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How To Soften Leather – Step-by-Step Guide To Make It Easy

A common problem I encounter as a leather crafter is having a hide I want to use, but it’s too stiff. Having the right softness in my projects makes for the best final result and is a step I never overlook.

Softening leather is increasing the flexibility and texture of an otherwise stiff piece of leather. Techniques such as conditioning, wetting, or “breaking in” help achieve these goals. Softening leather can be done at home at no cost, or commercial products can be applied, with prices from $5–$15.

Learning how to soften leather can help crafters utilize all of their hides. I will teach you different techniques that can be effective in softening leather.  

What Is Softening Leather?

Softening leather is the process of transforming stiff leather into a more flexible hide through various methods. Conditioning, oiling, or “breaking in” will provide more flexibility and a more luxurious touch. This can also help make leather clothing more comfortable. The variety of techniques available when softening leather can be done without any products or with the help of a conditioner or oil.

What We’ll Explore

  • Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
  • Reasons You Might Choose to Soften Leather
  • Variations or Styles of Softening Leather
  • How to Soften Leather Overview Table
  • Skill Level of Softening Leather
  • Tools and Supplies Needed for Softening Leather
  • How to Soften Leather Step by Step
  • How to Get Better at Softening Leather
  • My Personal Research on How to Soften Leather
  • Helpful Insights on How to Soften Leather
  • Key Takeaways
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Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions

Vaseline and olive oil are two options commonly presented as products you can use to soften leather. While they both may produce a softer leather, they have side effects you may want to avoid. Vaseline and other petroleum products leave the leather feeling greasy. Olive oil can also spoil, causing your leather products to smell unpleasant. 

Reasons You Might Choose to Soften Leather

There are various benefits to softening leather. It can help prevent cracks from stiff leather being bent or make an item more comfortable to wear. For leatherworkers, softer leather is more flexible, making it usable for various projects. It also helps products feel luxurious when potential customers touch them.   

Variations or Styles of Softening Leather

The different styles of softening leather depend on the technique required. Conditioning the leather and applying mink oil can be used on every type of leather except suede. This focuses on hydrating leather as the cause of stiffness. 

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Using water for leather is a similar alternative but can only be used on vegetable tanned leather. Water in small amounts can make a piece more flexible when wet. Once dried, the leather will harden slightly. Vegetable tanned leather can also take advantage of neatsfoot oil. This oil deeply penetrates the leather’s fibers and is often beneficial when softening leather. 

Lastly, “breaking in” leather can be done with any leather but may not be ideal for fragile products. “Breaking in” leather involves manual wear of the leather through stretching, bending, bunching, and various other actions that wear the leather’s structure. 

How to Soften Leather Overview Table

Area of PreparationDetails
TechniqueHow to Soften Leather
Overall Level of Skill (1-5)1
Time to Complete (minutes/hours)30 Minutes — 1 Hour 30 Minutes
Workspace NeededCan be done anywhere
Skills NeededAbility to tell when leather is dry, even application with clean cloth
Tools and Supplies NeededLeather conditioner, Mink oil, Neatsfoot oil, or Water
Key Helpful TipUse oils sparingly to avoid darkening leather
Details on How To Soften Leather

Skill Level of Softening Leather

Anyone can do softening leather with limited to no supplies. If using any oils or conditioners, the application process is simple. Apply the product in small amounts onto a clean rag and rub it into the leather’s surface in a circular motion. 

Using water may be a little more difficult, as adding too much can dry out the leather, but the process is the same. “Breaking in” leather to soften it only requires the item to be used. The leather can be manually stretched or bent to simulate wear to speed up the process. 

Tools and Supplies Needed for Softening Leather

Leather will only require elbow grease, water, conditioner, or oil, depending on the method used. Not all methods will be used when softening leather; this way, a single product can be purchased. Milk oil or a leather conditioner are universal for softening leather and can be applied with any clean cloth.

Softening leather can be done at home at no cost, or commercial products can be applied, with prices ranging from $5–$15.

How to Soften Leather Step-by-Step

Softening leather starts by identifying any issues with the leather. Dry leather will be stiff and need conditioning, while an already moisturized leather will require a different approach. 

  1. Apply water – When using water to soften leather, it is essential to know if your leather is vegetable tanned. Water will be applied to the leather, darkening it and increasing its flexibility. It will then be left to dry and slightly harden, though it will have stretched or taken the shape it was formed to. The leather will then need to be conditioned as the water dries out the leather. 
  1. Apply conditioner – Applying any leather conditioner will be the first step if the leather is dry. A clean cloth should be used to rub the conditioner into the leather and left to dry. This should soften the leather, but mink oil can also be applied once dried using the same method. 
  1. Apply mink oil – Leather already moisturized can skip the conditioner and go straight to mink oil when softening. Nikola Mihajlovski and Konstantin Bahchevandjiev from the Faculty of Design and Technologies of furniture and interior at Ss. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje, North Macedonia, listed mink and neatsfoot oil as ways to penetrate and soften leather and stated that conditioning is the most critical stage when rejuvenating and softening leather. 
  1. Break in leather – When “breaking in” leather, it is important to start with conditioned leather to avoid cracking. The leather will then be taken and stretched, bent, bunched, and any other action that simulates wear. Leather shoes, for example, can be stretched at the opening or have a shoe tree placed inside to simulate being worn.

