Leather Care: Systems Are The Way To Go

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Leather is beautiful, supple, strong and long-lasting — when cared for properly. However, some riders don’t understand what it needs or how to care for it. We’ve even heard of people who tried to return tack as “defective” when, in reality, the only thing “defective” was the method of care.

Leather should be cleaned before it is conditioned. Clean everywhere you can reach. We remain skeptical of all-in-one products that claim to strip away surface oils and embedded dirt while they simultaneously replace the lost oils and nourish the leather — it seems contradictory — but we haven’t had problems using them. So, if you prefer the simplicity of a one-step product, go for it (see leather cleaners, April 2001).

Most of us, however, enjoy the two-step cleaning-conditioning process. Cleaning is done after every ride (OK, sort of), and we condition our tack regularly. How often to condition is debatable, and we don’t think you can put a time frame on it.

You need to condition your leather when its natural lubricants are lost. Time and use combine to eat up the conditioners. Oils dry out, get flushed away by sweat or water and are removed with repeated cleanings. The more your leather is used, the more you need to clean it and the more you must condition it.

Unprotected, oil-depleted leather is susceptible to spotting from water and other liquids, like sweat. It becomes stiff and produces rubs on horses and riders. As leather dries out, the fibers become brittle and may break. If it reaches the stage where the internal fibers break or the surface splits or cracks, that leather is unsafe and likely not salvageable.

We’d avoid heavy waxes that impair the leather’s ability to breathe. Heavy oils and waxes also attract and hold dirt, which cuts the microscopic fibers that make leather so strong and durable.

Boots are made from leather that is tanned, finished and dyed differently than saddle leather. Cleaners, conditioners and polishes are not necessarily interchangeable. Read the label before using any product.

Finally, when it comes to conditioning leather, if a little is good, more is not necessarily better. Many products advise us to use them sparingly, warning us about over-oiling tack for good reason. Leather must be supple, but not limp with no remaining tensile strength.

Conditioners
We evaluated conditioners individually and as part of a package/system with their cleaner counterpart (April 2001). Testers with varying backgrounds used these products on all sorts of tack, in different climates, for diverse disciplines and on boots and even on leather jackets.

Absorbine Horseman’s Boot Shield waterproofs, preserves and conditions, even in acidic conditions. It contains beeswax, lanolin, oils and waxes. It may darken leather or suede, so you should patch test first. Like most waterproofing products, it left our leather a little dull, but Boot Shield worked well on boots.

Bee Natural Leathercare’s Rancher’s Wax Oil is a thick, viscous oil. On aged work boots, we found it temporarily darkened the leather, leaving them dull but noticeably softer. It is a mixture of natural oils and waxes with petroleum distillates, providing protection in adverse weather conditions and from barnyard acids. We found it does a good job and conditions, preserves and waterproofs top-grained and oil-tanned leather.

Bee Natural Leathercare’s Conditioner for Distressed Leather is a true specialty product. While its name caused some testers to try it on the most abused or neglected tack around, “distressed” actually refers to a particular leather finish, a short-nap suede. It conditions and preserves top-grained and oil-tanned leather, so it was not surprising that our results with vegetable-tanned saddle leather were not impressive. However, it thoroughly conditioned and improved the appearance of well-used, scuffed, distressed-leather paddock boots. To waterproof the boots, give them a second coat. We were quite pleased with the results.

Bee Natural Leathercare’s #1 Saddle Oil and the newer formulation, #1 Saddle Oil with Fungicides, require some effort. You must clean the item first with Bee Natural Leathercare Saddle Soap (see April 2001), then let it dry for 24 hours. Next, apply two coats of Saddle Oil 30 minutes apart. The oils were easy to apply and soaked in fast. One tester rejoiced that it darkened worn leather, making two older saddles’ appearance more uniform.

This system worked extremely well, but we found it was cumbersome and time-consuming. The company recommends using the complete system as a yearly overhaul.

Bee Natural’s Rudy’s Tack and Saddle Conditioner and Finish is formulated for all top-grain leather. It cleans, conditions, resists soiling, and kills mold and mildew. It is the company’s answer to regular daily leather care. Although it’s a bit runny, it does a good job on extremely dirty leather. We noted it helped prevent scratches and definitely left our leather tack supple.

Bee Natural’s Royel Beeswax Leather Dressing targets sealing out water and dust. We found it difficult to work into the leather, as it spreads in chunks and leaves some gummy residue. However, it did put a shine on the leather, although no more suppleness, and the leather definitely felt waterproofed and “sealed.”

Bick 4 from Bickmore is a mild cleaner but a thorough conditioner. It works well when used in combination with Bick 1 (see April 2001). It has a nice consistency and smell, and it spreads easily with no waste. It was simple to work into the leather, and we found it does repel water. Made of all-natural ingredients, it is said to be ideal for exotic leathers. It won’t harm color, even on light leather, protecting the leather from stains. Overall, the product was a good performer, terrific on our boots.

Equips Saddle Food, distributed by Intrepid International, has natural ingredients, such as tallow, fish oil and beeswax. It starts out thick, melting into a workable texture as you hand-rub it in, and spreading well.

You must buff the leather well after a five-minute wait, as the directions indicate, but the conditioning effects last, keeping the leather supple, even in varying weather conditions. In general, it seemed to keep our leather cleaner.

