Generally speaking, methods of leather care vary based on the type of leather and the age of the piece in question. The harness leather we use requires very little maintenance because of how it was tanned. There are natural oils that settle into the grain of the leather and hang out for a lifetime.
Veg-tanned leather benefits from a coat of Neatsfoot Oil about twice a year – this is negotiable, and should be done on an as needed basis. We recommend a coat of oil at the end of the summer season, especially in the case of bags or other pieces that have had constant exposure to the sun, and then again after winter is over (residential heating can be very drying!!). If you’ve had a bag in storage for a few years, a coat of oil can help bring it back to life.
There is such a thing as dried out, brittle leather, which is difficult to rectify, and should be handled with great care. Ideally, brittle leather can be avoided by taking proper care of leather over the lifetime of the piece.
If you're looking for an all in one conditioner: I recently began stocking Smith's Leather Balm! Click here to learn about this amazing conditioner -- this is the one I personally use on all my leather goods. The instructions for application of the Balm are noted in the listing. You'll find they are a bit more straightforward than what follows -- which relates more to traditional oiling.
To oil leather:
First, do a small spot test in an out-of-view area of the leather to see how it handles oil – depending on the finish and exact tannage of the leather, Neatsfoot Oil may darken your leather permanently. If a bit of darkening doesn't phase you, go with Fiebing's 100% Pure Neatsfoot Oil. To avoid darkening as much as possible, use Lexol; it's a compound, but will not darken leather like pure Neatsfoot Oil.
First, warm your oil by placing the bottle in a bowl of hot water for about 10 minutes. Get a bit of oil and a scrap of an old t-shirt. Apply some oil to the cloth so that it’s coated, but not dripping off – work it into the t-shirt so it’s not just sitting on the surface. Use a bit of elbow grease and circular motions when applying the oil to the leather. Let it sit for 24-48 hours before using your bag/wallet/belt/collar – otherwise you risk transferring oil to your clothes or other surfaces.
If you want to use something you already have around the house, I recommend coconut oil, as it's a bit fattier and feels like it gets deeper into the leather than some other household oils. DO NOT USE OLIVE OIL. It will rot your leather!
A note about Neatsfoot Oil:
If you decide to go with a different brand of Neatsfoot Oil, stay away from the compounds – make sure you use 100% Neatsfoot that hasn’t been cut with anything else. You risk darkening the leather and may experience some unwanted textural interactions with any finishes previously applied to the leather. Always do a spot test!
A note about stains:
With veg-tanned leather, stains are part of life. They’re character – part of the journey of your leather. Take them in stride and chances are they’ll blend into the leather before you know it. Veg-tanned leather functions a bit like skin – expose it to the sun, and it’ll darken like a suntan. It helps hide any little stains or water marks (rain drops included) and allows for a great patina to build over time.
To clean small stains:
I recommend Fiebing’s saddle soap and a clean sponge. Wet the sponge and rub it in the saddle soap (this comes in a round tin; always store it with the lid on or it’ll dry out). Work it into your sponge so you see a light foam. Once you start to see a foam, you can apply it to your stain using gentle circular motions. Once you’ve gone over it a few times, wet your sponge, ring it out, and wipe off any excess foam that may be left over. Let the leather dry completely before using it again. You can oil the leather once it's completely dry, but don't just oil the spot you cleaned – oil the whole piece, so that the newly cleaned area can age consistently and blend in with the rest of the leather. If you have an awful stain (exploding pens, wine, etc) and want some input before you go at it with your saddle soap – shoot me an email with some photos and if I have any other solutions I'll do my best to help you sort it out.