Gathering Up Your Supplies
• Glycerin or pH-balanced saddle soap
• Castile soap for heavily soiled leather
• Small bucket of water
• Hand towels (3-4 terry cloth type)
• Soft bristle brush (natural is best)
• Metal cleaner
• Leather conditioner
• Soft cloth for buffing
• Saddle tree or sawhorses for saddle
I still have and ride a colorado saddlery saddle that my father purchased more than 40 years ago. With a little more TLC, I’m hoping that this saddle will still be around and rideable after another 40. The remarkable thing is that leather-especially with the specialized products available to us today-can last almost forever if it receives proper care. By remembering that your leather goods were once an animal’s skin, it’s easy to appreciate the need to replenish the essential oils that help keep leather soft and supple while still allowing the hide to breathe. Therefore, it’s essential to keep leather clean so the dirt doesn’t erode the fibers and block the pores, and to store it away from heat, humidity and sun.
As leather ages and is exposed to the elements, it loses the fats and oils used to saturate the hide during the tanning process. The dryer and harder leather gets, the greater the likelihood it will crack, split or warp. So along with keeping your leather clean, you will need to condition it from time to time.
Excess moisture, mold and mildew also damage leather, so depending on your climate, you may need to take precautions as to where you store your saddles and tack and the type of products you select for cleaning and conditioning them.
The following information should help keep your leather goods in great shape.
1. Start first by brushing away any surface dust or dirt with a soft cotton cloth or a fine-bristled brush, such as a natural fiber shoeshine brush. A vacuum with a brush attachment also works well as long as the bristles aren’t so stiff that they will scratch the finish.
2.Open any buckles for easier access to those hard-to-reach spots. Remove cinches and stirrups. When cleaning bridles, reins, tack or harness, it’s also a good idea to remove bits, buckles, hardware and any silver accessories before applying leather cleaners. If you cannot remove the hardware, be careful to clean around it so you do not contaminate the leather with the silver polish or tarnish the hardware with leather cleaner.
3.Many new saddles with silver conchos, skirt plates and horn caps have a protective coating on the accessories to prevent tarnishing. Be careful when purchasing silver cleaner that you do not buy one that will strip this protective coating off. On the other hand, if you have to polish your silver, be careful not to contaminate your leather with silver cleaner because it can and will damage your leather. A damp rag is all you need on stainless steel buckles and snaps.
4.Follow the manufacturer’s directions precisely for the type of saddle soap or leather cleaner you’ve chosen. Some recommend working the cleaner into a lather, while others do not. Some products need to be rinsed off with water or a damp cloth, while others do not. Many of the new pH-balanced and glycerin formulas have become extremely popular because of their ability to clean and condition without darkening the leather or leaving a greasy residue, while producing a lustrous shine when buffed.
5.With a big project, such as a saddle, work on small sections at a time. Be sure to wipe or rinse away excess soap as you go. (Be careful not to get the leather too wet.) Residue left in crevices and folds attracts dirt, which will eat away the leather. If working an area that is tooled, you will want to use a soft-bristled brush to make sure no soap is left in crevices. Rinse often and use a towel to wipe up any excess moisture.
Bonus Tip: Quick Touch-Up for Suede
Suede is leather that has gone through the process of having the fibers of the flesh side of the hide buffed to give it a nap effect. Because the flesh side is more porous, it will absorb moisture faster and will stain easily. You’ll want to use caution when cleaning suede, and while there are commercial products made especially for suede, one home “dry-cleaning” method is to use cornmeal. Simply rub the cornmeal into the stain with your fingers in a light circular motion, and then use a soft suede brush to gently lift up the nap of the suede when finished.
6.Be sure to clean under all flaps and the bottom side of the stirrup leathers. These areas will more likely have the heaviest soil and sweat buildup.
7.For areas of a saddle with a heavy accumulation of waxy dirt and dander, use Castile soap. A little bit of sudsing is okay here.
8.Once the leather is clean, it’s ready to be conditioned. Some product manufacturers recommend conditioning leather while it is still damp, while others suggest a drying period, so be sure to follow label directions. Also, if you’re concerned about whether a product will darken the finish, always test a spot where it won’t be seen. Authentic neat’s-foot and other “oils” will almost always darken leather, while some top beeswax-fortified “fine leather” creams will not.
9.Be sure to wipe away any excess conditioner or oil so they do not stain your clothes or collect dirt.
10.Once the conditioner has been absorbed, buff the leather with a lint-free rag such as an old sheet or T-shirt. Check as you go for any residual soap or dirt left on your leather, especially in those hard-to-see places.