How to Make Lightweight Oilskin Tarps from Bed Sheets

by Todd Walker

Disclosure (5/11/2016): In all honesty, after almost two years since making this tarp, it has held up fine until this spring. It’s still in tact and waterproof. However, it must be the Georgia humidity that has caused the tarp to turn sticky. Just wanted to make this disclaimer for anyone in humid climates. Your results may vary.

Weight – a unit of heaviness or mass; any heavy load, mass, or object; the vertical force experienced by a mass as a result of gravitation

Gravity. It’s unescapable… on this planet. It keeps us grounded. But it also weighs us down.

I consider myself to be in decent physical condition. Even so, at my age, every pound added to my backpack affects the gravitational pull and energy needed to carry the stuff. I’m no ultralight hiker by any stretch, but I do try to lighten my load every chance I get.

How to Make Lightweight Oilskin Tarps

I’ve wanted to own an oilskin tarp for some time now. They’re durable but too pricey for our budget at this time. A quality oilskin tarp (new) will set you back $200. My motto, when it comes to gear, is buy the best you can afford. Or, go the common man route and make your own.

The idea for this project came from William Collins’ 4 part series on his YouTube channel. I’ve condensed his method into a short tutorial for you.

Stuff You’ll Need

  • 100% Egyptian cotton bed sheet (flat). The higher the tread count the better. I used a king size which measures 8.5′ x 9′.
  • 20 oil lamp wicks (1/2″ x 6″). They come in packs of 5 at Wally World.
  • Boiled linseed oil – 3 to 4 cups (depending on the size of your cloth)
  • Mineral spirits – 3 to 4 cups
  • Dye (optional) unless your sheet is the color you desire
  • Containers
  • Heat source
  • Rubber gloves

Prep the sheet: Before the dyeing process begins, wash the sheet in cold water and washing powder. Then dry on high heat to close and tighten the woven fibers in the sheet.

Sew the lamp wicks on all corners and at two foot intervals along the edges. I sewed these on by hand. A sewing machine would take less time but that’s how I roll. I added 3 additional loops down the center of the sheet to allow for more options when configuring my tarp.

How to Make Lightweight Oilskin Tarps from Bed Sheets

Step 1: Making Natural Dye

I filled the bottom of a 10 inch pot with green hickory nuts from a tree in our yard. Thank you, squirrels! Use an old pot that you don’t mind staining. I then added several black walnuts (green hulled) to the mix which happen to be dropping from trees now.


How to Make Lightweight Oilskin Tarps from Bed Sheets

With the dyeing agent (green nuts) in the pot, fill 3/4 full with water. Bring to a boil on an outdoor fire. Allow to slow boil for an hour or more. The longer you boil, the darker your dye will become. I was going for an earth tone.

You can also break the green hulls off the black walnuts to increase the surface area and improve the extraction process. Be aware that the hulls will stain anything they touch – skin included.

How to Make Lightweight Oilskin Tarps from Bed Sheets

If you choose not to make your own natural dye, RIT dye is available at most grocery stores.

Step 2: Dye the Sheet

Test the color of your dye on a piece of scrap cloth. If you’re satisfied, strain the dye mixture into a clean container. A window screen over a bucket works well.

How to Make Lightweight Oilskin Tarps from Bed Sheets

Place the sheet into the container. Use rubber gloves to prevent staining your hands. Turn and squeeze the material for a thorough coverage.

How to Make Lightweight Oilskin Tarps from Bed Sheets

Leave the sheet in the dye for 24 hours. Longer for a darker color. To keep the sheet submerged, I place the lid of cast iron dutch oven on top. Not recommended. The greasy drip spikes on the lid left a polka dot stain pattern on the bed sheet. What was I thinking!? I replaced the heavy lid with one of DRG’s small dinner plates and a 25 lb. dumbbell.

How to Make Lightweight Oilskin Tarps from Bed Sheets

Step 3: Set the Dye

Wring the sheet over the container to remove the excess dye. I hung mine over a double clothes line out back to dry.

Once dry, wash it in cold water with washing powder when your wife isn’t home. No, it won’t stain the washing machine tub. The cold water sets the dye. Dry the sheet on high in preparation for the waterproofing.

