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Your Ultimate Guide to Conditioning Leather: 16 Tips for Preserving Bags, Cases and Accessories

In the world of leathercraft, preserving the beauty of your leather goods is paramount, even after you've created your masterpiece.

Whether you make leather bags, cases, or stylish luxury accessories, proper conditioning is the key to maintaining their pristine appearance and longevity.

In this guide, I'll unlock the truth about leather conditioning, covering everything you need to know to care for both vegetable tanned and chrome tanned leather.

leather attache case leather conditioner
Conditioning a bridle leather attache case. Screenshot from the video course 'The Bloomsbury Attache Case'

Understanding Your Leather:

Before diving into the specifics of leather conditioning, it's essential to understand the two primary types of leather you’ll come across from most tanneries and suppliers: vegetable tanned and chrome tanned leather.

Here are the main characteristics of both.

What is vegetable Tanned Leather?:

  • Hide or skin, tanned (preserved) with natural extracts such as tree bark.

  • Vegetable tanned leather is prized for its natural, eco-friendly production process.

  • It develops a rich patina over time, adding character and depth to your leather goods.

  • It is more susceptible to water damage and requires regular conditioning to maintain its suppleness and luster.

What is chrome Tanned Leather?:

  • Chrome leather is tanned with chromium salts, resulting in a softer and more pliable texture.

  • It is highly resistant to water, scratches and stains, making it ideal for everyday use.

  • While less prone to drying out than vegetable tanned leather, it still benefits from infrequent conditioning to prevent dryness and maintain its flexibility. Especially true if the leather sees a lot of outdoor use in the elements.

Important to note: Any leather, regardless of its type or tannage, will not accept any conditioner or oils if it has a heavy surface finish on the grain side. Finishes act as a barrier to prevent anything penetrating through, wanted or unwanted.

Some finishes are see-through, showing the natural leather underneath. Most are pigmented, made from synthetic resins such as polyurethane (PU) which keep the pigment color suspended on the surface to provide a uniform look and to add water/stain resistance.

Side note: This is not to be confused with 'PU leather' which happens to be a type of polyurethane imitation leather, devoid of anything natural.

The 3 main types of surface finish are Aniline (dyed), semi-aniline (dyed with a light surface pigment) and fully pigmented. The first two should accept conditioners, with semi-aniline taking a little longer to absorb.

Dyes are like food coloring and simply stain the leather a particular color. Pigment finishes are essentially paints that sit on the surface (not soaking through like dyes), similar to the ones you use to paint a wall to cover up any imperfections and create uniformity.

Before conditioning, there are several ways to tell if you have a heavy surface finish acting as a barrier (rendering conditioners useless):

  1. The color on the surface is completely uniform across the hide or skin, especially common with lighter colored hides. For example, no leather is white, and it cannot be bleached/dyed pure white either. So if your hide looks as white as a sheet of paper, chances are a white pigment has been sprayed on the surface at the tannery.

  2. Scraping the surface in an inconspicuous area using a sharp craft knife results in the color coming off onto the blade, sometimes (but not always) exposing a different color underneath.

  3. A drop of water or oil placed on the surface does not get absorbed by the leather.

  4. The surface lacks a natural feel and has a synthetic plasticy touch, not unlike imitation leather.

Rarely is vegetable tanned leather pigmented across it’s surface. But if this is the case, then it can’t absorb the conditioner until it cracks from age or heavy use. By this time, it’s already too late. For this reason alone, avoid fully pigmented veg-tan leather.

Technically, you could use highly absorbent conditioners applied to the flesh side on the rear, but this can only be done before construction begins, and may make it difficult for adhesives to bond.

Custom leather apron pull up leather
Screenshot from the video course 'The Bespoke Leather Apron' showing the natural look of pure aniline leather

Types of leather conditioner:

Conditioner is anything that can nourish your leather and bring back the condition it started out with at the tannery.

This can be oil based, or it can be an emulsified cream which contains both water and oils/fats (like face cream).

