Although I try to keep all my leather goods in the best condition possible, accidents happen. Recently, I was out and spilled a drink all over my leather boots. Thankfully with a quick DIY leather cleaner of soap and water, I could remove any stains from my boots before they had a chance to set.
A DIY leather cleaner is an at-home solution for addressing stains and grime on leather. DIY cleaners typically include water, with a very small amount of soap, helping prevent unwanted damage from overly strong chemicals. Cleaners can be made with basic household supplies at little to no cost.
It’s best to use a leather-specific cleaner, though DIY leather cleaners can be a great way to touch up leather products in a pinch, and choosing the right supplies are important. In this article, we will look at the pros and cons of a DIY leather cleaner.
What Is a DIY Leather Cleaner?
A DIY leather cleaner is a homemade combination of supplies used to remove stains, grease, grime, or debris from leather. These cleaners are best used for spot treatment, quickly addressing messes without access to traditional leather cleaners.
All DIY leather cleaners will use water to heavily dilute soap or other cleaning chemicals to be as gentle as possible on the material, as the leather will react uniquely to the supplies used for cleaning. DIY leather cleaners will utilize household products, keeping the cost of the cleaner low.
What We’ll Explore
- Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
- History of DIY Leather Cleaner
- DIY Leather Cleaner Overview Table
- Why Use a DIY Leather Cleaner
- Popular Types of DIY Leather Cleaners
- Common Characteristics of DIY Leather Cleaner
- How To Make a Leather DIY Cleaner
- How To Use a DIY Leather Cleaner
- Pros of a DIY Leather Cleaner
- Cons of a DIY Leather Cleaner
- Tips for Making a DIY Leather Cleaner
- What Not to Use for a DIY Leather Cleaner
- My Personal Research Into DIY Leather Cleaner
- Helpful DIY Leather Cleaner Insights
- Key Takeaways
Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions
The first thing often told to those who purchase a new leather item is never to get the leather wet. In general, this is great advice, as water may cause discoloration and structure damage. However, during cleaning, water is often a necessity. It helps soap lather, is a universal solvent, and is often gentle on materials.
Water should be used sparingly on leather but can be used on leather for cleaning. The key for applying water to leather is to use it in small amounts. This will limit the amount of discoloration and prevent damage from occurring. However, any time water is used on leather for cleaning, it is best to use a leather conditioner to rehydrate the material.
History of DIY Leather Cleaner
With leather being used over 400,000 years ago, the methods used for cleaning hides were equally primitive. Cleaning leather often meant soaking it in running water while beating it against rocks to knock the debris free. This largely continued throughout history, with no specialty supplies being used to clean leather.
DIY leather cleaners throughout history included various soaps that would be applied to wet leather, wringing out most of the excess water before leaving it to dry. While this method did clean leather, it also had the side effect of hardening it. In 1895, John Fiebing created saddle soap, a leather cleaner that was safe to use on the material with little to no side effects.
This cleaner remains popular today and is often the standard for leather cleaning. DIY leather cleaners take inspiration from this product by often including small amounts of oils to prevent the leather from drying out.
DIY Leather Cleaner Overview Table
|Water should be included in any DIY leather cleaner. It is a safe, gentle solvent that will help break down stains and wash away debris.
|While many soaps can be used in a DIY leather cleaner, it is best to choose gentle ones with as few added chemicals as possible. Soap helps water clean the leather surface but must be diluted to prevent damage.
|Adding oil to a DIY leather cleaner is optional but may help keep the leather hydrated. Cleaning leather often causes dryness, and tested leather oils may prevent that. Coconut, mink, lanolin, and neatsfoot are all popular choices.
|Vinegar is a popular cleaning product that may be used in place of soap. It helps break down any messes on leather while also deodorizing it. However, since vinegar is aggressive, it must be diluted to prevent the leather from becoming damaged.
Why Use a DIY Leather Cleaner
DIY cleaners are best suited for immediate use. Accidents may happen at any time, requiring leather to be cleaned. When access to a traditional product is unavailable, treating the mess with a DIY leather cleaner is best for removing stains, grease, debris, and other potential damage.
