When fall comes around, I get excited about wearing my leather boots. However, snow becomes a concern as the season closes and winter approaches. I’ve been told countless times that leather can not get wet and is not waterproof. But how bad is it for the material to be exposed to water?
Leather is not waterproof, but some types are more water-resistant than others. Leather is a porous material that needs to avoid liquid saturation. Water will penetrate the surface, producing dark spots or potentially damaging the structure. Oils or conditioners can provide a water-resistant layer.
Let’s look at what water does to leather and how to minimize those effects. Helping you select the options for a more water-resistant leather.
What Is Waterproofing Leather?
Waterproofing leather is the process of using aftermarket products to aid in increasing the water resistance of leather. This is typically achieved by adding a protective layer to leather that will prevent water from reaching the surface. Waterproofing properties are found in waxy leather conditioners and oil tanned and some chrome tanned leather.
What We’ll Explore
- Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
- History of Waterproofing Leather
- Waterproofing Leather Overview Table
- Water Resistance in Different Leather Types
- Waterproofing Leather Boots
- My Personal Research into Waterproofing Leather
- Helpful Waterproofing Leather Insights
- Key Takeaways
Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions
While water is best avoided when using leather products, it is still possible to use them in rainy weather. If the leather is consistently maintained and conditioned, it will likely have a small buildup of wax that will provide protection. For many, the marks left by rain are their patina and do not harm the structure of the leather.
Additionally, if the leather item gets soaked, it can be dried without being completely ruined. While you may still avoid taking leather products out in the rain, those who do can be assured that a light drizzle will not usually destroy a product.
History of Waterproofing Leather
Throughout the history of leather tanning, the best way people found to waterproof their leather was through the heavy use of waxes. In 1600 BCE, early tanning methods used fish oils and animal fats by stuffing the hides, then smoking them dry. This process largely remains the same for oil tanned leather, one of the most water-resistant types we have today.
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Alternative methods developed in the 1600s, and those looking to further waterproof their leather began composing compounds that could be added to their items. Linseed oil, mutton suet, and beeswax were commonly added to leather to create a barrier. Now, most leather waterproofing starts at the tannery, as companies juggle water resistance with breathability and a natural outcome.
Waterproofing Leather Overview Table
|Oil Tanned Leather||Hides will be stuffed with waxes saturating the leather. Water will only penetrate the surface of the leather, as the waxes inside stop it from progressing.|
|Chrome Tanned Leather||Chrome tanned leathers will offer several finishes with different levels of water resistance. All types of finishes, however, are added to the leather’s surface, creating a barrier water must soak through to reach the surface.|
|Leather Conditioners||Leather conditioners are aftermarket products that contain various oils and waxes. It is applied to any leather and can create a small protective barrier due to the waxes on the leather.|
|Mink Oil||Like conditioners, mink oil is an aftermarket product that uses heavy oils to create a water-resistant barrier. These oils saturate the leather, darkening the surface, and preventing water from further penetrating the leather.|
Water Resistance in Different Leather Types
Vegetable Tanned Leather
Vegetable tanned leather is one of the least water-resistant types of leather. It is porous and darkens easily as a result. Vegetable tanned leather will absorb any liquid quickly and darken as a result. This leather can lose its structure when saturated completely, potentially ruining the entire leather item. It is best to keep untreated vegetable tanned leather away from any liquids to prevent dark marks.
Water will penetrate the surface, producing dark spots or potentially damaging the structure.
Chrome Tanned Leather
Chrome tanned leather is one of the most popular options for leather shoes, boots, bags, and jackets. Chrome tanned leather has an artificial coating that provides some water protection. These leathers are much less porous than vegetable tanned leather, with some having plastic-like coatings applied to them.
Chrome tanned leather can be exposed to short periods of water but will likely be stained if water penetrates the protective surface. Chrome tanned leather should have any liquids quickly removed and dried to prevent damage.
In research provided by Münzing, a global specialty additive supplier in Abstatt, Germany, Dr. Wolfgang Herrmann explains the challenges of waterproofing commercial leather. He explained how leather must remain breathable and comfortable while filling the pores to provide waterproofing qualities.
Oil Tanned Leather
Oil tanned leather is often the best for hard-wearing leather products. It is stuffed with various oils and fats, allowing the leather to experience extreme conditions without drying, cracking, or peeling. While not waterproof, oil tanned leather is often the best for water resistance.
The large amounts of oils in the leather prevent water from penetrating the surface, and the rugged look offsets any discoloration from watermarks. Although this leather can be exposed to harsher weather, it will still need to be treated with care to prevent the boots from becoming oversaturated with water.
The appeal of suede and Nubuck leather is their soft surface nap. The small fibers create a smooth texture similar to the flesh of a hide. These leathers, however, are the most delicate. Any exposure to water will quickly ruin them.
