Leather: Whether you’re talking about car seats, sofas, wallets, boots, or jackets, few other materials feel so good, last so long, and lend so much class as fine leather. On the other hand, nothing else feels as uncomfortable, falls apart as quickly, and looks as cheap as poor-quality leather. But how can you tell the difference? And how can you care for your high-quality leather products so they keep looking good? Let’s find out!
Our Leather Expert
We spoke with Justin Ferguson of Ferguson Leather in Boise, Idaho. Justin has been designing and crafting custom leather goods for more than 20 years. With leather, as with so many things in life, there’s no substitute for experience: Hand Justin a leather item and he can tell by smell and feel what type of leather it is. He says, “Most good quality leather has a smoother texture. Cheaper leather is resurfaced, split, dyed, and has a rougher texture. High-quality, top-grain leather is also stronger. Your choice of leather depends on what its purpose is.”
When we say “tanning” here, we’re not talking about sunbathing — we’re talking about the process by which an animal hide is turned into leather. “You remove not only the hair, but also the fat, so it doesn’t rot,” Justin explains. “Tanning replaces the water in the hide with tannins. Leather can be vegetable-tanned or chrome-tanned. Vegetable-tanned leather is soaked in tannins from trees like chestnuts. It’s a long, complicated process that’s really an art form, but you end up with leather that’s very durable, looks good, and has that wonderful leather smell, but it’s not waterproof. Chrome-tanning is usually automated and takes only a day. Most leather now is chrome-tanned. It’s less expensive but also softer, more water-resistant, and better for jackets and gloves, and upholstery for couches or car seats.”
Justin continues, “Of course you want strong leather for boots, so they don’t wear out. Kangaroo leather is the strongest, but it tends to be thin. Kangaroo is my favorite for shoes and boots, but calf hide can also work well, because it’s thicker, which makes up for it being less strong. The problem with many thick leather boots is that they’re uncomfortable. A pair of custom-fitted, kangaroo-skin cowboy boots should last you 20 years, and feel like you’ve been wearing them for 10 years when you first put them on. Buy some cheapies at Boot Barn and you’ll be lucky if they last you two years. Of course, how long they last also depends on how you protect them, how much you wear them, and what you do in them.”
For a durable wallet, Justin recommends vegetable-tanned leather that has been tooled and dyed. Vegetable-tanned leather is softer and can be stamped or tooled. Tooling is a process of decorating the leather by carving a three-dimensional image into it. Vegetable-tanned leather can also be dyed and holds paint better. “Buy something cheap and you’re going to get a wallet made in China from thin, resurfaced leather that’s been wrapped around cardboard — yeah, you’ll save money, but just be aware that it won’t last,” says Justin.
Cleaning and Conditioning Leather
Always check with the manufacturer before cleaning a leather item. Years ago, I was the personal trainer for Michael Hoban, founder of North Beach Leather. He designed leather outfits for Elvis Presley and other celebrities. I bought a colorful motorcycle jacket from him, but he cautioned me not to wear it in the rain or take it to a cleaner. “Just don’t get it dirty,” he exclaimed. “Save it for special occasions!” I still have and wear it, 30 years later. I never put anything on the leather, and it still looks new. Yet many other leather products can be cleaned. Justin says, “Saddle soap is designed for leather, and that’s your best bet for keeping it clean. To condition boots and wallets, I use Dr. Jackson’s Hide Rejuvenator.”
Leather seating and furniture normally will lose some color over time, especially if it’s exposed to sunlight in a car or next to a window in a house. Justin continues, “Conditioner can darken the leather and dyes can sometimes completely alter the color (turning a black sofa blue for instance), so test first in an inconspicuous place. Neatsfoot oil is great for baseball gloves and boots, but it can leave a residue, so don’t use it for a seat.”
Shop for leather supplies here:
- Women’s leather jacket
- Leather crafting kit
- Resurfaced leather wallet
- Fast & Furious leather jacket
- Kangaroo boots
- Boot dust cover bags
- Leather-stamping kit
- Leather carving tools
- Painted handmade Houston Texans leather wallet
- Saddle soap
- Dr. Jackson’s Hide Rejuvenator
- Leather furniture conditioning cream
- Neatsfoot oil
Prices are accurate and items in stock as of time of publication.
Crista Worthy writes about aviation, travel, wildlife, and more from her home in Idaho.