A DIY leather cleaner may also be suited for those looking for an alternative way to clean their leather products. While plenty of aftermarket leather cleaners are available, their performance may vary, as they can often dry out or discolor the leather. The product can be fine-tuned by creating a DIY leather cleaner to avoid any unwanted effects while cleaning leather.
Popular Types of DIY Leather Cleaners
When making a DIY leather cleaner, soap or vinegar are two common options for the cleaning agent. Soap can be any gentle and preferably scent-free cleaner, including dish, laundry, or hand. Soaps made for babies are often the most knelt options, as they are used on their skin.
The benefit of using soap for DIY cleaners is that they are readily available, help with grime, and are easily diluted. In addition, since these soaps are often safe to use on skin, they will not damage the leather when diluted with water. Vinegar is another option to use when making a DIY leather cleaner. It is much stronger but can be a great option for tough messes.
Vinegar also acts as a deodorizer, making it ideal for any smells that must be addressed while cleaning the leather. When using a DIY leather cleaner with vinegar, it will need to be diluted much more than soap to prevent damage to the leather. Like any other DIY leather cleaner, it should also be tested on a small hidden area before attempting to use it over an entire item.
Tom Klas, an organizer from the Fox Lake Historical Society, a museum in Fox Lake, Wisconsin, shared the history of vinegar used during the Civil War. They explained how apple cider vinegar was used to treat mold and lightly polish brass, showcasing the cleaning strength of vinegar in history.
Common Characteristics of DIY Leather Cleaner
DIY leather cleaners start with a tested cleaning agent, typically a gentle soap or vinegar. Since many household cleaning products are too aggressive to use on leather alone, they must be diluted.
Therefore, water is a key ingredient in any DIY leather cleaner, used to dilute the cleaning element, making it more gentle on leather. An optional ingredient is a tested leather oil. By adding oily to the DIY leather cleaner, the leather will stay hydrated while cleaning it. Leather-safe oils include:
All DIY leather cleaners will use water to heavily dilute soap or other cleaning chemicals to be as gentle as possible on the material.
One of the best benefits of a DIY leather cleaner is the availability of the ingredients. Ideally, a DIY leather cleaner will not cost anything, as the supplies will be a standard household item. If an ingredient needs to be purchased, it will cost anywhere from $3–$8. Since the cleaning agent chosen will be heavily diluted, a small-sized bottle is more than enough for a long time.
However, if an ingredient needs to be purchased, many may want to purchase a traditional leather cleaner. They are similar in price and formulated to work on leather specifically, reducing, if not eliminating, the risk of damaging a leather item.
The main purpose of a DIY leather cleaner is to be used in a pinch when traditional leather soaps are unavailable. All of the supplies needed to create the cleaner are household items. By quickly addressing a mess with a DIY cleaner, the leather is less likely to become damaged or stained.
DIY leather cleaners may also be used for those looking to specialize their supplies. Each leather type will react differently to a leather cleaner, creating a potential for unwanted side effects to occur. By creating a DIY leather cleaner, the supplies used can be specifically chosen for the unique leather it will be applied on, optimizing how the leather can be cleaned without damaging it.
There are a few ways to vary a DIY leather cleaner starting with the cleaning agent. Using either soap or vinegar will produce different results — soaps are generally less aggressive than vinegar but may not provide the same cleaning power.
Another way to change the effectiveness of a DIY cleaner is to vary the amount of water used to dilute the combination. More water will make the cleaner more gentle, which is best for delicate leather. Less water, on the other hand, will be better for cleaning tough stains but may cause unwanted side effects.
While adding leather-safe oils to a DIY cleaner is completely optional, it can be a great choice for limiting how dry a leather gets during cleaning. Neatsfoot, coconut, mink, and lanolin are good options, varying in how well they hydrate the leather and how they may affect the color when used.
How To Make a Leather DIY Cleaner
Making a DIY leather cleaner is relatively simple and requires a few common household ingredients. Remember always to do a spot test and ensure the leather can handle the cleaning solution before applying it to the entire surface, as different types of leather may react differently. Here’s a basic recipe you can follow:
- With a clean spray bottle, add a small amount of your soap of choice, avoiding degreasers and harsh chemicals.
