Monday, October 18, 2021

Leather Care

A friend’s shoulder harness failed after more than a decade of loyal service. According to him, all he did was wear the shoulder holster harness and gave it no additional care. This is a shame, because leather can last indefinitely with proper care. I have some World War II vintage holsters and pack straps in my collection that are nearly as supple as when they were made, and I know people who have leather goods that are even older.

Do's and Don'ts
Two of the biggest enemies of leather are getting too dry and getting too wet. Leather contains certain oils and fats that are necessary to maintain flexibility and strength. When leather gets wet, those elements can be flushed out or diluted, leaving the leather stiff and inflexible when it dries. This can lead to cracking, which is fatal. Once leather develops cracks, there’s not much that can be done to preserve it for further use.

  • Blot wet leather dry as soon as possible.
  • Allow it to air dry naturally.
  • Apply a leather conditioner once dry.
  • Use an artificial heat source, such as a hair dryer or radiator, to dry leather! At best this will cause shrinking, and cracking at worst.
  • Immerse leather items in water.
  • Run them through the washing machine or dryer
  • Use an iron on leather items.

Left: leather that has cracked through lack of care
Right: leather that has been properly cared for

So what’s involved in maintaining leather and what supplies are needed? The answers are Not a lot and Nothing too complicated.

When leather gets dirty, one of the first things to do is wipe it down with a soft brush or a dry cloth to remove any loose dirt  (pay special attention to seams, where dirt and debris can hide), then use a proper leather cleaner to remove any deeper soil or stains.

Murphy’s Oil Soap, when used correctly, is a good choice, but in a pinch you can use a bar of moisturizing soap to clean leather. Rub the bar on a washcloth dampened (not wet just damp) with warm water and gently wipe it along the leather to remove any dirt. Make sure to wipe off all the soap residue as soon as possible.

A reasonably good home-made surface cleaner can be made from a mixture of equal parts olive oil and white vinegar. Shake them together in a spray bottle, lightly mist the leather, and wipe clean with a dry cloth.

With something like a holster or belt that gets exposed to sweat and body oils, an additional option is using a steam cleaner to help disinfect and remove buildup and salt stains from the leather.
The next part of leather maintenance is conditioning, the purpose of which is to help leather maintain its supple and flexible nature without saturating it with oil. After leather gets wet or is cleaned, and on a regular schedule of every three to six months regardless, use a leather conditioner to help replenish the leather’s natural oils.

Store-Bought Conditioners
Depending on the type or leather product and its exposure to the elements, a variety of preservatives and conditioners can be used.
either as-is or mixed with other ingredients. This list includes items as varied as: 
Olive oil, specifically extra virgin olive oil, is preferred over other vegetable oils due to its lower acidity, the specific fats present, and its longer store time before going rancid.

The Pecard company has offered a wide variety of leather care products for over a hundred years. Their Classic Leather Dressing is particularly well regarded so they must be doing something right. 

Home-Made Conditioners
There are also many different leather treatments you can make. One such is a mixture of one part white vinegar to two parts linseed oil. Apply a light coating with a soft cloth, let the item rest for 12 hours, then buff the leather.

Another option is one part beeswax, one part cocoa butter, and two parts almond oil. Blend them together on medium heat until the oils are melted. After it cools, massage it into the leather with your fingers before polishing with a dry cloth. 

Leather is a natural material and is very porous. It can never be completely waterproof, but there are a number of surface treatments to help defend leather from moisture. These include a variety of commercial products, such as Sno-Seal, that can help protect leather if it gets exposed to water. 

An option that can be made at home is a beeswax-based cream. Beeswax is a natural waterproofing solution and can be fairly effective at waterproofing leather.

Beeswax Waterproofing Recipe   

  • 1 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 ounces beeswax
  • Glass Jar
  • Medium pan of cold water
  • Clean, soft buffing cloth

  1. Pour the extra virgin olive oil into the glass jar.
  2. Break the beeswax into pieces and add to jar.
  3. Place the jar in a pan of cold water.
  4. Carefully warm the pan on a stove.
  5. Stir the mixture until the beeswax has completely melted and blended with the olive oil.
  6. Remove the pan from heat. Carefully remove the hot jar from the pan.
  7. Continue to stir the wax/oil mixture until it cools and stiffens. This can take up to 20 minutes.

After the mixture has cooled and stiffened, spot test the cream on an inconspicuous area of the leather. Making sure to begin with clean leather, apply the cream with your fingers, gently buffing the leather surface as you go. This treatment will need to be repeated to build up a protective coating.

When applying any waterproofing, make sure to pay particular attention to seams; with shoes pay special attention to where the upper meet the sole.

If we take care of our leather products, they will take care of us and the following generations. And remember, in the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, rogues and rangers prefer leather armor because it’s made of hide.

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