Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Otter Wax — An In-Depth Look

Waxed canvas is a really interesting fabric that we're loving these days.  It is not only functional and water resistant, but it also gives your fabric a cool, distressed, leather-like look as it ages.

Range Backpack and Wool + Wax Tote, both by Noodlehead
We currently stock two beautiful colors of waxed canvas, but we also just started carrying Otter Wax so you can wax your own!  Waxing your own canvas takes a little bit of time and effort, but it opens up so many possibilities.  Factory waxed canvas only comes in so many colors and weights, and the industrial waxing process definitely bumps the price tag up.  With Otter Wax, you can get the waxed look on any canvas you want, or maybe even some fun different fabrics!

But first, let's go over exactly how this process works. 
Otter Wax comes in two forms.  One is a bar (regular size or large size) that you rub directly on the fabric, and the other is a can of wax (which they call Fabric Dressing) that you melt down before applying.  As far as I can tell, both of them are the same kind of wax, just different delivery systems.  From some quick research, it appeared that the Fabric Dressing might permeate deeper into the fabric and look more like a factory waxed canvas.  I also anticipated it might be easier than the bar for larger areas, since it seemed like it was more of a painting than rubbing action.

I'll get into more specifics later, but for a TL;DR, the bar is a much easier application process.  You really just rub it in, and you're done.  It does take a few passes and some pressure to really get the wax in there, but not a crazy amount.  Do make sure the surface you're waxing on is smooth, or else you'll see the pattern of the surface below in the wax.  I started this waxing process on a piece of cardboard, and you could see the lines from the corrugation on the fabric!

Using the regular size Otter Wax bar.
It's easy to see when and where you've "completed" the waxing.  If you just lightly pass it over the fabric, you'll just see a slight frosty wax layer.  Once you've really got the wax sinking in, you'll see the color change.  It does take some pressure and repetition to get it in there, but once you get the hang of it, it's quite easy.

Otter Wax also makes a smoothing tool that I wouldn't say is 100% necessary for the initial waxing with the bar, but it does help.

Using the wooden smoothing tool to even out the wax layer.
If you're using the bar, it's easy to get a smooth, consistent layer of wax.  But the smoothing tool does even things out quite nicely.  I do think the smoothing tool would be very helpful, if not necessary, if you were waxing a finished garment or item that had wasn't completely flat.  The edges of the tool would help you evenly wax along seams, curves, corners, or any other shaped area.

So when waxing a canvas with the bar went well, I decided to get creative and try it on some more fabrics!  In addition to two 10oz dyed canvases (shown in more detail above), I waxed an 18oz natural undyed canvas, a 10oz denim, a lightweight cotton/linen canvas, and a hand dyed cotton ikat.

They all waxed quite well with the bar, and it was interesting to see the differences.  For example, I found I had to rub the bar harder with the denim to fully wax the surface, due to the twill weave.  Because it's not a flat surface, more pressure is necessary.

The 18oz canvas was very easy to wax because it was so heavy.  The fabric didn't move or shift around under the movement of the bar.  It was also interesting to see how the natural dark flecks became more pronounced with the wax.  It was, however, trickier to see if the wax had sunk in enough because of the natural color.  On all the other dyed fabrics, once the fabric was fully waxed, the color changed, and you knew you had rubbed the bar in enough.  On the other hand, if you didn't want the color to change much, you'd be in luck!

The darker colors seemed to get a little lighter or whiter with the wax.  This is especially seen with the ikat.  The waxed part looks kind of frosty, whereas the wax deepens the color on other fabrics.  Waxing the ikat also made me realize that this process would not work on anything with a wider or looser weave — the wax would have too many holes to seep though and it would be hard to get a solid layer of wax.  Unless you interfaced it, of course!

My favorite outcome was the cotton/linen canvas.  I wondered if a print might get blurry or fuzzy under the wax, but it turned out great!  Of course the colors changed, but I really like the outcome.  This and the ikat were the lightest weights of the bunch, and they cured the fastest.  After only a few hours, I could tell the wax was hardening and the tackiness was subsiding.

After all this success, I then tried the Fabric Dressing.  Unfortunately, I did not have as much success.  I'll start off by saying a lot of my problems came from my lack of tools and a subpar environment, so it's not really the Fabric Dressing's fault.  But nonetheless, it's a more involved project.

What's great about the bar is that there are no accessories required.  The smoothing tool is certainly helpful and I'd even say recommended, but not integral to the process.  With the Fabric Dressing, you at least need a few things:

1.  Some kind of electric heating element
2.  Brush or lint-free cloth
3.  Hair dryer or heat gun
4.  Wooden stirring stick or chopstick
5.  Smoothing Tool

To evenly heat the wax, you need to surround it with water and then heat that water.  We used a crock pot, and I've also seen people do this with a rice cooker or an instant pot.  I'd probably recommend a hot plate with a saucepan or pot.

My main issue with the Fabric Dressing comes down to heat —  I just didn't have enough of it.  I surrounded this can with water in the crock pot, and then I put it on "high" for hours.  Seriously, hours.  I think it took like 4 hours, and it still wasn't as melted as I think it could be.

I've seen pictures of people who did do this successfully, and the wax needs to be fully liquid.  When it's really ready to go, it should be clear.  The only way I could get the wax this hot was after heating it for hours with the crock pot lid on, and even then I felt it could still be hotter.  Once I opened the lid and started trying to wax, it would harden very quickly.  It was a pretty cold day, and Stonemountain is in a pretty ancient building without much insulation, for the record.

I thought a brush would be faster and coat more fabric at a time, but the wax hardened up in those bristles almost instantly.  It was a crumbly mess.  So I went to using the cloth method, which worked okay, but again, the wax just solidified way too fast.  At that point, it was really no different from using the bar.

Applying the Fabric Dressing on the left.  On the right is the piece I waxed using the bar.

Because the wax hardened so fast, it became chunky and crumbly.  The wax layer was way less even than when I used the bar.   Here's a shot of a super failed attempt with the heavy 18oz canvas.

Fabric Dressing on the left, Wax Bar on the right.

So lumpy.  So ugly!  This is where the hair dryer or heat gun would have come in handy.  If I had that, I could have applied direct heat and used the smoothing tool to even this all out.  Alas, there are no hair dryers at the store, and I did not think ahead to bring one that day.

Fabric Dressing on the left, Wax Bar on the right.

Even with unideal conditions and substandard tools, I managed, but it wasn't as good as the bar.  You can see how much less even the wax coating is in the above picture.  With a better heating implement, on a warmer day or at least in a warmer room, with a hair dryer, and with all of this knowledge, I would have had a better outcome.

So to wrap up this monster of a post, I highly recommend trying out Otter Wax if you want to wax your own fabric!  Especially if you'd like to use a waxed fabric that isn't a regular, solid canvas.  Both types of wax will work, but the bar is hands down the easier option.  Neither way is exactly a fast process, but with some time and elbow grease, you will have a one of a kind fabric that is both fun and functional!


  1. Thanks for this. I had just bough some Otter Wax and hesitant to get started.

  2. Super interesting, thank you for all the information.

  3. Hi! I just finished following your instructions to wax some cotton/linen pieces using the otter wax bar method. 24 hours later, and the wax has not yet hardened/cured. Might I have over waxed it? Should I try wiping some off, as it still feels tacky/moist, or continue to let it cure? Thanks for your help in advance!