How to Wax Canvas
-by Chris Franks
Waxing canvas, or any fabric for that matter, adds an element of water and weather resistance to that fabric. It also changes the behavior of that fabric, making it slightly stiffer, and will darken the fabric. Waxed fabrics have been used in many different fields, including sailing, sports, manufacturing, military and camping. Serving purposes ranging from transportation (sails on sailing vessels), clothing, shelter and many other utilitarian functions which require a waterproof fabric, waxed fabrics are far from being replaced by “space-age” materials.
Waxed cotton canvas is one of the more popular waxed fabrics still in use today. Canvas is a tough, plain woven fabric with a degree of water resistance by itself. The fibers of canvas swell and expand when wet, like the wooden hull of a boat, and close the gaps between fibers, making the construction less permeable to water. Waxing it further improves its water resistance, making it (depending on the use and construction) waterproof.
Waxed Canvas is:
- Arguably less environmentally destructive
I would also say that it is more resource-able than many other materials sharing similar characteristics.
A quick browse around the net will turn up a few recipes for waxing canvas. Many of them start off by saying “rub the block of wax onto the fabric,” which is pure non-sense. Then, they end up saying that what you should do is go get some waterproofing solution that has god-knows-what from your hardware store. This is bogus.
Some smart New Zealanders give some good points and recipes for waxing canvas. Most recommend a mixture of beeswax, paraffin wax, linseed oil and turpentine. Most big industry producers like to keep their proprietary blends a-hush, but most are paraffin based, with, I imagine, some crazy blend of thinners, chemicals, solvents and weird shit.
You can make very natural and safe waxed canvas on your own from very simple ingredients and materials.
Here’s what the different elements of a waxed canvas recipe are, what purpose they serve, what ingredients will satisfy the element, and how you can use them.
- Waxes – wax is the main waterproofing element in making a waxed fabric. Using a recipe high in wax will produce a more waterproof, more stiff and “dry” waxed fabric.
- Beeswax – comes from bees. You can source this inexpensively direct from honey companies and beekeepers($). Go local! It can also be found at Hobby Lobby($$), Ace Hardware($$$), and online($).
- Paraffin wax – a bi-product of petroleum. FOOD GRADE, though. It is commonly used in the canning process, and can be found in most local grocery stores($$), hobby lobby($), and online($).
- Oil – adding oil to your mixture can help your mixture permeate into your fabric if you’re not using a serious heat source to meld the mixture with the fabric. It will still have a high level of waterproof-ness, but it will make a more “wet” waxed fabric.
- Linseed Oil – you can find this at a local hardware store. This is, so far, the only recommended oil I can find. It’s usage goes way back to early sailing days, too. If you use it, combine it with your melted wax.
Thinner – NOT NECESSARY
- Turpentine – Depending on your method of emulsion into the fabric, you might try using a thinner to aid in your recipe’s permeability. WARNING: THIS WILL MAKE YOUR FABRIC FLAMMABLE!!!! Please be aware, if you choose to use turpentine to thin your mixture, this will increase your fabric’s flammability. Take into consideration what you will be using your waxed canvas for, and if you will be around fire. Waxed canvas has the one-up on most space-age materials in that it is less flammable, so using a thinner, in essence, removes this trait.
My Recommended Recipe
Go for a straight blend of wax, and nothing else. I use:
- 50% Beeswax, 50% Paraffin Wax in my recipe.
Applying the wax finish to the fabric is accomplished by HEAT! (And a paint brush)
My recipe is optimized for usage with a modern electric clothes dryer for the heat source for emulsion into the fabric. This produces an evenly distributed, fully emulsified dry wax canvas. It looks totally pro, and its what I use in my XRAY LOVE creations. It will leave a wax residue in the dryer, though, so I would recommend picking up a free or cheap dryer to dedicate to this usage. After trying the hair dryer method and solar method, I found out (by accident) that a clothes dryer works perfectly for an ALL WAX mixture to produce a dry handed waxed canvas.
If you are using oil and/or a thinner, you’re on your own at this point, but I can make a few recommendations:
- The more wax you use, the more waterproof your fabric will be.
- Oil and/or thinner mixtures need less heat to emulsify the mixture into the fabric.
- Be CAREFUL with your heat sources. Don’t catch your shit on fire. (Your mixture, or your fabric!)
- A common hair dryer or heat gun will suffice as an emulsifying heat source (this is what you use to “set” your mixture into the fibers of the fabric once you’ve painted it on). These methods don’t do a totally great job, as the mixture’s distribution across the fabric is not very even. But, if your just doing a small amount, or want to experiment, this is not a bad alternative to ruining a dryer. I wouldn’t recommend putting a fabric with thinner into a clothes dryer. I have also used a common household oven, but this is slightly dangerous. This works better than the hair dryer or heat gun, but not as good as a dedicated clothes dryer. If you try this method, put the waxed canvas on a baking sheet or pan that completely contains it!
What follows is my method for making and applying the mixture to the fabric. Keep in mind that this method involves the use of a common household clothes dryer, and that it will leave a residue in the dryer (so try to get one just for this for cheap or free!) The measurements are for 1 yard of canvas fabric, and can be easily computed for larger batches and more yardages.
- 1 yard of Canvas (or other fabric)
- 5-6 ounces of beeswax
- 5-6 ounces of paraffin wax
- a double boiler, or a pot to melt wax in that you don’t mind ruining
- a stove or fire to cook on
- a paintbrush or a sponge roller
- a drop cloth
- a clothes dryer (will leave residue) or other heat source to emulsify wax mixture into fabric
- Melt the waxes together in your pot or double boiler on LOW HEAT!
- Spread your canvas out. If you don’t want wax on the surface below your canvas, spread a drop cloth of some sort underneath your fabric to catch wax bleeding through.
- When your waxes have melted together, carefully transport your melting pot to your canvas.
- Paint or roll (works best!) the wax onto the canvas with your paintbrush. It doesn’t have to be or look perfect, but it does need to be completely and fairly evenly covered. It’s OK if the wax starts to cool and show up white when you paint it on, as long as it will spread.
- Throw the fabric in the clothes dryer for 45 minutes to an hour on high heat. WILL LEAVE RESIDUE IN DRYER, but WILL PRODUCE SUPER PRO WAXED CANVAS! – or use (in order of highest danger and performance) an oven, heat gun or hair dryer.
Mega Special Afterthoughts
You can wax more than just canvas. I’ve even waxed thin broadcloth that yields significant water-resistant results. If you have some fabric you want to try waxing, throw it in the dryer with the wax canvas. It will catch some of the melt-off residue, and will give you another waxed fabric in the process.
Applications? For instance, a friend of mine dumpstered a ton of oversized (40+) blue jeans. He tore them apart, tacked them together and made a tipi. But, it wasn’t waterproof. If I would have known then what I know now, I would have known that all that denim could be easily waterproofed by the waxing process.
Just think of the implications…there are mountains of fabric out there being thrown out, recycled or resold for super cheap. Waxing could waterproof those mountains, and transform them into shelters like super quick, man. Let’s do it Felix!