Here are some methods for waterproofing fabric, taken from two different pre-1945 German books. Some of these methods are simple and would be easy to duplicate today. Others read as fairly technical chemical formulas, by our modern standards. The books that these recipes are taken from were intended not for industrial or specialist use, but rather for use by ordinary people- by soldiers in the field, or even perhaps by children. It is interesting to note that no brand name consumer products are mentioned. Instead, these recipes use generic chemicals which, apparently, were things that it was possible for people to obtain, in a pre-Internet and arguably less consumerist world. The nature of these recipes gives some insight into how different things used to be in this era, now fading from living memory.
The first source that we will look at is “Tornister-Lexikon für den Frontsoldaten” by Gerhard Bönicke, published by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht in 1943. This book was intended for use by Wehrmacht soldiers in the field. The last suggestion is the simplest and would be easiest to replicate today.
Waterproofing of fabrics
1 part ready-to-use, medium strength joinery glue, 1 part glycerin and 5 parts of water are mixed together and the fabric is painted with this mixture. After drying, the fabric is laid in a mixture of 1 part 40 percent formaldehyde and 9 parts water. Leave the fabric in this second bath for a long while. Or, dissolve the remains of shaving or hand soap by heating and shaking in a hundred times as much water and swish the fabric back and forth in the solution for 10 minutes. Take the fabric off, allow to drip dry and place in 2.5 percent aluminum acetate, leave the fabric in the solution for 5 hours, take it out, rinse well and allow to dry. Or, dunk the fabric for 8-10 minutes in a solution of 1 part fat in 9 parts gasoline (caution, do this work outside!) and limewash [1 kg quicklime and 2 liters water]. Or, vigorously rub the outer side of the fabric with a piece of a candle or beeswax.
The 1933 booklet “Zeltbau,” published by Franckh’sche Verlagshandlung in Stuttgart, was part of a series (“Geländesport-Bücherei,” or Field Sport Library) likely intended for use by the Hitlerjugend and other paramilitary organizations. While it is interesting to know how things were done in the past, I would encourage readers to avoid handling toxic chemicals.
One must know…
How fabrics (Zeltbahnen, wind jackets, cotton cloth etc.) are made waterproof. There are various recipes. Here are a few of them: a) In 2 to 2-1/2 liters of boiling water, dissolve a half pound of alum, then add about 9 liters of cold water, put in the fabric and allow it to sit in the solution for about 24 hours. Afterwards, wring the fabric out well. In the meantime, make a new solution from a quarter pound of lead(II) acetate (very poisonous!!) in 2 liters of boiling water, then pour in 8 liters of cold water. Place the fabric in this solution and allow to sit for 7 hours. Hang the fabric to dry without wringing it out. b) Dissolve 50 grams of zinc sulfate in 20 to 22 liters of cold water, add a quarter pound of sodium carbonate and stir well. Then add 5 to 7 grams of tartaric acid, soak the fabric in this alkaline solution for 24 hours, and hang to dry without wringing it out. c) Dissolve 60 grams of lead(II) acetate in 1 liter of water. Also add 60 grams of aluminum sulfate to 1 liter of water. Mix both solutions together. By slowly pouring into a second container, the solid precipitate that forms is removed. The fabric is painted with this alkaline solution until it is well soaked through. Then the cloth is hung to dry.
“Zeltbau” also includes advice for waterproofing footwear.
One part paraffin mixed with 10 parts gasoline or 150 grams of mutton fat, 45 grams of wax and 30 grams of resin in a half liter of boiling linseed oil (boil the latter in a water bath!), mix all well and rub in to boots or other leather. Rub in vigorously to soles and uppers, knead it and work it with the ball of the hand. The most important thing is to rub it well into the seams (in particular between the sole and the upper).
Was tent canvas waterproof from the factory? Wehrmacht issue Zeltbahn shelter quarters were treated with a chemical called Persistol, which made the canvas water repellent, but not waterproof. The major factor in staying dry under canvas is perhaps more likely to have been the tightly woven nature of the canvas itself, and the way the fibers react to being soaked with water. “Zeltbau” cautioned readers, “in rainy weather, nobody should touch the tent fabric from the inside, otherwise it will nastily rain inside. It can potentially make it like sitting under a shower!”
How waterproof were Zeltbahn tents in the reality of war? Leon Degrelle, in his memoir “Campaign in Russia,” offered his perspective.
Our tents were made of little triangular canvases, slit in the middle, which served individual troops as ponchos. To erect a tent, one had to combine four of these canvases, staking them over an area of about two by two meters. But four canvases meant four men, so we had to sleep four in a tent in a tiny space, as well as shelter a full kit there.
To complicate matters further, the tent had to be taken down during the day so that everyone could have his poncho back to cover himself.
We had neither straw nor dry leaves to stretch out on, nothing except the drenched soil. The storm howled the whole night. We were right at the summit of the mountain. The torrents of rain, hail and snow could carry off our habitations at any instant. The water streamed in, penetrating holes punctured at a dozen places in canvases that had seen a year and a half of service, drenching our faces. Men cried out against the tempest. Their tent-shelters bowled over, soaked to the skin, they struggled and swore.