Oilskin Tarp Care: A Beginner’s Guide
This article assumes that you have a true oilcloth and not waxed cotton. This is important as these two terms are often confused and thought to be the same product.
An oilcloth or Oilskin is a cotton or linen fabric that has been treated with oil in order to obtain a waterproof finish. Waxed cotton or waxed cotton canvas is generally cotton duck cloth treated with beeswax to obtain a waterproof finish.
These two fabrics have different characteristics despite their common uses and should be cleaned and cared for based on their unique composition.
To learn how to care for your traditional oilcloth tarp continue reading below.
Items Used to Care for Oilcloth
The following items are used to care for oilskin/oilcloth tarps. I have included links to Amazon for your convenience.
How To Clean and Maintain Your Oilcloth Tarp
Traditional oilcloth is coated with linseed oil in order to provide its waterproof characteristic. Often this fabric is slightly thinner than waxed cotton and provides more flexibility.
This often results in the oilcloth being somewhat pliable and you might be tempted to machine wash it; however, that is not a good idea as it can both damage your washing machine and your oilcloth.
In most instances, simple brushing will be sufficient for cleaning your cloth.
Start by examining your cloth and determining if the entire cloth needs to be cleaned or if only a single area needs attention.
Keep in mind that oilskin will develop a natural patina similar to leather or even metal and you should not attempt to clean that off as it is normal with wear. Additionally, you may notice some cracks along seams and areas of stress.
In most cases these slight cracks should not concern you; they are expected due to the nature of the fabric. Over time they will spread out and become less noticed as the fabric becomes more flexible.
Once you have selected the areas to clean, consider what substance you are cleaning off.
Sticky substances are best removed by wet cleaning while dried on mud etc should just be brushed off.
At no point do you want to use soap on an oilskin tarp as this is likely to cause the removal of some of the oils that the fabric is treated with.
Dry Cleaning Oilcloth and Oilskin Tarps
Keep in mind these tips are for Oilcloth made in a traditional manner, or using our guide to making OilSkin Fabric. They are not appropriate for most store-bought material called oilcloth today, as this is coated with a vinyl covering that will easily scratch.
Lay your tarp out on a flat surface and using a stiff-bristled brush, brush the area you intend to clean briskly.
It is important to avoid using a brush with metal bristles as this will quickly damage the cloth.
While cleaning note that it is likely your oilcloth will change colors slightly in the area cleaned. This is related to the patina that develops on the oil-coated surface.
Outside of a visual change in most cases, this color change does not affect the performance of your cloth, and in the eyes of many could be seen as enhancing the appeal of the cloth, similar to an aged leather jacket.
Wet Cleaning Oil Cloth and Oil Skin
Keep in mind these tips are for Oilcloth made in a traditional manner, or using our guide to making Oilskin Fabric. They are not appropriate for most store-bought material called oilcloth today, as this is coated with a vinyl covering that will easily scratch.
Wet cleaning is similar to dry-cleaning in that you are still going to scrub the oilskin with a stiff bristled brush.
The main difference here is that you will first wet the cloth and then rinse it periodically during the cleaning.
This will provide a somewhat more uniform change to any color established on the cloth and will aid in the removal of mud and sticky substances that may be present on the cloth.
If you discover that you have sap from trees such as pine on your cloth, you may need to treat these areas with a bit of turpentine to dissolve the sap. This should not hurt the overall performance of your tarp.
How to Repair an Oilskin Tarp by Reapplying Oil
If during a wet cleaning you discover that an area of your tarp does not seem to be repelling water you can fix this. This will be apparent by the lack of water beading in that area.
Your tarp should have come with an information card indicating what type of oil was used to make it. You can use this information to reapply a coat of oil to your tarp.
If you followed our guide on making your own oilcloth tarp then you can use a mixture of ¾ boiled linseed oil to ¼ mineral spirits, both of which can be found at your local hardware store to recoat the tarp.
Simply lay your tarp out on a flat surface and reapply the coating, I prefer to use a paint roller for this as it can be somewhat messy. Due to the mess involved and the odor of the mineral spirits, this is a job for outside in all but the rarest cases.
Once you have coated the fabric, hang it up and allow it to dry for about 48 hours. This will give the mineral spirits time to evaporate and dry the linseed oil. If you want to apply some tinting you can add a bit of concrete powder dye. Caution though, I have not tried the liquid dyes, only the powdered versions.
How to Store Oilcloth Tarps
Since Oilcloth tends to be a bit more pliable than waxed canvas you can fold it much easier. This allows for easy storage similar to a vinyl or plastic tarp.
Make sure that your Oilskin is clean and dry prior to storage. Once dry, fold it into the dimensions you want. I normally store my tarps in roughly a 1×2 foot square given the depth of my shelving.
Place the cloth in an area with minimal exposure to sunlight and weather conditions. While neither sunlight or rain have an immediate effect on the oilcloth, being heated while in a folded position can result in semi-permanent creases forming.
An oilcloth being used in service as a tarp does not need any special care beyond cleaning built-up debris off of it every now and then to prevent molding from the debris such as leaves rotting.
Conclusion – Ease of Care
As you can see oilcloth is relatively easy to take care of and this was one of the main reasons that it was so popular as long as it was.
The ease of manufacture and cheap cost of more modern materials have meant that it is largely removed from the market now. However, some tent manufacturers, bush crafters, and outdoorsmen prefer this durable fabric over many of the more modern options.
With care, your tarp should last you for years to come.