Ko-Cho-Line Leather Dressing made by Carr & Day & Martin and distributed through Nunn Finer comes in a pry-open tin. In appearance, it resembles raspberry puree and has a strong smell — one tester said it reminded her of axle grease. Many testers were dubious when they saw it. You have to wait 12 hours before using the leather after application, which we did, but we found it did an excellent job conditioning, with long-lasting effects. We even found leather was easier to wipe clean on a daily basis after using this conditioner. We especially liked it in folded leather girths and under saddle flaps, but it may darken some leather.

Leather Balsam by Carr & Day & Martin is distributed by Nunn Finer. It is a beeswax-and-lanolin blend. It’s easy to apply, and we liked the natural ingredients. There’s no wait after application, but it leaves leather a bit slick if you don& rsquo;t use it sparingly on truly clean tack. It also didn’t seem to penetrate as well as other products, although it did well on older tack.

Leather Therapy Restorer and Conditioner softens, preserves and maintains leather. It didn’t darken leather, although it says to test it in a hidden area first. It worked well even on drier leathers, although we agree that it should penetrate for 24 hours after the initial application. It is an emulsion, meaning that it forms tiny droplets and penetrates the leather fibers thoroughly without clogging pores. It is mold- and mildew-resistant. We had no problems, and our leather was supple and soft. This product performed extremely well.

Lexol Leather Conditioner and Preservative comes as a spray, pour bottle or wipe and is made by Summit Industries. It is not greasy, conditions well and leaves leather supple and with an attractive, soft shine. It is an emulsion, which achieves a greater amount of penetration without residue. We had no problems with color changes. It penetrates well into the leather and nourishes it without residue. It is an excellent conditioner.

Lexol NF Neatsfoot Leather Dressing from Summit Industries doesn’t darken leather as many neatsfoot oils do and fills the bill beautifully for those who prefer neatsfoot-oil conditioners but want something designed for today’s vegetable- and chrome-tanned leathers. It conditioned similarly to Lexol Conditioner, but we felt NF didn’t leave as nice a shine.

Nikwax Liquid darkened the leather temporarily. Geared more as a waterproofer for footwear, we found it lifted surface dirt well, but we felt the conditioning effect was minimal.

Nikwax Conditioner is a runny, water-based product for use on smooth-finished full-grain leather. The label warns that it may darken leather and suggests using it on a hidden test area first. It left our leather tack dull, so we’ll stick with using it on our leather boots. However, we applaud the company for dating the bottle and including a “best used by” date as well.

Pro-Trainer Saddle Food from Thornhill contains all-natural ingredients, including beeswax, lanolin, tallow and fish oil, that soften, waterproof and protect leather. It is thick but easy to work into the leather, and it penetrates quite well. We found it left our tack well conditioned with a nice shine and no greasy feel. It increased water resistance, and we found our tack easier to clean after conditioning with it. We found this product worked especially well on older tack and on boots.

Ray Hole’s Saddle Butter includes beeswax, carnauba wax, tallows, pure neatsfoot oil. It took a little time getting used to, but we found it worked best when warm and used in small amounts (you can warm it with your hand as you work it in, stick the jar in a pan of hot water or microwave it for 15 seconds). It conditions well and protects the leather from sun and wetness, although it’s not a waterproofer per se. Interestingly, we found that while it did initially make the leather feel more supple, the greatest difference was noted 48 hours after application.

Tanner’s Leather Oil is a light spray that penetrates deeply and evenly, although you must do a patch test first and be careful not to over oil. It contains petroleum distillates. The product penetrates well, leaving leather softer and more flexible, and it guards against moisture, mold and mildew. We noted the best conditioning effect 48 hours after use. Although the directions suggest you spray it directly on the leather, we preferred to spray it on a cloth first.

Ultra Leather Conditioner, from Schneiders, maintains, softens, waterproofs and protects leather. Formulated from natural Australian bush ingredients, plus beeswax and lanolin, it must be stored in a cool place (one test jar grew mold while sitting in a tack room). Overall, our testers were extremely pleased with Ultra — and we had no evidence of mold on our tack. Ultra was easy to use and left our leather supple, shiny and well conditioned. Ultra even brought back to life some fairly old, dry leather, and we had no problems with it darkening leather.

Bottom Line
Many of the companies produce compatible products — a cleaner and a conditioner. We found that products designed to go together did indeed seem to work best when used together. That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t mix and match or must give up your favorite cleaner because it doesn’t have a companion conditioner. We simply found there’s something to the “system” concept.

Perhaps the most complete system comes from Bee Natural Leathercare. It’s an incredible, if not initially confusing, combination of leather-care products, and we especially like their #1 Saddle Oil With Fungicides. If you’re willing to do the work and buy all the products, this company’s suggested combination of Saddle Soap (see April 2001), #1 Saddle Oil, and Royel Beeswax should keep your tack in top shape. For use between or for daily cleanings, we’d use their Rudy’s formula or Leather Amore (see April 2001).

We found most of the products conditioned our tack well. There were no “bad” choices. Interestingly, however, our overall two favorite conditioner picks also parallel our top two cleaning picks, again adding to the belief “system leather care” may be the way to go. Leather Therapy and Lexol Conditioner earned raves from our testers for overall performance and conditioning effects. Lexol also earns the Best Buy.

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