Go­ing well for leather

How do you keep your leather kit in top con­di­tion? A range of ex­perts pro­vide the an­swers

The Field - - Content - writ­ten BY Rosie mac­don­ald

Rosie Mac­don­ald asks the ex­perts how to keep leather in top con­di­tion

Leather sport­ing kit gets a rough ride. All the el­e­ments – rain, mud, sun, sweat, blood and tears – are thrown at it and yet it is ex­pected to sur­vive. Leather also gets a raw deal in the word as­so­ci­a­tions stakes: one says leather, an­other says Fifty Shades. The sport­ing world prob­a­bly houses more leather than the av­er­age fetish club but do we look af­ter it as well? How do we get value for money, en­sur­ing our muchloved pieces last as long as we do?

Frances Roche, master sad­dler for The Royal Mews, main­tains all the cer­e­mo­nial state harness and sad­dlery. She is also past pres­i­dent of the So­ci­ety of Master Sad­dlers and is a mem­ber of the Wor­ship­ful Com­pany of Sad­dlers. Roche has a great depth of knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence: “There are many leather-care prod­ucts on the mar­ket, full of al­co­hol, that are bad for the leather. Peo­ple must re­ally steer away from those if they want their items to last.”

Ne­go­ti­at­ing the field of prod­ucts avail­able can of­ten be con­fus­ing; in­vest in an ex­pen­sive pair of boots and one is then en­cour­aged to pur­chase the match­ing and equally ex­pen­sive “care prod­ucts”. Roche says, “The best way is to keep things sim­ple and nat­u­ral. There is a lot of nonsense from com­pa­nies say­ing you must use our prod­uct but the most im­por­tant point with any prod­uct is it should al­ways be used spar­ingly,” she con­tin­ues. “Many peo­ple def­i­nitely put too much oil on their leather kit. If you find the oil hasn’t soaked in, wipe it off. If it hasn’t soaked in it’s be­cause the leather doesn’t need it.

“Some new leathers have a high grease con­tent and do not need treat­ing. Don’t worry if they have a whitish sheen on the sur­face, this will buff off with a soft cloth,” Roche ex­plains. “For ex­am­ple, if your bri­dle leather is stiff, ap­ply a light coat of goodqual­ity leather dress­ing or oil to the un­der side and al­low it to take in.” But, she says, “Use only dress­ings or oil with nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ents – avoid any that con­tain chem­i­cals. Check the in­gre­di­ents la­bel; if it isn’t clear what’s in there, have a good sniff. You should be able to tell if it con­tains chem­i­cals.”

When the oil has soaked in, Roche sug­gests ap­ply­ing a good leather bal­sam or sad­dle soap made from nat­u­ral prod­ucts, such as tal­low, lano­lin and beeswax.

“Sad­dle soap is a bit of a strange name,” says Roche. “It sug­gests it’s for clean­ing when ac­tu­ally most sad­dle soaps are ap­plied af­ter you have rinsed. It’s more of a con­di­tioner than a soap and is buffed up af­ter­wards.”

To clean a re­ally greasy or heav­ily soiled bri­dle, Roche sug­gests adding a ta­ble­spoon of wash­ing-soda crystals to the wa­ter. “This helps enor­mously and won’t dam­age the leather, but avoid adding it to the wa­ter ev­ery time you clean. Plain wa­ter is usu­ally suf­fi­cient. A small amount of good old wash­ing-up liquid in the wa­ter in­stead of soda crystals would also be fine.”

As with all leather when wet, par­tic­u­larly when rain soaked, it needs to dry slowly and nat­u­rally. Roche stresses, “Do not be tempted to place it near a heater to speed up the dry­ing process. This will only make it hard and brit­tle and you may strug­gle to re­vive it.”