How to Get Better at Softening Leather

To get the best results from softening leather, one must learn to identify the leather and any issues it may have. Being able to tell if the leather is vegetable tanned or chrome tanned will direct you to the methods you will use.

Similarly, being able to point out dry leather can help guide you in the right direction. Otherwise, Softening leather is a low-skill task that becomes easier with experience. Learning how much conditioner, oil, or water to use, can help provide the best results. 

In this short tip video, Gary Dunshee of Big Bend Saddlery shows a method of manually softening leather straps.

My Personal Research on How to Soften Leather

To gain insight into the best ways to soften leather, I attempted it myself. I took natural vegetable tanned leather that was only slightly dry and tested each method — conditioner, milk oil, neatsfoot oil, water, and manually breaking it in. 

Method

I started this experiment by taking six similarly sized leather pieces and slightly bending them to get a baseline of softness. This leather was by no means stiff, but it felt like some improvements could be made. I then applied each product to each piece, with the final piece utilizing conditioner, oil, and manual methods to soften. 

Results 

The leather that was treated with conditioner saw a noticeable improvement. Although the leather was not overly dry, the conditioner still managed to help soften the leather and made it slightly more flexible. The mink oil piece saw slightly better results, being softer and more flexible than the conditioner. It did, however, slightly darken the leather. 

Neatsfoot oil had the best results of any single product, making the leather very soft and extremely flexible. However, the product was also responsible for most of the leather darkening. The leather treated with water immediately became extremely flexible and could be formed.

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Once dried, the leather became much stiffer but kept the desired bend. It was now necessary to condition the leather, which softened it without changing the formed bend. I have to wonder if the conditioner did most of the work. 

To manually break in the leather, I spent 10 minutes bending, bunching, and pulling on the leather to break down the fibers. This worked surprisingly well but did create marks on the leather from the wear. Lastly, I combined the methods. Once the leather was conditioned, I let it dry and added mink oil on top. 

The combination of these two products produced even softer leather when compared to the others. It had darkened but was now extremely flexible and soft to the touch. I took this further and began manually trying to soften the leather. Less change was seen here, but it did soften the leather further. The marks left by the wear were much less visible but could still be seen throughout.  

Conclusion

Each method provided some softening capabilities with its limitations. Leather conditioners can be used universally. Oils, although helpful, can darken the leather to various extents. While water did help with the flexibility at first, it also stiffened when dried and required conditioner. 

Water would be better for forming leather as a crafter than using it on finished products. Like water, manually bending leather is not ideal for most goods, though I believe it can be useful for goods such as boots or those that can simulate wear without damage.  

Helpful Insights On How to Soften Leather

Will Vaseline soften leather?

While vaseline will soften leather, it is not an ideal product as it will leave the leather feeling greasy. In addition, vaseline may create a murky look on the surface of the leather. It is best to stick to products designed for leather. 

What oil can I use to soften leather?

The two most popular oils for softening leather are mink and neatsfoot oil. These oils will penetrate the leather deeply, creating the best results. Be aware that mink and neatsfoot oil will darken the leather. However, coconut oil is an alternative that can be used to soften leather. 

What is the best product to soften leather?

While no product is best for every leather, the conditioner will be universally applicable. For this reason, I commonly suggest it as a way to soften leather. Conditioner can typically be applied with no fear of downsides and, in most cases, will provide a softer surface.

How do you soften leather naturally?

Leather will naturally soften as it is worn due to the leather being stretched or bunched with daily use. While it is not recommended for delicate products, leather can be softened naturally by mimicking wear. This is done by manually “breaking in” the leather by bending, bunching, and stretching it.

How do you make leather feel soft?

While leather’s softness mainly comes through the tanning process, it can be softened with a mixture of conditioner, oils, or manual wear. A stiff leather can have a conditioner or oil added, and while it is more flexible, it will be an ideal time to stretch or bend the leather manually. This will break down the fibers causing the leather to feel softer. 

How do you soften leather boots?

The best way to soften leather boots is to break them in during use. To speed this up, apply conditioner or oil to the boots and wear them. The conditioner will hydrate the boots and make the leather more flexible. Using the boots during this time will make it easier to break them in. 

Key Takeaways

  1. Leather conditioner is the most universally accepted method for softening leather.
  2. Softening leather can be done at home with basic skills and few supplies needed. 
  3. Crafters can soften leather to use specific hides on various projects.

In Closing

Knowing how to soften leather can improve the feel of leather products and projects. It creates a luxurious touch for any crafter and helps highlight the best qualities in leather.