A Guide to Waxing Your Own Canvas Gear

Your tough canvas goods are about to get even tougher.

Let’s get one thing clear right now. If you want your canvas jacket, backpack, Weekender bag, or whatever else you’re thinking of waxing to keep looking brand new, like something a fresh-faced young buck might pack for his first foray out of the nursery, you can stop reading now. This is for guys who want to push their rough-and-tumble gear to the limit.

Waxing cloth is a tradition passed down by salty, hard-bitten men since the 1400s. Your bag will look weathered. It will repel water, dirt and debris. It will smell like victory... and also, for a little while, like Otter Wax.

The History

In the Age of Discovery, seafarers noticed their sails caught better wind when they were wet, but this also made them heavier. So they developed a system of curing sails with fish oil so they received water on the surface, but didn’t let it soak the fabric. Realizing what a boon waterproof fabric is, sailors sewed scraps of cured sail as capes to protect them from the spray of the sea.

Fast forward to the 1850s, and linseed oil arrived as a less disgusting alternative to fish grease. The only problem was that over time, it hardened cloth and turned it yellow (which may explain why rain slickers are still yellow today). In the 1920s, petroleum-based paraffin wax came into vogue as the water repellent of choice. Farmers, gamekeepers, and especially motorcyclists used it for their weather-fighting waxed clothing.

Barbour, still a high-end manufacturer of waxed clothing, even supplied the British International motorcycle team with waxed riding suits from 1936 to 1977.

So there you have it: you're about to be in league with explorers, sailors, woodsmen and professional motorcyclists. Let's do this.

The Process

First, you need something to wax. You can wax just about any fabric, but remember that whatever you wax won’t be very breathable when you’re done, and it will also darken in color. That's great for outerwear, backpacks, or anything similar, but not so much for things you'll want to wash often.

Next is Otter Wax. Handcrafted in the US from 100 percent natural materials, this stuff doesn’t contain petroleum like paraffin wax, or any animal fats, mineral oils, or otter byproducts.

You'll also want a lint roller and a hair dryer.

Prep The Canvas

Use the lint roller to remove any strings or debris clinging to your fabric. The wax will cover whatever is there, so make sure it’s clean and dry.

Once that's done, your wax should be ready to go immediately as long as it’s not really cold in your house. If you find it difficult to spread on, set it on a heating grate for a minute to soften.

Test the wax in an inconspicuous place, so you know if you like the resulting color and texture. If not, no harm done.

Spread It On

Spread the wax in broad, even strokes, moving back and forth to create friction on the bar. It'll warm up, getting progressively easier to spread.

You'll notice that it can be tough to get into crevices using these broad strokes. To get close to leather or rivets, use the bar’s edge.

The wax will strike any underlying seams, buttons, or rivets, and trace those in a heavier, darker color. While this lends a more rugged look, you can avoid it by putting your hand inside the bag or garment to separate it from the seams and rivets underneath.

Use your hand and fingertips to work the wax into the fabric, like you’re kneading pizza dough.

Slowly and evenly heat the waxed fabric with the hair dryer. This helps the wax penetrate the fabric, making it truly water repellant. Work it in again with your hands.

Let It Dry

Once you’ve repeated these steps for all the sections of your piece, hang it up to cure in a warm, dry place for 24-48 hours. The slightly piney smell of Otter Wax, manly as it is, will dissipate over time.

Since the wax is a natural product, it'll break down over time. This necessitates a re-waxing of your products once a year to maintain effectiveness.

Otter Wax recommends that you wash your waxed articles as infrequently as possible, opting instead for a natural bristles brush. But if you do have to wash whatever you waxed, do so separately in a bucket of cold water so that the high heat of the spin cycle doesn't melt the wax and spread it onto the rest of your load of laundry.

If you want to get fancy, you can pick up specialty canvas cleaner to use instead of detergent. Whatever you decide on, use a brush to wash the article in the water, and reapply wax as needed after letting it air dry.

And there you have it. You’ve officially joined adventurers and travelers from time immemorial in the tradition of waxing fabric. Your bag or clothing should now repel water, dirt and debris so nothing slows you down. Now go out and tame that next horizon.

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