How to Treat Your Steel Traps

Dipper, painter or naturalist? Preparing your traps is a big job and there are many methods that work. This is how one experienced north woods trapper does the job.

By Cary Rideout

Photography by Lorain Ebbett-Rideout

One important preseason job for any trapper is preparing traps for the coming campaign. Along with checking chains and how fast traps fire, many trappers also stain or color their steel. But how to get the right hue so the fur is fooled is like most things in the trade — open to interpretation.

Photo credit: Lorain Ebbett-Rideout

Old Rusty

So just what is the science of steel and stain? Metal, if left untreated, will happily rust and eventually reduce all of that expensive shiny stuff to dust. Rust, as the old song says, never sleeps and trappers must be vigilant to keep a weathered eye on steel condition. Light surface rust is actually not a bad fellow and makes certain treatments work better. Pitting is the worst because it means the culprit has breached the surface and begun to chew in deep.

Rust will soon weaken steel and put less punch in killer traps, and offer a wily furbearer the chance to work free from footholds. Rusty steel can be tough to set, or worse, still result in poor firing. A little steel wool could remedy surface rust, but hold off the grinders and power sanders please. If you can smell hot steel than the tempers are in trouble! Oil is a friend of steel, but most trappers agree it’s not the answer for setting time. 10W30 is bound to attract dirt and that’s when the trouble begins. Keep the engine oil in the Ford — not on the #1½.

Blood Smoke and Grease

Putting a good color on traps is as old as the trade itself and was used as far back as the Middle Ages. Some dyes worked while others were best left on the pages of history. Cover scents were popular and fur trappers used blood or smoking steel with smoldering conifer boughs to supposedly cover all iron or human scent. Can you image deliberately exposing a trap to any kind of wood smoke? Blood coating was recommended, as well, but must have had all sorts of consequences, such as dirt clinging to the dog or pan and slowing the speed of firing, let alone attracting attention to the trap that you would be trying to hide.

Photo credit: Lorain Ebbett-Rideout

Various greases made from wild animal fat renderings also had a share of believers, but how those slicked-up traps performed is anyone’s guess. A liberal coating of lard would certainly make for a trap that would slip around and never stay put! No wonder the trapping world grabbed onto logwood chips.

Logwood products put a trap in good order, and in conjunction with a thin wax coating, are the traditional coloring treatments still as popular as ever. It should be pointed out that logwood liquid requiring no boiling is now also available.

Rust? What Rust?

There are trappers who never bother with dye and don’t see rust as anything more than, well, rust. They believe that it makes absolutely no difference and all of the time-consuming cooking is foolishness, since rust is something encountered daily and furbearers aren’t suspicious. “Just knock off the rust so they will fire and get them set.” Hmmm, maybe not quite.

It is true that few of us will ever match wits with fur that hasn’t smelled rusty metal. Have you ever had a situation when a replacement foothold wasn’t handy and you had to remake with a trap that had rust from exposure? You probably had another catch, so that lends some validity to the rusty argument. It’s tough for a hard-core trap stainer to admit, but in a perfect set with good attraction, rust is often overlooked by a curious critter.

What about beavers or otters with footholds and body grips? With water trapping, rust might not be such a problem since many sets are submerged. With body grips, the targets tend to be moving quickly and hit the long triggers with enough force to fire rusty steel. But, the trouble is that over a season any water trap is going to get plenty of time to rust up. A well-rusted body grip stands out like a black eye in church, and even under water many trappers feel that the risk of detection is too high, so they prefer to stain their steel.

Photo credit: Lorain Ebbett-Rideout

One other thing that no one can argue about is the chance that fur could be marked up, especially in the case of wet, rusty traps. If you can see it — a grader with a more critical eye is certainly bound to as well. Some people claim that rust just brushes out of the fur, but why take the risk of losing money?


For traditional trap dye, Mother Nature provides a host of products for putting a decent stain on steel. Nut hulls, barks and leaves all have qualities that trappers have turned to for generations. A couple of old favorites in the North Woods are hemlock bark and the furry tips of the sumac bush. It takes a quart can of fine chopped bark for every gallon of water, and I boil it hard for a couple of hours, adding water as it steams off. Lower in your traps and gently simmer them until the color you wish is reached. The same goes for the sticky sumac buds. Use a quart can to every gallon of water. Sumac can be messy so it’s a little more clean if you use a fine mesh to keep things contained.

