The reasons for leather’s appeal aren’t hard to understand. It’s a material our ancestors used for clothes, pouches, and a variety of other useful wares. And leather is so durable that many of those heirloom items are still around today (in fact, a pair of shockingly well-preserved 5,500-year-old leather shoes were discovered a few years back). Adding to this literal toughness, is an aura of it, borne from the material’s ancient connection to hunting and killing. Plus, leather just looks dang good.
While it’s tough as nails, we must also remember that leather is in fact skin. It can dry, crack, stain, warp, etc. So today I’ll walk you through the various options for treating and taking care of leather so that whatever form it takes can be passed down your family line.
Note that much of the below applies mostly to everyday use items that are regularly exposed to the elements — shoes, jackets, bags. Wallets, accessories, etc. can still be cared for with these tips, they generally just don’t need as much attention.
W H A T D O Y O U W A N T Y O U R L E A T H E R T O L O O K L I K E ?
The first task in deciding how to treat and care for your leather is simply asking what you want it to look like, and the role it plays in your life. A pair of rugged work boots don’t need as much attention as a pair of classy dress shoes. A moto jacket will likely be naturally more beaten up than a bomber jacket you wear around town - tis the nature of riding a motorcycle down the freeway with leather over your shoulders.
It also comes down to taste. Some men want a clean, polished look for their bag, while others are okay with scratches, blemishes, and natural wear and tear. Dave Munson, founder of Saddleback Leather Co., prefers to minimally treat his own personal bags, and allows them to have the beaten-to-hell look that tells tales of adventures (and sometimes misadventures) without ever uttering a word.
So think about what you want your leather to look like, and next, we’ll go through some various treatment options.
T H E D I F F E R E N C E S B E T W E E N V A R I O U S L E A T H E R T R E A T M E N T S
If you’re like me, you may have thought that giving your shoes a good polish every now and then was all that leather needed to stand the test of time. When perusing the shoe care section of a department store, all the creams, polishes, waxes, and conditioners blended together into a single product in my mind. They’re not, in fact, totally interchangeable though. Let’s take a look at what these different treatments do to leather. Keep in mind there aren’t general pros and cons here; as stated above, it comes down to what you want, and what the function of the leather item is.
Polish. Polish is largely actually for aesthetics. On its own, it’s mostly about the actual shine of the product (usually shoes and bags) rather than protecting it from the elements. Having said that, many polishes have a moisturizing element, so you really have to look at the product description and user reviews to know what you’re getting and what it does.
Since cleaning is part of a good polishing routine, it’s certainly not a bad thing to do. Frequency of polishing simply depends on your own preferences for how you want your leather goods to look, but most casual items won’t need it. If you have a nice briefcase or fancy dress shoes, that’s where polish really comes in.
Conditioner/Cream. Leather conditioner or cream moisturizes the material so that it doesn’t dry out and crack. This won’t make your shoes “shine,” but it will protect them. Note that in most cases conditioners don’t waterproof your leather (though some do include a water-repelling component). Leather conditioners are lotion-like, and are to be gently rubbed into the leather. The hide will soak up the conditioner, just like your skin would soak up a moisturizer.
How often you use conditioner, as with the other treatments, really depends on what you want. Dave Munson, mentioned above, conditions every 6-12 months, preferring to let his bags completely dry out before re-applying. That keeps the leather looking rugged and tough, and allows it to accrue some scuffs, scratches, etc.
Most folks out there - everyday folks who haven’t founded leather goods companies - like to condition their goods (largely everyday use items like shoes and bags) every 3 months or so, sometimes more if they live in a dry climate.
Waterproofing. Waterproofing sprays or waxes provide a coating to your shoe to repel water, snow, baby drool, etc. These treatments generally only need to be done once a year, depending on your use of the product. Sprays should only be used in a pinch; they’re convenient, but create a lower quality effect. You’ll need to re-apply a spray several times over the course of a single winter or rainy season. Waxes (and sometimes creams) are much more durable, and can be applied with greater precision and control. With a spray, you’ll be coating laces, zippers, etc., perhaps unnecessarily wearing them and exposing them to chemicals.
More on waterproofing below, as it’s a controversial topic in the leather world.
Damp Cloth. Using a damp cloth is the old reliable when it comes to leather care. Since leather is so very naturally durable anyway, giving it a wipe down (without soap - its chemicals can ruin the leather over time) once a week to get rid of the dirt and dust (the most nefarious culprits to premature wear and tear) constitutes a minimally sufficient care routine. If you use nothing else, this is the way to go.
Wire/Suede Brush. In the case of suede (a form of leather that is simply the underside of an animal’s hide), don’t use any of the above products. All you’re going to do is use a small wire or suede-specific brush to wipe away dirt and grime. Avoid water with suede products as much as possible.
N O T E S O N T R E A T M E N T O P T I O N S
These treatments get really tricky because they can go by many different names, and they’re often combined - you find a lot of “shoe cream polish” or “waterproofing conditioner” online.