How to Make Lightweight Oilskin Tarps from Bed Sheets

Step 4: Waterproofing

Mix equal parts boiled linseed oil and mineral spirits (drying agent) in a container. I used a 5 gallon bucket. You only need enough to completely saturate the cloth. I used two cups of each and found dry spots on the sheet. Another cup of each did the trick. Other DiY’ers have “painted” the oil on their cloth. For the best coverage, message the oil into the material in a bucket. You’ll probably want gloves for this step.

How to Make Lightweight Oilskin Tarps from Bed Sheets

Squeeze the excess mixture from the sheet back into the bucket. Funnel the extra waterproofing liquid in a smaller container and label it for later projects. I used the empty mineral spirits can.

Note on boiled linseed oil: Properly dispose of any oil soaked rags used to wipe spills. As the linseed oil dries, it creates heat and can combust spontaneously.

Worried about burning down your shop or barn while the tarp hangs to dry? Don’t be. Spreading the tarp to dry dissipates the heat.

Step 5: Cure the Sheet

Hang the oiled sheet vertically under a covered roof outside. In a hurry, I laid my sheet over the double clothes line. This method created two lines down the middle section of the sheet. Plus, it rained that evening. Dumb move. The next morning, water was standing on the sheet between the two lines. I hung the sheet under my attached shed behind my shop the next day.

How to Make Lightweight Oilskin Tarps from Bed Sheets

The drying time on the oiled sheet depends on humidity. Well, it rained for three days after I applied the oil. You guessed it, the tarp stayed tacky. When the weather cleared, it dried in 48 hours.

Now for the moment of truth… is it waterproof?

I hung the dried tarp on the clothes line and unreeled the garden hose. I set the nozzle on “shower” and pulled the trigger. This was my common rain shower test. It passed! No moisture behind the tarp when wiped with a paper towel.

How to Make Lightweight Oilskin Tarps from Bed Sheets

How to Make Lightweight Oilskin Tarps from Bed Sheets

Dry as bone!

Dry as bone!

Now for the hurricane test. I set the hose to “jet” from three feet away and blasted the tarp. The paper towel underneath remained bone dry!

How to Make Lightweight Oilskin Tarps from Bed Sheets

Even with standing water between the clothes line, no drips or moisture anywhere. Good to know the tarp could be used to harvest water in a survival scenario!

How to Make Lightweight Oilskin Tarps from Bed Sheets

As far as durability, I’m pretty sure my bed sheet tarp won’t outlast an eight ounce canvas oilskin tarps. Maybe it will. Time will tell. I’m testing it this weekend at the Pathfinder School Basic Class. I’ll update y’all on its performance.

Keep Doing the Stuff of Self-Reliance,


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Categories: Bushcraft, Camping, DIY Preparedness Projects, Doing the Stuff, Gear, Self-reliance | Tags: , , , | 91 Comments

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91 thoughts on “How to Make Lightweight Oilskin Tarps from Bed Sheets

  1. Pat

    When I was a kid my grandparents shared all their knowledge with my cousin and me. Sometimes they just needed extra hands but we always came away with new knowledge. They always made sure to tell our parents how much they appreciated us helping and years later I realized all the survival skills I could utilize if I had too.


  2. Pingback: How to Make Lightweight Oilskin Tarps from Bed Sheets | Modern Homesteader

  3. farmergranny

    This sounds great. I’m thinking to use it to make rain ponchos..more durable than the cheap ones in the store and lighter weight than the expensive ones.


    • Keep in mind that it’s not breathable. But with a poncho, it would work fine. Thanks for the comment, farmergranny!


      • al

        hello, i was wondering if theres would be good to make a weekend tent that only used maybe for a week a year? want to use canvas in festivals as i cant stand the heat in nylon, and proper canvas is to heavy to carry the distance (along with the obscene amounts of booze people carry every year) im also getting older and need that comfort lol


  4. Thanks for the article!

    Hope you have a great time at basic class! I took my 17 year old back in March and it was a great experience for both of us. I picked up a bunch of easier ways to do things and it was good for us to spend the weekend together.


  5. This sounds like a project I totally want to try for our homestead. I can think of about 100 places to use it.


  6. Wow! I don’t know if I have the time to make it, but I sure do admire it!


  7. I love this! I’m going to be trying this


    • It’ll take a week or so for the smell to disparate but we’ll worth the wait for DIY gear! Want to see it when you’re done!


