Making Waxed Dirt
In the last issue I talked about how I started using waxed dirt for predator trapping. I first tried using some that was commercially made, and then later traded a friend for some. It became a very valuable asset in my operation. Like any serious canine or cat trapper I’ve found that winter, and the freezing conditions it can dish out, can literally make or break a season.

When I decided to make my own I started researching things a bit, to see if I could pick up any valuable tips. I’m really not into watching videos on the Internet, although looking back it might have helped speed things up a bit for me.

It didn’t take long to see that most people were using a cement mixer of some type, in an attempt to mix the wax and dirt evenly. I did a little research, and found a reasonably priced one at Harbor Freight. It required some simple assembly, but it was soon up and running.

Getting the flake wax was a bit tougher. It’s not hard to find it, since many trapping supply dealers sell it. I did find, however, that it had to be acquired during relatively cooler weather, since delivery vans like UPS get quite hot several months of the year. A simple check of the weather and temperatures between where you’re buying it and having it shipped to is a smart move.

One year, I contacted a friend of mine who was going to an NTA convention I was attending. He gave me a wholesale price on several hundred pounds of wax, and I was very happy to find out it had been stored in a freezer right up to the time I picked it up.

I had planned for this exchange, and I reserved the back seat of my extended cab pickup for it. I drove straight home to Montana with the air conditioning on high, to keep it as cool as possible. When I got home, I stored it in a cooler part of my building that was basically cinderblock, and stayed fairly cool. It stayed in good shape, and virtually lump-free, until I had time to make the final product.

I started collecting dirt, in large plastic garbage cans. It seemed like a good plan at first, but when I tried to transfer it, it became quite a chore. To start with, the dirt would settle in the garbage cans so much with all the vibrating on the roads that I travelled. Also, I couldn’t lift them easily, since a gallon of dirt weighs roughly 10 pounds. When I tried to gently slide them off my tailgate, I literally ripped handles off and cracked some of the garbage cans. I wrapped a few with duct tape at about 1-foot intervals, and that helped the side from splitting, but not always.

So I decided that the garbage cans were for storage only, and searched for smaller tubs to use in the field. It seemed that virtually every hardware store has tubs of some sort on sale most of the time. These tubs come in a variety of sizes and qualities, and I can assure you that like most everything else, you get what you pay for. I found that tubs with flimsy sides usually flared out so much with even a little dirt in them that the lid wouldn’t fit. And some tubs aren’t made for the temperatures that we experience in the north. Cracks and pieces breaking out of corners were so frequent that I always had a little waxed dirt spilled into my pickup box. It seemed I was always on the hunt for suitable tubs.

One thing I did do right in the beginning, was that I sifted the dirt right in the field where I collected it. I bought a small roll of ¼-inch mesh hardware cloth, and cut a piece that fit over a 5-gallon bucket. I cut it a little bigger than it needed to be, and then bent the corners over, so it fit loosely. That was enough to keep it from sliding around or falling off as I shoveled dirt through it. I also cut a piece of screen that fit over the medium sized plastic tubs, much the same way. At times, I could back my pickup into a spot that I was gathering dry dirt from, and simply shovel dirt right into the tubs. The screen had to be emptied at times, but the result was dirt that could be worked with easily and consistently, and didn’t require a sifter when setting traps later. That was a bonus, for sure.

The dirt/wax ratio I started with was one that I had heard recommended by several people that had experience making waxed dirt: ¾ pound of wax to 1 gallon of dirt. I found this to be a very good guideline, but a bit of tweaking was needed to compensate for the different soil types that I gathered. Some required more. Only very sandy types took less than the ¾ pound.

I used the cement mixer to mix the wax and dirt, and found that it did an adequate job, but it was a fairly slow process in my opinion. And, there always seemed to be a ring of wax that floated around on top of the dirt, which was caused by the slow spinning. Sure, when I dumped it out into a container or on a tarp it all eventually got mixed. However, it seemed to be a little less efficient than I’d anticipated when it was so highly praised by many people.

I cautiously tried to heat the dirt/wax mixture with a propane weed burner, keeping in the mind that if it got too hot, it scorched the mixture. This causes the problems mentioned in the last article. To be honest, there’s a fine line in being heated enough to melt vs. too hot and almost smoking. I decided to try solar methods.

Years ago, I had a quick look at a system that the late Steve Fitzwater (past NTA President) had devised to make his waxed dirt. I’d swung by his home in Dubois, Idaho, to pick him up to accompany me to the Nevada Trappers Association rendezvous one summer day. As usual I was in a hurry, and really didn’t pay much attention to Steve’s set-up, but I remember that it had panes of glass over it to magnify the sun’s rays, and keep light precipitation out.

Steve had some of the finished product in a few buckets, and I was impressed at how fluffy and dry it appeared. I don’t remember seeing a cement mixer at his place, but I’m fairly sure he used one.

We had several other topics to talk about on the trip to Ely, Nevada and back, and I didn’t get to pick his brain much about dirt.

Steve passed away not too long after that, and we trappers lost a good friend and passionate leader. We had several conversations towards the end of his fight, but we talked about family and other things, rather than making dirt.

