You Must Prepare Traps if You Want Them to Last
By Mike Schoonveld
Brand new traps come with only a coating of oil or light grease applied by the manufacturer to keep the steel from rusting before it’s sold. Thousands of traps like this are pulled from the box every year and used as is.
There’s nothing wrong with doing it that way, but by the following year, those shiny, new traps will be rusty, used-looking traps. How rusty depends on how they were used and where they were stored. Without any care, they might work for a few more seasons before rusting to uselessness.
Most people don’t treat their toys or their tools that way, and traps are both toys and tools. Prudent individuals want their gear to last and to keep working like new. Even in today’s “disposable” society, traps aren’t items to be used a few times then discarded.
To give traps a long life and keep them working like new some sort of protective coating needs to be applied to every trap to keep it from rusting. Modern day trappers have several choices.
Blacksmiths pounded out the first traps from the same materials they used to make tools, hinges and other iron or steel products. Certainly the “smithies” were aware of the problem of rust and often used natural dyes to protect the products of their workmanship before they were sold. Trappers learned to keep their traps in working condition using similar techniques.
Paint was and is an option, but paint is normally too fragile when subjected to the everyday wear and tear a trap must endure. A dye is better.
Dyes are different from paint in that the coloring and protective attributes aren’t just sticking to the surface of the steel, the dye chemically bonds to the outermost layer of the steel. The result is a tough finish, less susceptible to chipping or wearing away than paint.
Traditional dyes, modern day dyes and new-fangled coatings are now available to protect traps from the elements and general wear and tear. Let’s look at all of them.
Several natural products have been found that can be used to dye and render steel somewhat rust resistant. The bark of some trees will do it and so will the ripened hulls of black walnut and seeds from a sumac bush. The exact nature of the chemical process is complex, but, in a “walnut shell,” the natural tannins in these substances are both slightly acidic and water soluble. Boiling the bark, seeds or shells extracts the tannin. The acids in the tannin work on the surface layer of the steel and the dye chemically bonds to the steel. It worked for Dan’l Boone, it’ll work for you.
One of the most concentrated of the natural dyes comes from the logwood tree, native to Central America and related to North America’s walnut, butternut and locust trees. The dye was originally used to color silk, cotton and other fabrics, but it was found to work on metal as well.
Most trapping supply houses sell dried logwood dye crystals. All a trapper has to do is pour some of the dry powder into a large pot, add water and boil or soak the traps until the traps are colored deep brown to black.
Whether using home-gathered dye products or logwood crystals, the process takes a half-hour or more in the bath to get satisfactory results.
Although purposely “rusting” traps seems an odd first step, a light coating of rust on the trap to be dyed improves the result. The tannic acid in the dye works more quickly on iron oxide (rust) than on unoxidized steel. The tannin combines with the rust, changes it to a stable compound and the dye is chemically bonded to the trap.
Dying traps with natural dyes makes traps rust-resistant, not rust-proof. Hang a well-dyed trap indoors, in moderate humidity, and it will probably never rust. Put it outside, bury it in a layer of dirt or drop it into a stream or pool of water and the rust will begin sooner or later. It will rust much sooner when the metal gets shined up by an animal caught in the trap or if used with salt, urea or calcium chloride anti-freeze. That’s why trappers learned to piggyback waxing on to their dye job.
Whether bees’ wax or paraffin, the process for waxing traps with either product is exactly the same since the melting points of each type of wax is nearly identical. However, there are two distinct methods used when waxing the traps.
One school of trap waxers does it the “safe” way. Bees’ wax and paraffin melt at temperatures much below the boiling point of water. The “safety first” crowd puts a large pot or cauldron containing enough water to cover the traps being waxed on a stove or campfire. The traps are added and the water is heated to boiling. After it’s boiling, a lump or two of wax is added and the pot is removed from the fire or the heat source as soon as all the wax is liquified. The 212-degree water easily melts the wax, which floats on top of the water. A wire or some sort of hook is used to slowly pull the traps up through the layer of wax and the trap is set aside to dry and allow the wax to harden.
The result is a trap with a fairly thick layer of wax on it, much like the glaze on a donut. If your only source of heat is a kitchen stove indoors, this is the method to use. If you can do the chore outside, I recommend choosing the “less safe” method.
Outdoors, use a propane-fired fish cooker or wood fire as a heat source. Again, use a pot or cauldron large enough to hold several traps and be sure to have a lid that fits the pot close at hand, as well as a long-handled pot hook. A pair of fire-retardant gloves certainly won’t hurt, either. These last three items are safety gear.
Add enough paraffin wax or beeswax to the container on the heat source to completely cover the traps inside, once it melts. This method takes more wax initially, but less wax is actually used in the end.
Here’s why the safety gear is mandatory. Once the wax is melted, a spark will set the surface on fire. Or if the melted wax is heated only slightly above 400 degrees, it will spontaneously combust. One second everything looks good, the next second, there are flames coming from the pot.
Wax fires probably never happen to some careful trappers. It happens to me often enough that I expect it and handle it with no panic. When the flames erupt, I turn down the heat and put the lid on the pot using the gloves and the long-handled pot hook. Once the lid is in place, the fire extinguishes immediately. I let the temperature of the wax cool down for a minute or so and I’m back in business.
