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How to Distress Leather

How to Distress Leather

Posted by Daniel Sutton on Jun 16th 2014

We did a post just recently showing people how to un-wrinkle their leather ("How to Fix Wrinkled Leather"). It’s a way to wind back the clock on animal hide goodies, and make them look fresh and new. A lot of people prefer that. On the other end of the spectrum, you have your Indiana Jones rugged pioneers, who can stand the sight of untarnished leather only slightly more than they can handle the sight of a lunging snake. Here’s to you, swashbuckling adventure types! Let’s break that leather in!

Not To Do

There’s a few ways to do this. But first, let’s talk about what not to do to distress leather. Do not sandpaper your leather. While it may succeed in giving it that travel-worn look, tough and gritty like – the truth is the exact opposite. Sanding down leather is one of the methods used to degrade it during the leather’s preparation process. Before tanning, leather crafters will often shave off the exterior portion of an animal’s hide to remove all the scars and scratches that might show. This results in weakening the leather, as the surface is the strongest part of the hide. You can read a little about this in our blog “Know Your Leather Grains.”

Not the best way to distress leather. Same goes for wire brushes – way too tough, and like sand paper, can mess with the dye job. You sand or wire brush away your leather, it’s going to be the opposite of tough. Avoid. This.

Second, don’t distress your leather by setting it by a fire. Smoke can cause permanent chemical alterations to a leather’s structure, and the accompanying smell likely will not recede for a very long time. If you want to smell like smoke everywhere you carry your bag, good for you. Otherwise, keep your leather away from smoke, and most especially heat, which can shrink and dry out leather. For that matter, don’t try to set your leather on fire either. It will distress leather on a very different level.

Lastly, don’t feed your leather to wild animals. For you Saddleback owners, I know Dave has a knack for fishing crocodiles out of the water with his leather bags, but seriously. Crocodiles can eat people. Use caution, and remember that your afterlife is only one bad bite in the nethers away.

To Do

So what can we do to properly distress leather lovelies? Same thing that distresses (or de-stresses) anything: alcohol. In the aforementioned wrinkled leather article, I described rubbing alcohol, and more specifically alcohol based leather cleaners like Straight Cleaner no. 2, as something that can stretch leather out to cure wrinkles. You’re going to do that here, only in reverse. Dampen your leather with a thin layer of alcohol, and knead away. Make as many wrinkles as almighty Zeus can shake a thunderbolt at. Stretch it out, push it around, knead, knead, knead. You get the idea. After a few rounds of this, you could very well have an imitation pug on your hands. Still, don’t use too much alcohol at once. Try to make this a process. Too much alcohol at one time can mess with the dye and hurt your leather, so use gently. Also note that not all leather responds well to alcohol, so you’ll want to test it first. Dab a small amount in a discreet area on your leather with a white cloth and let it dry. If no discoloration, excess color rub off, or other negative effects occur, you should be good to go.

If you want your bag to get extra bang-age, you could try another tactic before you give it the alcohol treatment. Emphasis on before. As a precaution, I also only recommend this on tougher leather (full grain preferable) that’s finished with a pigment. If alcohol doesn’t work well on your leather, probably don’t do this to it. Unfinished leather can beat up naturally on its own, but finished leather’s tough enough to take that helping hand. You can read about finished and unfinished leathers in our blog “How to Identify Types of Leather.”

Kick your bag around in the dust. Not kidding. You want it to look banged up, so why not go all the bloody way? Naturally, try to make sure the ground is dry, or else you’ll be merely getting it muddy rather than dusty, which does not help. As an alternative to this, you can give your leather a tumble in your dryer (the bigger the leather is, the better). Just make sure there's no heat. That's bad for leather. Toss keychains and small rocks in there for spice. After it’s been tossed and fro for a bit, wrassle that animal back inside and then give it a healthy dose of your aforementioned leather cleaner. You’ll want to knock off all the dust before you give it cleaner, however. Use a clean, lint-free cloth for this. After your leather dries from its cleaning, you will also want to follow it up with leather conditioner, such as Leather Care Liniment no. 1, lest it dry it out. Trust me on this – parched leather is not your friend. Cracks and dehydration make it brittle, which is the worst thing that can possibly happen to it. Also, remember to test your leather conditioner before you use it, like you did with your cleaner.

Off to the Sunset

Apart from this, remember that leather is a material that most effectively breaks in with time. There’s no better substitute for making rugged leather than taking it on rugged adventures. Your leather will adapt to your lifestyle, so give it a chance to see the world. You might be impressed how much your leather’s up to the adventure.

Daniel Sutton

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