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The Basics of Leather Care

By Edited Dec 21, 2015 1 1

Taking the right care of your leather begins with a basic understanding of the properties of leather.

If y

Leather Saddle
ou have invested hundreds and even thousands of dollars in your saddle, tack, chaps or other leather goods, then you will definitely want to care for it properly.

I know you probably will find this difficult to understand but leather is much the same as our hair, hands, and even our lips.  There is a delicate balance of moisture and oil in each leather product.  If there is not enough moisture, you will find it will have a tendency to crack or break.  Too much moisture and it will lose its shape, stretches and will weaken.  Not enough oil and it cracks and too much oil, it gets limp and raggy.

You should learn more about the properties of leather in order to care for it properly. 

If you put a piece of leather under a microscope it will resemble a fibrous sponge.  The fibers are hardly visible to the naked eye unless you rip a piece of leather and then you can see some long hair like fibers.  These fibers are at their ultimate strength if they have just enough moisture to make them slightly swell.  This will slightly tighten the intertwined mass.  In its ultimate strength condition the mass of fibers should feel alive.  It should be springy and will snap back to its original position after being bent.

To keep this moisture inside each one of the fibers very little oil is actually needed or required.  It’s a very delicate balance of using just the right amount of oil to trap the moisture contained in each and every fiber that makes up the leather.  It can be compared to your own hair fibers.  Too much oil and it chases the moisture out of the fiber when what you really want is just enough around each and every fiber to keep the moisture inside of the fiber. 

The wrong types of oil used on leather will also drive the much-needed moisture out of the fiber.

If you oil dry leather, you will ruin it forever.  The oil will penetrate the fiber and then prevent the swelling action in the fiber that the moisture could and should give it.  Moisture should be applied first, and then the right oil to keep that moisture in.  Then, you could possible add a cover coat.  Something that does not completely seal the surface because you will need to keep this leather feeling alive by feeding it a little moisture and very, very little oil in the future. 

Covering it with a lacquer seal coat can ruin some leather.  Be careful of any products you use and make sure you read all recommendations and directions.  As the leather slowly dries out from the sides and bottom the moisture and oil from the bottom surface cannot be maintained if it has had a lacquer seal coat.  A couple of good examples of this are the fork cover, seat and skirts of the saddle.

It is recommended that you use a glycerin type of bar saddle soap and apply it in a similar way that you would when washing your own hair.  A real sudsy lather helps to suspend the dirt as it comes loose from the surface.  You then should flush it off with lukewarm water and then wipe it off with a cellulose type of sponge.  (You can purchase these from a local do-it-yourself center at a very low cost.).

Never allow your leather to dry in direct sunlight.  Do not dry leather next to a hot stove or fire.  Many people will set their boots by the fire to dry them out, only to be sorry the next day!  Let your leather dry very slowly.  Water does not hurt leather; it is the drying process that breaks down the surface.  The inner portion of the leather is expanded with moisture; the outer surface, with fast drying, will then shrink and consequently will crack if it dries faster than the inner portion.

After washing, it is best of add a good leather conditioner just before the surface of the leather dries to prevent it from cracking.  Two good examples of leather conditioners that are recommended by leather experts are Lexol leather conditioner and Fiebings 4-Way conditioner.  These can be found at most boot and shoe shops, from a local saddle maker or leather shop, and some ranch supply stores.  The question then becomes, how much do you use on your leather goods?  The best answer is, as little as possible!  Just like your hair, after shampooing you want to use as little conditioner as possible to keep it in a healthy balance.

Light Colored Leather

To keep your light colored leather tack, saddles, chaps, or other items looking light, not conditioning does help.  The more conditioner you use the darker your leather will get.  Another major cause of leather becoming darker is constant exposure to sunlight and florescent lighting.  If you have a show saddle or other items that you want to keep light, try to use it only indoors and under dim or natural lighting.  If you are using it out-of-doors, move inside as soon as possible and don’t leave it sitting outside in the sunlight. 

A couple of common wax coat products that can be used after you have cleaned your leather are Fiebings Tan Kote and an acrylic floor such as Johnson Future Floor wax.  These products will not harm your leather items.  An acrylic wax allows you to condition through the surface where using a lacquer type of wax coat on your leather will not.

If possible, always purchase good leather products from a local leather dealer such as a saddle shop.  By doing this you will more than likely also be able to get good basic care advice from a leather expert.  Some shops will clean and condition your leather for a cost.  If you leave your saddle, tack, chaps, or other leather goods with a professional for cleaning, don’t expect to have them done quickly.  They will typically take several days on each step of process and the drying is done slowly.  But, in the end you will have a item that looks as good, or even better, than it did when it was new.

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Comments

Mar 13, 2011 10:59am
Venetia
This article could not have come at a better time! I have a leather jacket and a pair of leather boots that have seen better years and I don't want to lose them. I especially needed the tip about applying moisture (water) before a conditioner. Thank you!
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