Full Chisel Blog

August 1, 2010

Tallow, Lard and Bear Fat


Once again I am spurred to make these comments because of more silliness on a woodworking forum on the Internet.  Someone asked if anyone made their own tallow and everyone put down the simple request and went ‘modern’ even though the forum touts its archaic nature.  Instead of answering the question suggestions were made to use [laxative] mineral oil, paraffin oil (petroleum distillates), etc.

As many of you know, I am not interested in ‘modern, better, improved, new or recent’ methods, I do history and the book has already been written, we have a good idea of what was used in the nineteenth century and earlier and if we don’t then we can research the historical archives and find out.

And to the statement ‘if they would have had it, then they would have used it’, I say well they didn’t, so they couldn’t have used it, so I won’t be using it, or if I were a frog, then I would be a prince.  They seem to miss the point of traditional woodworking, using the proper tools, materials and techniques of the period in study.

Tallow is the internal fat (suet) surrounding the kidneys and intestines of sheep, goats, deer and oxen that is rendered down at a very low heat, just enough to cause the grease to melt away from the connective tissues.  While liquid it is filtered then allowed to cool when it is fit for use.

Lard is the rendered belly fat from pigs [Sus domestica] and is soluble in benzene, chloroform, ether, slightly in alcohol and insoluble in water, with a specific gravity of 0.917 at 77° (F), a dielectric constant of 2.1 at 176° (F) and melts at 97 to 107° (F).  A mixture of lard and beeswax fills the grease cup under the end of my workbench, that I use for screws and nails.

Bear fat, commonly called bear grease is the material rendered from the body fat of any species of bears [Ursus spp.], and was commonly used as a lubricant, lamp oil and to make the finest croissant, according to the French.

Tallow and bear fat have similar melting points, specific gravity, etc. to lard and work as a lubricant for metal and wood, a rust inhibitor for ferrous metals, for cooking, to protect leather, wood and other organic materials from moisture and as a lamp fuel for illumination.

I am certain many shops in the nineteenth century were illuminated with lard lamps, grease lamps and tallow candles.

Lard is readily available at any grocery store in containers ranging from one pound boxes to 5 gallon barrels and can be stored at room temperature and protected from light.  This is the material I use as it is the easiest to acquire and I am too lazy to make my own, although I have made it and tallow before and on one occasion I had the opportunity to remove the fat from a dead bear.  It was a mess, but my buckskins got a good coating of a traditional bear fat.  I can now purchase bear fat/oil from a local Native American Trading Post when it is available once a year.  Bear grease can be solid at colder temperatures or liquid when at warmer temperatures.

Many oils, fats and grease or other lipids can go rancid, which is the chemical decomposition of the material.  This caused the fats to have an undesirable odor and flavor.  Rancidity can be caused by water splitting fatty acid chains from the glycerides, by oxygen when the double bonds of an unsaturated fatty acid react chemically with oxygen and finally by the enzymes of bacteria breaking down the structure of the fats.

As heat and light causes the fat/oil/tallow to go rancid, rendering at low temperatures, storing in a cool, dry and dark environment will prolong its usable life.  But the whole rancid question really doesn’t pertain to using the stuff on wood or metal.  I don’t lick my tools that often and there is such a small amount that it is not unpleasant on the nose.  I for one happen to like the taste of rancid peanuts, any odor from my boots and shoes isn’t caused by the lard I slather on, the wooden plate I eat from regularly, while it was finished with walnut oil, its top coat is grease and I also have and use Buffalo Tallow lip balm.



  1. I remember rendering down bear fat we harvested. Mine didn’t solidify, but remained liquid. Finally went rancid, but til that time, used it to grease rifle patches.

    Comment by Ken Pollard — August 1, 2010 @ 11:46 am

  2. A thorough and useful micro-treatise. I learned something new! Thanks.

    Comment by Brock — August 1, 2010 @ 3:49 pm

  3. I watched that same silly thread devolve, and I was a bit bummed. I had hoped the forum was a bit more historically oriented, but I guess not so much. Oh well. I’ll just glean what I can from there, and not worry to much about the denizens.

    Thanks for the tip on lard, I am going to pick up a small container from the Mexican section when I’m there next. Is there a brand you prefer? or are they all the same?

    And how did you combine the lard/beeswax? I use a solid block of beeswax I got from an art store to lube my dovetail saw.

