Friday, January 14, 2000

New Millennium, Clean Leather

(Leather Life column published in Lavender Magazine, Issue #121, January 14, 2000)

PHOTO: Mr. Minnesota Fantasy 1999 David Page, shown here shining boots at last year’s Minnesota Leather Pride celebration, is just one of the experts consulted for this column on leather care.

PHOTO CREDIT: Chrys Zaglifa

To be truthful, I don’t count leather cleaning and boot polishing among my areas of strength. So when a reader wrote recently to ask me how best to maintain his leather gear, I did what Ann and Abby always do: I consulted a panel of experts. They gave me good (if somewhat conflicting) advice, and one of them even suggested a novel way to take the drudgery out of leather maintenance chores.

There are many leather care products available and many contradictory schools of thought on leather care. Here’s one that’s pretty orthodox: In Leather and Latex Care: How to Keep Your Leather And Latex Looking Great, author Kelly J. Thibault recommends plain old saddle soap for cleaning leather, and 70% rubbing (isopropyl) alcohol for disinfecting it if necessary. (Read the book or visit for the complete procedure.)

Saddle soap has its detractors. The makers of Lexol, one of the most widely available families of leather care products, accuse saddle soap of being too alkaline and actually de-tanning leather over time. But among my experts Lexol was not universally admired, either. Let’s ask our panel, one by one, for their leather cleaning tips and preferences.

Interior designer and leatherman Ken Binder knows leather both from a garment and an upholstery standpoint, and his care recommendations are the same for both: “If it’s good quality leather you shouldn’t need anything more than a damp cloth. If it’s not good quality leather, shame on you for buying it in the first place.”

Troy DaRonco is Minnesota Drummerboy 1994 and Great Lakes Drummerboy 1995—and is also the guy who cleans your humble columnist’s house. He uses a product called The Tannery for leather upholstery, but he doesn’t like it for apparel. And he’s not a fan of Lexol either—he doesn’t like the smell, and he doesn’t like what he considers its overly strong (he uses the words “almost toxic”) nature. His product of choice, for boots and apparel as well, is Huberd’s Boot Grease—“The smell is incredible!” It can be hard to find, but Mr. S/Fetters in San Francisco has it in their catalog.

Scott Kelley, of Fit to a T Leathers, says it makes sense to keep your leathers clean to begin with—if you keep them out of the dirt, you won’t have to clean them as often. Another way to keep your leather in shape: Wear it. The more you wear your leather, the better it gets.

Store your leathers properly. Use a sturdy hanger (or put several hangers together if necessary), especially for heavy items like chaps and jackets. Items should hang without creases. Store thinner, lighter items like leather tank tops by folding them and placing them on a shelf or in a drawer; to avoid creases, don’t place them at the bottom of a stack with heavier items on top of them. Don’t store any kind of leather in a plastic bag—let it breathe.

For simple cleaning, use a damp cloth or terry towel. Lightly buff the leather dry with terrycloth. If an item is dusty, wipe the dust off with a dry cloth (a wet cloth will only make the problem worse by creating mud). For scrapes on black leather, buff the area with terrycloth to remove dirt and grit, then use a good black leather polish to hide the scratches (wax polishes are better than liquids). To finish, buff with a buffing brush or cotton towel.

Airing out smoky leathers will get rid of the worst of the smoke odor. But Jennifer Langlund, also of Fit to a T Leather, notes that the leather hanging in their store in Club Metro can become smoky. They use Lexol cleaner and conditioner to remove the smoke film and restore the leather smell. “I just wipe it on with a paper towel,” Langlund says, “and the amount of dirt that comes off is unreal. And you don’t need to use very much, so it lasts forever.” A last resort is to send your leather to a specialized leather cleaner, like Don’s Leather Cleaning (3717 E. Lake St., Minneapolis); when you get it back, remove it from the plastic dry-cleaning bag and let it air for up to a week to get rid of the dry-cleaning smell. (Incidentally, the leather care advice from Don’s Leather Cleaning: If it needs more than a damp cloth, send it to us.)

