This post and Part II have been summarized and revised in a newer post here.
Previous version deleted, here is the new verion:
Even though my blog is called Indigoshrimp, over the years it seems like my leather blog posts have been more popular than the denim or indigo posts. The two part series on the care of leathers, in particular, have been viewed almost half a million times combined over the years.
Recently, a new hobbyist had asked for some leather care advice, and I thought it’s about time to merge and update the previous posts, given some of the information is a little older and most photo links are now dead. So here it is, revised and streamlined:
A common question I am often asked is “How do I care for my vegetable tanned leather?”
It is a huge topic due to the many types of leathers available which differ in origin, tannage, finishing processes, etc. Most of the common stuff, such as chrome-tanned leathers on hand-bags or the re-tanned or oil-tanned leathers on men’s shoes aren’t too difficult to care for, and as long as you pay reasonable attention to the maintenance of the leather, it would look more or less the same regardless of the finer points of care – such is modern leather, created for uniformity, water resistance and a wider profit margin.
Our focus will be vegetable tanned mammalian leathers, with vegetable tanned natural cattlehide as perhaps the defining leather of our hobby, and the leather on which your method of care produces very visible results. I will say that there is no “correct” way of maintenance, and as such I won’t comment on the frequency of care (which is usually the subject of debate.) There are, however, basic principles which I think folks starting out in this hobby would benefit from.
Firstly, when is the right time to care for your natural veg tanned leather?
Too often, beginners would care for their veg tanned leather goods like they’d care for their footwear…this is usually no good. It is important to keep in mind that vegetable tanned leather that is “unfinished” is not as water resistant as other tannages, have much less oil & wax content, lose its oil content faster and show the signs of wear and tear more dramatically & easily.
Unlike heavily dyed or finished leathers (such as used on footwear), it is usually undesirable to cover-up or polish-over natural veg. tanned leathers – and therefore maintenance at the right time is key for the development and health of the leather. Keep in mind that vegetable tanned leathers, with the right feeding & care, has the ability to “heal” scratches and discolourations, which is something that chromed leather usually cannot do unless they are re-tanned (e.g. CXL). Further, vegetable tanned leathers are much more susceptible to the consequences of excessive moisture or heavy water exposure compared with chrome & oil tanned leathers.
Thus, I would strongly recommend the development of a maintenance schedule for vegetable tanned leather goods. For example, a natural vegetable tanned belt might receive some care for every month of effective wear. Otherwise, there are a few signs which warns you to imminent and irreversible damage to the leather (usually to the grain and the junction layers), and these should spur you into action!
1. The grain feels dry or hard to the finger tips
2. Superficial cracking or flaking
3. Development of ridging which are not the result of usage creasing
4. The leather has been submerged in, or come into prolonged contact with, water
5. Recent application of cleaning agents such as ethanol, etc
So what do we need for basic maintenance? There are just a few essential tools, none too expensive:
The applicator is used for introducing the oil or cream conditioner onto the leather. When covering larger areas, such as a long strip of belt or a bag, I’d recommend using your thumb, in a circular motion, to work the conditioner into the grain. You should use enough pressure so as to generate some heat.
Although, believe it or not, the use of your thumbs and fingers actually takes a great deal of practice when it comes to applying pure oils – it is easy for the untrained hand to over-saturate an area of the leather, causing unnatural & uneven looking dark stains to appear. Thus, use a broad brush (around 3 cm in width) for the application of oils until you get the feel of how your leathers react to oils, as they help to distribute the oil more evenly over the grain. To get to hard to reach places or stitched areas, I would strongly recommend using a smaller brush (around 1 cm in width), preferably one made out of animal hair (which remain soft and pliable.)
The choice of brush also needs consideration – do not use synthetics nor boar bristle brushes used for shoe polishing, as vegetable tanned leathers which have just soaked up oils may be susceptible to abrasion while it is still ‘wet’. What you need is a horsehair brush! A good quality horsehair brush is perhaps the single most worthwhile investment if you plan on using or collecting quality leather-crafts.
Using cloth is optional, you would only need this if you are working with wax. Look for a fine-fibred cloth which won’t shed all over the leather – keep in mind that wax can easily trap dust and fibres until they are polished off or smoothed over. A twill cloth or something like duck cloth can be used.
To complete your tool kit, you’ll of course need a leather conditioner. Leather food is usually either oil-based or wax-based, but most will contain both. For vegetable tanned leathers, I would recommend a conditioner which contains at least 50% distilled animal oil. For more delicate work (such as restoring old pieces) or very thirsty leather, I would recommend using pure oil, followed by a finish with wax.
Avoid anything with wax as the main ingredient, as these are more appropriate as a finishing coat rather than a true leather feed. Remember that the “food” is the oil, wax serves as a surface dressing which do not usually penetrate very deeply unless heat is applied. Feeding the leather deeply with waxes is a fairly advanced technique requiring high temperatures and melted wax…not something I’d recommend most people do at home as part of regular maintenance.
