Staining your Canvas Tent

Go for the leather look

The Leg VI Tent line at Castra 08

We know for a fact the Romans used leather tents.  The argument can be made that they had linen too, but the evidence says leather.  That said a leather tent runs 2000-3000 dollars and many man hours to reproduce.  The Panther primitives Papilio is the right dimensions, but comes in white canvas or a "tan" color that looks just a little too light.
Then Leg IX had a disaster and red dye from corinthian crests messed up some tents... the result?  Well they decided they might as well paint them.  Credit to Hibernicus for the testing and basic formula using the water based stain.
Here is what we did/are doing to do our 10 tents in Legio VI.
First we Built a 2*4 Painting Jig to throw the tent over to minimize set up.  If you are just doing one tent, it may be easier just to set it up.
To the store.  We went on Hib's estimate of 1 quart of stain to 3 quarts of water and it seemed to cover well with 2-3 coats.  Minwax Water Based Wood Stain, Rosewood color (a shade darker than hib's).  $8.86 a quart  SKU 2742661804 Available at Lowes and True Value et al.  Shake the can well before you mix it, and the use the can to pour the water in the 5 Gallon bucket so you get all the pigment.  Stir well.
Experience Note:  We ultimately used 2 quarts of stain to 1 gallon water, as it took less coats to cover well.  Go 2:1 for an easier job.
We purchased a automotive spray gun (Task Force Brand) set from Lowes ($50) and we already had the compressor to run it.
Experience Note: We used an inexpensive house sprayer on the last two tents as it painted a larger swath and took less effort.  One one tent the automotive sprayer is fine, on ten you look for better any way you can!
We used a 5 gallon bucket to mix about 2-3 cans of stain at a time.  Bucket cost was about $7
Tent was set on the jig (note that the jig intentionally keeps the bottom edge of the tent off the ground, this was so we could get the bottom edge better)
Experience Note: Let the tent sit out (set up) for a day or two before you start to let the storage wrinkles fall out of the canvas.  Better coverage and less fold lines.
We used the spray gun and plain water to mist over the tent.
Experience Note: very lightly!  Allow the water to soak in 5-10 minutes so you do not get runs.
We then did the first coat.  Don't panic, it looks like crap.  move the spray gun back and forthslowly, about 20-30 seconds to do one pass over the tent (NOT inlcuding the ends/Doors), and only try to cover about 6 inches per "row".  The first coat may have heavier "lines", but the second coat will kill them with a little bit of offset.
Experience Note: Keep a damp rag handy in case you get a run, just touch it lightly and it will "disappear".  sometimes if you rub too hard the dye will soak in a little deeper than the untouched areas, do not worry about this!  When it dries it just looks like leather variation.  Short of spilling the bucket on the tent in one spot, there is not a lot you can do to make it look bad!
Allow it to dry to the touch, then do a second thicker coat.  When done with the thicker coat, you can again mist with water and areas that dripped or ran to spread out the stain and avoid bad spots.
Experience Note: Bad runs that dry can be made into a darker "panel" by an extra coat of dye or two after you do the panel lines.
Third "coat" is really more of a search for light spots.  Follow it with a heavy mist coat, as the stain is still moist enought to sink in a bit more, and the water will spread it out evenly.
Experience Note: the panther tents are very white and took more like 5 coats.  Darker canves tents we made ourselves covered in three easily.  The sunforger is just a very bright canvas.
Final finish does not look perfect NOR DOES IT NEED TOO!! It does look like Dan Peterson's leather tents, which have white spots, creases, oil spots, etc etc etc.  I will experiment with brown lines later to create a panel look, I think I can make a jig for it that will be easy to use.
Experience Note: DO THE LINES... they look awesome.  In photos, you cannot tell they are not leather and other re-enactors will walk up to look at them.  No jig was neccessary, panels run about 18*18, but I intentionally made them vary a bit.
The completed tent below is one of our $20 Uglo-papilios that we made here (got a deal on some mislabeled canvas tarps from Harbor freight... thus the $20 price tag).  You can see the rip in it that I will repair while I have it up.
The tent in the background is a panther with waterproofing and fire resistant coatings, and has two coats.  A note here, the panther being a brighter white may take 4 coats, I think this is the one tent that used to have aftermarket water repellent too.  I will document the others as I do them.
Experience Note: Panther tents with water treatment are far harder to cover.  Order untreated 10.38 ounce sunforger.  Nothing more.  no fire retardent or stain resistance or water proofing.  your tent will not leak.  It will swell with the dye just like it is supposed too.  Trust me... it rained on us EVERYWHERE in 2008!
The inside of the tent will have to be done seperate if you want to do it.  I know we use the centurio tent as a showpiece, so it will have to be done inside and out.  Double your estimates as for stain as the bleed thru is not complete.  Probably need two coats inside.
Experience Note: This was a lot of work, but the photos show how cool it looks inside.  Warmer too!  Good news is you do not need to redo panel lines on the inside, as you can see them comeing thru.
I found it took more like 2 quarts of the Minwax Water based dye per tent, but I may be applying it heavier than Leg IX did.
Experience Note: Heavier dye equals a browner tent.  We did end up goining to a 2:1 water/dye ratio.
Took about 2 hours to complete the tent. (outside only)
A note on color.  I think you want to use the red maple or rosewood, as the final color from those two looks more like leather than the darker stains available.  If you want to darken it up, you may mix like three quarts at a time and make one the black walnut, but I think the redder colors look outstanding.  I was surprised when I was done.
Experience Note: There was not a significant difference when we used 1 quart rosewood to 1 quart black walnut.  Mostly went back and darkened a few panels here and there after we added the lines to make them look like different leathers. 
More photos to follow.