How do you navigate this? You largely have to rely on your own research of a particular product. Many brands that make leather goods have care guides (interestingly, hardly any mention waterproofing). Even then, however, you need to look over ingredients lists and read up in forums or reviews of how people are actually taking care of these leather items. It’s no surprise that some companies are simply peddling their own conditioners or polishes, which may or may not be any better than other, often cheaper, brands.
Ultimately, you just need to test the various treatments to see what they do to your leather - how it looks, how it wears, how it handles the elements, etc. Leather is indeed hardy, so if you’re following the principles below, don’t worry too much about messing up your shoes or bag with the wrong product.
L E A T H E R C A R E P R I N C I P L E S
Leather needs to breathe. Just like skin, leather needs some ventilation to prevent mildew and rot. Air can naturally pass through leather, leaving moisture to evaporate naturally. That can’t happen when your leather is all sealed up, though. So don’t ever store or transport it in a plastic grocery bag (whoops - guilty of that one!). Either use the storage/travel bag the item came with, or some type of breathable fabric - pillowcases are great for shoes, bags, and/or other accessories.
Keep leather away from direct sunlight/heat. If a leather item gets waterlogged, it can be tempting to throw it in front of a heater or to use a hair dryer to speed the process. Don’t do that, ever. Just like skin and other fabrics, when leather gets wet and then heated right away, it can shrink and dry out too quickly. Rather, let it dry naturally, even if it takes a couple days.
Also, just generally keep leather out of direct sunlight when storing. The leather fades naturally over time, but sunlight speeds up that process. Drying and cracking can also ensue. Darker places with some humidity are preferred, although again, ensure air flow so that mildew can’t form.
Test first. When applying any polish or conditioner, always test a small area first. Any item is likely to change the color of the leather, even if only slightly. Before applying a treatment to an entire shoe, test it on a small portion, let it dry for 24 hours, and see what happens. It may seem tedious, but it can keep your shoe from looking different than what you want. If a certain brand/color goes well the first time, then feel free to use repeatedly without testing again.
Go with natural/neutral colors. Many polishes and creams will come in either black, brown, or neutral. The added dyes are thought to liven up any faded color in a leather product. While black is a pretty safe choice for black products, there are just too many shades of brown to match things up perfectly. To avoid unnecessarily changing the hue of your leather, stick with neutrals (usually either white or gray in the can/bottle).
Regularly clean with a damp cloth. As mentioned above, the most foolproof way to keep any leather product from prematurely aging, even if you do nothing else, is to give it a regular wipe-down with a damp cloth. Your jackets, shoes, bags - they all quickly accumulate dirt, dust, and all manner of other abrasive particles that lead to premature wear and tear. Preserve your leather by wiping them down weekly, or even after a single hard use in a winter storm, with a wet cloth or even paper towel.
Generally speaking, leather doesn’t need waterproofing. Most leather goods sold these days are treated to some degree or another with some sort of waterproofing agent. In most environments and conditions, your leather will hold up just fine to rain, snow, etc. If you’re someone who is hiking with leather boots, or you’re regularly out in deep snow or heavy rain with them, then you should waterproof - and even then, it’s more for the contents of the leather item (your feet, your laptop, your body) than the material itself. If you’re unsure about waterproofing, ask the manufacturer. They’ll tell you whatever treatment it already has, and if the product needs additional care based on your activities and uses.
T H I N G S T O C O N S I D E R F O R S P E C I F I C L E A T H E R G O O D S
Shoes. When you aren’t wearing your leather shoes (particularly dress shoes), keep cedar shoe trees in them. This keeps the shape, reduces creases, and naturally absorbs excess moisture/odors. Dress shoes should be cleaned and polished more regularly.
Work-style or everyday wear boots don’t need as much care, but should be wiped down weekly (even twice weekly if they’re truly worn every day) and conditioned every 1-6 months depending on where you live, the time of year, and your preferences, as noted above in the conditioner section.
Bags/wallets. Your primary concern here is to avoid over-filling these items. Once misshapen, leather isn’t going to spring back to its original form (hence shoe trees in shoes). Bags generally need less treatment than shoes just because they aren’t subject to the same beating as footwear. Still wipe them down regularly, though, and condition every 6-12 months.
Jackets. Similar to shoes. Wipe them down after a few wears, and condition every 6 months or so if worn regularly. It really comes down to how the item looks; if it feels dry and small cracks are appearing, give it some attention. With leather jackets, you often want to achieve that soft and supple feel, so go ahead and use lanolin-based products - AoM style guy Antonio Centeno recommends saddle soap. Also consider getting leather jackets professionally cleaned once a year; there are in fact specialty leather cleaners in most major cities. Since jackets contain a larger amount of leather than most other goods, there’s just more square footage to keep up with, and you’re likely to miss something with your own cleaning and conditioning.
To sum up, ensure that you have a good routine for caring for your leather goods. In many instances, it will look something like these 3 easy steps:
- Wipe down leather with a damp cloth 1-2 times per week depending on use and accumulated dirt and grime. Store leather shoes on cedar trees.
- Condition leather every 3-6 months, sometimes more depending on the environment and season.
- Waterproof once a year, if desired, and if your lifestyle/environment calls for it.