Your Quest: acquire the skills to determine, and clean, any leather product.
Leather: the durable, tough, semi-permanent, sometimes life saving material. We all know the feel of leather, yet few of us can call ourselves leather cleaners. In fact, I’d wager that some of us are asking, can you wash a leather jacket? Well yes, yes you can. Leather care is an essential part of keeping your leather goods not only looking sharp, but will help them stand the test of time too.
Let’s learn how to properly clean leather.
Firstly, regardless of if you’re searching for the best way to clean your leather car seat, boots, furniture, coat, or jacket, you should learn what kind of leather you’re going to be working with. It absolutely plays a critical role in the total leather care process.
There are hundreds, possibly thousands, of different kinds of leather and the practice of leather care has been around for 1000s of years. Determining what kind you possess is going to require some inspection and knowledge of leather grades.
Leather comes in, roughly, four grades and varying levels of aniline dying. You’ve got full-grain, top-grain, split, and finally your faux leathers.
Full-grain refers to hides that haven’t had any buffing or sanding. This can mean that the hide is full of the natural imperfections and wrinkles that come from the cow itself. Full-grain leathers are also the most durable, and the toughest on the market. However this makes them less pliable and harder to work with, which is why you’ll typically find it on furniture, briefcases, luggage, wallets, and some shoes.
Where pliability, comfort, and repeated use become more important factors that’s where you’ll find top-grain leather. Top-grain leather is frequently found in shoes, handbags, belts, and wallets. This kind of leather does go through some buffing and sanding processes to remove layers of the hide. This removes most of the detailing and makes the end product look more consistent, however it does come at the sacrifice of some durability.
The more commonly used term for split leather is suede. The term “split” comes from the leather treatment process through which the suede is made. See, leather has a few layers, and when you entirely remove the top layer (what makes full and top-grain) you’re left with a softer and noticeably more pliable material. You’ll see suede in all kinds of things from shoes to pillows, jackets, watch wrist wraps, necklaces, and dozens of other product categories
Lastly, there’s fake, also known as faux leather. Typically made from the scraps of hides from all over that are then embossed and formed into a strange amalgamation of leathers. Oftentimes this means we are left with a product that isn’t as strong or durable. There are about 4 quick, and accepted, ways of checking for faux leather.
- Read the label:
- Checking the label is a good way of seeing if the leather is genuine or not. If your label is shouting how real the leather is, odds are - it’s not.
- Give it a peek:
- We’ve talked a lot about grain, and that’s really a good determinate on the authenticity of leather. Real leather will typically have a noticeable grain that is rather inconsistent like human pores. If you’re finding consistencies and no variations, odds are you’re looking at faux leather.
- Feel the authenticity:
- Because leather is the byproduct of an animal, it will have an animal quality to the feel and texture. There should be some roughness to the real thing while the faux leather will have a bit too much of a smooth surface and an almost plastic feel.
- Take a whiff:
- No joke, smelling is more than acceptable when it comes to checking the authenticity. Leather will have a very distinct natural scent to it that, so far, cannot be faked. So give that boot a good sniff and find out just how real it is.
Aniline leather refers to the leather treatment process through which it was dyed, ultimately determining the patina. Patina is typically reserved for silvers and bronzes, however it is used to describe the aging of fine leathers. Aniline dye can be rubbed in for a more thorough integration, or it could be a rough layer simply peppered across, allowing for more of the beautiful top-grain to pierce through.
Now we’ve got a pretty good understanding of what kind of leather we’re working with. Let’s learn how to wash a leather jacket and, this is important, actually care for it and leave our leather cleaner than it was.
Things to avoid:
We’ll start this out with some rather rigid and strict rulings. If you’re wanting to properly care for your leathers, these are non-negotiables.
Do not, under any circumstances, leave your hides out in the rain for extended periods of time or leave them soaked. If you’re working with suede it is best to avoid water altogether. Water leads to mildew and mildew leads to acquiring a new leather jacket.
If it is wet, don’t leave your jacket or shoes or whatever out in the sun or by a heater. Longevity or any semblance of permanency cannot occur by placing it near the fire. Leather care means not blow drying your leather as well. It’ll dry it out, rot, and leave it a wrinkled husk of a jacket.
When you’re cleaning your leather item, as we’ll describe below, don’t abandon your project halfway through the process. Proper leather care means following the process as deliberately as you can and abiding by our instructions. It also means providing enough allotted time for your leather treatment.
With that quick, albeit important, disclosure out of the way, let’s finally dive into becoming the leather cleaner we all are within. (We’re being tough because we don’t want you to lose that leather family heirloom you’re so fond of.)
General leather care guide:
For the most part leather can be cleaned, almost unanimously, the same way. Thankfully the best way to clean leather is through hand washing. How much hand washing the leather can take is up to the grade. Learning the ways of a master leather cleaner isn’t going to happen if you treat each grade the same.