Finished Uglo Papilio, 3 coats

If you look closely at the pic above, you will see a white "water stain" and beneath it on the side wall was a good bit of fungal stains.  They have essentially disappearred.  What is left bears a startling resemblence to used leather tents I have seen!  This tent is about 2 years old and has seen a number iof events.
Experience Note: Fungal stains and marks are almost totally hidden by the dye and subsequent leather look.  We use some lysol to kill the fungus and let the tent sit out set up in the sun if they got put up wet by accident, and it kills the fungus and hides the stains.  Great for older tents.

finished exterior on the Uglo Papilio

seam and edge close up

Task Force Pressure Sprayer Worked Great
Kit had all fittings, 2 canisters, mini gun too $50

Front of the Uglo Papilio
Note flap is original "tan" color

5 Gallon bucket saves a lot of mess

Minwax Water Based stain, Rosewood

Whiter panther tent may take 4 coats

2 coats on the panther tent

Adding Panel Lines:
So now we have a brown A- frame, and we decided to experiment a bit further.  Using a long artists 1/2 inch brush and full strength undiluted stain, I painted on some lines to simulate panels of a leather tent.  This was easier than you think IF you can draw a straight line.  Boo boos can be smudged out a bit.  And we went back and darkened a few panels to give it an uneven appearrance.  I intentionally did not measure the panels, as the little offsets seem to add to the "life" of the tent.
Ok, now lets talk seriously... who want so come over and help do the other 9.. including the full size centurio tent?????
Experience Note: DO THIS.

The finished "Panel" lined A-Frame
Use full strength undiluted stain and brush on

front and side lined w/ undiluted stain
panels intentionally not "perfect" or measured.

Dan Peterson's Leather tents
From Nashville, actually more aged now!

The Lined tent from a different angle.
Now... who wants to help do the other nine????

Dan's Deepeeka Centurio tent

Shopping List:
All From Lowes:
-Task Force Brand Pressure Sprayer kit $49.99
or electric house sprayer
-5 Gallon paint bucket and lid $7
-Minwax Water Based Stain, Rosewood (4 Quarts per tent, a fifth to do the inside) $8.86 each
-Handfull of the free paint filters
- Respirator mask ($1)
If you need a cheap compressor, you may try harbor frieght.  The guns run 40-60 PSI, so an inexpensive pancake or small compressor will do the job.
See you on the field!

Lafe Tent Pics:
Please note that these are wet!  It affects the color.  A few are dryish, but nothing was really dry at Lafe in 2008!

Leg XIV's Tents

Leg VI V Leather tent and a Panther Tan tent
The Tan is darker due to moisture, but it is a little light.

Leg XIV Tents in the dryest photo we have
Note varaitions in panel size, color, stains, etc, and dark "panel lines"

One wet Centurio tent (deepeeka manufactured it)
Note colors and variations. deepeeka tent is more uniform than the other hand made ones

Note how water Wicks into the leather...
Maybe sides were to roll up to prevent this? Experimental Archeology

Door of a Leg XIV tent. Soaked of course
still see some color variations, point is the leather does not look perfect!


The NEW Leg VI Tentage in Action!!
All th following are the new tents in action, including the interior of the Centurio tent.  A ton of work, but the overall look of the camp is MARKEDLY improved!

Castra 08, note tan "Panther" tent on right
Totally changes the look of the camp







Almost a year now.  No regrets at all.  Waterproofing remains unaffectedColor has not faded at all.  No noticable change to the canvas.  If you have been waiting... go ahead and do it. 
The brown color changes the "Army of the Potomac" look of the camp VERY dramatically and sets you apart from other time periods.  If you add a real leather tent later, it will fit in greatly as we have set them up right beside them and you have to get within about 7-8 feet to see what is what.  In photos or on video, you cannot tell the difference.
The biggest difference from real leather is that more light gets in thru the painted panels than would get thru leather ones.  Not much you can do about this, as the material is simply thinner.  If you do not have a period interior set up, no one notices this at all.  As we have a period interior to our centurio tent, we notice it... visitors do not.
So get off you butt and spray that white thing down!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Credit to Legio IX, who fianlly figured out a workable system.  We had experiment with paint, regular dye, and nothing seemed to work.  Kind of glad it rained on those red crests!