Leather Care


This is a point we constantly are questioned on. This is the process we use and can recommend to all. It is excerpted from the National Park Service, Curatorial Care of Objects Made From Leather and Skin Products. This is from the authority. 

Preserving History

First we shall start off with the simple warning of "Do No Harm". This is the standard answer to all questions on cleaning antique goods, period. As for leather we shall start with proper storage. The main concern with leather care is keeping it in controlled humidity. 

Proper Care

While skin materials have a great affinity for water, inappropriate levels of atmospheric moisture or direct wetting usually cause serious damage. The direct wetting of skin products initiates deterioration because these materials have only a limited degree of water resistance. Rawhide, parchment and vellum are most prone to damage. Aged objects made of full-tanned leather are also highly susceptible to stiffening and darkening from wetting. All animal materials readily absorb moisture from the air. Excessive moisture (levels above 65% RH) causes swelling of the skin's fibers and encourages biological infestation. Excessive dehydration (humidity levels below 22% RH) forces the skin to give up moisture permanently, which results in shrinkage and deformity. Dehydration reduces the skin's ability to take up and hold moisture, thus weakening it and dramatically decreasing its flexibility. Repeated exposure to moist and dry cycles will, eventually, physically stress the hide's fibers enough to induce mechanical damage and increase its susceptibility to chemical deterioration. The hide's soluble components are frequently displaced, leached, or deposited on the surface resulting in the alteration of physical characteristics. When skin material is subjected to either excessive moisture or high humidity in conjunction with heat and acid conditions, its chemical structure is attacked, causing shrinkage and embrittlement. If allowed to continue, the skin will lose its structure and become gelatinous. The boiling of skin to produce gelatin or hide glue is an example of this process. 

To minimize water and moisture damage:

Keep hide materials dry by protecting them from wetting and exposure to relative humidity levels above 65%. House objects in water-resistant containers, such as storage cabinets and exhibit cases. Whenever possible, include moisture absorbing materials to buffer enclosed spaces against extreme fluctuation of RH. These materials may include commercially-available buffers such as cotton or linen cloth, acid-free paper products, or silica gel. 

Control the relative humidity to conform to the recommended levels suitable for the collection's circumstances. Stabilize humidity fluctuation to the recommended range of 40-60% RH. Normally, you will regulate humidity through the central air-handling system, but you also can use localized and portable sources of humidification / dehumidification to protect objects from unnecessary damage.


For organically-based materials like skin products, prolonged exposure to oxygen is one of the more serious and avoidable chemical factors that causes deterioration and is responsible for altering both the skin's chemical structure and many of its tanning compounds. Its long-term effects include the hardening of skin and hide material, embrittlement, cracking and crazing of the skin surface and overall yellowing or darkening as well as a number of serious internal structural changes. Oxidative degradation is caused by high temperatures and humidities and exposure to light radiation.

How can I minimize these oxidation reactions? By taking the following preventive measures:

While it is impractical to keep most of these materials from being exposed to oxygen, if an object is extremely rare, consult with a conservator about storage and display in a hermetically sealed container filled with inert gas (such as nitrogen or helium).

Don't expose hide materials to excessive humidity or heat. Use air conditioning, storage design and exhibit design to eliminate the detrimental effects of these environmental stimulants of oxidation.

Reduce the level of visible light to the minimum required and eliminate exposure to ultraviolet light.


What about pollutants? 

The threatening forms of pollutants to skin products are particulate and gaseous pollutants. Particulates are solids that are suspended in air and range in composition from inorganic to organic. Because skin has such a porous and absorbent surface, these solid foreign materials easily work their way into the fibrous network of skin products causing soiling, staining, and eventual stiffness.

Little data is available regarding the effect of gaseous pollutants on skin but it is probable that oxidant, acidic and sulphating gases play some role in the deterioration process. Native-tanned and semi-tanned materials seem relatively more resistant than do commercial, vegetable-tanned leathers. It is likely that pollutants promote oxidation, hydrolysis and overall discoloration.

