Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Leather Care 101 (Irony in the Skin Game)

Lately, lots of people have been asking me about leather care - what products for cleaning, what for conditioning; how to use them and how often to use them. There are tons of leather care products out there, and wading through them can be confusing. I found it quite ironic that I've recently been encountering a lot of very misused and neglected tack ... so I thought I'd cover the basics of leather and tack care here on the blog. Taking good care of your leather isn't arduous or time consuming, and it will extend its useful life by many years.

The first thing to remember is that leather is skin, and needs to be treated accordingly. Here's my first rule: if I don't want it on my hands, I won't use it on a saddle. This includes things like Murphy's Oil Soap, bleach, ammonia, WD-40, olive oil, motor oil, Neatsfoot oil, petroleum jelly and Horseman's One-Step (has petroleum derivatives in it). No harsh products, no heavy oils, and nothing that isn't formulated for use on leather.

Second rule: Keep it clean! This doesn't mean you need to do a complete tear-down of your tack after every ride, but you should wipe it off after every use. A sponge or cloth dampened with water is all you need. Regular wiping-down gets the sweat off immediately and keeps dirt from building up.

If you aren't fanatical about wiping down, you're going to need to use something to remove the accumulated sweat and dirt. Again, plain water works well, but if you need a little help, Effax Leather Combi is my favorite - it cleans without stripping the moisture from the leather. Leather Therapy cleaner is another good product. Glycerine soap is acceptable, but should be wiped off completely. Don't use abrasives on leather, and if you're using metal polish on your bit or irons, remove them from your bridle and saddle first. And if you live in an area with lots of rain and high humidity, consider using a cleaner with either phenol (Leather Therapy) or tea tree oil to prevent the growth of mold/mildew (but remember that tea tree oil can be drying, so if you're using a product that contains tea tree, pay attention to the next part!).
Third rule: Condition properly! This means applying a light coat to ALL the leather you can reach, not just the seat and the outside of the flaps. Do the panels, the sweat flaps, the buckle guard, the underside of the flaps and jockey. About the only thing you can give a miss would be the billets - some people recommend that you never condition them (or your stirrup leathers), but I give mine a light coat a few times a year just to prevent cracking. Don't over-condition, and remember that oil really isn't necessary on today's English saddles, thanks to changes in the tanning processes. Over-conditioning will weaken the fibers in the leather, making it floppy and raising safety concerns.

Fourth rule: Be conscientious about your saddle. Don't leave it within reach of teeth, paws, claws or hooves. Store it in a cover on a rack in a cool, dry (preferably climate-controlled) area. If it gets wet, allow it to dry slowly and completely before you clean or condition it. If it's wool flocked, have the flocking and fit adjusted as necessary (usually every 6-12 months). If it's foam flocked, have the fit checked, too.

Now, here's an idea of what you can expect if you do - and don't - take care of your saddle.

First, a couple examples of well-cared-for used saddles. They show marks from the leathers and have definitely seen plenty of use, but they've been taken care of, and it shows.

Now for a mixed bag. The saddles on the right and left have received good care, but check out the one in the center - the finish has been completely rubbed off the flap, probably due to a combination of rough and or bad quality leathers, and a lack of care.

Now for the flip side of the coin. In this photo, the finish on the leather is gone, baby, gone:

In this photo, the finish is compromised, and the stitching is coming loose:

Scary-looking scratches. Someone didn't follow the fourth rule:

This is why you never, ever ride in jeans (breeches have no inside leg seam for a reason):

Here's a good reason to pay attention to your billets - and to use a girth with a roller buckle! Though it's a little hard to see, there's a really deep split just above the 4th hole from the top on the left-hand billet.

Taking good care of your tack will really pay off in the long run. Conscientious care will not only protect your investment and extend its life, it will keep your tack in good repair - which could literally save your life.


Melissa said...

This is a great post! I've been more and more conscientious since getting a REAL leather saddle!

Christina Jones said...

Great article & glad you like the Leather Therapy products!

autumnblaze said...

LOOOVE this post.

The saddle I purchased used was an amazing saddle - which had received poor care. Luckily it was salvagable and I have worked really hard getting it back to par. Finish is rubbed in the same places you showed on the panels but other than that doing well... actually I think it's more dirt embedded into the buffalo leather (seems more porous?). It's still a little dry but definitely clean and better... no one told her to wipe off the glycerin saddle soap though I had A LOT of that residue to get out of the crevices immediately. :)

I am apparently doing it right though from what you say since it's been mine!

Anonymous said...

Guess who is getting new billets? The polo player's comment hit home, and the pictures you showed sobered me up! Thanks for a great series of posts.

saddlefitter said...

Glad to hear you guys are taking good care of your saddles - I'd hate to have any of you injured because of "tack malfunction." And thanks for the kind words - glad you're finding the posts of value!

Renn said...

Would you mind elaborating on what changes in the tanning process have made it unnecessary to oil leather saddles? Does this vary between type of leather (grain, calf, buffalo?)

saddlefitter said...

Renn, that's a great question. I need to do some research on that to give you a comprehensive answer. I do know that some leathers (Frank Baines' Rio Tactile and Black Country's Vintage) are oiled durning the tanning process, but let me see what more I can find out.