- Add a generous amount of water, often at a 10 to 1 ratio (or higher).
- Optional – Add a small amount of oil like lanolin, mink, neatsfoot, or other tested oils.
- Mix the supplies thoroughly to produce light, soapy water, and test the mixture on a small hidden portion of the leather.
How To Use a DIY Leather Cleaner
Using a DIY leather cleaner is a simple process. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to effectively clean your leather items using the DIY cleaner:
- A DIY leather cleaner should first be tested by applying a small amount to a hidden part of the leather and allowing it to dry thoroughly.
- If the cleaner is safe to use, take a clean cloth and apply the cleaner to it.
- Use the cloth to rub the cleaner into the leather, thoroughly addressing messes and building a gentle lather.
- If color discoloration occurs, saturate the entire area with the cleaner to keep consistency throughout an item.
- Remove excess soap from the leather before allowing it to dry completely overnight.
- Apply a trusted leather conditioner to rehydrate the leather and protect it from further damage.
This video by Furniture Clinic provides helpful information on how to clean leather, showcasing the process of applying soap to remove dust and debris.
Pros of a DIY Leather Cleaner
Using a DIY leather cleaner offers several advantages, making it a popular choice for many people who need to care for their leather items is a pinch. Here are some of the pros of using a DIY leather cleaner:
- Readily available and easy to make
- Comparable cleaning power to leather soaps
- Customizable to any leather hide
- Low-cost alternative with household supplies
- Can be diluted for extra gentle cleaning
Cons of a DIY Leather Cleaner
While DIY leather cleaners have several advantages, they also have potential downsides or limitations. It’s important to be aware of these cons before using a DIY leather cleaner:
- May potentially cause damage when not properly tested
- Will not work on suede, or other fibrous leathers
- Removes hydration from the leather surface, making it dry
- Dependant on the cleaning agents available for use
- May darken leather more than leather soaps
Tips for Making a DIY Leather Cleaner
DIY leather cleaners are generally best suited for cleaning in a pinch. For more severe stains, heavy soiling, or valuable leather items, it’s best to seek professional leather cleaning or use specialized commercial leather cleaners recommended for your specific leather type. When making a DIY leather cleaner, following these tips can help you create an effective and safe cleaning solution for your leather items:
- Always dilute soaps, and other add-ins, with large amounts of water to prevent damage.
- Avoid aggressive cleaning products, as well as degreasers.
- Include a tested leather-safe oil as a cleaning ingredient to help reduce dryness.
- Use a spray bottle to limit the amount of cleaner applied to the leather at once.
- Test the DIY leather cleaner on a small hidden area to ensure it is safe.
What Not to Use for a DIY Leather Cleaner
Using heavy, concentrated cleaning supplies on leather is never a good idea. They may be strong enough to remove the mess but often cause damage. Any cleaning supply used should be heavily diluted with water to avoid damage. Degreasers should also be avoided when making a DIY leather cleaner.
Degreasers may pull out too much oil from the leather, potentially cracking the leather due to dryness. When including oil in leather, ensuring it cannot spoil is vital. Olive oil, for example, may help moisturize the leather, but it will become rotten over time, causing the leather to smell and potentially damaging the material.
My Personal Research Into DIY Leather Cleaner
Many are understandably worried when it comes time to clean a leather item. The material is unique and considered delicate. To help find a DIY leather cleaner, I tested soap and vinegar on various types of leather to see how they impacted the material.
Full Strength Cleaner
I used three common leather types to test on, natural vegetable tanned, chrome tanned, and suede, with different cleaning agents, including gentle dish soap and distilled white vinegar. By pouring juice on the surfaces of the leather and leaving it to dry, I provided a mess for them to attempt to remove.
My first test was to use the cleaner by itself, applying it with a clean cloth and allowing it to dry thoroughly. The dish soap did not lather well without water but removed the sticky feeling left on the leathers. When dried, the vegetable tanned leather was darker, with a slightly darker spot from the juice.
The leather became slightly dry but not overly stiff. The chromium tanned leather had no color change, and all traces of the juice were removed. It also showed no dryness, but I would still suggest the leather be conditioned.