The traps to be waxed need to cook in the molten wax for two or three minutes to allow them to heat up to the temperature of the wax. Then, using the pot hook, pull each trap from the hot wax, let them drip for a few seconds over the pot and then set them to the side.
The result will be traps with ultra-fine layers of wax adhering to the surface. Though it’s a much thinner coat than occurs when water-dipping, this method puts on a better protective coating since the wax is tightly bonded to the surface of the trap. It’s not permanent, but it will take a good amount of wear.
Some trappers dye and wax their traps just before the beginning of the season and use the traps through the end of the season with no further treatment. Others re-treat as they deem necessary. A few guys dye but don’t wax and others wax but don’t dye their traps. There’s no right or wrong way. Do it the best way for yourself.
Petroleum-based dip products are often called “speed dip” since there’s no soak time needed for the protective coating to adhere to the trap. That speeds things up and most speed dip users forego the waxing process, which also saves time. The slow part of petroleum-based dip is waiting for it to dry.
Speed dip is sold in concentrated form and needs to be thinned before using. How much thinner depends on the thickness of the coating you desire to put on your traps. Trappers after muskrats or nutria in salt marshes often mix it two parts thinner to one part dip. A gallon of thinner to a quart of dip has always worked well for me, but others are equally satisfied at six to one. Gasoline is used as the thinner. No-lead regular is fine. Avoid gasohol. Some trappers use “white gas” designed to use as lantern or stove fuel.
When automotive gas is used to thin the dip, there will be a residual smell of gasoline on the traps. The dip thinned with lantern fuel is nearly odorless. Traps dipped in regular gas will gradually lose the gassy smell when hung where they can air out for a month or more. The odor is of no consequence if the traps are used in water sets and most fans of speed-dipped traps agree that after the traps are aired, few furbearers avoid them even in land sets.
It will take a couple of days to a week or more for the speed-dipped traps to dry completely. As with logwood or the other natural dies, it seems as though the dip will adhere to a slightly rusted trap a bit better than it would to unrusted steel.
Petroleum-based speed dip comes in brown, black or white for trappers with a color preference.
Several years ago a new version of speed-dip concentrate came on the market — a concoction designed to be thinned with water rather than gasoline.
Though some don’t trust it as much as they trust dye or oil-based speed dip, for me and many others it works very well. What could be more simple? Mix three or four parts water with one part dip, dunk the trap in it and let it dry. Wax if you wish or use it as is.
I rely on water-based dip exclusively on my coyote traps, but I am particular about how I do the dipping process. Good protection occurs when a cold trap is dunked into the dip and allowed to dry. But I hot-dip my coyote traps.
When putting a trap into service, I want it clean and odor free. Nothing does that job better than several minutes in boiling water. I heat a large pot of clean water, add up to a half-dozen traps at a time and let them “cook” for 10 minutes or so.
A container filled with diluted dip is positioned next to the cooker and a short table with a wire grate top goes next to that. I hook a hot trap out of the boiling water then immediately dunk it into the container of dip. As soon as it’s completely covered, I pull out the still-hot trap and set it on the grate. The dip dries on the hot trap in seconds and the chore is done.
I’ve often dipped traps in the morning, set them in the afternoon and caught coyotes with them the first night. There seems to be no odor problems for me.
I don’t use wax with water-based dip, but I don’t use salt, CaCl or other corrosive anti-freeze either. If I did, I’d wax the traps for extra protection.
Over the years certain myths, legends and controversies have been touted dealing with trap preparation.
“Traps have to be dipped to insure they are camouflaged. (Why else would dips come in various colors?)”
Phooey, I say. My traps are always covered with something — dirt, water, peat, buckwheat hulls, sometimes just a layer of leaves or grass clippings. They could be colored black, white, pink or baby blue and be just as effective.
“Traps have to be dipped or dyed to cover up foreign odors.”
Actually, it’s the “process” that removes the odors, not the dip or dye masking it.
Logwood or other natural dyes might impart a neutral odor to the trap and some trappers even add leaves, cedar shavings or pine needles to their dye pot to add other scents. In truth, the fact the boiling water cooks away most offensive odors is more important than the dye or additives adding odors.
“Bees’ wax imparts a “honey” odor to traps predators can detect” and, “Paraffin wax imparts an unnatural petroleum odor predators can detect.”
Thousands of trappers use each product with few problems. On the other hand, anyone who has ever smelled a scented candle understands both paraffin and bees’ wax can become infused with odors. Waxing dirty traps can transfer the smells from the trap to the wax and “taint” the entire batch.
“Waxed traps close faster than un-waxed traps.”
Traps are simple machines and a lubricated machine usually works better than an un-lubricated machine. An ultra-fast trap won’t be a hindrance, but realistically, a trap only has to be faster than the reaction time of the animal it’s supposed to catch. Wax is far more important as a rust preventing coating than a lubricant to speed up the mechanism.
“Heating traps to wax or dye them will ruin the temper in the steel or springs.”
Temperatures much higher than boiling water or molten wax are required to alter the temper of steel.
If you have always dipped, dyed or doped your traps one way, experiment with the alternate methods with an open mind. When you find out what works best for you, you are doing it right.
Mike Schoonveld is a veteran trapper from Morocco, Ind.