Homemade Oilskin: My Experience Reproofing Cotton and Canvas With Wax
Why Go Through the Trouble?
We live in an age of synthetics. The most you will usually see of natural fiber clothing in the cities, and even most rural areas, is a wool coat or flannel jacket. Oilskins and other 'waxed' clothing, used to be the main-stay of pioneers, sailors, longshoremen, loggers, and many other working class jobs. Even the upper class adopted oilskins for equestrian use once they realized how tough, durable, waterproof, and windproof these items were.
Now we have Gore-Tex, nylon, and other lightweight materials that are excellent, highly breathable wind breakers, and are generally quite waterproof (until the material loses its ability to do so, which in many cases doesn't take too long!). So, why does anyone use oilskins anymore?
To start off, an "oilskin" is a piece of material, like a backpack, garment, or tarp (usually heavy-duty cotton-canvas), that has been treated and infused with different oils and waxes. This makes a tough piece of material into a windproof, waterproof, breathable, hard-wearing item that can easily be passed on through generations, especially if you take care of it well. They come from an era where nothing was readily available, and when surviving and keeping yourself dry and healthy meant putting some work and love into your clothing.
Western society, on the other hand is completely reliant on the grid to supply their clothing, so when nylon or Gore-Tex eventually rips, or loses its waterproof qualities, people simply buy a new garment. That right there is the number one reason I became interested in sustainable and hard-wearing items that most of our ancestors likely used (especially if your family comes from really wet areas like the UK!).
Oilskin Reproofing: Ingredients and Preparation
Supplies and Tools You Need for Reproofing
First off, I didn't come up with this recipe or technique. This particular technique was designed by someone in the lumber business, so I figured it had to be good.
You will need:
- At least 2 1/2 pounds of pure (raw) beeswax. Get this from beekeepers or craft shops.
- Gallon of RAW linseed oil. Hardware/Construction stores always have this
- Can of pine tar. Anywhere that sells equestrian gear, or some pet shops, will have this.
- Can of turpentine (non-petroleum based turpentine is the best).
- Orange oil or any other kind of oil fragrance (the linseed doesn't smell too good). Essential oils work for this.
- Double boiler. I used a coffee can inside a regular cooking pot. Worked great.
- Portable burner. This can be very flammable. I still did this inside. As long as you do this in a smart way, you shouldn't have to worry about a firestorm in your kitchen
- Paint brush you don't want anymore. The beeswax WILL ruin it
- Heat gun/hair dryer. This helps a lot. melting and working the wax in is essential to making this work.
- A dry, warm room, away from sunlight, with good airflow, to help the drying process
I won't give you a huge run-down on how to do this, as the website I linked to above already has excellent directions.
Oilskin Reproofing Before and After: Shoulder Bag
How My Experiment Turned Out
So after gathering my supplies, choosing which 'scent' I preferred (pine essential oil), I was ready to go.
Into the coffee can (boiler) went a quart of linseed oil, and a little bit of turpentine. When the mixture became very hot and watery, I added two and a half pounds of beeswax (the recipe says use shavings, but if it's hot enough, chunks of the stuff will melt pretty fast), and stirred and waited until it was completely melted into the mixture. I then added a half-cup of pine-tar (this isn't essential, but recommended by the recipe for traditional reasons). I then filled the can to just under the brim with some more linseed. I stirred and let it combine, and lastly added my pine scented essential oil.
I recommend applying the mixture outside, as it can get very messy and very smelly. This is when having a hot-plate would be extremely handy, as the mixture will get cooler and cooler, and thus harder and harder to apply to the item you're waxing.
I ended up waxing a cotton canvas jacket, heavy-weight cotton cargo pants, a cotton canvas backpack, and a cotton canvas shoulder bag. The jacket was the easiest, as there weren't many 'corners' where the wax could clump up and not seep into the pores of the material.
My technique was to apply a thin layer of the wax, while following it with a heat gun to melt the initial stuff. After completing an area of the material, I went over it again with the heat gun, and massaged the wax into the material with my fingers - this worked very nicely.
Oilskin Reproofing Before and After: Pants
Various pre-treated oilskin clothing
Oilskin Reproofing Before and After: Jacket
From chopping up the beeswax, to hanging up my waxed items to dry, this project took me four or five hours, but this mainly because I was new at it, and took my time to get it right. Now that I have a surplus of the wax left (I have most of the can left!), the next time I need to wax something, it should take no time at all.
Just a warning for you all, anything you wax will take quite a while to dry. I write this a month and a half or so after I completed the project, and it easily took a month, give or take, for it to completely dry. You can easily wear or use these items right off the bat, but you will likely get a bit of an oily resin on whatever touches the material. It's not that bad, but it can get a bit annoying.
Overall, I am very happy with how it all turned out. The jacket and pants in particular have been darkened (the jacket almost looks like leather now), and the typical oilskin marks make things look very rustic and unique. I didn't use enough of a scent on the items, so they smell fairly strong of linseed oil, but i'm sure if I take a mini spray bottle with a mix of essential oils and water, I won't be able to notice much of a difference. The texture of the material is tougher and not as soft as it once was, but with use out in the elements the garments are supposed to smooth out.
This process is a simple, easy, and excellent way to naturally waterproof clothing and other items, for those who don't like to completely rely on stores for their needs. Each oilskin has its own unique look, if you do it yourself, and just knowing you are a little bit more self reliant is always a good thing!