These are essential to apply over time, as oils can eventually evaporate leaving your leather dry. Dry leather cracks more easily and lacks the protection of oils to withstand water and dirt.

This means conditioners are to be considered a preventative measure rather than a cure. Much like it is better to drink fluids before becoming thirsty in order to stay correctly hydrated.

applying oil to vegetable tanned leather
Applying oil directly to veg-tan leather for a sharpening strop. Course available free on YouTube

Leather conditioner damage.

Over conditioning can cause as much damage as dry under conditioned leather. Oils and fats in conditioners can dry out your leather, much in the same way a potato crisp (US: chip) isn't more flexible after water is exchanged for oil during the frying process. An extreme example, but you get the idea.

According to the Alaska State Museum's preservation department, over conditioning, where oil or fat makes up more than 3% of the weight of the leather, moisture will begin to be driven out and will eventually become dry and brittle. This leads many crafters to add more conditioner to counteract the issue, further compounding the problem.

Of course, I'm not suggesting you weigh your leather and conditioner. Just remember less is often more, and don't condition too frequently.

conditioning exotic alligator and crocodile skin
An oil and wax blend used to protect the exotic skin on this handle from heavy use. Course available free on YouTube

Now we've covered the basics, let's explore best practice for conditioning your leather projects:

  • When selecting a leather conditioner, opt for high-quality products specifically formulated for the type of leather you're treating. So, know what type of leather you're working with from the start.

  • For vegetable tanned leather, consider using a natural oil-based conditioner such as neatsfoot oil or mink oil. Creams will also work too, but note that most creams are formulated with chrome tanned leather in mind.

  • For chrome tanned leather, a water-based conditioner or leather balm works best to replenish lost moisture without leaving a greasy residue. These leathers rarely need oils, the exception being certain types of heavy duty shoes made from chromed leather.

  • Before applying any conditioner to your leather goods, perform a patch test in an inconspicuous area to ensure compatibility and prevent any unwanted discoloration or damage. Some conditioners contain oils or solvents that can dissolve surface pigments.

  • Prior to conditioning, gently clean the surface of your leather with a soft, damp cloth to remove any dirt, dust, or residue.

  • Allow the leather to dry completely before applying the conditioner to ensure optimal absorption.

  • Less is more when it comes to leather conditioning. Apply a small amount of conditioner onto a clean, lint-free cloth and massage it into the leather using circular motions. The leather may darken, but will lighten a little as it soaks through.

  • If conditioning your project after it is constructed, focus on parts prone to dryness such as seams, areas of flex, and folds. But, avoid over-saturating these parts just because they absorb more conditioner than other areas.

  • After conditioning, allow the leather to absorb the conditioner for at least 30 minutes to an hour before buffing off any excess with a clean cloth.

  • This allows the conditioner time to penetrate deep into the leather fibers, nourishing and revitalizing from within.

  • Depending on the level of use and environmental factors, leather should be conditioned every 6 to 12 months to maintain its integrity and prolong its lifespan.

What leather conditioner should I use?:

As for specific brands or product recommendations, that depends on what leather you want to condition. Saphir, Fiebings, Renapur and other well known brands are advisable over small cottage industry companies who don't invest heavily in testing.

Check each product to see if it's suitable for conditioning the leather you have selected.

By following these simple yet effective tips for leather conditioning, you can ensure that your prized leather bags, cases, and accessories remain in pristine condition for years to come.

I hope you enjoyed this post, and if you have any favorite conditioners you love using, comment below and let us know!


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3 comentários

Very well explained, provided me with a lot of clarity thanks so much!


16 de abr.

Hi Philip!

Thanks so much for this article, it is very helpful! I was wondering what your thoughts are on conditioning pull up leather?

Respondendo a

Hey, you're welcome!

Usually pull-up leather contains a lot of oils and waxes from the tannery. While it will eventually need conditioning, it won't be for some time depending on its use, and whether or not it is frequently exposed to the elements.

That could be months, or even years down the line. If it looks and feels drier than before, or it becomes less supple, those are good indicators it's time for a touch of conditioner.

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