you huff a quick warm breath onto the brass before stamping, it helps create a moisture barrier which will assist in keeping the wax from sticking to the brass.

If you're going to be doing multiple seals at once, the brass will heat up quite a bit. 3 or 4 in a row will be okay, but any more than that, you'll need some help. Putting the seal onto a frozen ice pack will keep it cool. This will also give it that moisture barrier that will help to keep it from sticking. I find that the cooler the seal is, the faster it cools (hence hardens) the wax, which makes it form more crisp details.

The J. Herbin seals work like I believe most other seals do. They are solid brass, with the letter engraved out mechanically. They are tapped in the back with threads, and the handle has a threaded rod (that matches the seals threads). This allows you to have multiple brass seals interchangeable with one handle. The engraving is a reverse image of the final result, which can be a little confusing (especially if your letter like my "G" is very swoopy and swirly!).


The supple wax comes in sticks that last somewhere around 7-8 seals per stick depending on your usage. J. Herbin claims 7 seals per stick, but I find you can go a lot further if you aren't dumping tons of it on the paper! I can usually get 12-15 seals because I'm a bit conservative. There are 4 sticks per pack. You might just be wondering how you use the last portion of the stick! Well, it's quite simple. You use the lighter to heat up the end of the stick (as you see below), then stick it right to the next wax stick, let it harden, and keep on truckin'!



Sam and I were like two giddy 6th graders messing with their school lunch while we were doing these wax seals....my wife was quite amused! Being the tinkering 'technoscribe' that I am, I thought it would look really neat to mix two colors of wax together in one seal! Sam had red, I had silver, so we melted a couple of drops of the red onto the silver wax stick, then melted the silver wax and rubbed it on the paper, which after stamping produced what you see below. It gave a hint of red swirls in the silver.


I thought it was really neat, but that it might look better with a couple of silver drops into the red, so the red was more prominent. What was most encouraging to me was seeing that the colors don't bleed together, but rather produce distinct swirls, which is exactly what I'd hoped! With 10 J. Herbin colors in the supple wax, I can see many more combinations to come!!!!


I was so giddy playing around with all of these fun waxes, the only thing that underwhelmed me a bit was the quality of the wax stamp handle. I'm a wood worker, and have been long before getting into fine writing paraphernalia. Perhaps I just have a high threshold for being impressed by wood objects, but the handle to me, though functional, is hardly impressive. It appears to be white oak (or something like it, stained brown with a coat of unpolished lacquer. It's fairly light, and obviously machine-turned. As a pen maker who turns pens by hand using exotic burls and other woods, I always look for ways to improve wood objects in my life. I saw a golden opportunity here.


Though the look of the handle is something to be desired it is functional. I like how it has a threaded rod that allows for interchangeability of brass seals. J. Herbin has 26 letters of the alphabet, 24 picture seals, and 10 'modern' seals, so there's quite a variety from which to choose.


As an inspired artist and curious tinkerer, I decided to prototype a wax stamp handle out of Brazilian Tulipwood, a beautiful member of the rosewood family. I didn't take exact measurements, but I got it pretty close to the overall dimensions of the J. Herbin handle.


But I couldn't stop there!! I made a few more. From left to right, you see the J. Herbin handle, two Brazilian Tulipwood handles, a figured East Indian Rosewood handle, and an African Blackwood/Birdseye Maple Burl handle. All of them have the same threads that fit the J. Herbin brass seals.


Here's another angle of the same handles:


I like the density of the heavier woods, and the natural beauty of exotics woods (exotic to the US anyway!). None of my handles are stained, only polished clear lacquer letting the natural beauty of the grain shine through.


Though the figured East Indian Rosewood doesn't photograph all that well, it's still pretty impressive.


I had fun doing the African Blackwood and Birdseye Maple Burl. I did it on a whim!



I haven't really nailed down a particular profile, I was really just experimenting. I think the one I like the most is the EI Rosewood (2nd from the right).



The quality and enjoyability of these waxes has prompted me to carry them. The full line of J. Herbin supple wax sticks, J. Herbin (letter) brass seals and custom Goulet wood handles will be available soon at GouletPens.com.



28 comments:

  1. Love the pretty woods, but I'd like a bigger knob on the handle for grasping.

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  2. How big? I could go as big as you want!

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  3. I'm in love with the African Blackwood and Birdseye Maple Burl just the way it is. Will you also be doing laser engravings on handles? Or is that too much?

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  4. What kind of engraving did you have in mind? Are you talking about custom seals or personalizing the wood? The current laser engraving equipment I have I can only engrave on a straight line, not wrapping around a round object, if that makes sense. I'm open to ideas though!

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  5. I was thinking about personalizing the wood. I did not even think about the text wrapping around. What you say does make sense. Thanks for answering!

