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Neatsfoot Oil – The Rare Times It’s Safe for Leather

As leatherworkers, we know that there are a variety of conditioners and oils that can be applied to leather to keep it soft and supple. Neatsfoot oil is a popular option that I’ve had sitting on my desk without knowing too much about it – let’s take a closer look at neatsfoot oil and its applications.

Neatsfoot oil is a yellow oil that has been rendered and purified from the feet bones of cows, and it is useful for conditioning and softening leather. Pure neatsfoot oil is the ideal as prime neatsfoot oil or neatsfoot oil compound will make leather brittle in the long run due to oxidation. 

Using the wrong kind of neatsfoot oil can really lead to some trouble, so it’s important for us to really get to know the materials we’re working with. In this article, we’ll take a look at what neatsfoot oil is made, how it’s made, and the best practices for using neatsfoot oil on leather.

What is Neatsfoot Oil?

Neatsfoot oil is a yellow oil derived from the shin and feet bones of bovine animals. (Fun bit of trivia: it’s called neatsfoot oil because ‘neat’, which is derived from Old English, means cattle!) It is often used as a conditioner for leather, softening and preserving the material.

Types of Neatsfoot Oil

There are typically two kinds of neatsfoot oil that you’ll encounter on the market. One is called “prime neatsfoot oil” or “prime neatsfoot oil compound.” This kind of neatsfoot oil has other compounds added to it that extend the life of the oil, but this often has the effect of causing leather to become brittle over time. If petroleum additives are included, it can break down the glue bond as well.

Neatsfoot oil is a yellow oil that has been rendered and purified from the shin and feet bones of cows.

The second kind of neatsfoot oil is just pure neatsfoot oil. There are no additives to it, which will allow it to not cause the leather to break down or become brittle. However, there is still reason to think that it may cause leather to oxidize faster.

Neatsfoot Oil and Wool Dauber - Liberty Leather Goods
Neatsfoot Oil and Wool Dauber

Characteristics of Neatsfoot Oil

Material

Pure neatsfoot oil is made of 100% neatsfoot oil, and neatsfoot oil compound will sometimes contain other additives like petroleum derivatives, mineral oils, or synthetic oils.

Sizes

Neatsfoot oil can be commonly purchased in 8 ounces, 16 ounces, 32 ounces, and a gallon. Some may even purchase up to 6 gallon drums of it!

Properties

Neatsfoot oil has a yellow tinge to it, and it has a distinct, musky smell that is reminiscent of being around cattle.

Neatsfoot Oil for Projects - Liberty Leather Goods
Neatsfoot Oil for Projects

Pros and Cons of Neatsfoot Oil

Pros of Neatsfoot Oil

  1. Pure neatsfoot oil is useful for conditioning leather that feels hard or stiff to touch
  2. After dyeing leather, neatsfoot oil is a good choice for rehydrating the oil
  3. It darkens leather

Cons of Neatsfoot Oil

  1. It darkens leather
  2. It may make leather brittle due to oxidation
  3. After applying neatsfoot oil, it may leave an oily residue that attracts dust

How Neatsfoot Oil is Made

Neatsfoot oil is made by boiling the feet (minus the hooves), skin, and shinbones of cattle, rendering the result, and then skimming the oil off. Then, this is filtered through a cloth and pressed twice; the first pressing yields pure neatsfoot oil, and the second pressing yields a lower grade neatsfoot oil.

Cost of Neatsfoot Oil 

Neatsfoot oil is fairly inexpensive, and a little can go a long way. For 16 ounces of neatsfoot oil, you can expect to see prices around the $10 mark. A 5 gallon drum of it can cost between $150 to $160.

Tips for Working With Neatsfoot Oil

  1. Apply a bit of neatsfoot oil to a microfiber cloth and rub a bit in a small, discreet patch before applying to the rest of your leather. Applying neatsfoot oil directly by dripping or pouring it onto leather can cause uneven coloration, which may ruin a piece you’re working on.
  2. When dyeing leather, rub neatsfoot oil onto the leather. Wait for about an hour to an hour and a half after dyeing before applying the neatsfoot oil.
  3. Try heating the oil. Some recommend warming neatsfoot oil up to between 80 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The increased temperature will allow for better and faster absorption by the leather. 

