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.