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  6. Moon Dreams - there are lots of engraving options. Shoot me an email (brian at gouletpens.com) if you're still interested in purchasing this handle.

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  7. I love the Brazilian Tulipwood and have always loved Rosewoods. These are absolutely beautiful! I particularly like the IE Rosewood profile because it would be easy for me to hold. I can't wait for them to become available!

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  8. I adore the East Indian Rosewood handle, I don't suppose you have any left?

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  9. lornibear- unfortunately not. And since I've decommissioned my shop, I won't be making them anytime soon, either. I will look to make them again one day, but it'll be a while (maybe years) before I get a workshop back where I can do that again.

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  10. Have you tested whether these supple seals can be placed on the outside of an envelope (instead of inside on the letter)and still survive USPS delivery intact?

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  11. Eunai, yes you can! Not the pearlescent stuff, that will crumble even inside an envelope, but the supple stuff holds up strong.

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  12. Eunai, yes you can! Not the pearlescent stuff, that will crumble even inside an envelope, but the supple stuff holds up strong.

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  13. I adore the East Indian Rosewood handle, I don't suppose you have any left?

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  14. I was thinking about personalizing the wood. I did not even think about the text wrapping around. What you say does make sense. Thanks for answering!

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  15. How big? I could go as big as you want!

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  16. Interesting that you use a breath or the moisture from an ice pack to stop wax sticking - I use soot, you simply hold your desk seal over a smoking flame until it is covered in soot, then prepare your wax and form your impression - it really brings out all the details in a hand-engraved seal, and adds contrast on any.

    I'm guessing the Royal Mail is nicer than the USA mail - I send letters with traditional wax seals daily and they survive! I'm amazed they do, but!

    The Goulet handles are wonderful - it is a pity you can't do everything because you clearly have a knack with turning etc.

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  17. That is a great idea! I've never heard of the suit use for a seal, I imagine it's most effective when doing a seal with a candle flame.

    Letters in the US almost never have seals on them. If you use any type of brittle wax, it gets entirely destroyed! It has to be supple wax to have a chance of making it intact in the US.

    I agree, it's too bad I can't do any more seal handles. I rather enjoyed making them, and they did look quite nice :) Perhaps I will be able to get back into them just as a hobby in the future.

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  18. Using soot on a seal and making an impression into white/ivory wax is, I'm told, how hand-engravers check their work because it shows all the details.

    It looks fantastic on a Bank of England red wax too. The best way to make soot is to (carefully!) put a little lighter fluid on some cotton wool, light it, as soon as it starts smoking blow the flame out and hold your seal in the smoke. I rarely do this because I like to get my children to help with seals etc and I can imagine calling the fire brigade - a smokey fire or candle flame gives a pretty good result, but I think the soot from cotton wool is finer (or somehow different) because it does work best.

    Fun to experiment (in a fire safe way)!

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  19. Oh man, I wish you were still doing this. I love the handle made with African Blackwood and Birdseye Maple Burl, the maple looks like marble!

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  20. Yeah, that's a nice one :) I maaaaaay get back into it at some point, but with a second baby on the way in two weeks, I'm realistic that it just isn't going to happen anytime soon :P

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  21. Well that would be neat, kinda like a "Goulet special". You could make say 30 or 50 a month. I know its time consuming but it sure is less time then the pen box's you were thinking about starting. Just imagine how much work that would have been if you got it going + running a business + running a family + whatever free time you might have left.

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  22. 30-50 a month! Wow, that would not be possible. I think 3-5 a month would be optimistic. Even though they aren't nearly as time consuming as the writing boxes would have been, they still take plenty of time. And given that I don't have my workshop set up yet, it's going to be dozens of hours spent just to get to the point where I even could make them. Basically, just don't get your hopes up anytime soon :P And yeah, the writing boxes seemed like fun, but I quickly got in way over my head and realized it! There's a reason no  one makes them anymore....

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  23. Really only 5 a month? hmm... well I guess I had know idea what goes into making one. 

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  24. Well, if I was doing them full-time, I probably could do more like 30-50, but keep in mind, I'm running a full time+ business, and raising two young children, so stealing away enough time for my 'personal' interests like wood turning, I'll be lucky enough to get a few hours a month to do it. Depending on the complexity of the handle, any given one can take me about an hour to make, but that's all broken up over several sessions, because there are various stages of finishing/gluing that need to take place. Plus, now that it's getting really cold out, it's always harder to work in the shop. I'm thinking if anything I'll just wait until it gets warmer to set up my shop.

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  25. Very impressed with your clear and concise videos.



    JT Smith
    Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada

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  26. Thanks! This was one of my earlier ones, too, I've gotten a lot better since then :)

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  27. Still interested in doing these? I just started making my own cast brass seals.

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