Together with water and some stabilising compounds, the oils and waxes are the essential components. Read the labels, avoid anything with too much commercial “fillers”. Further, when it comes to wax, always choose beeswax. Keep in mind that a high wax content or raw beeswax will darken your leather more dramatically, as will the application of heat during the conditioning process. There is a difference between the darkening with beeswax and the darkening with over-oiling…the former gives you a nice golden or amber hue, the later results in a mottled, dark brown.
I can’t emphasise enough the importance of a good conditioner – don’t cheap out, source it from overseas if you must, or even make your own – the long term health and appearance of your leather depends on it!
Other optional equipment include a magnifier, a burnishing tool made of wood/bone/stone, and a small metal pick (to remove debris from stitch holes & around hardware). Altogether, a basic kit might cost you around $50…a very small price to pay if you plan on owning a good collection of leathers.
Once your tools are assembled, you can start the feeding process. For simplicity, I like to differentiate between leather cleaning and leather conditioning. Let’s start with cleaning:
Regular cleaning is essential to the health and appearance of your leather, and at its most basic is really a quick & easy process! Basic cleaning is done fairly regularly – with every wear for items such as shoes, or with every week of wear for items such as belts and wallets.
It really is an easy process: simply brush over the item with your horsehair brush, and wipe it down with a damp (not wet) cloth.
The stroke of the brush is firm and smooth – the point is not to polish, but to remove dust & debris. Wiping with the damp cloth, on the other hand, is done very gently to avoid excess moisture soaking into the grain. What we are seeking is a basic, physical cleaning of the grain surface & pores.
Leather soap and similar cleaning agents should be used sparingly and only when necessary, keeping in mind that part of wearing natural vegetable tanned leathers involves the leather reacting to stains, dyes, etc. Remember, any chemical cleaning of vegetable tanned leathers will reduce the oil & wax content somewhat. A bit of indigo staining on your wallet or belt doesn’t warrant scrubbing with cleaning agents…being too obsessive-compulsive or having too much of a perfectionist trait will make your life very difficult if you pursue this hobby. When required, a mild mixture of vegetable based detergent and water can be used if you don’t want to spend money on saddle soap.
With practice, the weekly cleaning of your leathers will take no more than a minute!
The feeding of leather, though, is much more time consuming if done properly. Before any conditioning is to occur, you must first make sure the leather is clean! This ensures better penetration of nourishing oils, as well as helping to prevent clogging of the pores.
It is preferable if the room temperature (or the leather at least) is relatively warm…this is no problem on a Summer day here in Australia, but use a blow-dryer if the temperature is too low. If required, gently heat up the leather and/or conditioner with the blow-dryer – be very gentle, and remember the leather just needs to be mildly warm.
Then, using the applicator/brush, gently cover the grain with a small amount of conditioner and quickly smooth it over to cover a larger area; be extra careful when using oils, it is probably a better idea to use a wide brush to begin with, painting very thin layers of oil. When using a pure oil, caution is needed to prevent over-saturating a particular area of the leather, as this will cause uneven staining.
When using a substance of thicker consistency, for example tallow or commercial conditioners (usually with waxes included), you’ll need to work the conditioner into the leather with your thumb with firm, circular motions. Use enough pressure so as to generate some heat through friction.
For hard to reach areas, or where there is stitching/hardware, you’ll need to use a small brush to apply the conditioner and a small metal pick to remove clogged or excess conditioner as necessary.
Don’t be alarmed if you notice the conditioned areas of the leather becoming darker…this is only a temporary effect which disappears as the oils sink deeper down into the leather fibres over a period of hours.
If the leather is very thick (e.g. on a 15 oz belt) you may need to apply the feeding process to the back-side of the leather as well – though I find this is generally not required after the first feeding unless the leather has been neglected for a long period of time.
Of course, the coating of vegetable tanned leathers for use in inclement weather or rough-handling is a whole other topic unto itself, but this is more esoteric than practical nowadays, as you will be served better by chrome or vegetable re-tanned leathers.
That said, to provide better water resistance or to cover deep scratches on older leathers, you could finish the feeding process by giving the leather a thin coat of wax. Choose beeswax, always. You can usually buy wax cheaply from your local beekeeper. For coating larger goods such as a jacket or a bag, melt the wax using the double boiling method and apply thin layers to the cleaned and conditioned leather. For smaller goods such as wallets, you can rub a small amount of wax onto a piece of cloth, and burnish the wax onto the leather using elbow grease. As you do this, you could re-finish the burnished edges also.
This more or less covers the basics of care. There’s no big secret to great looking natural vegetable tanned leather goods – enjoy using & wearing your leathers, take care of them properly, and they will serve you well for years to come, not to mention they develop beautiful patinas along the way.
Keeping vegetable tanned leathers really is a fantastic little hobby, and makes for a very nice side-project as you break in your denims and ducks. I’d strongly recommend every denim-nerd to give it a go!