Unfortunately, the suede leather was a mess, the stain was still visible, and the fibers were now much stiffer. Using vinegar alone had better results on the vegetable tanned leather. While it was darker, the stain from the juice was less visible. When dried, the leather was harder than the piece cleaned with soap.
However, the vinegar started to pull out some of the color on the chrome tanned leather. Leaving a light circle where I rubbed the vinegar in and a dry patch as well. Once again, the suede was completely ruined. While the stain was removed, the fibers became overly stiff and discolored.
When diluting dish soap with water, it was able to lather properly. Making it easier to spread, and target the mess. The vegetable tanned leather has similar results; however, the overall piece was slightly lighter, darkening while leaving a visual mark of where the stain was. With water, the DIY cleaner did feel slightly more dried out.
However, the diluted soap worked excellently on the chrome tanned piece, removing the mark without side effects. The leather did not even feel any drier. However, the suede did not fare much better. While the stain was mostly removed, the fibers suffered, resulting in a stiff dark patch. The diluted vinegar seemed to perform the best for vegetable tanned leather.
The color was only slightly affected, and the stain was mostly removed. The leather was slightly less dry when diluted as well. On chrome tanned leather, the diluted vinegar cleaner worked as well as the dish soap, removing the stain without damaging the color this time. It was slightly drier in comparison, but I was pleased overall.
Even with the diluted mixture, the suede leather was ruined. The vinegar pulled up some color and stiffened the entire area.
The DIY leather cleaning agents I tested performed surprisingly well, with little to no changes when diluted. The most important part of the cleaning experiment was the leather it was being used on. More delicate leathers, such as suede, were not successful when cleaning with a DIY condition.
However, the much more robust chromium tanned leather did. With every leather hide being unique, trying out mixtures that may work best for you is best.
Helpful DIY Leather Cleaner Insights
What is the best homemade leather cleaner?
The best homemade leather cleaners will include mostly water with a small amount of soap and oil. The water will do most of the cleaning without damaging the leather with help from the soap. Including an oil in the mixture will help prevent the leather from drying out but may also cause it to darken more. Testing a mixture before applying it to the entire surface is always best.
What household products can you use to clean leather?
Water is the main household product that will be used to clean leather. It may be used alone or as a way to dilute other cleaners, including dish soap and vinegar. When picking a dish soap to use for a DIY cleaner, avoid anything that degreases, as this may take excess oil out of the leather, potentially damaging it.
Is Dawn dish soap good for leather?
Dawn dish soap may be okay to use on leather in very small amounts that are heavily diluted with water, but other soaps may work better. Dawn dish soap is considered a degreaser, which may remove excessive oil from the leather, drying it out. However, the mixture can be tested on a small hidden part of the leather to see how it will work.
How do you make leather shampoo at home?
A leather shampoo can be made at home by mixing gentle soap with water. The soap should be as natural and scent-free as possible to avoid unwanted reactions. Water in the homemade leather shampoo will dilute the soap and help build a lather to clean leather items.
Can you use olive oil to clean leather?
No, olive oil is not a good product to use for cleaning leather. It may leave the leather feeling excessively greasy and may spoil over time. This can lead to leather developing a rotten smell, potentially ruining a leather item.
What is the best oil for cleaning leather?
There is no single oil that is best to use while cleaning leather. Each leather will react differently, with each type of oil requiring testing. Some quality leather oils to try are lanolin, neatsfoot, mink, and coconut oil.
Can you use distilled vinegar to clean leather?
Yes, you can use distilled vinegar to clean leather, but only in an extremely small amount. Vinegar can be an aggressive cleaner that will cause the leather to dry, darken, or wear the finish. However, when diluted with large amounts of water, it is gentle enough to have the cleaning benefits with less risk of damage.
- All DIY leather cleaners should be diluted with plenty of water to prevent damage.
- Degreasers and other aggressive cleaners should be avoided in a DIY leather cleaner.
- Regardless of the mixture, DIY leather cleaners should always be tested on a small hidden area.
With leather being a luxury material, we always want to protect it as best as possible. Often this means to be quick when messes or when damage occurs. DIY leather cleaners are the perfect solution in these situations. They are quick, easy to make, and often have the ingredients readily accessible to treat various leather messes.
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