Leather: Types, care, and maintenance

Leather: Types, care, and maintenance

Leather has been used since the dawn of man for everything from clothing to housing. Goods crafted from leather can be heirloom quality to poorly utilitarian.  Just as there are many different uses for leather, there are many different kinds of leather and means for caring for it. If properly cared for, some leather products have been know to last hundreds and even thousands of years and remain is good working condition.

Time can be a cruel mistress that will wear down anything and leather is no exception. If not properly cared for, leather will crack/dry, warp, mold, and stain. Properly caring for leather will depend on a variety of factors such as, how it has been treated, what it’s used for, and what animal it comes from. For example, you wouldn’t treat fancy snake skin boots the same way you would treat leather work boots.

I have always been a fan of the “buy it once, take care of it, have it forever” philosophy. That is to say, if you buy quality products and take care of them, they will last you a lifetime. This is especially true when it comes to leather. Any leather worth investing your hard earned money on, is worth cleaning and maintaining.

How leather should look:

How leather should look largely comes down to personal preference. However, this does have some caveats. For example, wanting something to be heirloom quality doesn’t mean it has look worn-out/well used.  Granted, that’s not to say that well used leather cannot be passed down from one generation to the next. After all, scrapes and dings can add character to your leather peaces without necessarily compromising it’s  functionality or longevity.

How leather “should look,” really comes down to how it was manufactured and treated before being purchased. For example, a polished dress shoe is obviously meant to look like a polished dress shoe. Whereas a work boot is meant to look like it’s been used. That is to say, leather should look the way it was designed to look. With that being said, regardless of intended purpose, leather should never look dried out or overly streatched.

Different Leather Treatments:

The three biggest enemies of leather are dirt, water, sun, and weather. As such, it should be of no surprise that leather tends to deteriorate faster in tropical climates. Dirt and water have a hard time penetrating well-oiled/finished leather. As such, it’s important to make sure that one or both of these applications have been used on the leather. On way to test this is to gently rub the leather with a damp cloth. If the leather darkens than you know it’s in need of some treatment.

There are many different kinds of leather treatments: creams, waxes, polish, conditioners, waterproofing, and tanning agents. The products that you use to treat your leather will greatly depend on the look of the leather as well as its intended purpose. You probably aren’t going to apply waterproofing to your dress shoes or polish to your work boots.

Polish:  Polish is all about making your dress shoes or polished leather goods look polished and free of any scrapes or scuffs. There are many different kinds of polish. Some leather polish will simply add shine and buffer out scuffs. Whereas others will also condition and waterproof your leather.

Polish comes in several different forms, such as a cream, past, or liquid and is generally applied with a peace of cloth or rag. Although shoe polish will add shine and prolong the longevity of leather, it will not clean the leather. Therefore, leather must be thoroughly cleaned and dried beforehand.

The method of shining called “spit-polish” is quit popular do to the fact that it generally leads to the best results in terms of shine mirror like finish. The spit-polish method is done by rubbing polish into the leather goods (most commonly shoes) with both polish and the addition of a small amount of water.

Perhaps the most popular and widely used brands of polish is known as “Kiwi Wax.” It’s attributed with not only adding shine and polish to leather goods, but also restores the leathers natural color as well as extending its life expectancy.(Click here to see/buy)

Leather Conditioners and Creams: One of the main causes of leather deterioration is due to the leather drying out and cracking. Leather conditioners and  creams are used to moisturize leathers and prevent them from deteriorating. Leather conditioner is used on most leather products including boots, purses, jackets, gloves and saddles. Leather conditioners also help leather become less stiff and more easily flexible. As such, making it more comfortable to use.

One of the most popular leather conditioning brands is “Beesbutter.” Beesbutter is popular due to the fact that it not only conditions leather, but also makes it softer and more durable. It can also be used on a large variety of leather goods from boots to saddles and everything in between.(click here to see/buy)

Waterproofing Leather: Waterproofing leather is extremely important for leather goods, such as work boots, that will see a lot of use and exposure to the elements. Although it’s seldom used on dress shoes, it is extremely popular with farmers, ranchers, and hunters who depend on their boots to keep their feet dry for long periods of time and exposure to the elements.

Cleaning leather: Although saddle soap works well for cleaning smooth leather, it generally does not work well with carved leather since it has a habit of leaving a white aftermath in the cuts and groves.  However, Lexol works well for cleaning and maintaining carved leather, as does ivory bar soap (for cleaning not conditioning).

One should avoid using soaps other than ivory bar soap since they can dry out the leather. Furthermore, one should also use a conservative amount of water, while also making sure that all soap residues has been removed before drying.  Dry the leather away from heat or sunlight. One should not try and rush the drying process with leather since it can damage the leather.

Storing Leather: Leather needs ventilation in order to prevent mildew and rot. As such, leather should never be stored in a plastic container since it won’t allow any airflow. Cloth bags such as pillow cases work best, since they will keep dust/dirt off of your leather goods while also allowing them to breath. Leather should also be kept in an environment that has limited exposure to the sun, heat, and moisture. If your leather does get wet, you should store it in a dry and warm environment with plenty of air circulation. You should not put your leather goods near a heater or other heat sours that will quickly dry the leather, since this will generally do more harm than good.

How to fix cracked Leather: If left uncared for, leather can begin to show its age and start to crack and tear. But fear not! There may still be hope for it. All you need is some leather glue(click here to see/buy), mink oil, saddle soap(click here to see/buy), and some leather restore cream(click here to see/buy).

The first step is to clean the leather. This can be done with the use of a soft brush. After you have thoroughly brushed the leather, you will then want to apply some saddle soap. Rub a liberal amount of saddle soap into the leather. However, you don’t want to soak the leather through. Rather you want to add just enough to where the leather becomes flexible. Once this is done, leave the leather to dry. When dried the leather it should feel “creamy” to the touch, but not wet.

You are then ready to apply mink oil to smooth out the cracks and make them less pronounced. If you are treating a belt, jacket, or similar item, you will want to spread it out on a hard surface. If you are treating shoes or boots you will want to stuff them until they become stiff. Apply the mink oil to your leather and press it in the back of a metal spoon until the cracks become less pronounced.

Since the main reason leather cracks is due to it drying out, you will want to rub in some leather conditioning cream. This will help restore the leathers oils just in the same way that one applies lotion to dry skin. Depending on the cream you use, it will also help blend in the cracks making them less visible. Personally, I like the aged color/character of leather and prefer to use a colorless cream, but to each their own. If you wish to blend in the cracks you may wish to use shoe cream.

If your leather has deep cracks or tears, you will find it advantageous to use some leather glue. Apply the leather glue to the cracks and press it down/smooth is out with the back of the spoon. Once this is done, let it sit overnight in to dry. Under no circumstances should you put it near a heat source. You will want to follow up by treating the leather every week or so with a liberal amount of conditioning cream to prevent it from drying out.


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