The best thing about high quality, vegetable tanned leather is the way it ages. Instead of wearing out, a well treated piece of leather will age like a good Scotch. If you want your new leather item to look better in five years than it does today, you are going to have to take care of it. Below I have detailed the the complete process of restoring an old leather document case. Most of the time you will only need to oil or condition your leather (steps 4-7). If it has been a while you probably want to start with
**All conditioners will change the way that leather looks to one degree or another. Always test on a small hidden spot first to make sure you are okay with the change.
This document case used to hold life insurance certificates. It is a little over fifty years old. Judging by the feel of the leather it hasn't been treated in a long time. How can you tell if your leather needs to be treated? Leather is tanned flesh and just like your flesh it will feel stiff and dry when it needs a little attention. When your leather looks dull and is not as supple, it is time to condition.
Start with a clean, flat surface. This is actually important. The leather will be more susceptible to scratching and creasing when it is getting conditioned. If there is something sitting underneath your leather while you are buffing there will be scratches when you flip it over.
Start by cleaning the leather with a good saddle soap. I always start by cleaning the leather. There is a good chance you've gotten some kind of junk (hand lotion, fry grease, motor oil) on the leather which will cause the oil in the next step to absorb unevenly. Blotchy only looks good on Rorschach tests. Here I am using Fiebing's Natural Saddle Soap. Make sure you are using saddle soap and not "leather cleaner". Most cleaners have alcohol or solvents in them that will dry out the leather. Pour a little water into the lid of the container, lightly moisten a rag (old t shirts are great for this) and work up a good lather on the soap. Take the soapy rag and start gently working the lather into the leather in a circular motion.
Don't forget the edges. The oils in the soap will start to absorb into the leather. It will start to darken and get softer. As the soap dries the oils will sink deeper into the leather and help pull in the oil in the next steps.
Let it dry completely. This can take as little as a few hours, if the air is very dry, up to over night. Usually, I would recommend over night. If there is any water left on the surface of the leather it will prevent the oil in the next step from soaking in properly. Again, Rorschach.
Pour a small amount of oil on to a clean soft rag. What kind of oil? Neatsfoot and mink oil are the traditional answers. Olive oil will also work, but this does tend to darken the leather quite a bit. Variations in different types of olive oil can also cause unexpected results. Work the oil around on the rag to distribute it evenly. If you put a big blob of oil right onto the leather your going to get a big dark splotch.</p>
With a swift and light circular motion, begin to apply the oil. You don't need to grind it into the leather. Remember that the top grain on the leather will be delicate at this point. Try to not let the rag rest anywhere for too long or you'll get a darker patch there. You can tell how much oil the leather needs by how quickly it absorbs the oil. Keep adding light coats of oil until it absorbs at a less dramatic rate. 2-3 coats should be enough.
Here you can really see how much the leather darkens. As the oil works it's way deeper and the surface begins to dry it will lighten up a bit. Well conditioned leather is always a little darker after being treated though.
Once you have a nice even coat of oil on take a moment and really work it in using your fingers. The heat from your hands will help the oil penetrate deeper and you won't have to condition as often.
After letting the oiled leather sit for 24 hours it is time to apply a little waxed based protection. Oil will soften the leather and keep it supple. It will also dry to a sad looking matte finish. Wax will bring back that just oiled glow and will also provide a little water resistance. Here I am using Obenauf's Heavy Duty LP. Huberd's works well too. A good leather protectant will smell like bees wax (from bee propolis, a resin bees produce to make the hive waterproof) or a campfire (from pine resin which pine trees produce to make pine trees waterproof...). Do not use anything labeled as a leather sealer. Most of these are acrylic based and will eventually fail and peel off or crack; taking the top layer of leather with them. If it smells like chemistry find something else
Apply a light coat of wax to the surface of the leather. If you apply too much you'll only have to spend more time buffing it all off at the end. You aren't really worried about feeding the leather at this point. Just get a nice thin layer on and work it into all the creases and ridges with your fingers.
Make sure you get the areas along the the stitching and any creases or folds really well. This is where the leather is most vulnerable and you want a little extra protection there.
Let the wax dry over night. In the morning the surface will feel a little tacky and have lost it's luster again. This is the fun part. Take a large clean rag (I like old bandannas for this) and start buffing. Light and fast is best. You can tell if you are doing it right because the color of the leather will deepen and it will start to shine. The more you buff the more it will glow so spend some time doing this properly.
Here you can start to see the difference. The bottom section has been buffed. It has a richer color, a satiny luster, and is no longer tacky. If you went a little nuts with the wax you might be buffing for a little while. Just keep going until there are no dull spots and the surface looses its tackiness.
I like to let the wax cure again over night at this point. This step might be unnecessary but why accidentally screw up your hard work after all that. You're all set for the next 6-12 months.
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