Once the leather is clean and dry, Roche in­structs to ap­ply a sad­dle soap or leather bal­sam spar­ingly be­fore buff­ing up with a soft rag. “Ap­ply any dress­ing spar­ingly and use your ini­tia­tive. A lot of peo­ple think it is a good thing for leather to be very soft but for all sad­dlery items and many pieces of sport­ing kit, too, it should be supple and pli­able but still firm and soft.” Roche’s three favourite prod­ucts have all been around for a while: Breck­nell Turner Sad­dle Soap, Carr & Day & Martin Belvoir Leather Bal­sam and J & E Sedg­wick & Co’s Leather­care Prod­uct. Use these and you re­ally can’t go wrong.

Cor­po­ral of Horse Sam Be­lasco is re­spon­si­ble for main­tain­ing and fit­ting ev­ery el­e­ment of both the horses’ and the sol­diers’ uni­forms in the House­hold Cavalry Mounted Reg­i­ment. Each cal­vary black – and there are ap­prox­i­mately 250 of them – has its own be­spoke fit­ted kit. That is a lot of leather to keep in good con­di­tion, so tricks of the trade are es­sen­tial. “There is a huge em­pha­sis on kit clean­ing in the House­hold Cavalry Mounted Reg­i­ment. The troop­ers who at­tend The Queen’s Life Guard are scored on their clean­li­ness, the smartest be­ing re­warded with the best re­liefs. There is a huge amount of self pride,” ex­plains Be­lasco. “Be­fore we start clean­ing our kit all the sweat has to be com­pletely re­moved, es­pe­cially horse sweat – it goes grey if you pol­ish over the top as the salts from it come through. The best way to re­move the sweat is us­ing a tin lid and scrap­ing if off. Our leather is hard and this works very well.”

black art of ex­pe­ri­ence

As a Master Sad­dler, Be­lasco has been priv­i­leged to build an al­most black art of handed-down ex­pe­ri­ence, which only cer­tain peo­ple would truly un­der­stand. He ex­plains: “It’s one of the things we are of­ten asked. It’s some­thing you just get, like the fact that each piece of leather is dif­fer­ent, the same as the hu­man skin. Some hu­man skin is oily, some dry, and leather is very much the same in my opin­ion. Each piece takes stuff dif­fer­ently,” he con­tin­ues.

“Sweat can also be re­moved with luke­warm wa­ter on a damp sponge. Never,

Some hu­man skin is oily, some dry, and leather is very much the same

how­ever dirty, be tempted to soak the leather. Then, lag each piece up with lots of pol­ish – you can use the tin lid again to rub the pol­ish in and then al­low this to dry nat­u­rally; the leather will ab­sorb the pol­ish.”

This ap­plies to bri­dles, sad­dles, girths, boots and some other sport­ing equip­ment. “When you re­turn to your kit, any pol­ish left on can then be pol­ished to a nice deep shine with a good stiff brush.”

Be­lasco warns against quick meth­ods. “The very worst thing you can use on any leather kit is the types of magic sponges that prom­ise a quick shine. They are full of chem­i­cals. Noth­ing beats a good tin of nor­mal Kiwi pol­ish, ob­vi­ously is­sued in big tins to us,” he laughs.

Be­lasco of­fers an ex­cel­lent tip for re­mov­ing sur­face smear on leather, en­sur­ing that our kit looks as spec­tac­u­lar as that of the House­hold Cavalry. “Ny­lon,” he ex­plains. “That’s ba­si­cally ladies’ tights. We chop the legs off and roll the tights into a ball. It’s an ef­fec­tive way of cut­ting through any smears and leaves a good shine.” An ex­cel­lent way to put all those tights with holes in at the back of the drawer to good use.

For those lucky enough to in­herit sport­ing kit at var­i­ous stages of the age­ing process – such as those won­der­ful old large cartridge bags – then help is at hand to en­sure there is life in the old bag yet. Ded­i­cated col­lec­tor Tim Bent has an in­sa­tiable thirst for vin­tage lug­gage and sport­ing goods, which led him to set up his com­pany, Bent­leys, on Lower Sloane Street, London. He is reg­u­larly pre­sented with se­ri­ously se­duc­tive items – such as a rare Dun­hill gi­ant ta­ble lighter cov­ered with sha­green, per­fect for a lively shoot din­ner, and a Boss & Co cartridge bag.

