Ask Mike Something – Initial Care of Natural Vegetable Tanned Leathers

“Hey buddy,

You review for PR wallet is fantastic. I bought the wallet after reading it.

What should I do for initial treatment? Sun bath duration and leather product?

Usually I don’t care much about leather treatment, but this is my first high end leather craft, [so] I have to ask an expert.

Thank you, I enjoy reading your blog :)”

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When I first received this DM on Instagram, what had appeared to be fairly simple questions I found difficult to answer concisely. This blog already has a leather care page accessible via the blog menu; I’ll link it again here. Instead of answering these questions with any certainty, I thought it may be more useful to list some considerations and generalisations. Let’s break it down:

Within leather enthusiast circles, the need for conditioning and feeding has long been a topic of intense debate. Sometimes people bring with them very strange beliefs – I have heard everything from “neatsfoot oil is bad for leather” to “mink oil will rot waxed threads”. There also tends to be too much talk regarding whether a specific product will darken natural leather – which, mostly, to me, is a nonsensical discussion. To begin thinking about this issue coherently, we need to start from basics.

My first thought on this would be: “What is this leather? What is its purpose?”

In our current example, the leather is Red Moon’s top grade, in-house natural vegetable tanned saddle leather which has received 3 to 6 months of pit tanning in Himeji. This leather has been further processed post-tan, and as such is a shade darker compared with true natural, and is much more supple and oily compared with other similar natural veg tanned leathers. The purpose here is to be a back-pocket wallet.

One conclusion we might reach based on these facts is that: No, there is no real need to treat this leather initially. This saddle leather is of high quality, and will not need any further treatment to improve functioning or durability as a wallet.

Given this conclusion, why did I then decide to feed and sun-tan this wallet???

This is because, if we think more broadly, the leather and wallet has another purpose: To look nice, and to look nicer with age!

People’s preferences in terms of the patina and evolution of leather are, of course, different. My own preferred aesthetic is one of balance between staining vs colour vs grain growth vs shine, and also for a yellow or red tone to the browning.

Usually a good idea!
Usually a good idea!

Over the years, I have found that a certain level of oil/wax content in natural leather and a certain amount of boosted oxidisation through UV light via the sun helps me to achieve the particular appearances that I find attractive – the ratio of these factors must be adjusted according to tannage, finish and initial lipid content of the leather, but also the predicted usage and severity of wear.

Take, for example, a very dry & unfinished drum-tanned vegetable leather. Without treatment it will stain easily, have minimal grain development, and tends to age quickly towards a very dark brown and low shine, without any tones of yellow or red. Personally I dislike this appearance, and yet this is how most people’s leather goods will turn out.

Sun bathing, day 3.
Sun bathing, day 3.

With the right initial treatment, however, even a low quality veg tanned leather can achieve a more handsome patina. Through initial feeding and sun-tanning, we are changing the lipid levels and gross oxidation of oils and fibres – depending on how we go about this, we can reduce staining, boost colour tone, increase grain growth & development, and even boost the eventual shine of the grain.

What I have found with Red Moon’s saddle leather over the years is that a gentle sun tan, combined with some beeswax, at the start somehow gives the leather more redness as it ages, which is to my liking. However, being in Australia where the sun can be unpredictably harsh, I am always careful to apply a thin layer of oil and wax to prevent the leather being damaged by intense heating or dryness.

How long should we tan our leathers in the sun?

This depends on seasonal and geographical factors. I remember once trying to sun tan a natural leather belt during Autumn in Taiwan…after two days, there were minimal changes to the leather. On the other hand, I once experimented with sun tanning during a particularly hot Summer day here in Australia, and within two hours of direct sun exposure most of the leathers had actually been ‘burnt’ (dry and too dark).

So, I will say that there is no optimal length of time for sun tanning. We must carefully monitor the leather! Once there is one shade of darkening, I would recommend that the leather be removed from sun exposure.

Options are endless...
Options are endless…

As for leather care products?

There are simply too many for me to individually test and recommend all the commercially available products. A few years ago I made my own conditioner, optimizing the oils and waxes to my own textural and aesthetic preferences. Nowadays I tend to use animal oil based products for natural vegetable tanned leathers, and certainly would not recommend any products which don’t disclose the main active ingredients.

My favourite animal oil product is probably Tender Co.’s pure mutton tallow, and I am constantly on the look-out for other high quality tallow. Neatsfoot and mink oils present unique challenges: easy to over-oil the leather if too pure, although most of the time you will have the opposite problem in that most products contain way too much filler. Unless you know precisely what you’re doing, I would recommend sticking with tallow, or lanolin for exotics.

In terms of wax blended products, for items that will experience harsher use, my favourite for the past couple of years has been J & E Sedgwick’s leather conditioner. I have also recently tried Montana Pitch-Blend, and find both the oil and dressing formulations to be user friendly and to provide relatively good results. I have found certain other products such as Obenauf’s and Sno-Seal to be too cloggy for use on carry goods.

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Well, that’s it for today. I hope my perspectives regarding these questions have been helpful. Feel free to send me questions via the contact section in the blog menu, or DM me on Instagram @indigoshrimp

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