Waterproofing Everyday Materials at Home

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If you are mindful about the quality of your clothes, shoes, and household items, be mindful also about their preservation. Taking care of your possessions will save you money and headaches in the future.
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“Make it Last” by Raleigh Briggs is a resourceful, how-to guide for making and mending home necessities.
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Raleigh Briggs is the best-selling author of "Make Your Place: Affordable, Sustainable Nesting Skills" as well as "Make it Last: Prolonging and Preserving the Things We Love". She lives in Seattle, WA, with her husband.

Make it Last (Micocosm Publishing, 2012), by Raleigh Briggs, is full of useful methods to make, mend, clean, or preserve everyday household necessities. Briggs, is a best-selling author and a frequent writer on DIY methods and suggestions. Her own personal resourcefulness can be seen in her hand-written books Make it Last and Make your Place, both of which are full of hand-drawn illustrations. The following excerpt examines how to waterproof common materials like canvas and leather.

Waterproofing Canvas

Canvas is a beautiful thing, but when it mingles with rain, it can quickly become a mildew-speckled, sour-smelling disgrace. Removing mildew is probably not going to happen (ADMIT IT) so it’s smart to avoid the nasty stuff altogether. It’s pretty easy to make your own waterproofing formulas that you can use on tents, rucksacks, and any other piece of canvas that gets continually exposed to the elements.

Illustration by Raleigh Briggs.

Before you head off with that jug o’shellac, some caveats:

  1. Waterproof canvas will keep rain off your back, but it will keep in all your sweat and body heat. So think long and heartily before you waterproof clothing.
  2. Natural ≠ friendly. Unlike the recipes from Make Your Place, some of these formulas aren’t exactly nontoxic. Do your waterproofing outside, wear gloves and old clothes, and keep kids and animals from getting into what you’re making.
  3. Don’t inhale, eat, mainline, or otherwise absorb your waterproofing formulas.

Waterproofing Spray

Mix together 2 cups soybean oil and 1 cup turpentine in a small bucket. Once the two liquids are blended, pour it in a spray bottle (use a funnel) and spray it onto your fabric. Or, keep the stuff in the bucket, and point it onto the canvas with a brush or sponge. Use half the batch on one coat, let the canvas dry, and then do a second coat. Pay special attention to the seams and corners.

Illustration by Raleigh Briggs.

Waterproofing Soak

This option is messier than the spray, but if you’d rather dip your tent, here you go.

Step 1: Dissolve a pound of laundry soap (use a store-bought one with detergents in it) in two gallons of hot water. Stir well, until the soap bits are totally dissolved. Dunk your whole tent in the liquid, wring out the excess, and then dry it on a line or on the ground in a sunny spot.

Step 2: Dissolve a half pound of alum (check the hardware store) in two more gallons of hot water. Dunk the tent again and this time let it sit for a few hours. Wring it and let it air dry.

For maximum waterproofage, you should repeat this process every couple of months (if you use your tent often) or whenever you feel like it’s getting leaky.

Waterproofing Leather

Lanolin is an oily substance derived from sheep’s wool. It’s an excellent waterproofer and pretty eco-friendly, too. (Just do a little research when you’re shopping to make sure your lanolin is humanely obtained.) To use it, rub a bit into the leather with a soft cloth. Keep buffing until the leather feels dry (not greasy) to the touch. This also keeps the leather supple, which is nice. If you have leather stuff but desire non-animal-derived waterproofing for it, petroleum jelly is a decent option. It’s not earth-friendly, of course, but it’s effective and cheap.

Illustration by Raleigh Briggs.

Note: Don’t use either of these on suede – the oils will ruin the suede’s nap. Honestly, suede is such a pain in the ass. Don’t wear suede.

Waterproofing Light Natural Fabrics: Linen, Hemp, and Light Canvas

Note: This may change the texture or appearance of your fabric.

Step 1: Gather a disposable paintbrush, some paper towels, a clean rag, and some beeswax.

Step 2: Melt the wax (stove or microwave) and paint it onto your fabric. Use paper towels to mop up leftover wax in the pan while it’s still warm.

Step 3: Let the wax set overnight – I suggest laying it on a layer of old paper bags – and in the morning, buff the fabric with the rag.

Waterproofing Nylon

To waterproof nylon, you can use beeswax and the same method as for light natural fabrics. It might help to stuff the legs or arms with plastic while you’re applying the wax, so that the hardening wax won’t “glue” the layers of fabric together.

Illustration by Raleigh Briggs.

You also have your choice of vegan alternatives! Linseed oil or jojoba oil can be applied to a clean rag and then buffed in the nylon. Let the fabric sit overnight (or until it feels dry), and apply more coats if you so desire.

Note: You can get linseed oil from the hardware store and jojoba oil from the body care section of the health food store. If you decide to use linseed oil, make sure it’s 100% pure linseed oil without any chemicals added. Also, linseed oil makes fabric stiff and sort of unattractive, so it’s probably better for a backpack, bike cover, or tarp. 

 More from Make it Last:

Reprinted with permission from Make it Last: Prolonging and Preserving the Things We Loveby Raleigh Briggs and published by Microcosm Publishing, 2012.