Before there were synthetic fabrics, before Gore-Tex and “weatherproof breathability”, there was thick cotton and a can of wax. Early sailors realized that wet sails caught the wind better than dry sails, but wet sails were too heavy and slowed the ships down. The solution was rubbing oil into the sailcloths, making them more efficient and also water repellent so they stayed light in the rain. The sailors started cutting jackets out of the oiled sailcloth for themselves, wearing early editions of the rain jacket, but these primitive designs, made with linseed oil, became stiff in the cold and faded in color. Then, in the early 20th century, manufacturers developed a process for impregnating cotton with paraffin wax. The new material made for flexible, warm, durable and waterproof clothing that was quickly adopted by soldiers, outdoorsmen and sailors.
Since then a slew of synthetic, breathable and waterproof fabrics have been developed — and used in those lightweight North Face jackets everybody wears. But a few companies have stuck with waxed cotton, which remains much more suited to workwear and carries the look and history of a real outdoorsman; don’t expect the paper-thin liner of your standard synthetic zip-up to survive when you’re cutting down a tree.
One of those companies is Filson, which got its start in Seattle in 1897 outfitting prospectors on their way to the Klondike Gold Rush. The company still offers waxed cotton jackets for their customers — their flagship jackets are made of heavy tin cloth, named from when tin was the most resistant, commonly used metal. A couple years ago, we met with Michael Skauge — then the retail manager of Filson’s New York operations — to learn how to re-wax a heavy cotton jacket.
Clean and prep the jacket
You can tell a jacket needs to be re-waxed by its appearance. The areas where the wax has been worn out will appear lighter than the oily, dark patches around seams and indentations. Presumably, if you need to re-wax your jacket, you’ve been wearing it outside, so you may want to clean it before you re-wax it. However, Skauge warns that you normally shouldn’t try to clean the jacket because “spot cleaning will lighten certain areas as the wax is washed out”.
So if you want to remove the grime and smell after a season of use, the best move is to soak the entire jacket in cold water or hose it off completely. Don’t use any soaps or detergents. This isn’t your t-shirt; machine washing a wax jacket ruins the material.
Apply the wax
Once the jacket is dry, lay the jacket out on a table and grab a canister of paraffin wax or soy wax (soy wax is typically 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 paintbrush to brush it on, but this is a jacket, not a paint-by-numbers. Skauge suggests simply using your hands to work that wax into the jacket.
“The heat from your hand helps loosen up the wax. Paraffin melts at about 100 degrees and change [it’s actually 99 degrees], so your body heat will loosen it and your hand will work it into the fabric,” said Skauge as he rubbed wax into his own jacket. “This is something you can do in the field, but not below 40 degrees without warming it up somehow. You could use a camp stove.”
Heat the applied wax
Heating the wax will melt it into the cotton fibers, completely saturating the fabric. Oddly, this step is optional; just know that unheated waxed jackets are lighter in color and appear a bit chalky after the wax has dried. After some use the chalkiness will wear off and you’ll be left with a lighter, “dry jacket”.
Heating the jacket, however, is recommended for maximum durability and wax saturation. Skauge uses a heat gun on full blast to work in the wax, but a hair drier will work he says — it’ll just take more time. A fully waxed and heated jacket will appear dark and have a similar sheen to leather.
Dry and wipe
Once you’re satisfied with the re-waxing, hang the jacket to dry overnight. In the morning, your jacket will feel a little greasy. This is okay; you’re just feeling the excess wax. It means the tin cloth is completely saturated and you did your job properly.
“On a molecular level, once it soaks in you’ll have oil on top because the oil is wicking out of the jacket. If you don’t want that, you can wipe it with a dry cloth or literally hose it off”, said Skauge.
That’s it. It’s a strikingly simple process. Skauge says to re-wax annually or as needed, and that his store offers services for washing and re-waxing if you want help with the process.