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How to Restore Antique Leather, Part 1

Posted by Daniel Sutton on May 15th 2014

(Welcome to Chamberlain’s Antique Leather Guide! This is the first part of a three part series, so tune in as we release "Parts 2"and "3" for our complete compendium of antique leather know-how!

Please note that all information is intended for advisement, and should be taken with caution. No leather antique is exactly like another. Restoring it can be a complicated and delicate process, and information given here cannot guarantee any result. It’s a good idea to consult a leather professional before attempting to restore antique leather on your own.)

Kids collect baseball and Pokemon cards. Sentimental people collect Beanie Babies. People with lots of money collect vintage cars. Then you have a more distinguished, intelligent breed of savvy collectors – the leather aficionado. These highly-functioning artisans and intellectuals can come from all walks and spheres in life. Yet in their heart, they all possess one unifying, deeply-rooted passion: the seasoned scent, the delicate texture, ethereal hue and lustrous glimmer that can only be found in the world’s classiest line of cultured artifacts—the antique leather.

I’m talking to you, sexy.

So you’ve got an arkenstone in your treasure trove, and it’s in need of some restoring. No problemo, compadre! We’ve got some ideas to take that rough old brick of yours and turn it into a glimmering gem stone!

Before we begin, a few tips. Leather’s a sensitive creature by nature, and as antique leather will be very old, it’ll be more sensitive than most. It’s always best to get an expert’s assessment of your particular leather item first before you start trying to restore it, or else you could make a mistake that could have irreversible effects. Get it checked out by a professional. When you go in, you may want to determine whether your antique leather is chrome or vegetable tanned, which you can read a little about in our blog “Leather Tanning Methods.” It’s probably going to be vegetable tanned (oak tanned is most common), but it’s still best to check out, as treatment methods may differ depending on your type. Vegetable tanned leather, for example, tends to be much more porous leather than chrome tanned, and will thus be more susceptible to water, stains, and heat. We’ll give you general tips here to help you restore antique leather, but you’ll want to get to know your own leather as you treat and experiment with it, because no two leather items are exactly alike. But first, let’s define antique leather.

Vintage Conspiracy

There’s a lot of misconceptions about what antique leather really is. Sometimes you’ll find leather that’s deliberately dressed up to look like furniture or luggage from another era. People aren’t necessarily trying to cheat you – that stuff’s just vintage. Vintage and antique items are not necessarily the same, and there are a lot of different ways the term “vintage” is thrown around. While historically used to date wines, this term has been modified to define valuables that could have been made any time in the last century to imitations of historically archetypal objects. If you see something labeled vintage, you might want to ask the vendor a little more about what that actually means. To have antique leather, however, you usually need to have something that’s over eighty to a hundred years old. Acquiring authentic antique leather can be a little more of an intuitive process, and even when you do find it, it’ll take some serious love to keep it in that regal, antiquated shape you’ve been clamoring for.

You’re going to run into a number of loose ends to tie when you restore antique leather. Stitching problems, ripped leather, faded hue, and excessive dryness are just a few dilemmas you may face. Add to this that a number of methods and tools used to create these antiques are out of date, and may be difficult to replicate. You may want to become familiar with leather craftsmen in your area that can provide the resources you need to do your job. Singer and Bradbury sewing machines, for example, had distinctive sewing methods and may require skilled craftsmen to properly mend stitching rifts. Likewise, a vegetable tanned leather bag will not match with the chrome tanned strips of leather most leather production facilities will provide, should your leather be ripped. Having an expert handy goes a long, long way.

Picture Perfect

A good technique to use is to take pictures of each step of your process. If colors or stitching or rivets get mixed up while you are repairing, you can use this as reference to remember where you are and what you are doing. This is also helpful to professionals if you need to refer your leather to them at any time during the process. When purchasing dyes, rivets, threads, or other resources, you can show a vendor pictures of your leather item’s original condition. This will give them a good idea of what tools to recommend to you, and how to help you get your leather to where it needs to be.

Once you have your camera ready and your antique patient in a comfortable, clean and cool indoors location away from sunlight and direct heat, you can begin your operation! Stay tuned for next chapter, when we’ll talk about how you can curb that leather’s dry spell and renew it to a supple, younger age!

Chris Repp (
Anna Woodward
Daniel Sutton

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