ISSUE 34  |  Chasing Fireflies

DIY: A $15 Waxed Canvas Tote

August 29, 2014 4:00 PM

BY Justine Hand

Practical and stylish, waxed canvas totes have long been popular with both outdoor types and urban sophisticates. Making one yourself is easier (and less expensive) than you might think. All it takes is a few supplies and some elbow grease.

Read on for a list of materials and step-by-step instructions:

Photography by Justine Hand for Gardenista.

Above: If you’re like me, you’ve got a dozen L.L. Bean-style bags floating around the house. For this project I chose my favorite: a well-worn, vintage tote. It was a bit of a risk. Though I wanted to extend the life of the bag and make it waterproof, I worried that the waxing might compromise its nice patina.

Materials:

  • Cotton canvas tote, or any piece of canvas you want to waterproof. Until you get the hang of waxing, I recommend starting with something small and simple (that is, not too many nooks and crannies).
  • Wax. I chose all-natural (no petroleum or paraffin) Otter Wax, because it seemed easy to use and I liked the Portland company’s commitment to sustainable business practices. Heat Activated Fabric Dressing is $19.95 for an 11 ounce tin from Otter Wax.
  • Small paintbrushes
  • Plastic scraper
  • Disposable cotton rag 
  • Pot for heating the wax
  • Kitchen thermometer

Above: Otter Wax prints the directions on the can. (I’ve added my own perceptions and observations throughout this post.) Begin by removing the lid and label on the Otter Wax can.

Above: Place the can of wax in a pan of water and warm it over medium heat. After the temperature reaches 180 degrees, turn the burner down to low and continue to heat until the wax melts.

Above: After your wax is melted, dip a small brush into it and wipe off excess wax on the side of the can. 

Above: Apply a thin coat to the canvas, brushing diagonally to the grain of the fabric. 

Above: Use a clean rag to work the wax into the fabric. The wax will quickly develop a crusty coating, so I found it easier to work in small sections, alternating between using the brush and then the rag. Remove any excess wax with a plastic scraper.

Above: It takes a fair amount of elbow grease to rub the wax into the fabric until most of the waxy bits are gone. (That’s why I recommend starting with a small project.) At this point your bag, the cloth, and your hands will be very sticky. 

Above: Keep working the wax in until the surface is relatively smooth and uniform. (Note that the bag now looks a good deal darker than when I started. I was beginning to worry about my patina.) 

The final step involves applying heat from a blow dryer. Set the dryer on high and direct the hot air from one side of the bag to the other. If you tilt the bag, you’ll be able to see the wax residue more easily. Aim the dryer directly on these spots until the wax melts and is absorbed into the fabric. 

After all the wax is absorbed, let the bag cure for 24 hours in a warm, dry place. 

Above: After the heating process, my patina was back. The tote no longer felt sticky and stiff, but rather soft and pliable. And I was free to pack my bag and enjoy the waning days of summer.

Another note: For this project I used only half a can of wax. That, plus a few inexpensive brushes, meant that the total cost for waterproofing my bag was about 1 hour of my time and $15. Not bad.

N.B.: Looking for more totes and waxed-canvas inspirations? See 10 Easy Pieces: Springlike Canvas Totes and 10 Easy Pieces: Etsy’s Best Canvas Carry-Alls. I also think these Marine Canvas Water Buckets are excellent waxing candidates.