    Thanks for fighting the good (historical) fight, and don’t let those ninny’s over at the Creek bother you.


    Comment by Badger — August 1, 2010 @ 9:23 pm

  4. Use rendered hog lard to prevent paint brushes from becoming stiff. After you have cleaned the brush of paint or varnish, dip the hairs into the lard and work the lard in until the brush is saturated. Then take your fingers and squeeze the hairs to thier proper shape/point, removing the excess lard. When you are ready to use the brush again, clean the brush first with mineral spirits to remove the lard. The brush will be as supple as the last time you used it. I have used the same jar of rendered lard for 30 years without it going rancid. This wisdom was pasted down to me by Dan Bastine who made ends meet when he was young as a sign painter…and old German sign painter taught him at the Herron School of Art in Indianapolis.

    Comment by Steven M. Lalioff — August 2, 2010 @ 6:27 am

  5. Quote “I am certain many shops in the nineteenth century were illuminated with lard lamps, grease lamps and tallow candles.”
    What evidence of this do you have?

    Comment by Leo Passant — August 3, 2010 @ 1:46 am

  6. Ken,

    Fun times.


    Welcome and thanks.


    I heated up the wax and lard seperately then mixed them together and poured it into the grease cup, the extra went into a shallow container. One of my hammers have a hole in the end of the handle that contains a small amount of the stuff, keeping it handy.


    Interesting method you learned from Mr. Bastine. I will have to try it.


    Well they could have used beeswax candles or bayberry candles as well. As for evidence of their use to illuminate shops during the nineteenth century is that the light bulb hadn’t been invented yet.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — August 3, 2010 @ 5:38 am

  7. Thanks very much for the information. I don’t know how I missed this post before sending the pm at the Creek. I’m left with with one related question. How would you use the lard in treating wooden hand planes: as the finish, or as a lubricant over the finsh?

    Comment by Chuck Nickerson — August 3, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

  8. Chuck,

    For lubricating the bottom of the plane.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — August 3, 2010 @ 12:55 pm

  9. I would like to get some Bear fat for making lube for black powder guns if you could put me in contact to someone who would be willing to trade or sell some I would be very greatful

    Comment by Paul — October 22, 2010 @ 9:30 am

  10. Paul,

    Welcome and you can contact these folks and they do ship:

    Native American Trading Post
    3971 S Redwood Rd Ste A
    Salt Lake City, UT 84123


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — October 22, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

  11. I’ve been rendering tallow (primarily beef) for 35 years. I originally learned about it from my grandfather, who kept a jar of it in his blacksmith shop. He used it primarily as a dressing for harness leather and to apply to the hooves of horses and cattle as an antidote for cracking. My own uses are primarily marine, having an interest in traditional rowing and sailing. At present (that I know of) I’m the only US producer of traditional marine tallow. A recent customer ordered bench tallow (grassfed beef tallow mixed with beeswax) to refurbish and maintain his collection of antique wood-bodied planes. He’s very pleased. A friend uses it as an annealing agent for his blacksmithing products.
    I find the uses it can be put to fascinating.

    Comment by Rodger Swanson — January 13, 2011 @ 7:38 pm

  12. I work on pipe organs for a living and we use tallow to lubricate the leather covered stoppers in certain pipes. We purchase from Organ Supply Industries in Erie,Pa. http://www.organsupply.com. It comes in small metal cans. We put it in hide glue pots to melt it, then apply to the inside of the pipe, wipe off the excess and insert the stopper. This helps keep the leather that covers the stopper from sticking to the side of the wood pipe.

    Comment by Randall — June 30, 2011 @ 9:30 pm

  13. I had a chemistry professor years ago that told me about a recipe he called the Cherokee Indian Leather Preservative. It was a mixture of tallow and cod liver oil. Anybody heard of it and remember the ratios of ingredients?

    Comment by David — April 5, 2012 @ 7:31 am

  14. I am using tallow and experimentin to try to create authentic hardened leather armor as would be found during the early and Middle Ages. Does anyone know what could be added to tallow to inhibit bacteria and mold growth in the tallow?

    Apparently both saddle makers and armorers of the Medieval ages had close ties with the tallow makers and used it to make very hard and durable leather.

    Any thoughts or suggestions are appreciated. Thanks

    Comment by Grant — November 4, 2014 @ 2:39 pm

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