      • Roscoe

        I’m familiar with the smell of treated oil cloth, having camped in oil cloth tents in the 50’s. I wonder, could you introduce a scent (anything you find pleasant) to the linseed concoction to help with the oilcloth smell? Lavender, pine, etc?


      • I’m sure you could on the scent. I’ve never tried it. If you do, let us know how it worked for you.


  8. Pingback: How to Make Lightweight Oilskin Tarps from Bed Sheets - Prepared Bloggers

  9. Hillbilly in Ok.

    Nice idea the only thing I will change when I make one is the sheet. I’ll use a painters tarp and update you on the results it should still be light weight but much thicker.



  10. Tony T

    Thanks for sharing. I will give this a go. 😊


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  14. Ken

    Nice work-

    I had the idea of using it on heavier denim/canvas material like Carhartt jeans for winter brush wear.. Winter mountain scrambling here requires very durable outer layers with water resistance.

    Anyone else try something like this?


  15. rick

    very good article. I read on a survival blog where some one added alum . whta twould this do for it???


    • michael

      Hey there! If I recall correctly, alum powder works as a fire retardant🙂


  16. david gaylord

    my concern is about water collection would this be safe for drinking water


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  23. Andy Hunt

    Thanks for this article. I have made 2 weatherproof waxed cotton parkas using a similar method, but with bees wax melted into the linseed first. Works a treat. I got both coats for £20 in a thrift store. They keep the rain out for hours, and are better looking and much tougher than any modern plastic waterproof.
    I didn’t know that linseed oil on its own would work so well. I guess I will have to try this out in the new year, making a tarp tent.


    • Thanks for reading and the comment, Andy! There are many recipes out there for waterproofing. Be sure to let us know how your tarp turns out.

      Would love to see a pic of your parkas!


  24. Hi, thanks for the how-to. Can you tell me what the ending weight is?


  25. Just came across your site. Great stuff sir. Pearls; tons of pearls.
    Hope you’ll let me pick your brain a bit. Have seen a few of these on YouTube. Everyone always uses Egyptian Cotton. I get that thread count matters, but isn’t cotton cotton? Because that stuffs EXPENSIVE 😉
    I’ve also noticed different weaves on the sheets; does that make a difference?
    How does it shed the wind? Any get through?
    Finally has it held up under use? What did the final weight come in at?
    Thanks so much.


    • Glad you found us, Christopher! I’ve only tried Egyptian cotton so can’t speak to other sheets. Mine was 350 ct. It has a tighter weave than non-Egyptian cotton. It is more pricey than normal cotton sheets but I’ve read others that tried it with normal cotton sheets and it wasn’t as rainproof or durable.

      Mine weighs just over 3 lbs. It’s not as durable as an oilskin tarp or waxed canvas but the material is obviously different. It is indeed great for what it was created to be… a waterproof, windproof, fireproof tarp. Your intended use would dictate whether you go with DIY sheet or a heavier duty commercial tarp.

      The tighter the weave the better. I did rip a tie out when I tensioned the line too much doing a ground set up.

      Hope this helps.


      • Christopher

        Certainly does. Thanks.
        Its really great to be able to get first hand experience without hardly any work. Got to love those interwebz.😉
        Thanks so much.


      • You’re welcome, bud! Glad to have you hanging with us!


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  28. Russ

    Thanks for the great information. I will be trying this soon. Just found your site and am enjoying the content!


  29. Hi! I am planning on building a yurt for myself to live in this year. After reading your article (and also having an australian oilskin coat that is still waterproof after years of usage), I am wondering if it would be feasible to make the entire outer tarp from self-made oilskin. The two main questions are:

    1) Would it stay waterproof for the entire wet season? (I can refresh the waterproofing every summer, I imagine.)

    2) Would it start to molder if it doesn’t dry completely for several weeks?

    What do you think?


    • Carlos, I wouldn’t be able advise you on your question. My tarp has held up fine for the limited use it’s seen. Year round exposure might pose a problem, not sure. I’ve never attempted it. Sorry.

      Wish I could help you. Let us know what you come up with please. Sounds like a fantastic adventure!


  30. Carlos Franke

    Thank you for answering anyway! I am going to ask a few people with experience in building yurts or other constantly exposed tents, maybe some of them have tried linseed oil already. And I will definitely keep you updated if pursue this further.