Photo credit: Lorain Ebbett-Rideout

My early experiments of waxing those products were not satisfactory so I skipped the candle treatment. As far as the remaining scent goes, the traps end up woody with a bit of sweetness that over time mellows away. Another old-time stain is made with a farm’s biggest nuisance, alder bark. Use the juicy early spring kind and gather way more than you think you will need. The same goes for oak or maple leaves — use plenty — and when simmering take your time. If you are currently using store-bought products it is quite an eye-opener how time-consuming natural ingredients can be.

If you’re cleaning crud and rust with a solution of hardwood ashes boiled in water, use plenty and cook it hot and long. Ash boiling is a full day in itself, so allow for this when preparing. Try to use clean, fully burned-down ash from maple or birch. The lye water from boiling ashes is caustic and strong, maybe not as strong as muriatic acid, but that stuff can be a tad temperamental. So you might be better off using lye or its equivalent.
Speaking of lye, sometimes it can be difficult to purchase these days, but there are also household products that work fine. I don’t like mentioning brand names, but Sani-Flush or anything similar works great.

Photo credit: Lorain Ebbett-Rideout

Traps with rust that looks beyond hope might also be cleaned with vinegar. Not the table stuff, but the special household cleaning type. Submerge the traps in it and check several times daily as it’s a fast worker and might ruin your efforts. Also be aware that vinegar-treated steel needs to be slowly boiled immediately after in baking soda water. Use half of a box to a gallon and slowly simmer, then rinse and simmer in plain water. Heavy-duty cleaning vinegar will eat off the hard rust, but many times a trap that is so far gone is best set aside because dogs, triggers and other parts are generally ruined by extensive rust.

The Big Day

Any trap dipping or cooking job requires room outdoors with no distractions. Depending on the type of color process chosen you may require a heat source like a cement-block BBQ or a fire pit with a heavy grate. A gas camp stove lends a bit more control then an open fire and with some area’s regulations on open burns, it might be the way that you’ll have to go. Work in the shade with when there’s no breeze that might blow debris into the freshly colored steel as it dries. A couple of step ladders with poles between them works great for good drying. A discarded kid’s swing set also makes a good drying rack with some welding modifications, or with a bit of carpentry work build your own creation.

Dipping and boiling requires big, deep containers. For petroleum dipping a couple of large, wide dish basins, rubber gauntlets and a 2-inch paint brush are low-cost reusable investments. Logwood boiling requires heavy gauge kettles capable of handling high heat. Used canning kettles or cast iron Dutch ovens work excellent as well. Get several kettles so that you aren’t stuck with one container doing all of the work.

During any coloring job with prolonged cooking, always keep a length of chain in the bottom of the kettles to protect traps because direct heat can ruin their temper. For adding or removing traps from boiling kettles, use a long wood pole with a hook, then leave everything hanging for a day or more to cure. Sometimes if traps are tacky they might require more air/sun drying, so be aware of rain or dusty conditions.

Professionals clean and sanitize all digging tools, chains and pretty much anything that comes in contact with traps. It might seem overkill, but the pros have the success to back up the effort. One thing that I never dye are snares, only storing them in sacks full of hemlock boughs. Do I suffer refusals? Probably. But all of the locks, loops and wires, at least to me, are places for dye to clog up and slow their firing time. But, if you just use baking soda or another treatment then keep doing so.

If possible, store the dry and treated traps in similar-size bundles in a chemical-free area. A wood shed or an old barn could work as long as it’s safe from pilferage and has no fuel or machinery smells. Keep trap sizes separated and easy to reach because once you are trapping you’ll have no time to sort things.

If you prefer to store treated steel in containers then lay a good bundle of hemlock or spruce boughs in the bottom, but keep the pitch dripping end away from traps. Put in layers of traps and green boughs to fill the container, secure the lid and set in a dry corner with no disturbance. Waxed steel should be separated from unwaxed. I prefer big plastic tubs with snap lids or the double lid shipping totes that delivery companies use. Thoroughly wash all rubber and plastic containers with soapy water, and when dry give them a week of seasoning with evergreen boughs to take on a mellow scent. If it all sound like a lot of work it is, but treating steel is work so why make a mess of things with poor storage?

