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  • Writer's pictureDavid

Sheep wool grease and iron - a natural combination ?

Lanolin has been used for thousands of years to protect metal - from the armour of knights to bronze statues, this naturally produced material is enjoying a resurgence as an environmentally friendly product. I have a weakness for making up potions and paints in the shed - variations in boiled linseed oil and pigments mostly but always keen to experiment.

Wool grease is chemically not a fat but a wax, and once removed from the fleece and cleaned up is lanolin which has been used from Roman times to the present for cosmetics, protecting weapons and tools from rust. The Romans called it ‘

’ - grease from sheep's wool - in creams to make the skin soft, and as a carrier for pigments to act as make up.

Pliny the Elder mentions the effectiveness of oesypum in dealing with all kinds of anal complaints - lets hope they used different jars……

Lanolin likes to adhere to metal surfaces, much more than for hydrocarbon oils do. It is biodegradable and non-toxic, making it an ecologically friendly and in combination with other chemicals has a range of uses.

Lanolin has a great corrosion protection quality on metals and is still used in marine environments to stop sea life colonists propellors and protecting against corrosion. Thats a pretty harsh environment to be working in.

Other industrial uses include paints - dispersing pigments through paints, as a chemical ‘drier’ and modifier to affect the fluidity of coatings. Lanolin mixed with lamp black was called ‘black wax’ used as a metal finish, and in pure form was extensively used to protect the patina of architectural and sculptural bronzes - the statues to the front of Edinburgh Castle were liberally coated in lanolin for many years by the Ministry of Works.

In Scotland this materials was known as “sheep eik” as opposed to “human eik” . Described in ‘An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language in1808 as “a sort of unctuous perspiration that oozes through the pores of the skin of sheep in warm weather” the coarse wool grown on the flocks of short hardy sheep, was first scoured in vats with urine and warm water. Why does urine always feature somewhere ??

Our antipodean cousins have been using the stuff for years although most wool washing and production seems to be moving to China - given fleeces don't make much I wonder if sheep eik could make a comeback protecting metals from the elements the same way it protects sheep on the mountainsides of Scotland....


Some lanolin is on order from the interweb and some lamp black is to be made using a candle and a spoon (takes a while but fun….). I have yet to find examples of colour pigmented lanolin referenced anywhere but might be worth a try - I can feel a live trial coming on……..

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