    Liked by 1 person

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  32. Adam Adair

    Hey Todd,

    Great DIY article! I have a few questions regarding this process. I was wondering if this process will work on a lightweight 100% cotton field coat, and also, do you believe it would work on an M-65 military field jacket with a 50/50 nylon cotton blend?

    Do the waterproofing oils dry completely enough so the coat won’t leave stains on furniture fabric, car seats, etc?

    I appreciate all your hard work!




    • Thanks Adam! While I’ve only applied the recipe to 100% cotton with a tight weave, the properties of the mix should work on other materials like canvas or duck cloth. I’ve seen a few who have done so on canvas painter’s tarps.

      Once dry and the scent goes away, I personally would not worry about staining. Of course, my tarp doesn’t rub on car seats, etc. I’ve not noticed any staining on my ruck or any transfer to other equipment in the pack.

      If you try it, please keep us posted on the outcome, bud.


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  34. I was looking to buy some oilskin jackets (Drizabones) for my kids but being 6, 5 and 3, they are all growing like weeds and those jackets are pricey. Too pricey to grow out of yearly, even with hand me downs.
    I was linked a pin today from a friend for a hooded jacket and I hit up google to find an oilskin recipe. I reckon making up a light jacket from sheet fabric and then treating it with oilskin will make a lightweight and cheap coat I can easily replace/mend if it’s torn or grown out of. Thank you for easy to follow instructions!


    • T Urban

      How did this go for you? Was there any strong odor associated with this process or with the finished coats? Also – how important is the mineral spirits in this process? Thinking about skipping it or finding a non-toxic solution.


      • Actually, what we buy in home stores as boiled linseed oil is not pure and pretty toxic actually. I would avoid using it on clothing. You may want to research waxed cloth for a coat.


      • I haven’t done it yet. Life has just been crazy busy so it’s on the back burner.


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  37. would this work with wool blankets ??? would like to try..


  38. T Urban

    Is it necessary to utilize mineral spirits in the making of this oilskin? I was thinking of making an oilskin coat, but I worry about the toxicity of mineral spirits. What is the role that the spirits play in the compound / mixture? Faster drying / thinning agent? Thanks!


  39. Nemo

    What is the thread count used in this instructional?


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  42. Ben


    I just have a few questions, does the fabric shrink very much? Do you think a 1000 thread cotton cover be durable enough to create a small tent?

    Thank you


    • You’ll want to wash in hot water and hot dry to shrink the fabric fibers before treating. 1000 thread count should create a very dense weave and should work, Ben.


  43. Michaela

    Just a quick question: How heavy is it?


  44. Michaela

    Any idea as to how this would work with something that has seams? I would love to use this concept to make a lightweight skin on frame kayak that could be packed in a backpack. You wouldn’t want to tackle whitewater with it, but a leisurely paddle down a peaceful river would be a nice change of pace/scenery as well as give your feet a little rest. Would you treat it before or after fitting to the frame?


  45. Corey

    Now that some time has gone by how often have you had to re-apply your waterproofing? How well has it stood up?


    • Haven’t had to add any extra waterproofing since the first application. The material being a thin bed sheet is obviously less robust than canvas. I’ve had a few tie outs come off. Reinforcement at those stress points would be recommended.


  46. Lisa

    Great info, thanks! Do you know if this would be okay for a tablecloth inside? Obviously lots of wiping down expected. How flexible is the fabric after treating? I plan on using a quality sheet like you did.


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  48. Adam

    Nice tip! What does your tarp weigh when its finished?


  49. This has to be one of the best DIY Waterproof tarps! Awesome job. Do you think this will work with with any 100% cotton sheet with above 300 thread count?


  50. Karen Simmons

    I’ve been trying to figure out how to make a waterproof tarp out of some mill cloth I have, it’s canvas style cotton cloth. This gives me great directions so now I can make my own! Thanks


  51. Herb

    One place to pick up some bed sheets (if you don’t want to spend the money on new ones… Although you can buy new in any color you want) is at your local thrift store. For a 3 dollar bill, you are set to go, without having to deal with the wrath of your wife, when she comes home from work to find her bed stripped clean, and you in the garage with a goofy grin on your face, and saying hey babe, you’ll never guess what I’m doing.


  52. John

    I’m considering making one of these. DIY verses paying at least $80 wins the debate. Just wondering how yours is holding up?


  53. vocalpatriot

    pretty basic stuff..good article. Why use did you use wicks for loops when cotton webbing is so cheap? was it simply convenience?


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