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Saddle Soap – When and Why to Use for Leather Cleaning

Leather is an incredible material that can be used for years when cared for properly. While researching cleaners and conditioners to use on projects, I learned about saddle soap and when it’s best to use it.

Saddle soap is a mixture of soaps, oils, and waxes that is applied to leather to clean and condition it, commonly in one step. It is available in a variety of formulas each suited to the particular use of the leather, and comes in solid, paste, and spray forms for easy application and use.

Making the right choice of saddle soap can save time, money, and ensure that the leather being treated is receiving the proper formula for the typoe of leather it is and the environments that it is used in. Let’s explore more.

What Is Saddle Soap?

Saddle soap is a blend of ingredients used to clean, condition, and preserve leather products. It is a combination of soap, beeswax, neatsfoot oil, and water in a paste or balm form; occasionally in liquid form where it can be sprayed.

Cleaning and conditioning brushes - Saddle Soap - Liberty Leather Goods
Cleaning and conditioning brushes

What Does Saddle Soap Do?

Saddle soap, as the name refers, is used to clean saddles along with any other types of leather made goods. Each component of the saddle soap has a specific use when applied. Soap in the balm cleans grime, sweat, and debris from the leather.  The beeswax helps seal pores in the surface of the leather to help resist water.  Neatsfoot oil assists with conditioning the oil; softening it.  All of these characteristics of saddle soap prevent leather items from degrading or cracking.

The Difference Between Saddle Soap and Regular Soap

Saddle soap is different from regular soap in that it contains other ingredients like beeswax and neatsfoot oil.  These added ingredients help preserve and condition the leather as it is being cleaned.  Soap alone has a very high alkalinity and if used by itself can harm the leather.  Most of the saddle soaps will contain glycerine and will be made from natural ingredients, such as goat’s milk.

The Difference Between Saddle Soap and Leather Conditioner

Leather conditioner differs from saddle soap. Leather conditioner preserves and softens leather where saddle soap provides resistance to water and cleans grime in addition to softening and preserving leather.  There are times when conditioner can be used after saddle soap is applied.

Saddles

Of course, it wouldn’t be called saddle soap if it weren’t used on saddles.  Saddles are in the sun on a regular basis and in all types of weather climates.  Saddle soap prevents deterioration of the leather, allowing saddles to last for many decades.  It is used to clean grime and salt from sweat from all parts of the saddle, including the seat, stirrup straps, skirt, and saddle tongue.

Footwear

Saddle soap is popular for keeping leather boots and shoes in tip-top shape.  Applying it on a regular basis will prevent them from drying and cracking.  It also allows the leather to stay soft and supple.  Using saddle soap for footwear on a regular basis will help protect them for years.  Nice leather shoes or boots can be expensive and are worth protecting.  Well protected footwear will outlast the soles attached.

Horse saddle - Saddle Soap - Liberty Leather Goods
Horse saddle

Outerwear

Another popular use is on leather jackets, especially motorcycle jackets. These jackets can be subject to extreme conditions.  Saddle soap is a popular solution for cleaning and water resistance. A riding jacket with well applied saddle soap also makes for much easier cleanup from bugs and road grime between cleanings.

If you are working on items in the area of leather preservation, here is a helpful piece from the Texas A&M Nautical Archaeology Program covering leather preservation.

Indoor / Outdoor Leather

Any leather items that will be exposed to direct sunlight, like horse tack, motorcycle seats, leather automotive seats and dashes are also popular items where saddle soap is used.  Saddle soap can also be applied to leather furniture and leather wear that may not get used frequently, like outerwear.

If you live in a warmer region, this information from the University of Florida Animal Sciences Department provides some insights into Saddle and Tack Care in Hot and Humid Environments.

How to Use Saddle Soap Step by Step

  1. Clean the leather with a brush or cloth to remove large debris.
  2. Apply saddle soap using a soft cloth in a circular motion until all of the soap is rubbed in; similar to applying wax to a vehicle.  Remove any excess soap.  For large items, mentally divide the article into several different areas for application to ensure all areas receive equal coverage.
  3. If saddle soap does not contain neatsfoot oil, apply a leather conditioner to provide a protective coating. This coating is necessary to preserve the leather and re-moisturize the leather.
  4. Allow to dry at room temperature for several hours to a full day.  Do NOT set near a heat source to hasten drying.  This can cause damage to the leather.  Allowing the conditioner to fully dry prevents it from being rubbed off on other items and ensures your leather item is fully protected.
  5. Repeat every 2-3 months.  Using it more often can cause damage to the leather.

Here is a helpful video on how to use saddle soap on leather boots.

Best Saddle Soaps

SoapDescription
3 Andrews Boot Wax Contains all natural ingredients including aloe, neatsfoot oil, and beeswax.  This formula may contain preservatives or petroleum based ingredients.
Huntley Equestrian All Natural Leather Care Contains all natural ingredients including cod oils, fats, and pure beeswax.  No additional artificial ingredients or additives. This comes in a small tin for ease of use and storage.
Farnam Leather New Comes in an easy to use spray bottle.  Farnam uses liquid glycerine soap. Removes embedded dirt and grime.  Gentle enough to use sparingly more often than every few months. 

Why Is Saddle Soap Bad for Leather?

Saddle soap can actually be bad for leather if used too often.  The soaps can have a high alkalinity that may break down the leather fibers causing it to fail prematurely.  Some saddle soaps are advertised to darken leather.  If one has light colored leather to restore, make sure to read the descriptions provided by the saddle soap manufacturer.

Do You Rinse off Saddle Soap?

One does not have to rinse off saddle soap.  It is rubbed into the leather, penetrating the surface.  It is absorbed into the leather to enrich, clean, and rehydrate leather surfaces.  If it is applied too thickly, there may be a need to wipe off excess saddle soap from the item.

Does Saddle Soap Soften Leather?

Saddle soap will soften the surface of the leather, making it more supple.  It will also help hide imperfections in surfaces of leather.  It will not make hard leather items too soft, causing it to lose its form.  Boots are a perfect example of being treated with saddle soap, yet they still look and work like boots without deformation of shape.

Here is a super helpful video on why to use saddle soap and how it works.

How Long Does It Take for Saddle Soap To Dry?

Saddle soap does not need to dry like a liquid.  Once you apply saddle soap and rub it in well to the leather, the item is ready for use.  Should one want additional protection from saddle soap rubbing off on other items, one can use a dry cloth to rub the item down one more time.

What Is a Good Saddle Soap Alternative? 

There are alternatives to saddle soap which will provide the same benefits.  The disadvantage will be having to use multiple products such as neatsfoot oil, natural soaps, and beeswax.  These would be used in conjunction with each other, yet separately.  One would clean with soap, apply neatsfoot oil; well rubbed in.  Then apply a coating of beeswax.

Final Thoughts

Some leather items such as saddlery and tack can get used in rough environments daily, accumulating dirt, mud, and grime. It’s easy to clean and maintain these with a quality saddle soap. Even some other common leather goods can benefit from this treatment too. It’s a quality items that would be great to have on hand in the home or in the shop.