Max at The Leather Man Inc. in New York City (111 Christopher Street in Greenwich Village) says don’t overdo it. “Good leather doesn’t need a lot of care. Conditioners are okay, but if you over-clean it you’ll strip out a lot of the essential oils.” Never dry clean leathers—Max is hesitant to recommend even specialized leather cleaning processes. For black leather they recommend a product called Black Dubbin, which covers up scratches, conditions, waterproofs, and keeps the leather supple. They also like Pecard Leather Dressing and Lexol. For salt stains on the inside of pants and harnesses, they recommend cleaning with lukewarm water and a mild hand soap. Let dry (slowly, away from heat sources), then apply a leather conditioner to soften. (All the products they recommend are available at their store.)

Todd Nelson of Seattle, Wash. is International Bootblack 1996 and Seattle Mr. Leather 1992. He uses Lexol for cleaning and conditioning both garment leather and boots. On garment-leather items like chaps, pants, jackets and vests, he follows the Lexol by applying a very small amount of a product called Wesco Bee Oil. He simply pours it into the cup of his hand and works it into the leather. Nelson likes the way it “snaps up the sheen and makes it shiny black.” (He doesn’t use Bee Oil on boots or harnesses.)

Want to make doing your leathers fun and sensual instead of drudgery? Make a scene out of it—wear your leather while someone else applies the Bee Oil, then do the same for them. According to Nelson, it can be very erotic and very tactile—especially on chaps or pants, but it can also be nice with a jacket or vest. Who knew leather care could be so much fun? (Like many other leather care products, Bee Oil can be hard to find; contact Wesco at 1-800-326-2711.)

Now, About Those Boots . . .

Nelson leads workshops on bootblacking and has written a book on the subject. Here’s what he says is the biggest mistake people make on their boots, especially military boots: “Never, never, NEVER use the spray-on instant shine lacquer. It creates a shell that looks shiny and pretty the first couple of times you spray it on, and then it cracks. Once that happens and it doesn’t look pretty anymore, there’s not much you can do to rescue the boot.”

Another big mistake: “People don’t read the instructions on a product. They try to clean suede, buck, colored or exotic leather with products not meant for these kinds of leathers and wind up ruining it. Suede cleaner is delicate enough to clean almost any kind of leather without staining—but you must still use care on colored, especially light-colored, leathers.”

Closer to home, here’s bootshine advice from David Page, Mr. Minnesota Fantasy 1999 and a frequent bootblack at local events: “You don’t want winter salt to linger on your boots, so clean them with saddle soap and then put some kind of leather care on them. It’s also important to shine your boots often because the wax and polish helps protect against the elements. If the boot leather dries and cracks, use a conditioner to soften the leather or the cracks will get worse.” (Page likes Lexol). “Clean the boots before you polish them using saddle soap, then polish them with a paste wax and buff them with a brush.” Page names two good places in Minneapolis to buy boot brushes and other bootshine supplies: Shoe-A-New (2829 Hennepin Ave. S.) and Nokomis Shoe Shop (4950 34th Ave. S.).

Black Frost 23 Registration Deadline Approaches

The Black Guard of Minneapolis present their 23rd annual run, Black Frost 23, featuring a production of Howard Crabtree’s “When Pigs Fly” as well as great food, games, cocktail parties, bar runs, and an indoor pool and hot tub. It’s all happening Feb. 18-20, and the registration deadline is Feb. 7. All the details are on the registration form; if you haven’t already received one in the mail, ask for one by writing to Run Registration, The Black Guard of Minneapolis, Minneapolis MN. You might also try visiting their website at

Upcoming Leather Events (for Calendar section)

Friday, January 21

Atons Club Colors Night
7:30-10:30 PM, The Minneapolis Eagle
Drink specials, door prizes. $3 at the door. For more info, call the Atons Hotline.

Saturday, January 22

Black Guard “Pigs Fly” to Trikkx
8-11 PM, Trikkx (St. Paul)
A fundraiser for Because We Care. Enjoy carnival “Piggy” games, door prizes, and a sneak preview of numbers from Howard Crabtree’s “When Pigs Fly” (the show for the upcoming Black Frost 23 run). Come in costume as your favorite pig—prizes awarded 10 PM. Drink and appetizer specials 7-9 PM. For more info:

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