What harm can light cause? 

Light is an important factor in the process that degrades skin products. Its damage is cumulative and irreversible. Certain wavelengths break down polymeric bonds and are detrimental to all skin materials. The ultraviolet range of light is one of the most dangerous wavelengths for skin products; however, visible light also causes structural damage and color change. Light can act as a catalyst when oxygen, water vapor and various pollutants  n the atmosphere combine to increase the rate of deterioration. The rate of degradation is generally related to the intensity and length of light exposure. Fading of smoked and pigmented hides is a particular problem where prolonged light exposure is involved.

How can I minimize the effects of light? Take these preventive measures:

Minimize the exposure of skin materials to visible light; illuminate only to the minimum level necessary to see the object. Recommended maximum levels are 150 lux (15 footcandles) for most materials and 50 lux (5 footcandles) for painted skins and hides with fur.

Eliminate ultraviolet (UV) radiation through the use of UV absorbing filters installed between the light source and the artifact or on the light source itself. Select lighting systems with low proportions of UV radiation. The maximum acceptable proportion of UV radiation is 75 microwatts per lumen.

Maintain stored objects in darkness. Ensure that unfiltered light does not reach stored skin and hide materials.

Monitor and adjust lighting fixture locations and light bulb wattage individually. Use timers and dimmers for controlling light in exhibits.


Handling, and Storage

The most successful method of preserving leather and skin products is a good preventive conservation program. This program needs to include systematic collection care, handling and storage practices, and regular inspection and condition evaluation. This approach replaces the traditional practices and remedies of the past that have been found to be detrimental to museum objects. For longer life of skin and leather objects follow these general guidelines:

Identify the general category of the skin product correctly.

Understand the product's basic characteristics, as well as its deterioration features.

Upgrade the general environment that includes controlling climatic conditions, minimizing light exposure, providing physical support, and protecting from mishandling, soil accumulation, and pest infestation.


How do I clean objects? 

The degree to which each soiled object can be cleaned is a function of the nature of the soil and the sensitivity of the object. Clean an object only as necessary to remove airborne soil accumulation. You can't remove some surface soils by simple cleaning methods, and other soils are not removable at all. Highly deteriorated objects cannot be cleaned by routine procedures so degraded surfaces should be noted and protected so that cleaning will be avoided. When decorative elements on an object are extensive and very delicate, refer cleaning to a professional conservator. Surfaces that have specialized finishes also may require exemption from cleaning. 

Cleaning Techniques                      Tools                                                Caution

VACUUMING - This is the safest cleaning method, if carefully executed. Use fine plastic screening and a vacuum cleaner with adjustable suction or a rheostat and a small standard nozzle attachment. Screening between the leather and he nozzle protects the leather, but movement of the screen can also cause abrasion. Flaking surfaces and loose parts may be accidentally removed.

DUSTING - This is the most frequently used technique. It can be combined with vacuuming.

Use camel hair brushes.

Dust acts as an abrasive; each time a material is brushed, surface material may be removed. Brushing also increases the danger of knocking off delicate pieces.

FORCED AIR - Compressed air cleaning must be done outside the collection area or dust will simply be redistributed

Use a compressor, air hose, and broad compressed air nozzle.

Loose or fragile pieces can be blown off if too great a pressure is used; 40 pounds/square inch is maximum.

ARTIST'S ERASER - This method can occasionally remove stubborn surface deposits from the grain side of firm, intact leathers and skins.

Use artist's block or powder eraser. (Testing has shown "Magic Rub" block and "Scum X" powder to be the least damaging.)

This technique is not useful on deteriorated surfaces or where skin or decorative layers may be susceptible to flaking. Remnants of the eraser may become deposited in textured surfaces and require vacuuming.


What about catalog labeling?