As time went on, I tried the simple method of laying the mixture of wax and dirt on a tarp, and raking it around as the sun melted the wax into the dirt. It required fairly high temps, which aren’t entirely uncommon in eastern Montana, and it did work, but I found it to be tedious and messy, especially if the wind decided to blow in the two or so days that it took to heat, melt, and then cool the mixture. And, the tarps never seemed to be tough enough, and rakes frayed them at times, and shovels seemed to have trouble getting that final ¼ inch of dirt, unless on a very flat surface.
The next method I tried was possibly the best up to that date. I had heard of people using large zip-lock bags to both mix and melt the wax in. I bought several 10-gallon bags, from two different manufacturers. Both claimed that their zip-locks were the best, and I guess to be fair, both brands did work somewhat.

But, their claim to hold 10 gallons was a little deceiving, at least to my way of thinking, especially when it came to dirt that would weigh 100 pounds. The handles on one bag looked great, but they must have been meant to hold 10 gallons of pillows, because they didn’t usually last from the driveway to my garage. The rest of the bag was made up of several ply material and did hold up fairly well overall. In fact, it’s so thick that it basically serves the same purpose as a pane of glass in the solar method of melting the wax.

So, I opted for 3- to 5-gallon batches per bag at a time, and that did solve some problems. I began the smaller batches in the cement mixer, which was then poured directly into the huge plastic bags. I then did a little ‘shake and bake’ to the 30 or so pound bags, and laid them as flat as possible on my driveway. The smaller amount of dirt in the bag allowed it to disperse out to about 2 inches thick throughout the whole bag, which helped the melting process.

On really hot days, if I was home, I could simply roll the bags around a bit, and remix the wax and dirt. I repeated the process at least once a day for 2-3 days, until I was confident that all the wax was melted, and all the dirt had a covering.

I would then pour it out on a tarp, for a chance to cool a bit. I tried to do it late in the evening, when the sun was done, to speed up the cooling process. I raked it around as needed, to avoid clumps of wax as much as possible. When I was satisfied that it was dry and fluffy, I’d pour it back into the bag, or put it in a plastic tub for storage.

I know that seems like a lot of work to make dirt, but I had several bags going at any one time. Every time I poured 3-4 gallons in a tub, I knew that I’d have another ½ dozen or so traps that would take a lot of weather and still work the next winter.

The ‘bag’ method worked well enough, but I’m always looking for a better way, so I brainstormed yet another method to use to make even larger quantities. After a lot of thought, I decided to make a box similar to what I remembered my friend Steve Fitzwater had used.

I got a piece of 4X8 plywood, ¾-inch thick, and added a border, or ‘lip’ of 2x4 material all the way around it. I added a “fin” down the center of it, lengthwise, which is simply a 2x10 board on edge. I added screws placed along the outside border material, about a foot or so apart, with ¼ inch or so of each one, left sticking up.

I bought some plexiglass to use, rather than glass panes, because of the many unexpected winds that Wyoming hands us at times. We simply lay the plexiglass from the middle “fin” which is higher, down to rest on the screws on the outside lip. It provides a slight angle, which seems to help the sun do its job.

We came to name this contraption the “Hot Box”, and it has been great to work with. Each half of it will hold 15 gallons of dirt, so we can make 30 gallons in each batch.

We use about 10 pounds of flake wax for each 15 gallons of dirt, give or take. I use a lot of sifted coal shale still, too, and I make it with about 17 gallons per batch as it doesn’t require as much wax as average soil does.

I make 100 gallons or so of dirt/shale blend too, and figure the wax amount accordingly. There’s no exact or defined amount of wax to use, it’s a judgment call. If it seems “wet” too long, or begins to clump up more than I like, I use less wax.

At times, some soils seem to absorb or require more wax, so I add a few handfuls on top of the whole batch, keeping in mind that it might be what helps keep some good sets going later.

My wife has joined in on the waxed dirt making process too, now, and she has come up with an idea or two that has certainly made things easier. She found some 2-quart scoops, made of heavy plastic, at a farm/ranch supply store. They’re similar to the ice scoops that I’ve used for years, and are used much the same way. We now use the scoops to “windrow” the dirt and wax, both for the initial mixing, and for the 2-3 times it needs to be mixed as the wax melts. We’ve quit using the cement mixer altogether after we learned we could mix it with scoops faster and more evenly.

The sun provides enough heat to melt the top layer of wax in less than an hour, most days. It’s at least 15-20 degrees warmer under the plexiglass than on the outside, so on even partly cloudy days it works.

We usually have to keep mixing and blending for at least a day or two, before we cool it down in the evening. After it’s determined to be dry and cooled off, it’s put into 27-gallon tubs for storage until used.

Luckily, my wife, Nicole, likes to do this for me, and she finds time to do it in between the 101 other tasks that she does around home and the business every day. I still do most of the gathering and sifting of dry dirt, and the heavy lifting, and she does the mixing. She says it’s therapeutic, and I have peace of mind with the fact that I’ll have plenty of quality waxed dirt of various types to use during the winter trapping months.

I carry it to my sets in a canvas bag, and use roughly ½ gallon per set. I use a scoop to transfer it from the plastic tub to the bag. I use it without a final ‘blending’ of surrounding soil (a common mistake) that can freeze solid, making it impossible for an animal to set a trap off at times. It has made trapping in bad conditions fairly easy for me, as well as a lot of other trappers.

I hope that these articles have helped you understand some of the various ways to make and use this useful product.