Waterproofing Fabric: Making Oilcloth the Explorer's Plastic Wrap!
© 2011 Albert A Rasch and
The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles™
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I've been doing quite a bit of studying about the early 18th century, specifically the early American Colonial era. It turns out that the more I learn, the less I actually seem to know! Everyday brings about a new bit information and another historic fact that I should have known about.
Much of what I am learning revolves around my desire to decorate my home with early American artifacts, or more likely their reproductions. I have ordered a lovely Chambers New England Fowler to build, and I am already eyeballing the Chambers Virginia style rifle for my next flintlock build. I'll get to the Pennsylvania/Kentucky styles when I have a bit more skill as they require an eye for proportion and style, which you can only get from practice and study!
Along with the rifles I sure would like to have some accouterments to go with it. In those days, bushcraft was a way of life, not just a weekend adventure. Things that we may take for granted now-a-days were luxuries or even nonexistent. Slickers, raincoats, weatherproof garments, and shrinkwrap, did not exist, not even in Ben Franklin's fertile mind.
But our forefathers figured out how to manage even without GoreTex and nylon. Among the many things I have learned, and one eminently practical to bushcrafters, is the ability to waterproof fabric.
Many reenactors use historically correct (HC as opposed to PC... And that could be the subject of another post!) methods for waterproofing the fabric they use for haversacks, tents, and outer garments. Reenactors pride themselves on recreating the tools and accouterments of their respective eras. To that end they study extant papers, artifacts, and research through trial and error the methods used in the past.
There are two common ways to accomplish waterproofing; either by using beeswax, or using linseed oil. Turpentine, distilled from the resin of several types of pine trees, is used as a solvent to carry the wax or oil. After it evaporates it leaves the oil or wax impregnated in the material.
Let's work with plain beeswax first. As you are more than likely aware, beeswax is produced by honeybees as the building block of the combs in their hives. Beeswax melts at 150F, and should only be melted in a double boiler for safety. Put your beeswax in a large tin can and put that in a sauce pan of simmering water. That will safely melt your wax and avoid a fire of epic proportions.
You will need a few things to do a good job of using beeswax for waterproofing.
Lots of newspaper to protect everything while you work!
Double boiler: A large tin can inside a saucepan will do for melting your beeswax.
A paint brush or kitchen spatula.
A black plastic trashbag.
Set your beeswax to melt in your double boiler. Set the temperature to low, and keep an eye on it. You want to use it as soon as the last bit of wax melts.
Take the item you wish to waterproof and lay it upon sufficient newspaper to keep any spills contained.
Carefully pour the melted wax upon the item, immediately spreading it with the spatula, or if using a brush paint it on quickly while still hot. If the wax in the can starts to harden, return it to the double boiler until it melts again. Make sure you spread it good and well, looking to make sure you get the wax well into the seams.
Once you've thoroughly covered your item, your piece will look exactly like something that has been covered with wax and it will look pretty bad at that. Now, put it in a black plastic trashbag, and set it in the sun. The black plastic will absorb the heat and melt the wax once again. As it gets hotter the wax will penetrate the fabric, permeating the fibers with wax. Though perhaps not historically correct, it sure is effective.
Another option is to use a hot iron to melt and force the wax into the fabric. Start as before, spreading the melted wax and then use the iron to heat up the wax and fabric, allowing the wax to penetrate completely. BTW once you have used your iron to do this, you would be well advised to go get a replacement before the Mrs uses it...
Turpentine will dissolve beeswax and act as the carrier for it. This is another technique used in the past.Take a pound of beeswax and shave it into little bits and pieces, then dissolve it in a quart of turpentine. Take a paintbrush, and "paint" the solution onto your object. When your item has absorbed as much as it can, hang it up to dry and allow the turpentine to evaporate from the material. This may take up to two or possibly three weeks!
Linseed oil is a clear to yellowish oil obtained from the seeds of the flax plant. It is mechanically pressed/squeezed/squashed until all the oil is extracted without the use of external heat. Linseed is awesome because it polymerizes as it oxidizes, becoming in essence plasticized. Boiled linseed oil, frequently used in fine gunstock finishing, has been heated and thickened, causing it to polymerize more quickly.
Oilcloth, was frequently the plastic wrap of the 1700s. Windows were covered by it and products for market were covered with tarps of oilcloth. Many clothing articles were made from it.
A simple method to create oilcloth, would be to dunk the fabric in straight linseed oil. Effective, but slow to dry. Better yet, cut the linseed oil with turpentine at a rate of two parts linseed oil to one part turpentine. I would suggest that you use a large baking dish, pour the oil mixture onto the fabric, and then roll it in with a three or four inch roller. This will ensure that the oil penetrates the fiber, and minimize the amount of wasted oil. When finished either lay it out flat or hang carefully and allow it to dry completely. In the case of a haversack hang it in such a way as it stays open. Adding Iron Oxide pigment to the mixture will result in a common 18th to 19th century paint. Use one cup of Iron Oxide to a quart of linseed oil.
Please remember that linseed oil is highly flammable. Your project, paint brushes, fabric scraps, or papers saturated with linseed oil can spontaneously combust as the oil dries and oxidizes , leading to a conflagration and major insurance bill. When you are done take every piece of scrap fabric or paper, and hang them out to dry, or lay them out flat. After they are good and dry, throw them away.
I'm happy to be able to share something else that I've managed to dredge up and out of obscurity. When I make an 18th century styled game bag, or haversack, I will try this and present it here for your discussion and approval!
Albert A Rasch
Member: Shindand Tent Club
Member: Hunting Sportsmen of the United States HSUS (Let 'em sue me.)
The Hunt Continues...