What not to do when restoring Leather Goods

We all make mistakes, I’ve had my share of them. I would like to tell you about one I made that destroyed two leather jackets.

It was early in my leather working life and I had little knowledge on restoration. At the saddlery a friend I looked up to had recently explained how they restore leather, it involved a by hand cleaning process followed by a oiling process. The oil was put on liberally, as much as the leather could soak up. There was no polishing involved. With my new knowledge I decided to revitalise two of my motorcycle jackets, one a precious antique passed on to me by an older friend and the other was a mid priced jacket. Neither needed cleaning so I went straight to the oiling. After the job was completed both Jackets looked terrific and felt good too. Within a few weeks a small tear appeared in one and then the other, being inquisitive I had a little pull at the tear and found it tore apart like wet cardboard. At first I thought it may be my fault but I wasn’t certain. I asked at the saddlery and was told it is because the old leather has worn away it’s top side, but one tear was in a spot without any wear. Rip by rip both jackets became unusable and even though I had the machines at work to repair them the leather was now so weak it would have done no good. Devastated, I went looking for answers. Before an answer had been found another friend dropped off a harness for me to borrow for use on one of my horses. He told me he had just oiled it, I asked what he used, he replied olive oil. Now I was puzzled. The harness was dripping oil, if my oiling had been the cause of the jackets tearing them how was this old harness going to go with over a ton of load. A closer inspection of the harness revealed it had been repaired many times and needed a few more. I set about completing repairs on it as a thank you for the loan and so I could use it properly. The harness held up just, but I could see it was week, very week. Time rolled on as I pieced together research obtained by reading related literature and talking to experts. Eventually I discovered the problem was that oiling any leather will weaken it just as water weakens cardboard! and it can not be reversed. I will try and explain the effect oil has on leather as best as I can. Imagine that the leather is made of matted fibres, thousands of fibres intertwined and twisted together, on the top side of the leather they are fine and tight and on the bottom side heavier and looser. When the oil penetrated the leather and the fibres soaked it up they expanded and relaxed loosing their hold on each other and hence the strength was gone. Water, grease and formulated conditioner have different effects. Water softens the leather making it playable but it will dry quickly and caused minimal damage, it’s worst effect on the leather is it causes leather to dry very hard and promotes stretching whilst wet. Grease does not have the penetrating effect to get deep into the fibres and so will not cause strength weakening, it will however have an effect on the colour and wearing property of the topside. Formulated conditioner works the best, It will help to keep the the leather soft and pliable without causing to much damage. So having learned my lesson I now use a good conditioner and leave the oil in the kitchen. If you would like to know the full process for different types of leather I work with please get in touch, happy to help. If you ever do use oil on leather, do it sparingly, very sparingly and only on Full Grain leather in excellent condition.

1 thought on “What not to do when restoring Leather Goods

  1. Really interesting topic. 😊


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