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Leather Care and Maintenance – The Right Tools and Timing

Although I like creating projects as a leather crafter, I enjoy restoring old leather goods even more. Washing, conditioning, dyeing, and sewing products that deserve a second chance is a hobby within itself. 

Leather care and maintenance is the treatment and preservation of a leather item. The purpose is to restore, repair, or prolong a leather product’s life. This can be done at home at little to no cost, but larger issues may require learned techniques and the assistance of products costing up to $20.

Let’s discover various methods to maintain and care for leather products and what you may need for the process.

What is Leather Care and Maintenance

Leather care and maintenance is the treatment of leather goods to restore, repair, or prolong their life. Leather goods should be maintained periodically to ensure the leather doesn’t deteriorate over time.

Basic maintenance includes cleaning, conditioning, waxing, and polishing, while more advanced maintenance may include redyeing, repairing, or restoring. Leather care can be done utilizing some household items, but leather-specific products such as saddle soap or conditioner may be required for the best results. 

A Pair of Black Leather Shoes and Leather Care Items - Leather Care and Maintenance - Liberty Leather Goods
A Pair of Black Leather Shoes and Leather Care Items

Benefits of Leather Care and Maintenance

Leather care and maintenance greatly benefit a leather item’s look and longevity. Cleaning leather can remove dust and debris, creating a perfect opportunity to condition and polish the item further. In a process like this, eliminating dirt cleans the leather and helps prevent scratches, drying, or color stains.

Restoring and repairing leather items also offers a wide variety of benefits. The immediate one is a more usable final product, but doing so also prolongs the life of leather by fighting dryness or deterioration. Leather goods can be potential heirloom items, so treating them as such will only improve them over time. 

Types or Variations of Leather Care and Maintenance

The most common type of leather care is conditioning, which is done periodically to ensure the leather does not dry out and prevents cracking. Typically leather is cleaned with a leather soap before being conditioned, which also prolongs the life of the leather.

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Other variations of maintaining leather include restoration and repair. Restoration can involve a combination of conditioning, cleaning, and repairing. The process takes old leather goods that may have been discarded or mistreated and rejuvenates them through different techniques.

Repairing leather is fixing the damage, which can be surface damage that needs to be redyed, broken stitching, torn leather, and much more. Restoring and repairing leather are more labor intensive than basic conditioning and may require knowledge of leather working and tools or products. 

Tools Needed for Leather Care and Maintenance

Caring for leather can require different tools depending on the task. If an item only needs to be dusted and conditioned, clean rags may only be necessary. However, more tools will be required as repairs and restorations become more complex. Faded leather may need to be dyed; torn leather may need to be sewn, and so on.

Before beginning leather maintenance, consider your goals and how they may be accomplished. For example, if a bag handle with rivets were loose and had broken thread, you would need thread, needles, rivets, and a rivet setter to reattach the handle. Each leather repair will have its own challenges with its own set of tools required to complete the job.

A research article by Vicki Dirksen about “The Degradation and Conservation of Leather” for the Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies covered the various methods for leather restoration in museum pieces. They noted the different supplies and materials and how they could benefit or harm the artifacts when applied, and what one can do differently to conserve them better. 

Skill Level for Successful Leather Care and Maintenance

Basic leather maintenance can be very simple and done at home with little to no additional products. This includes cleaning, conditioning, or dyeing leather. Each will be a matter of evenly applying a product without over-saturating the leather. This can be done with clean cloths you may already own.

More in-depth projects will require more experience in leather craft, though an ambitious DIYer may also tackle these projects. This may include repair stitching, rivet replacement, and hole patching. While these tasks may seem daunting, the tools are relatively simple to use, and the skills can be picked up at a basic level in a single afternoon. 

This insightful video, provided by Insider, explains the restoration process of a damaged handbag. Each section in the video includes different information on maintaining a leather product. 

How to Perform Leather Care and Maintenance

Basic maintenance of leather products will make it less likely that more significant problems will arise. Therefore, periodically conditioning an item is the best way to prevent issues. To properly clean and condition a leather item, it must be dusted first.

This can be done with a damp rag, but a horsehair brush works better for removing embedded or hard-to-reach particles. After dusting, the item should be evaluated to determine what more needs to be done.

If stitching is broken and needs to be addressed, it should be done before further conditioning the item. This is done with a thread and two needles. The thread will be locked in with a needle on each side to create a saddle stitching motion. Start at two holes before the broken thread, and equalize the thread length.

Sewing is done by placing one needle through the next hole, with the second needle going through the same hole afterward. This can be seen by looking at both sides, as both should have a stitch between the holes. Complete the sewing repair by going two holes past the damaged area and backstitching. Cut the thread, and burn the ends of it to lock it in place.

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If the damage that needs repairing is peeling or color fading, paint/dye will be necessary. A basic rule to determine what you need is chrome tan uses paint, and vegetable tan uses dye. Although more importantly, judge the damage yourself. Is it faded or removed? Paint will be better suited for damage rather than color fading.

