Maintaining Traditional Oil Skins and Tin Cloth

Article: 2102 | | Edited: 1969-12-31 07:12:00 | Comments
Author: Bob Smalser
Category: Bob Smalser

WoodCentral Articles & Reviews

by Bob Smalser

  Yeah, I knownobody wears linseed/wax-impregnated cotton oilskins any morethey wear Goretex.

  Well, thats not entirely true. Those of us in the sawmill and lumber trade do, as do many loggers and heavy construction workers. Why? Muscling around hundred-pound planks of rough lumber wears through expensive Goretex in a matter of weekseven the heavy-duty Carhartt or GI Goretex.

  Wearing PVC raingear while doing heavy labor in the rain and mud merely postpones your soaking. Work for long enough in it and you soak from the inside. Goretex and traditional oilskins both breathe enough to postpone that soaking much longer.

  While waxed cotton in lighter weights has always been popular in Britain, its largely gone over here. With the Yuppification of Eddie Bauer and L.L. Bean, who both used to manufacture their own distinctive gear, Filson of Seattle is now the only major manufacturer of this type of rugged work or expedition wear. Now Filsons major market also seems to be suburbanites who want that distinctive Northwest look. Filsons gear hasnt changed since the Klondike Gold Rush, but the prices are Starbucks-high. However, measuring cost per year of wear instead of merely purchase price still makes them the best value for some trades. The way to beat those prices is to buy seconds and used garments on Ebay.

  Once a year these garments need their finishes renewed, and thats what well do today. But not with the 8-dollar, 2-ounce tins of oil and paraffin wax blend sold in stores. Wed go broke quick using those and will make a whole gallon of an even better finish today.

Garments to be treated

  Three of several family garments that need work today are readied. A hooded tin coat, a pair of old tin double-faced pants that look like leatherthe character the garment has gained in use. Well, folkssalesmen may call it character, but its really a vintage blend of old sawdust, rotted forest duff and Shelton Gravelly Loam worked deep into wax and cloth as these garments cant be washed. Next to them is a tin coat off of Ebay for the youngest son that had been machine washed by some misguided soul and will need a good bit of solution to renew. Prep is merely a stiff brush and a strong blast from a cold water hose to remove the bulk of the mud.

Solution making materials

  Shown are a new, empty gallon paint can with lid and some of the materials well use. A visit to Al Stedman, the local beekeeper, netted 5 pounds of beeswax at 4 dollars a pound. This is a much better choice than petroleum-based paraffin. Just make sure you get the beekeeper wax and not waste your money on the 12-dollar a pound food-grade beeswax. Yours doesnt have to be that clean, even if you do like to chew it. The natural impurities of the hive are probably good for you. Youll also need a gallon of raw (never boiled) linseed, a can of pine tar, a can of turps, and some pure orange oil to use in place of some of the linseed to improve the aroma these garments bring to the home, especially after a bit of diesel fuel is slopped on them in minor refueling mishaps. Cant find a can of pine tar anywhere? Your local farrier, large-animal Vet or farm supply will have it. Its still used on horses hooves as a dressing.

Making the solution

  Rig a large double boiler. This one is a large pail of water stuffed in a kerosene space heater. I prefer to do this outdoors, both for safety (our mixture is flammable) and to test the consistency of my wax brew in the actual temperatures it will function in. Simply set your stir stick down for a while and check t see how hard your solution gets outdoors.

  Into the can goes a quart of linseed, a little turps to thin, and two pounds of beeswax shavings after the water boils and the oil gets hot. The easiest way I know to render hard blocks of beeswax into shavings is on the shaving horse with drawknifemakes short work of it. It takes a while for the oil mixture to heat sufficiently to thoroughly melt all the wax, so be patient. When the wax melts, I add a half cup of pine tar and fill the gallon can about two inches from the top with more linseedmy orange oil fragrance enhancer going in last.

  Proportions arent criticalmore wax nets you better water resistance and greater garment wearbut also more stiffness. More linseed nets you the converse. The pine tar is there because I was raised in a traditional boat yard and wood boat builders add pine tar to everything. I believe it softens the hard wax some and gives it staying power.

Application of solution

  Application is simplebrush it on hot direct from the double boiler and play a heat gun over it as you brush it deep into the cloth.

Complete the application

  When complete, hang the garment up and go back over it with the heat gun to melt and smooth any remaining surface residue. Youre done.

Do your shoes too

Oh, and while youre at it, do your work boots with the same brew, only much gentler with the heat, please.

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Comments (2)


Very interesting information. Wax, and oilskin garments are really popular where it rains, as in the UK. I got some of the early gortex, and still have several jackets. As a waterfall ice climber, they were very useful and the water does not jump through them, and they are windproof, and somewhat breathable.

I used to work for a Goretex company, back in the 80s.

But we soon leaned they weren't really waterproof, and came to prefer English anoraks with heavy coatings, of for weight non critical application, Barbour Jackets 'By appointment to whatever royal"

Over time Barbour became rather expensive, but there are some good garments available for about 50 dollars off ebay. They seem as nice as Barbour. Far from being "posh", these are available in the UK from whatever they have that is equivalent to Tractor Supply.

And then in Australia there are the full length waxproof dusters...

Of course they do sell commercial water treatment

Stuart Vencillsays...

Mr. Smalser, I commend and applaud your efforts to make accessible so much of the 'old-time' knowledge and skills possessed by our forebears. Your articles are a wonderful source, and greatly appreciated ! As an old fart who grew up on a farm, with an uncle who used many of those skills, it is great to see these things in print and pictures where they can be passed on. Many, many thanks ! Stuart

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