Trying Some Basic Leather Care
I decided to post a little bit about leather care. I tried to make this comprehensive and yet it is designed to cover the basics of leather care. It’s primarily aimed at shoes/boots, but the principles can apply to other leather goods.
Some will notice that many topics are only briefly touched on or simplified; I plan to expand this guide into a series to thoroughly cover every aspect of shoes and leather.
Terms to Know
- Tanning: the process of converting an animal hide into useable leather
- Parts of a shoe
- The construction process determines how the bottom of a shoe is put together. Here are the types of stitched constructions
- Last: the shape that a shoe is built on
- Genuine leather: a meaningless term that indicates some amount of leather content. Some believe “genuine leather” refers to inferior quality leather, but Alden Indy’s are genuine leather, as they have “some leather content”
- Full-grain leather: another mostly meaningless term. It refers to uncorrected leather, but should not be used as an indicator of quality
Introduction to Leather and the Tanning Process
Leather is the result of tanning raw animal skins, making it more durable and less susceptible to decomposition processes.
The tanning process has many variations to produce many different types of leather, although few specifics are known outside of the industry. According to Nick Horween, the general tanning process is as follows: receive hide, cut/trim hides, wash and soak, dehair, flesh, bate, pickle, tan, press, sort, split, shave, retan, condition, dry, apply stain/color, adjust color, adjust feel, iron/plate, trim/sort, pack, and ship.
Although there are variations, I can discuss some generalities about leather.
Its workwear heritage can be attributed to its tough, water-resistant, and hardwearing nature. In addition, leather can develop a beautiful patina with time, adding to its character.
Identifying quality leather is not an easy process and is best done through experience. Moreover, it’s largely dependent on the type of leather used. Better leathers have more consistent grain, less variation in finish and thickness, and are not corrected or treated.
The basics to leather care are to make sure it remains well conditioned while preventing dirt buildup and salt/water damage.
It’s best to condition whenever you feel the leather is getting dry, but that is an acquired art and not always so easy to determine. Thus, a general rule is to condition every five to ten wears in hard conditions, and every 15-25 otherwise. As important as it is to avoid dry leather, it is also important to avoid overconditioning, so I are constantly attempting to strike that balance.
Application of a conditioner should simply follow the directions. However, it’s important to note that many conditioners can be applied by hand. Be sure to apply small amounts.
Prior to conditioning, make sure the leather is clean. Applying any oil or wax based product over dirt causes the dirt to be trapped, leading to long-term deterioration. Prior to any conditioning, you should brush and wipe your shoes down with a damp cloth. Note that you can and should do this brush and wipe more often than you condition, likely every five to ten wears. If your shoes are extremely dirty, use a cleaner such as Saphir Renomat prior to conditioning. All cleaners are heavily drying, so be sure to pay extra attention to the conditioning step afterward.
As coconut oil has no directions, I have included them here.
Coconut oil has a melting point around 76 degrees F, so it is best to use it in a slightly warmer room so it softens. If it isn’t warm enough, use the heat from your breath and hands to soften it up. Using very small amounts on your fingertips, work a light, even coat into your shoes or boots. Let it sit at room temperature for a few minutes. Some white residue will likely accumulate, especially near the edges and stitiching. Just run your fingers right back over it and it should work back in or the excess will get picked up onto your hands. If you’re not seeing it work back in, use a little more pressure. The goal is to apply more friction so that the heat melts the coconut oil.
Do not use a hair dryer or other external sources of heat.
In applying any product, be sure not to apply external sources of heat other than your hands. There is lots of wisdom about how this “opens the pores,” but that’s simply not true. The only thing you will cause is overabsorption of a product into the leather. The reason a product is not absorbed under normal conditions is because there is too much product, and applying extra heat will only cause that product to be poorly absorbed and seep out.
Obenauf’s LP should only be used on shoes that undergo extreme duress (e.g. walking in the snow/slush/mud/rain for multiple hours continuously). If you live in the city or suburbs, you do not need to apply LP. Although you may want to protect your new investment, leather is naturally water resistant and the best idea is to condition it well and rely on its natural resilience. I do not suggest Crane’s method in applying Obenauf’s LP. Instead, I suggest applying it similarly to coconut oil, taking extra care this time to apply a little extra near the stitching of the boot. Make sure absorbs well by using your hands, not exterior heat. Wipe any excess. Some may like Obenauf’s or similar products because of how they darken leather. I suggest buying a boot that you already like the colour of, as the darkening process also removes much of the depth of color.
All leather shoes should rest 24 hours after wearing with a cedar shoe tree inserted, without exception. There is no major difference in shoe trees, although a split toe is preferable over a solid toe and a lasted shoe tree is most preferable. However, lasted shoe trees are exceedingly rare and even the craziest of shoe aficionados rarely own lasted shoe trees.
For dress shoes, you will want to apply polish. Similarly to conditioner, apply polish in small layers amounts using a brush or cloth in concentric circles and mild pressure. Do not apply much polish to any area that gets wear, such as the vamp. Wax based polishes apply some pigment, while providing protection and improving the smoothness of the finish. In addition, they allow for the development of a mirror shine. The trick to developing a mirror shine is to use several thin layers of wax polish, a few drops of water, and an incredible amount of practice and patience.
Developing a mirror shine is tough and every person usually develops their own tricks to doing so.
It is good practice to strip the excess wax polish from your dress shoes every three to six months, then condition and rebuild. I suggest using Saphir renomat to strip any dress shoes, then Saphir renovateur to condition.
Every now and then, it is important to clean the welt of your shoes. Using a q-tip, wipe the welt.
For shell cordovan, care is remarkably easy.
As shell is such a resilient leather, care is minimal. Brush and wipe as often as you like, although I suggest at least every five wears. It’s a good idea to condition every three to six months. I have had success with Venetian Shoe Cream or coconut oil. Be sure to apply lightly, as shell is already highly impregnated with oils. Follow conditioning with another brushing/buffing. Due to shell’s oily nature, it will develop a waxy buildup in the rolls. Simply wipe this away with a damp cloth. There also appears to be some truth to the deer bone rumors. It does seem to be highly effective in removing scuffs and scratches (I had a video here but it has been removed) in shell and other highly oiled leathers, although you can usually achieve the same effects with your thumb and a little bit of oil.
This video is also a good watch, but I consider this much attention and care to be overkill for shell cordovan.
For suede, nubuck, and roughout leathers, I do not advise applying any topical products, as that can ruin the nap.
Apply conditioner to the interior of the boot. Brush occasionally using a suede brush. Some apply products for water resistance, but that is not necessary. If you do so, I recommend Allen Edmonds’ or Bick’s sprays. Always follow recommended application.
For true Scotch grain or Zug grain, I suggest brush/wipe and condition treatment similarly to shell cordovan. For pebbled grain shoes, I suggest regular treatment.
If you are unsure, I can almost guarantee you they are pebbled grain.
Contrary to popular belief, I suggest similar treatment for leather sneakers. There is no reason shoe trees should not be used and your leather sneakers should not be conditioned.
If your shoes develop a scuff, it is relatively easy to treat. For pull up leathers or shell cordovan, use your thumb and a tiny amount of oil to rub away. It will come out, with time and pressure. If you are scuffing regular leather, use thin layers of polish to fill and cover the scuff. Unfortunately, you cannot make a scuff in regular leather disappear, only cover it up.
What you should take away from this is that leather care is difficult. Leather is expensive, and if you don’t care for it you will not get the use out of it that you could.