Wax and Weather

Wax is something that causes controversy, with believers always waxing, and everybody else never bothering. Store-bought trap wax is slick stuff, but follow the instructions for a quality finish. Early on my waxing was pretty chaotic with wax flaking and falling off, or so thick it encased the trap, and it took some learning. Nowadays when I wax it is done in a small kettle one trap at a time with wax floating on hot water. A camp stove does the best job keeping the correct heat so things don’t flame up.

Photo credit: Lorain Ebbett-Rideout

Canning wax will adhere very well and lasts long, too. Paste floor wax sort of works and common liquid floor wax coats nicely, but is it always fast firing. It’s just as tough on fingers as it is on fur — believe me. I steer clear of adding anything to wax, such as a dab of spruce gum, pine rosin or beeswax. Wax is fine for longsprings or coils but not for body grips. Listen to me, I am trying to keep you from a bad injury. DON’T WAX BODY GRIP TRAPS. They will fire as fast as you set them and catch your hands just as quickly.

Weather conditions can have a disastrous effect on a staining operation so I watch the skies religiously before beginning. Air pressure, humidity and cold are all equally troublesome. High humidity affects both how metal is coated and the drying quality, particularly with petroleum dip products. In the North Woods, late September is about perfect with bone-dry air and rain-free days the norm. Be aware of the neighbors doing any yard work like burning trash and leaves, or farm operations or pest spraying going on. Trouble can drift in from some surprising distances and a poultry operation burning feathers is a disaster on trap dye day.

Gassy Choices

Petroleum dip products require the biggest outlay of cash because they use fuel, and with the corn additives now common you must find a source of premium corn-free fuel. This is why some dippers now use camp stove gas. Both fuels aren’t cheap and neither is the dip, which comes in brown, white and deep black. Dip provides a hard, long-lasting finish good for three years if properly dried — which is the key to any dipping.

Photo credit: Lorain Ebbett-Rideout

I like to thin down the gas-dip ratio for a mix that seems to cover better. Use a paint brush to cover everywhere evenly, and work slowly. Speed is just the product’s name — not the objective. Once stained, hang them all in the shade with plenty of space around them. A shady spot keeps off the direct sun and night dews, both of which can affect the curing process. If they seem tacky that means that you need more fuel and longer dry times. Just like logwood or any other product, it needs to be applied correctly with proper drying.

Another option for treating traps is the graffiti artist’s friend, the trusty spray bomb or aerosol can of paint. Applying a coat of spray black paint is fast and costs very little in comparison to other treatments. Get a good, quality rust product, but be careful. Weather conditions and dust can make a simple job a bother. Set up a work area out of the wind and not in direct sunlight. Less paint is fine and let a couple of traps cure until you get your method down to a science. Any paint product should be a flat or matte finish, with no shiny stuff. It’s tough enough to keep the fur from being suspicious — and a shiny trap is not going to help.

Avoiding Dye-Day Disasters

Care and caution are necessary around any dye work. Make sure that your work area is clutter free so that you don’t trip into the fire or knock the camp stove over. Watch that your fire is not a three-alarm blaze because high flames don’t throw heat. A pile of red hot coals do the best cooking and plenty of wrist-size hardwood will get the heat built up quickly. Keep your fuel wood or gas well away from the flames and stick your axe into a block so that you don’t stumble over it.

Never use gas or any petroleum near open fire — so don’t mix methods on the same day. Logwood work today, petroleum dip tomorrow. Speaking of fire, have a decent size extinguisher handy and a couple pails of water to douse any problems. Hot water can scald instantly and ruin your trapping season in a heartbeat.

Be smart about hot wax as well, since wax can become a flaming disaster if overheated. When handling boiling water and traps, wear thick, clean gloves and use a stout wood pole to work traps that is long enough to be clear of the fire. Dress with long sleeves and pants and don’t look like you’re on the beach — so no flip-flops. Above all, go slow and pay attention to the fire. Any burn or other injury is one too many.

Keeping the tools of any trade in good condition is a smart practice and traps need equal care to perform well. Keep your steel clean, treated and firing fast so that when old Three Toes shows up you’ll be ready.

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