Like many, I got into leather because it was a functional item, a tool to make life and work better. In my case, it was armor against South Texas thorn bushes, cactus and prickly things. Initially, leathercraft for me was learning how to either fix something that was broken or make a replacement if it couldn’t be fixed. A friend’s grandfather showed me how to make a lead shot riding quirt that was short enough not to get tangled up when it dangled from the wrist, but long enough to reach over and tap the rump of a stubborn steer to get it moving. Looking back, that simple 4 plait leather quirt turned into a lifelong preference in a sea of leather “tools.” I have since bought and made fancier, more decorative, and simply better looking ones; but it was that simple one made for function that really established its mark in me.
Coming from working horseback and using leather that generally was found in brown, light brown, dark brown, and latigo (brown), I have a definite preference for the brown leathers. It has something to do with the way they will take on their own personal patina depending upon how they are used. The character that emerges where a hand holds the leather, or a body moves in a specific way, rubbing and affecting the leather, making it a part of the person who owns it, truly turns me on. I select much of my leather by how the ‘pull-up’ affects the look: when you pinch the leather, it causes the pigmented oils to shift, thus shifting the hues and transforming the pinched area. That clearly defined pull-up inspires me to make things that enhance, demonstrate the effect, and encourage the user to play with the leather more to show off the curves and angles.
The real key for me is the condition of the leather. If it is soft and supple to the touch and flexes when worked, then the leather is generally healthy, and the oils and waxes in it are doing what they are meant to do. However, leather is affected by the elements around it and how it is used. If you’re using your leathers, like boots, whip or flogger, then they are going to dry out, get scratched and scuffed, and start showing some wear and tear. This is when it becomes
time to put them down, get settled back into a comfortable chair, and give back some energy to the leather piece you’ve been enjoying. If conditioning your leathers is something you would prefer not to do yourself, our community has many bootblacks; they know their stuff and know their leathers. I’m a leather crafter who prefers the tack leathers and oil tan types. When I condition, I ask some questions: Do I want the leather patina, or am I trying to remediate years of darkening and wear? Do I care about the leather turning darker than it originally was? Is the leather in danger of cracking sooner rather than later? Do I want the leather more rigid than supple? And what do I do about the scratches it has earned for me?
When I started working leather, I was taught to use saddle soap to get the dirt off (still do for that matter), and then neatsfoot oil to condition the leather and sometimes a waxy coating if it was going to see a lot of moisture contact. If I have a working piece of leather, and its function is more important to me than appearance, that is the same procedure that I use today.
You might think that, this being the 21st century, our chemists have explored the depths and found technology to make conditioning better. Short answer? Nope; oil is oil and wax is wax. The method of getting it onto and, more importantly, into the leather hasn’t changed much. Today, we read reviews and follow what others are saying, perhaps a bit too easily. Wonder treatments for leather are available to us and marketed to us with great success. I have bought a few bottles of lexol cleaner and conditioner for my car seats and have nearly hit “buy” for some leather honey, Amazon’s top leather conditioners recommendation for the past few years. The result? Only a few short months after application, my dry car seat leather split completely open, something that I don’t believe would have happened if I’d used a true leather conditioning technique. Lesson learned!
The question is, what is out there today that does work? Not everyone wants their car seats to darken, and they surely don’t want to have neatsfoot oil leach into their clothing! Ever wonder why many horseback riders’ jeans are a bit shinier in the seat and the denim doesn’t wear as much as it does on the front? Yeah: oils protect cotton well too.
With a bit of digging around on the internet, I found a great article by u/Varnu on Reddit. He describes taking an old saddle, desperately in need of conditioning, and cutting it apart, after which he applied a variety of today’s and yesteryear’s conditioning treatments to the pieces; then he waited. What did I learn? Neatsfoot oil did and does still condition leather from cracking, better than many of the other products out there. Obenauf’s Oil darkens, as anyone who has used it knows, but it also can be buffed some. Since it has been my “go to” for conditioning leather for many years, the results were a nice validation of my choice to use it over neatsfoot oil despite what I was taught. I’ll also be adding bick#4 back into my lineup for times when I don’t want darkening of the leather.
What particularly surprised me were the results and conclusions about the “great” products of lexol, leather honey, and some other newer brands. They were at the bottom of the lists every time. His non-lab produced results really highlighted how these over-hyped products aren’t standing up to the real world of people who enjoy and want the most out of their leather. While they did affect the leathers they were applied to, they could not hold a candle to traditional approaches and products.
Conclusion? Keep with what works, avoid the hype and marketing, and research past the reviews and sponsored blog posts that push products the poster is selling. Use common sense in a world where it is easy to forget that we still have to be diligent in our choices, and remember that sometimes tradition really is the best way to do things.
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