Here is a handy video on how to apply neatsfoot oil. 

Alternative Options 

Some alternative definitely exist on the market. Another popular option for leathercrafters is mink oil, which does much of the same things for leather as neatsfoot oil. Some say that mink oil adds more of a reddish hue while neatsfoot oil adds more of a yellowish hue, so this might be worth considering as well.

Leather balms are also a popular option for conditioning leather and keeping it well-oiled and supple. Some leather balms, like Smith’s Leather Balm, come with beeswax, which helps with both re-hydrating the oils in the leather while keeping water away from sinking into the surface.

Applying neatsfoot oil directly by dripping or pouring it onto leather can cause uneven coloration, which may ruin a piece you’re working on.

The Percentage of Neatsfoot Oil That Can Be Made From Other Animal Bones

Sometimes, neatsfoot oil can be made from other bones like those of poultry, but the yield is much higher in cattle, according to a study from the Journal of Meat Science. The results are displayed below: 

From CattleFrom Poultry
Percentage Yield8.77%0.12%
ColorYellowStraw green
The amount of neatsfoot oil that can be made from cattle and poultry bones

Journal of Meat Science, “Fatty Acid Analysis of Neatsfoot Oil from Cattle and Poultry”

To further justify the use of neatsfoot oil in leather products, a study was done by K.G.P. Maheshika on the use of neatsfoot oil as a fatliquor for leather manufacturing. Fatliquors are oils that are usually added to leather during processing that gives it its water-resistant properties and contribute to how supple and soft it feels.

Sometimes, synthetic or fish oils are used as fatliquors, but neatsfoot oil has proven to be a viable substitute. The result of the study shows that neatsfoot oil with 15% sulfation level is the best for usage in the fatliquoring process for leather manufacturers.

Neatsfoot Oil - Liberty Leather Goods
Neatsfoot Oil

Neatsfoot Oil Care and Maintenance 

How to Apply

Take a microfiber cloth and either pour some neatsfoot oil into it or cover the opening of the neatsfoot oil container with it and give it a quick shake to get some oil onto the cloth. Rub some of the oil with the cloth on a small patch first to test how it’ll affect the leather. Then, apply it to the rest of the leather. Wait for it to dry, and keep it somewhere clean since it’ll attract dust when it has been freshly applied.

How to Store Neatsfoot Oil

Neatsfoot oil generally comes in a dark colored container, so keeping that container away from direct sunlight and high temperatures should be a safe bet for storing it for a while. 

Related insights

Is neatsfoot oil bad for leather?

Pure neatsfoot oil softens and conditions leather without any dire repercussions, but prime neatsfoot oil or neatsfoot oil compound causes leather to oxidize, which will make it brittle in the long run. 

Is neatsfoot oil a good leather conditioner?

Yes! Neatsfoot oil replaces and replenishes the oils that get lost by leather over time, and it has been demonstrated to be a good option for conditioning leather.

Can you use too much neatsfoot oil?

A little neatsfoot oil goes a long way. If you use too much neatsfoot oil, you’ll find that the surface of the leather gets tacky or sticky and will attract dust. Always dab some oil onto a cloth first before directly applying it to your leather; this allows you to get an even coat of it without applying too much at a time.

How long does it take for neatsfoot oil to dry?

It is recommended that you let neatsfoot oil dry anywhere between an hour and a half to three hours after application. You can test this by touching the surface of the leather and seeing if it feels tacky or greasy to touch still. 

Neatsfoot oil is commonly seen in the market as part of leather treatment or leather care, but it’s important to know what you’re working with! If you’re trying to use neatsfoot oil to condition your leather, make sure to go for the pure neatsfoot oil—anything else may end up oxidizing your leather goods and making them brittle over time. Luckily for me, the bottle sitting on my workbench is 100% pure neatsfoot oil, so it’s ready to go for my next project! 

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