“Look after your leather and it will look after you.”
Ok, that’s not perhaps the most notable of quotes but nonetheless true. Humankind has relied on leather for thousands of years; it has clothed us; it has shod us; it has protected us from the elements; it has protected us from attack; and sometimes we let it become a one sided relationship and fail to repay the love. We forget that leather, although it looks tough, although it gives the impression it can look after itself, we forget that it needs a bit of looking after on occasion.
Having recently launched our own brand of leather conditioner, Earthworks Special Leather Stuff, I thought it was time I wrote a bit about the hows and whys of protecting your leather.
First of all, let’s address why we should protect our leather goods. As we know, leather is a remarkably tough material and this is largely due to its composition. If we cut through a hide we can see that it is made up of countless tiny collagen fibres all enmeshed together in a complex weave; this gives it its strength. When the leather is bent or twisted these fibres are able to slide across each other which gives the leather its flexibility.
During tanning, when a skin is turned into a usable leather, the various initial processes dry out the fibres in the leather; this means the tannery then need to put oils back into the hide, this stage is known as fatliquoring. These oils lubricate the fibres so that they can freely slide across each other as the leather is manipulated. However, with time and use, the oils diminish in any finished leather product and the fibres dry out again. These dry fibres no longer slide freely across each other but rub, chaff and grind which causes them to fray. I’m sure we’ve all had a pair of old boots that have had splits appear in the leather just behind the toecaps; this is what happens when the leather dries out.
So, on occasion, we need to replenish the oils in the leather fibres.
There are a bewildering array of leather products and finishes out there and, if you ask any leather worker, they will have a different recommendation for you.
Let’s start off with the basic shoe polish. I’m sure we all have several tins of good old Kiwi shoe polish in the cupboard; I certainly do, they’ve been there for years and all have that familiar rattle of hopelessly dried out polish (they do this because they are spirit based and all that spirit evaporates over a period of time, leaving the dry wax), in this state they provide as much nourishment as a dry river bed .
These high-shine polishes, being spirit based, are made from petroleum distillate mixed with a wax blend. Of course, these vary in quality with the higher end products using carnauba wax and the lower end products containing paraffin wax. If you want a quick glossy, high shine on a pair of shoes then this stuff certainly does the job. The downside is that it has little or no conditioning properties; it’s very much the glamour approach to leather care, although your shoes may look healthy and well cared for on the outside, underneath they are slowly dying from lack of nourishment.
At the other end of the scale are the specialist oils such as Mink Oil and Neats Foot Oil. These do a great job at conditioning your leather and are especially good for outdoor leather-gear as they help protect against the elements. We have an old Pashley tandem which we made the saddles for from a nude vegetable tanned leather, we treated these with Neats Foot Oil and it darkened the leather to a lovely golden glow and they still look as good as new after several years. However, care needs to be taken when using oils such as these as it can be easy to over-saturate the leather which will cause the leather fibres to swell and the integrity of the leather to break down.
Between the basic shoe polish and the specialist products are a whole host of leather preparations which contain varying ingredients and at varying prices. It can be difficult to know which to trust. Decent quality leather goods can be, as we know, quite pricey; this is mainly down to the price of the raw material and unfortunately decent quality hides, like the ones we use here at Earthworks Journals, are very expensive. So, how do we know which leather conditioners to trust on our premium leather goods? If you visit any forum on the internet where they discuss leather you will find heated debates on the very subject; a preparation that one person recommends will be hated by another person. It’s all down to trial and error and personal choice.
Let’s take, as an example, a popular leather conditioner which many people swear by. It’s made by a respected manufacturer so we would think it would be good. It’s called Aussie Leather Conditioner and it’s made by Fiebings. I purchased a tub as I’d heard good things about it.
As we can see from the label, it proudly proclaims ‘with beeswax’ under the title, but it has no other ingredients mentioned on the label. On trying it on a scrap of leather it went on quite nicely, it’s easy to apply, but I thought it felt a bit light, a bit insubstantial. So, I dug a bit deeper and found the data sheet for it online:
As we can see from this data sheet up to 70% of the content of Aussie Leather Conditioner is Petroleum Jelly (Vaseline), up to 35% is Aliphatic Hydrocarbon (I’m guessing that this another petroleum based substance), and a maximum of 15% wax; and even this 15% isn’t beeswax, just a rather vague ‘natural and synthetic wax blend’.
This is not to say that it’s not a good product, some people obviously love it, but it’s just not for me. However, it is good to try these different products to find out what your particular favourite is.
Being traditionalists, we tend to go back to basics here at Earthworks Journals. All of these preparations have evolved (or devolved, as some may suggest) from the ancient and original leather conditioner, dubbin. We’re lucky that our leather supplier also manufactures some of the finest bridle leather in the UK and they still manufacture traditional, old-fashioned dubbin. Proper dubbin contains just three ingredients, beeswax, tallow and fish oil; and this is still how our supplier makes theirs, using the best quality of all three ingredients.
We use this dubbin on our journals and on all of our own personal leather gear. It gently melts deep down into the leather fibres as you rub it in and buffs to a soft sheen. You only need to use it sparingly and you don’t need to do it too often, a little goes a long way.
Another added bonus dubbin is that it smells beautiful. There are many products out there that claim to be traditional dubbin, but most of them are heavy on the petroleates. Dubbin should have a soft, rounded smell and a creamy feel, it you find one that smells like chemicals and feels like vaseline, then it’s probably not a traditional dubbin.
After speaking to our supplier they agreed that we could share their dubbin with our customers so they sent us a vat of it and we decanted it into some rather attractive little aluminium tins and you can buy it from our website here:
However, don’t take my word for it. We love it here are at Earthworks and rarely use anything else on our leather but, as I said above, a leather conditioner that one person sings the praises of will be hated by another. You might like our traditional dubbin or you might not like it but, if you haven’t found the perfect product for your leather goods yet then this could just be it!