The leather will absorb the water, and the nap will be forced down, losing all texture the leather is known for. Neither suede nor Nubuck leather should ever be exposed to water. The slightest amount can damage the leather.
Waterproofing Leather Boots
Leather boots may never be entirely waterproof; however, they can become water-resistant enough to be worn in poor weather. To start, identify which type of leather your boots use, as the process will benefit some more than others. Chromium or oil tanned boots will provide the best results; however, vegetable tanned leather boots will still benefit from the process.
Suede or Nubuck should not be treated as the nap of the leather will become damaged. Suede and Nubuck should be kept out of water in any condition. After identifying your leather, decide what aftermarket product you want to use on your leather boots.
Conditioners with lanolin oil, linseed oil, beeswax, or other waxes will provide some water resistance. Mink oil, which can be included in leather conditioners, or sold by itself, is also a good option for making leather boots more water-resistant.
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However, mink oil will severely darken most leathers. The aftermarket product will be applied to the leather boots in a circular motion, ensuring the entire surface is covered. It will then be left to dry overnight before wearing. Alternatively, an additional product layer can be added to help waterproof the boots.
Check out this helpful instructional video by Nick’s Handmade Boots for more detailed information on waterproofing boots using beeswax.
My Personal Research into Waterproofing Leather
Leather is a delicate material and typically an investment product. I own various pairs of boots that I tend to baby to prolong their lifespan. Waterproofing leather is not something I used to think about, and I would simply avoid any water I could. However, I wanted to try different aftermarket products to learn what would best protect my leather boots.
I tested a natural leather wax, mink oil spray, and a silicon-based spray on natural vegetable tanned leather. I chose vegetable tanned leather because this type of leather absorbs the most water and easily darkens. This enabled me to note what changes happened from using each product.
Natural Leather Wax
The wax I currently use on all of my leather items is a simple three-ingredient mixture: cocoa butter, beeswax, and almond oil. I like this wax due to its simplicity, and it has never affected the color of the leather. This time was no different; I applied the wax to the scrap piece of vegetable tanned leather and let it dry with no color change.
I then used an eye dropper to place a few drops of water on the surface. The water remained on the surface for a few seconds; one drop even rolled off the leather’s surface. After letting the leather dry again, the water that remained on the surface had left behind a small dark mark, but overall I was pleased.
Mink Oil Spray
Mink oil was a product I purchased before finding leather wax. I used it sparingly in the past as it significantly darkened anything I put it on. Covering the vegetable tanned leather with the mink oil turned the light blonde surface to a dark brown when dried but also made the leather oily and flexible.
When I applied the drops of water, I was blown away! They rolled around on the surface before beading off the leather. The only thing that remained on the surface was small trails of water. Once it had dried, the combination of dark leather, and most of the water leaving the surface, left no remaining evidence of water ever touching the leather.
While the spray I purchased was for various materials, it stated that it could be used on leather. When I applied it to the vegetable tanned leather, it darkened slightly and left a coating that felt like dried paint. I was not fond of this as it made the leather seem unnatural and cheap.
When placing the drops of water on the leather, this product did not do any better than the wax. While some water rolled off, the majority was absorbed by the leather. Once dried, multiple spots had darkened significantly.
Leather is a tough material to balance. The most water-resistant product was also the one that darkened it the most. One has to choose between a product that will help protect the leather and one that doesn’t ruin its natural aspects. Both the wax and mink oil spray are products I will use again.
The wax provides less water resistance but keeps my leather boots from darkening. The mink oil will only be used on dark colors that will hardly be affected by the spray, allowing me to reap the product’s benefits while avoiding its largest downside.
Helpful Waterproofing Leather Insights
Can leather boots be worn in the rain?
While it is not recommended to wear leather boots in the rain, it is possible. Leather can be pretreated to be more water resistant, or the marks left by the rain may not bother you. Regardless, wet leather boots should be left to dry thoroughly with shoe trees to prevent structural damage. Suede and Nubuck should never be worn in any wet weather.
Does leather absorb water?
Yes, all leather will absorb water over time. Some leathers with a surface, such as chrome or oil tanned, will take much longer to absorb water, while vegetable tanned leather will absorb moisture very quickly.
What is the best way to preserve leather?
The best way to preserve leather is to routinely condition and care for the leather. This will build a protective layer to help repel water and prevent the leather from drying, peeling, or cracking. Leather can also be kept away from poor weather, preventing unwanted wear.
- Leather can only be water resistant, not waterproof.
- Different types of leather, such as oil and chrome tanned, will provide more water resistance.
- Aftermarket products can be applied to most leather types to provide a thin protective barrier.
Leather is a natural material that can not be waterproof but can be water resistant. Different types of leather and aftermarket products can help create more water-resistant properties, allowing various leather products to be enjoyed more often in poorer weather conditions.
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