Making a Civil War Era Oilcloth Tent.

I haven’t studied Civil War tents for authenticity’s sake; this is the culmination of different methods I wanted to try.  I’ve been reading about making oilcloth, this is treated with boiled linseed oil, turpentine, and beeswax. I thought that oilcloth was made from heavy canvas, and maybe some is; but I watched one video that said a finer cloth is better at repelling water. He said to use a 300 or 400 thread per inch cloth, if that’s not available, then 200 is minimally acceptable.

This is two 200 count king sized sheets, triple stitched together. The seam is along the top ridge pole. The store had finer thread count sheets available, but they were in sets, which made them cost a lot more. I sewed them with a Brother brand sewing machine that was given to us. It has a round sticker on it that says $25, which looks to be from a garage sale. What’s amazing is that you can pick a machine like this up at a local store, and it works so well. It has this mover pad like thing beneath the foot that holds the fabric down. The pad thing is steel, and has little teeth on it. It grabs the cloth, moves it along, then grabs again, constantly moving the cloth while the needle sews the thread into place. It has two spools of thread, which it uses together, so that the stitch is doubled.

It has different settings for stitch pattern and how fine of a stitch you want. To me, it’s really neat how a machine that works so well is available as a common thing. I put brass grommets along the bottom edge with one of the primitive grommet making kits. You have to supply your own hammer, but it works really well, with impressive results, for cheap.

In the picture below, you can see the metal box that I used to apply the liquid formula to the cloth. I did this after stitching, but before the grommets. In all the online videos I saw, the liquid was applied with a brush. I knew there was no way I wanted to spend that much time on that step. This thing is about 8 foot 3 inches wide by 17 feet long. The pour on method was initially done in desperation, but turned out to work well. After the first application, I wrung out the excess, and saved it. There was just enough liquid to make a second application.

It might have worked with one application, had my liquid been thicker. As it was, while I was heating the ingredients, I became concerned that there might not be enough of it to complete the job. So I added thinner, just to be sure some got on all the cloth. I’m guessing that there was maybe 5 quarts of liquid. I wasn’t following anyone’s formula; I’ve been painting stuff with oil based paint for 30 years or more, so I had some idea of what I could get away with.  I gathered up all the ingredients in the shop, and made a go of it. It’s a pound and a half of beeswax, a couple quarts of boiled linseed oil, a couple quarts of turpentine, and a quart of mineral spirits. That’s my recollection, if you do this be sure to make enough, and be sure to heat it outdoors, away from the house or anything flammable.

Also, and this is a big warning, hang this to dry away from anything you wouldn’t want to be in a fire. Linseed oil WILL go into spontaneous combustion. Which means it can burst into flames without anyone lighting it. I have seen this with my own eyes. I had rags in the back of a camper shell which burst into flames while I was walking by. If I hadn’t been there, I would have lost the whole truck.

I found one end while it was still in the metal box, them carefully lifted it onto the rope where I dried it, this kept it out of the dirt. It took a couple of days for each application to dry. The rope was between two trees. The trees are green, and wouldn’t catch fire easily.After it was dry, I took it in my shed, and lettered it. I did the first word Friday night, and the rest on Saturday morning. That’s how it could be rolled up the way it is in the picture. If you’re familiar with hand lettering, this is trickier than most surfaces.

I selected the name based on a previous project. I restored the paint on the old Mississippi Locomotive, and the man who brought it back to life after the Civil War was J.A. Hoskins, who was a Confederate artillery captain in the war. I hurriedly erected the tent expecting rain, which didn’t fall. So it hasn’t been water tested yet.

The poles are about an inch and a half by one and three quarters, by seven feet tall, they’re eight sided, as I didn’t take the time to round them. They were from an Ash wood plank I bought for this purpose, more than a year ago. I wasn’t sure whether to make a teepee, or this. This was easier to design in terms of the cloth. Besides, I really wanted to make a tribute to Captain Hoskins. I still have what I think are walk boards he made.

As I said, I don’t know what authentic proportions are, but to give you an idea how roomy this one is, see the picture below. I’m lighting a ceramic pipe, and I’m about six foot, one inch tall. there’s plenty of room.

Thanks for visiting Quill and Blade.