Canvas Vs. Vinyl Tarps: Which Material Is Best For Your Project?

Tarpaulins, or tarps for short, have a long history, dating back as early as the 1600s when sailors would coat fabric with tar to provide a waterproof covering while sleeping or to cover and protect items from the water.  Plastic tarps wouldn’t appear for many centuries. In 1932, scientists found that ethylene turned into a waxy substance under high pressure. 

This was the invention of polyethylene, but it wasn’t standing up to constant exposure to water. In the 1970s, manufacturers found a way to weave the material and then coat it with vinyl to create a waterproof covering. Vinyl tarps were born.

Which type of tar you purchase depends solely on what you need the tarp to do. Vinyl and canvas tarps are generally not interchangeable, so you have to be careful when you make a purchase or you’ll end up with a tarp that doesn’t last or that becomes a disappointment. 

When it comes to canvas and vinyl tarps, what are they used for? Which material is going to be the best for your project?

A Comparison of Canvas and Vinyl Tarps

As was true of history’s first canvas and vinyl tarps, today’s tarps are made in a similar way. 

  1. Vinyl Tarps

A vinyl tarp starts with woven poly threads and coats them with vinyl. Benefits of vinyl tarps include:

  • Completely waterproof
  • UV-treated to withstand intense sun
  • Abrasion and tear-resistant
  • Mildew resistant

What are vinyl tarps used for? Here are a few of their best uses.

Awnings and Canopies:

If you have a front entrance, window, patio, porch, or deck that needs some protection from rain and sun, vinyl tarps are ideal. As they’re waterproof, UV coated, and tear-resistant, they’re not likely to wear out quickly when exposed to changing weather conditions. Make sure they’re secured tightly to the awning or canopy frame.

UVA and UVB rays are damaging to the skin. You can’t have your kids out in the bright sun all day. Install a vinyl tarp over playground equipment to create a shady play area.

Crop, Equipment, and Supply Covers:

On a farm or ranch, vinyl tarps are ideal for covering equipment and crops that could be a total loss if exposed to water. Hay is one item you could cover with vinyl tarps and keep dry to protect cattle and horses from mold or from having stacks of wet hay bales or rolls heat up and catch on fire.

You can use a vinyl tarp to cover a tractor for the winter. Use one to cover the back of a wagon that’s hauling hay in from the field or to cover wood shavings as you haul them from the supplier to your barn.  

Divider Curtains:

You need to divide a large space into smaller areas. It might be different construction areas on a new home that’s being built or a school gym that has to be divided for now for makeshift classrooms. 

You can use vinyl tarps in an industrial setting or to separate your space at a tradeshow. Vinyl tarps are a good choice for divider curtains where you want to cut out distractions and buffer some noise.

Non-Slip Floor Protection:

When you’re painting ceilings or high walls, a ladder can slip around on untreated canvas. The vinyl coating on a tarp is non-slip. Put a ladder on a vinyl tarp and it’s not going to slide.

Patio Furniture Covers:

You don’t want your patio furniture to get soaking wet. It can take ages for things to dry back out. Use vinyl tarps to cover your furniture before a storm.

Slip and Slides:

One of the most common uses is for summer fun. Turn a vinyl tarp into a slip-and-slide. Spread the tarp out on your yard (slopes are fun!) and add water from the hose. Stay cool while having a great time slipping around on the wet vinyl.

If water conservation is important in your region, an easy way to have fun without wasting water is to save rainwater in barrels. Add a spigot at the bottom of the barrel and use that. You can add unscented household chlorine bleach into the barrel if you’re concerned about bacteria or parasites. The CDC recommends ½ teaspoon of bleach per five gallons of water.

  1. Canvas Tarps

A canvas tarp is canvas fabric that may be coated in a mixture of oil and wax, which makes it water-repellent rather than waterproof. With canvas tarps, you can get canvas tarps that have a fire-retardant coating. This helps prevent the tarp from catching fire if something like a spark from a campfire hits it. Or, you can have an untreated canvas tarp that’s more for protecting surfaces and items during renovations or remodeling projects.

While vinyl tarps are one weight, you can get 10-ounce, 16-ounce, or 18-ounce canvas tarps. Canvas is 100% cotton and tightly woven for strength. As there are more weights and options, canvas tarps can cover a range of possible uses. The benefits of canvas tarps are:

  • Breathable fabric prevents condensation from forming
  • Option for fire-retardant, water-resistant, or untreated canvas tarps
  • Wide selection of colors or natural fabric
  • 100% Cotton 
  • Strong
  • Some resist mildew but not all do

What do you use the different canvas tarps for? Here are some of their most popular uses.


Protect your camping supplies like camp chairs, fishing gear, kayaks, pots, and camp stoves with a water-resistant canvas tarp. You could also put up a canvas tarp and set up your tent under it to add extra protection from rain or heavy dew. 

A fire-retardant canvas tarp can be set up not too far from your campfire. It helps give you a shady place to sit during the day or a dry area to eat your meals or sit near the fire as you enjoy the night sky.


A large untreated canvas is a perfect background for large paintings and stage backdrops. If you’re looking for affordable stage sets that can be quickly moved for the next scene, untreated canvas is a must.

Cargo and Equipment Covers:

If you have cargo or equipment that you need to cover and the odor and oils from a treated canvas tarp aren’t going to impact it, a canvas tarp is a good choice. It’s helpful because the airflow eliminates the risk of condensation, which can damage items.

Construction Sites:

Set up workspaces that are protected from the sun and light rain with a canvas tarp. You can cut lumber, PVC pipes, flooring, tiles, and trim in the shade or a dry area. It protects your power tools from the weather, too. In dry weather where there is a higher fire risk, fire-retardant canvas tarps are a good way to protect from sparks when welding or cutting metal items. 

Drop Cloths:

When you’re painting your home, you need to protect the floors and furniture from paint splatter. Cover these surfaces with untreated canvas tarps. The paint drops hit the tarp. When you’re done, put the tarp in the wash for refuse.

You’ll also find that untreated canvas is a helpful way to cover patio furniture, lawn tools in the garage, or indoor furnishings from dust when sanding or cutting lumber, flooring, or tiles. When  you’re done, take the tarp outside to the lawn and shake it out.

Sometimes, standard tarp sizes aren’t enough. Don’t worry. Chicago Canvas has a huge selection of sizes and colors, but we also offer custom sizes to ensure you’ll have a U.S.-made tarp that meets your exact measurements. Reach our tarp experts by phone, email, or live chat.