Before there were synthetic fabrics, before Gore-Tex and “waterproof breathability”, there was thick cotton and a box of wax. Early sailors realized that wet sails caught the wind better than dry sails, but wet sails were too heavy and slowed ships. The solution was to rub oil on the sailcloths, making them more efficient and also water repellent so they remained light in the rain. the primitive designs, made with linseed oil, became stiff in the cold and discolored. Then, at the beginning of the 20th century, industrialists developed a process for impregnating cotton with paraffin. The new material made for flexible, warm, resistant and waterproof clothing that was quickly adopted by soldiers, outdoor enthusiasts and sailors.
Since then, a multitude of synthetic, breathable and waterproof fabrics have been developed and used in those lightweight North Face jackets that everyone wears. But a few companies have stuck with waxed cotton, which is still much more suited to workwear and carries the look and story of a true outdoorsman; don’t expect the super-thin lining of your standard synthetic zipper to survive a stray edge when felling a tree.
One such company is Filson, which got its start in Seattle in 1897 outfitting prospectors en route to the Klondike Gold Rush. The company still offers waxed cotton jackets to its customers – their flagship jackets are made of thick pewter fabric, named after the time when pewter was the strongest and most commonly used metal. A few years ago, we caught up with Michael Skauge — then director of retail operations for Filson in New York City — to learn how to re-wax a heavy cotton jacket. Follow below.
How to wax (or re-wax) your jacket
- Clean and prepare your jacket
- Apply the wax
- Heat applied wax
- Dry, Wipe and Wear
#1: Clean and prep your jacket
You can tell a jacket needs re-waxing by the way it looks. Areas where wax has worn away will appear lighter than oily, dark spots around seams and indentations. Presumably, if you need to wax your jacket again, you wore it outside, you might want to clean it before waxing it again. However, Skauge warns that you shouldn’t normally attempt to clean the jacket as “spot cleaning will lighten some areas as the wax is washed off.”
So if you want to remove dirt and odor after a season of use, the best thing to do is soak the whole jacket in cold water or hose it down completely. Don’t use soaps or detergents. It’s not your t-shirt; machine washing a wax jacket damages the material.
#2: Apply the wax
Once the jacket is dry, lay it on a table and get a can of paraffin wax or soy wax (soy wax is usually used on lighter jackets); wax jackets are normally sold with the correct wax. Some guides will tell you to heat the wax and use a brush to brush it out, but this is a jacket, not paint by numbers. Skauge simply suggests using your hands to work this wax into the jacket.
“The warmth of your hand helps loosen the wax. Paraffin melts at about 100 degrees and changes [it’s actually 99 degrees], so your body heat will loosen it and your hand will work it into the fabric,” Skauge said, rubbing wax on his own jacket. “It’s something you can do in the field, but not below 40 degrees without warming it up somehow. You could use a camping stove.
#3: Heat the applied wax
Heating the wax will melt it into the cotton fibers, completely saturating the fabric. Curiously, this step is optional; just be aware that unheated waxed jackets are lighter in color and look a bit chalky after the wax dries. After a few uses, the limescale will fade and you’ll end up with a lighter “dry jacket”.
However, it is recommended to heat the jacket for maximum durability and wax saturation. Skauge uses a full-throttle heat gun to work in the wax, but a hair dryer will work, he says — it’ll just take longer. A fully waxed and heated jacket will appear dark and have a sheen similar to leather.
#4: Dry, wipe and wear it
Once you are happy with the re-wax, hang the jacket to dry overnight. In the morning, your jacket will be a little greasy. It’s OK; you just smell the excess wax. This means that the tin cloth is completely saturated and you have done your job correctly.
“On a molecular level, once it soaks in, you’ll have oil on top because the oil drains out of the jacket. If you don’t want it, you can wipe it off with a dry cloth. or literally hose it down,” Skauge said.
That’s it. It’s a surprisingly simple process. Skauge says to re-wax annually or as needed, and that his store offers wash and re-wax services if you want help with the process.
What do you need
Shop a selection of wax jackets, wax and heat sources (including the same heat gun Skauge uses) below.