Maintaining Traditional Oil Skins and “Tin” Cloth

Discussion in 'Materials' started by Bob Smalser, Jan 1, 2004.

  1. Bob Smalser
    Joined: Jun 2003
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    Location: Seabeck, WA

    Bob Smalser Junior Member

    Yeah, I know…nobody wears linseed/wax-impregnated cotton “oilskins” any more…they wear Goretex.

    Well, that’s 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 wear through expensive Goretex in a matter of weeks…even 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.

    And while waxed cotton in lighter weights has always been popular in Britain, it’s largely gone 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 remains the only major manufacturer of this type of rugged work or expedition wear. And now Filson’s major market also seems to be suburbanites who want that distinctive “Northwest” look these days. Filson’s gear hasn’t changed since the Klondike Gold Rush, but the prices these days are Starbucks-high. But 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 these days is to buy seconds and used garments on Ebay.

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


    Three of several family garments above that need work today are readied. A hooded tin coat, a pair of old tin double-faced pants that look like leather…the “character” the garment has gained in use. Well, folks…salesmen may call it “character”, but it’s really a vintage blend of old sawdust, rotted forest duff and Shelton Gravelly Loam worked deep into wax and cloth as these garments can’t 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.


    Shown above are a new, empty gallon paint can with lid and some of the materials we’ll 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 doesn’t have to be that clean...even if you do like to chew it…the natural impurities of the hive are probably good for you. You’ll also need a gallon of raw (never boiled) linseed, a can of pine tar, a can of turps, and I’m going to substitute some pure orange oil for 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. Can’t find a can of pine tar anywhere? Your local farrier, large-animal Vet or farm supply will have it…it’s still used on horses’ hooves as a dressing.


    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 how hard your solution gets outdoors.

    Into the can goes a quart of linseed, a little turps to thin, and two to three 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 drawknife…makes 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 linseed…my orange oil fragrance enhancer going in last.

    Proportions aren’t critical…more wax nets you better water resistance and greater garment wear…but 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…probably because Noah did. I believe it supples the hard wax some and gives it staying power.


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


    When complete, hang the coat up and go back over it with the heat gun to melt and smooth any remaining surface residue….and you’re done.


    Oh…and while you’re at it, do your work boots with the same brew…only much gentler with the heat, please.
  2. SailDesign
    Joined: Jan 2003
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    Location: Jamestown, RI, USA

    SailDesign Old Phart! Stay upwind..

    Thanks - that was innerestin'. I still make my own furniture polish from turps and beeswax, with a couple of drops of linseed mixed in. Funny how the "protection of natural materials" is still better done by _using_ natural materials....
  3. Bill Figeley

    Bill Figeley Guest


    We (those of us in the know) still use Filson and the wax-impregnated cotton fabrics in our logging trade here in the Great Northwoods.

    Thanks for sharing your budget-minded wax solution!

    Bill (figgs) Figeley
    Kalamazoo, MI - USA
  4. dwhite16
    Joined: Dec 2004
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    Location: Knoxville, TN

    dwhite16 New Member

    Would this work on cotton, hemp, or other non-synthetic materials that have never been treated originally? In other words, can I make my own oilskins this way?

  5. Bob Smalser
    Joined: Jun 2003
    Posts: 79
    Likes: 11, Points: 0, Legacy Rep: 159
    Location: Seabeck, WA

    Bob Smalser Junior Member

    It has to be tight-woven cotton like a poplin, as far as I can figure.

    Synthetics likely won't absorb the wax and denim is too porous to shed water.
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