Leather Therapy Makes Leather Behave...Beautifully

Gas: Good for your Truck, Bad for your Leather

Leather needs periodic conditioning with an oil-based product to lubricate it and keep it supple. But all oils are not created equal when it comes to leather care. The ideal leather conditioner contains a blend of oils similar to those in the fat liquors used by leather tanners.

Leather comes out of tanning solutions literally stiff as a board. Tanners tumble the stiff hides with a blend of animal-based oils whose droplets are thoroughly dispersed in water to create a “fat liquor”. This emulsion of oil and water can penetrate deeply between the fibres of the boardy hide to make the leather pliable. While different tanners use different fat liquors, top quality leather makers use blends of animal-based oils to create the strong, durable leathers prized by horsemen who pass their tack from generation to generation.

Over time, the oils originally tumbled into the leather fibres dry out, oxidise, or get flushed out by sweat, water, and repeated cleanings. The leather begins to get stiff again. So the oils must be periodically replenished to keep the leather strong and supple.

Different oils have different properties, however, and will give your conditioning a different end result. Petroleum-based oils (also called mineral oils) are thicker and do not penetrate as deeply into leather fibres as emulsions can. Although they do lubricate leather fibres they tend to do so unevenly. Heat may draw them out and they also spread or migrate through the fibres to rub off on gloves, riding pants, and anything else the leather touches. They also tend to darken the leather.

To avoid these problems, look for leather conditioners made from a blend of oils that duplicates a tanner’s fat liquor. Choose an emulsion that will penetrate deeply between fibres rather than sitting on only the upper surface of the leather. Leather readily absorbs an emulsion leaving no greasy residue trapped in stitching lines or crevices which must be removed before the conditioning job is finished. An emulsion made without petroleum oils will help retain your leather’s original colour.

Neatsfoot oil is a traditional leather conditioner but some types are not so neat any more. “Neat” is an Old English term referring to cattle. Cattle hooves were once boiled to release their “neatsfoot oil” but no one extracts oil this time consuming and expensive way any more. However, the government allows manufacturers to apply the term “neatsfoot oil” to other oils or oil blends with a similar chemical structure.

Today, neatsfoot oil may be made from liquified animal fats or a blend of fats and petroleum-based mineral oils. It is almost impossible to tell from their labels just what is in various neatsfoot oil products labeled premium, pure, or 100 percent. But the term “compound” is usually a tip off that the neatsfoot oil product contains some petroleum derivative. Regardless of what it contains, viscous neatsfoot oil does not condition leather as well as an emulsion.

Mink Oil is a euphemistic name for liquified pig fat combined with silicone. Like Lanolin, it’s very greasy and typically unsuitable for many leathers. It’s mainly used on heavy boots.

While you should make it a point to clean dirt and sweat off your tack each time you use it, conditioning should only be an occasional tack care procedure. Oiling your leather too often can soften it too much and make the leather mushy or “raggy”. As a rule of thumb, treat your leather like your own skin. Clean it often with a non-drying, neutral pH cleaner and moisturize it periodically with a good conditioner before it begins to feel dry or stiff. Let the tack, your climate, and your storage conditions be your guide to how often conditioning is needed.

Anna Carner Blangiforti
President and Founder
Leather Therapy Products