Marking and labeling leather and skin artifacts for cataloging purposes can present a number of preservation problems:

The porous, absorbent nature of all skin products can cause labeling inks, paints and varnishes to be absorbed into the skin tissue causing irreversible staining and stiffening.

The adhesives associated with commercial labeling tapes have poor long-term stability.

Pressure sensitive tapes and embossed plastic tapes tend to fall off in time, and their adhesives are generally not removable from the skin.

Any type of metal tag (including aluminum) or metal ringed tag can cause corrosion. Aluminum in contact with skin and hide materials causes dark spots on the surface of the object.

You can determine the specific labeling technique you will need by considering the individual object. Maintain consistency throughout the collection and use the least damaging method. Consider both indirect and direct labeling.

Indirect labeling allows you to avoid irreversibly damaging the hide material with ink. The two recommended methods of indirect labeling are tie-on tags and fabric labels.

- Make tie-on tags from high quality, acid-free paper products or inert plastic materials. Corners should not be sharp. Attach tags in a manner that does not cause undue stress, such as to an orifice, strap or handle. Use soft cotton string or a non-abrasive plastic loop for attachment.

- If you can't label an object with a tie-on tag, use a fabric label, such as those made from cotton twill tape or non-woven spunbonded polyester; these can be sewn to soft skin products using a beading needle and single strand, white cotton thread. You can usually attach these labels without passing completely through the skin, and you can limit stitches to the upper edge of the label. Attach at a seam or inconspicuous area of the skin or hide material, or loop to a permanent strap.

Direct labeling on skin products can be recommended only for firm leathers and rawhide. You can apply a barrier coating or ground of clear Acryloid B-72 resin to a small, inconspicuous area (approximately 1 cm x 3 cm in size). When dry, apply the catalog number directly. The ink should have different solubility than that of the ground resin, so it may be changed if necessary.

Label the object neatly in the most inconspicuous place possible. Your labels should be small yet clearly readable from a distance of one foot. Use a high quality and iron-free ink, such as India ink.


Conservation Treatment Issues

Curators, collectors, and conservators alike have been guilty of relying on old treatments to preserve skin materials, and far too frequently they accepted the promotions of commercial products designed for contemporary leathers. This history of haphazard treatment and unsystematic evaluation of skin products has resulted in considerable damage and loss. Common criticisms of past treatments of skin and leather products are that preservation attempts have not differentiated among the distinct categories of skin materials and have relied too heavily on the application of "preservatives." The traditional remedies and reagents once routinely used in museum collections are now being carefully scrutinized by museum conservators. With the aid of scientific investigation and the assessment of the results of past treatment, several important new directions are being taken. The findings on past treatments have not been encouraging.


1. What are the perils of saddle soap?

There are many problems associated with the use of "saddle soap" on historic and artistic objects made from animal skin products. With the best of intentions, this commercial product has been inappropriately applied to just about every form of skin material in the past. "Saddle soap" was not developed as a cleaner, but as a 19th century leather conditioner. Its basic components of neatsfoot oil and cod or sperm oil were emulsified with soap in water to produce an emulsion fat-liquor introduced during early tanning. As a conditioner, saddle soap is considered obsolete by tanners today. Its application has caused considerable permanent damage to skin and leather objects since its components cannot be easily rinsed out and adequately removed (as manufacturer instructions often suggest). Saddle soap effectively softens and emulsifies surface oil and dirt, however it usually distributes them deeper into the material. The mixture's high moisture content presents a hazard to aged skin materials that should not be wetted, as well as light colored vegetable and/or alum tanned leathers. Commercial formulations of saddle soap differ in their ingredients, some containing abrasives and even colorants. Saddle soap quality fluctuates greatly among manufacturers. Perhaps most importantly, conservators now suspect that the surface cracking on many older skin and leather objects may well be due to past "saddle soap" application. Avoid it.