Bent says, “If the leather is in good con­di­tion but in need of a feed and pol­ish, I would sug­gest re­mov­ing any dirt or dust first with a duster. Any dirty marks can be re­moved with a slightly damp but not wet cloth. Then al­low the item to dry nat­u­rally away from di­rect heat. I would sug­gest us­ing Lord Sher­a­ton’s Leather Bal­sam.”

He agrees with the pre­vi­ous ad­vice given. “As with all pol­ish­ing, use the bal­sam spar­ingly and al­ways test a dis­crete area first. It’s bet­ter to build up lay­ers of pol­ish than overdo it. The treat­ment will only darken the leather af­ter all.”

Bent’s knowl­edge flows: “Al­low it to dry and then buff with a lint-free cloth – old cot­ton shirts are per­fect as a pad of fi­bre; it cuts through the pol­ish and pro­duces a crisp shine.” And, “there’s no sub­sti­tute for good old el­bow grease,” he smiles, some­thing we all know in our hearts but try to ig­nore. “The fric­tion and heat is all that is needed to get the best depth of shine and en­hance the patina.”

For any leather that is dry or rusty, where the sur­face is turn­ing to red pow­der, then a dose of Re­na­pur Leather Bal­sam may work. Bent says: “It’s much harder to pol­ish this type of sur­face. The bal­sam may not re­deem the leather but it could pre­vent it de­te­ri­o­rat­ing fur­ther. Just pro­ceed with cau­tion and don’t be tempted in any way to over­feed. I would also test a small area prior to ap­pli­ca­tion.”

the rac­ing world

Back in the 1970s, there were about 650 horses in train­ing in New­mar­ket, Suf­folk – now there are al­most 3,000. Com­bine this with the huge shoot­ing and hunt­ing fra­ter­nity across East Anglia and it’s no won­der that ex­perts in this field are in great de­mand to cope with the vast amounts of leather­work. Ex­per­tise and ad­vice is on hand at Gib­son Sad­dlers in New­mar­ket. Gib­son’s qual­ity and at­ten­tion to de­tail earned the com­pany the Royal War­rant in 1932 and it is presently the sup­plier of rac­ing colours to HM The Queen. Away from the main store, in the rab­bit war­ren of work­shops be­hind, one will find skilled crafts­men us­ing old-fash­ioned tools to pro­duced el­e­gant mod­ern sad­dles and leather items from the finest English leather. They are happy to make and re­pair a va­ri­ety of leather goods and ad­vise on its care but, as re­pairer Val Ryan says, “It’s all down to com­monsense, par­tic­u­larly in the rac­ing world where po­ten­tially it’s a life or death sit­u­a­tion,” he con­tin­ues. “All kit, what­ever form it takes, needs a reg­u­lar MOT. Some of our cus­tomers are fas­tid­i­ous, oth­ers not so and we are here to help.” And help they do. Last year they pro­duced a hand­made pair of leather chaps with a sil­ver, snake­skin-ef­fect fin­ish for a fe­male strip­per. I re­frained from ask­ing the best way to look af­ter these and de­cided to leave it to my imag­i­na­tion.

Whether our leather goods are fea­tur­ing in pri­vate spin-offs of Fifty Shades of Grey or pro­vid­ing years of plea­sure in the sport­ing fields, for longevity we must keep its care sim­ple and nat­u­ral, us­ing good old com­monsense and God’s nat­u­ral in­gre­di­ents.

Left: there are 250 cavalry blacks – each with its own be­spoke leather kit that needs car­ing for Above: el­bow grease is still the top in­gre­di­ent

Left: the in­te­rior at Bent­leys in Lower Sloane Street, where founder Tim Bent keeps an­tique English leather items in top con­di­tion for sale. Above: hand-craft­ing a leather sad­dle at Gib­son Sad­dlers in New­mar­ket

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