Regardless of which one you may use, the application process is similar. For example, a clean brush or dauber will take small amounts of paint or dye and spread it across the inflicted area. Once coated it will then be left to dry before adding more coats or continuing the maintenance process. 

Conditioner is required to finish restoring a leather product to rehydrate the material after being dried out due to wear or dye. A clean cloth is needed to apply the conditioner properly. A small amount of conditioner is placed on the cloth and rubbed into the leather in a circular pattern. It is important not to over-saturate the leather by using too much conditioner. 

Leather goods should be maintained periodically to ensure the leather doesn’t deteriorate over time.

Tips for Leather Care and Maintenance

  1. Always dust your leather item before proceeding with any work.
  2. When using color-altering products, test on small areas before applying.
  3. Periodically dust and condition your leather products to preserve them. 
  4. Practice sewing, punching, or other repairs on scrap leather goods before attempting them on your items. 

How to Get Better at Leather Care and Maintenance

Becoming better at leather care and maintenance comes from experience and applying what you know. Although basic conditioning may be simple, there can be knowledge applied that may change how you approach it. The ability to differentiate leather types and identify their condition can guide you when caring for a product.

Equally, you can learn skills that will help you better care for your leather goods. These include sewing, rivet setting, dyeing, and patching. One must practice improving restoration and repair skills, which is best done using scrap leather. Learning different skills and when to apply them can make you an expert at maintaining your leather products. 

Dry Brushing a Black Leather Boot - Leather Care and Maintenance - Liberty Leather Goods
Dry Brushing a Black Leather Boot

Original Research Repairing Leather Boots

Restoring leather boots was an early introduction to leatherwork for me. To research more on leather care and maintenance, I purchased a used pair of leather work boots and will break down my process of maintaining them. 

Dry Brushing

When I first received the boots, they were hard worn. The leather was dry, dusty, and developing large creases. The soles of the boot were still relatively fresh, but the welt itself had become fuzzy from, what I assume, was scraping against rocks. My first priority was to dust the boots. I removed the laces, took a horsehair brush, and thoroughly dusted the boots, attempting to get into every nook I could to remove the dirt. 

Cleaning

After removing the dirt I was able to tell more about the leather. These were oil-tanned boots in a dark brown that had lost their vibrance through wear. The leather was beginning to dry and had some grease stains on the toe boxes.

The welt of the boot, and part of the heel stack, had been rubbed to the point of the fibers feeling loose. The next step was to clean the boots. I took a warm damp rag and applied saddle soap over the shoe, focusing on removing the stains the best I could before setting the boots aside to dry. 

Second Brushing

Once dried, I took a horsehair brush to the boots again to ensure they were perfectly clean. I then began to address the welt and heel stack by applying gum tragacanth, a product used to slick down leather fibers, on the welt and heel stack. Then, I burnished them with a canvas cloth by rubbing them along the dampened surface. This pushed the fibers down while providing a slight polish in those areas. 

Conditioning

Lastly, I applied leather cream as my conditioner to finish off the boots. I chose cream over conditioner for two reasons. The first is that the leather was oil-tanned, so it is durable and does not need much conditioner. Secondly, the shoe had faded, and I wanted to restore some of the color. T

he dark brown cream I chose had enough oils to rehydrate the boots while also adding color. I applied this the same way I cleaned the boots using a clean rag with a small amount of product and rubbing it in with a circular motion. Once finished, I buffed the boots with my horsehair brush, put new laces on, and they were now in great condition. 

Conclusion

Leather products are made to last. They’re usually durable and can be repaired with very little skill required. Although restoring boots is not new to me, none of the techniques I used for this restoration required prior knowledge. Everything I did can be done at home with very few products and some patience. Most general leather care does not need to be difficult to provide outstanding results.

Related Insights

How do you prolong the life of leather?

The best way to prolong leather is to treat it with leather conditioner periodically. Restoring oils into the leather with conditioner helps keep the fibers of the leather healthy, resulting in a product that will not crack or deteriorate as easily.

What leather lasts the longest?

Vegetable tanned leather tends to be the most durable leather because even as the surface wears, the natural coating of the leather patinas rather than peels. Thicker leathers also tend to last longer as they have less chance of tearing.

How do I keep my leather couch from cracking?

Like any other leather products, couches must be treated periodically and kept out of direct sunlight when possible. Using leather conditioner on a couch should prevent it from cracking over time.

Does genuine leather peel?

Yes, some leather, although genuine, will peel. Leather peeling comes down to how it was produced. Bonded leathers will peel the most as they are compressed leather parts. However, some chrome tanned leathers may also peel depending on their surface. 

How long does leather last?

If leather is well maintained and starts as a quality product, it can last well over a lifetime. Products exposed to a lot of wear can expect a lifespan of up to 25 years. However, those that are not used daily can last well into hundreds of years.

Final Thoughts 

Maintaining leather is the most important part of owning any leather item. It will not only keep the item looking good throughout the years, but also prevent damage from occurring. By taking a few minutes to conditioner your leather periodically, it can last you decades.

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