2. What are the drawbacks of leather dressings?

The care of skin and leather goods has traditionally involved the routine use of leather dressings, solutions of fats and oils that lubricate skin products to increase flexibility. Modern research has shown, however, that the haphazard use of dressings has been the cause of considerable deterioration within museum collections. Numerous drawbacks are associated with dressing of skin products. For example, dressings frequently:

darken lighter colored leathers

encourage biological attack

form fatty spews at the surface

oxidize over time and stiffen the material

wick into surrounding materials

soften original finishes and decoration

cause dust to accumulate

impede future conservation treatment

contaminate the material for future analysis

3. What about neutralization of acids?

The chemical decay and disintegration of leather resulting from exposure to acids is a well-known problem and its solution for older leathers remains unresolved. Vegetable-tanned leathers produced since the mid- 19th  entury frequently exhibit a condition of internal fiber degradation known as "red rot." The color of the leather actually reddens as the deterioration progresses. In its advanced state, affected leather will disintegrate into a powdery form. This condition is most always associated with sulfuric acid, introduced either during the tanning process or from atmospheric contact with the contaminant sulphur dioxide. (Leather readily absorbs acid from the air.) Sulphur dioxide, when absorbed, becomes sulphur trioxide, which unites with water to form sulfuric acid, resulting in a devastating effect on collagen fibers. Certain vegetable tannages (the ones categorized as condensed tannins) have been identified as being much more susceptible to this mechanism of deterioration.

Modern leathers are fortified against acid formation by incorporating buffering salts that repress acid formation and action. Some of the museum preservation literature during the last decade recommended that older leathers be treated with similar buffering salts, such as potassium lactate and potassium citrate, to protect them from acid attack. The problem that museum curators face is that there is no easy and safe method for long-term neutralization of acids that are present in historic leather objects. There are three drawbacks associated with the treatment of leather with standard buffering salt solutions:

The salts must be introduced in an aqueous solution yet water can be very damaging to historic leather causing stiffening, color change and disruption of applied finishes.

Salt solutions are meant only for vegetable-tanned leather and will detan and damage mineral-tanned materials; the applicator must, therefore, be able to distinguish between them, which is not an easy task.

The addition of buffering salts will do nothing for leathers that have already begun to deteriorate from acid exposure. 

The conservation field is looking at other methods of de-acidifying leathers; vapor phase reagents and non-aqueous chemicals are being investigated. The importance of this conservation issue is clear to those involved, and acceptable procedures should be available to museum staffs in the near future.

So there you have it. That is what the experts do. Now for the OPINION part of the page...

1.) If the leather is clean and flexible, do nothing. It is fine as is and will last your lifetime and probably more. Store it correctly and watch the humidity and it will be around for your kids to enjoy and probably their kids as well. We create more trouble by trying to clean leather then leaving it in it's natural state.

2.) Never use "saddle soap" in any form to clean leather with. It isn't really soap and it will damage the leather. Just don't do it.

3.) With dry leather scabbards and handles it is possible to add moisture back into them in most cases unless the leather is too far gone. Hard brittle dry leather can not be "restored" regardless of what you may have heard. It can be made somewhat flexible again but it is only a matter of time before it fails. In minor cases it can be corrected simply by upping the humidity of storage, this is the correct way to fix it. As the leather piece in question is in a collection and not likely to be used the flexibility of an original is a moot point and not worth worrying about. If you want to have some flex and artificially increase the  moisture content I only use Pecards Antique Leather Dressing. It is petroleum based so will not turn rancid as most animal fat products will. The experts above say to stay away from any dressings, long term they know better then I do. All I can share is my own experience, Pecards is the ONLY product I will use and it is only in a worst case scenario where the item would be lost anyway without the help. Apply it in thin coats and repeat as needed, do not try to drown the leather and get it over with fast, it doesn't work that way. Use only the smallest amount needed. I do not regularly use anything at all on my knife handles or scabbards. Control the humidity.

4.) If in doubt... do nothing. It is probably ok like it is and you will do more harm then good.