Before you begin washing your leather goods make sure to properly clear the surfaces of which you’re intending to wash of dust. You’re wanting to make the leather cleaner, not just wipe around the dirt.
Another quick note before you get going. Always test out a small area before moving onto anything else. The last thing you want to do is apply a treatment to your new leather couch that leaves it all rough and non-pliable. Take a small, out of the public eye, section and test this all there first.
There is no need to power clean or throw it all through the gauntlet that is the machine wash cycle. Just grab some soap and some water, and get going. You could even use plain dish soap. I am obligated to point you in the opposite direction of saddle soap as it tends to be more caustic, which is detrimental to proper leather treatment.
The best leather cleaner option would be a pH-balanced soap that will prevent acidification. Acidification results in worn-out and uncomfortable leather.
Research indicates about a 1 to 8 soap to water ratio is best. Lightly drench your towel, and test it on a secluded area of your leather, one that won’t be seen or interacted with very frequently. As far as what you can clean leather with, just grab any towel and rub the concoction in thoroughly. Then, using a different damp cloth, clean off the soap. Reminder: It is what cleans leather, but soap is caustic so it’s vital to remove it in its entirely.
If you find wiping and rubbing to be rather monotonous, you can also utilize a spray bottle to more easily cover the intended area. However, you absolutely must clear all the soap from the surface before continuing.
Use a dry towel and rub it down. Don’t stress about drying thoroughly as you’ll be letting the leather dry naturally. Despite what was said above, having some liquid within the skin is healthy and letting the hide dry naturally is, well - natural.
The last and most crucial part of cleaning your leather is conditioning. Finding the correct conditioner for the job is a hassle and you never want to end up over conditioning and having a weak jacket or pair of shoes.
The optimal time to condition is right before it’s completely dry. (It’s not a requirement by any standards if you’re worried, just ideal.) Conditioning will allow the leather to recover and retain its rigidity after the wash. When looking for the best leather furniture conditioner for the best way to clean your leather, we recommend the use of Skidmore’s Leather Cream, as it turns out, that's what the professionals use.
Investing some time and money in the best leather conditioner for your furniture, boots, seats, or even your car, is ultimately worth it. Even if you’re looking for the best car leather conditioner out there we would recommend Skidmore’s.
Now I know what you’re thinking, “What about getting stains and spots out of leather?” Well thankfully I’ve done some of the research on that and found answers.
Olive Oil. Not the scented, garlic infused, $80 a bottle, shipped directly from Italy, olive oils - just any olive oil. (Unless your ideal couch is one infused with the scent of garlic and Tuscany.)
It’s also vital that you only use olive oils that match hues with your leather. Rubbing some deep purple oil into your light tan couch will cause issues, and likely concern. Again always test a small portion before diving into a full leather treatment.
Lightly drizzle some olive oil, we’re talking small amounts, into our mixture and apply to stained areas. Making sure to never over-saturate one area. Wash it out regularly as described earlier and you’ll find that stain to either be gone, or at least more indiscernible from the rest of the grain.
Also much like with our own skin, excess oils can cause some undesirable side-effects to the hide, so make sure to truly wipe away and clear all the oils.
If for any reason you find yourself staring an ink stain down, don't fret, alcohol is your friend. Well rubbing alcohol that is.
Warning: Rubbing alcohol can react poorly with some types of leather and may actually cause more harm than good. Only use alcohol if regular washing is not working, and you've tested it in an innocuous area.
Apply a small amount to a cotton swab or cotton ball and gently dab the ink. Making sure not to rub the ink stain as you could possibly spread it more. Rubbing alcohol will also help with any mildew or intense stain you might have.
“What about how to get grease stains out?” or “My couch is drenched in body oils, what do I do?” First off, maybe phrase that a different way, but I hear you. Let’s learn the best ways of removing those grease and body oil stains.
How we tend to get rid of grease stains is by using a rather absorbent powder, like cornstarch or wheat germ for example. After completing the initial cleaning from before, place some powder in the oily location and leave it overnight. Make sure to wipe off all the powder before applying the leather conditioner.
Here’s some quick final tips about the cleaning process.
If possible, acquire a microfiber towel to clean with. It will be gentler and reduce the odds of damaging the hide.
On that same note, only rub the towel against the hide softly as you’re only wanting to work the soap and water into the surface.
Lastly, if you find any water stains on your couch, the cleaning process outlined above will also aid in getting those stains out of your leather.
Before I leave you to continue your cleaning, I’d just like to once more reiterate upon those absolute don’ts.
Remember to never leave your leather products sopping wet, or to leave them out in direct sunlight to dry. And remember, avoid at all costs allowing soap to soak deep into the pelt as you’ll be facing some unfortunate results.
In fact, just to make it easy, don’t let anything soak into your leather unless it’s conditioner.
At the end of the day, unless you’re absolutely mistreating it, your leather goods will outlive you. Quality leather products are expensive but often fall into the ‘buy it for life’ category. So take some time and clean those leather boots, shoes, chairs, and couches the right way.
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