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.)
First episode, we unmasked the vintage leather conspiracy. Last episode, we dove into the murky depths of deep leather cleaning secrets and magicked your leather back to colorful life. Today, we’ll trek with you on our last chapter in Chamberlain’s How to Restore Antique Leather guide: leather conditioning and finishing touches.
So we left off with dyed leather. Plucky thing has some color now, but you have this odd suspicion that your leather is still falling apart. Good deduction. Since you last cleaned your leather, it lost a little lubrication, and if it hasn’t been conditioned very much before that point, trouble bodes. A good indication of this may be cracked or flaking leather due to internal abrasion. Leather’s held together by tiny fibers, see, which cling together using protein bonds. Lubrication helps these fibers to bend and move without stressing each other. Without the lubricants, they will grind against each other like iron and rip the leather apart. Read more about this in our blog “How Does Leather Breathe?”
There’s a bonus to conditioning your leather. Dyes need time to fully sink into your leather, and leather conditioning helps speed this along. Leather conditioner acts as both a source of nourishment for your leather, and a protector against outside elements. It seals in anything sitting on a leather surface, meaning surface dyes will stick around a lot longer, but you’ll also seal anything else on top of your leather at the time, including dust. If you’ve waited for some time between this step and the last, it may be a good idea to brush the surface of your antique off with a damp cloth. Make sure it is only slightly damp, mind you. You don’t want your antique leather to be very wet. Extra moisture gets sealed into your leather the same way dye does, except this time it’s going to leave some unfortunate spots. Just give it enough moisture to wipe off any dust and open up the pores. After you’re finished, let your leather dry completely before continuing.
Psychology of Hide
Okay, things are going great. Leather’s colored and cleaned. Leather conditioning’s next, and you can tell Skinner to eat his heart out, because this leather’s going to have major attitude by the time you're through with it. Leather conditioning’s a bit of a tricky technique. If you put too much of it on, your leather will grow mushy and stretchy. In ordinary cases, you should only need to condition your leather two to three times a year (“How Often Should I Condition Leather?”). In the case of antique leather that’s starting to flake and crack, however, you’re going to need a lot more. Hopefully your antique leather won’t be at this stage, and only need regular leather conditioning. If not, you have a few options.
First, it’s a good idea to keep taking photographs and consult a professional. They’ll have a good idea how to treat your particular breed of leather better than any general instruction here. If the leather’s unfinished or exotic, for example, they can give you proper instruction on how to take care of that. If it’s ordinary cowhide, they may recommend a heavy duty leather dressing, an upholstery job, or a more intensive leather conditioning process. What this means is you’ll be conditioning your antique leather 3-4 times a week to soften the fibers enough to make them pliable. You’ll want to keep a close eye on your leather throughout the coming weeks, and ease off the moment you start observing the leather start to supple. Any permanent cracks should be professionally consulted for appropriate treatment, but otherwise, the right amount of leather conditioner should go a long way to successful a restoration.
Your Favorite Part
Before conditioning your leather, you will want to remember to test it first. Lighter colored leather particularly can darken when exposed to leather conditioner, so be aware. Take a small amount of your favorite leather conditioner (Chamberlain's Leather Care Liniment no. 1, nudge-nudge, wink-wink) on an applicator pad or white or lint-free cloth and apply it to a discreet part of your antique leather. Let the leather conditioner dry, and check for discoloration, excess rub off on your cloth, or any other negative side effects. If you’ve got none, you’ve got your leather conditioner.
Masking tape and paper any areas that don’t need leather conditioning, and give your pad or cloth a liberal amount of leather conditioner. Brush gently across your leather in circular directions, making sure the leather conditioner is spread evenly across the surface. If the leather completely absorbs your conditioner, give it another layer. Repeat as necessary. Once you’ve given your leather enough to drink, let it dry for 15 minutes, and buff the rest off with a clean cloth. Over the next few days, keep a close eye on it. Too much leather conditioner may darken the leather, so keep tabs on its color. If it still appears to be drying out after the initial session, apply leather conditioner every other day until it starts to supple, and stay in contact with a professional.
That’ll cover the bulk of your antique leather conditioning dilemmas. As for stitching or loose leather, it’ll require more experienced hands. Many leather antiques you’ll encounter, as mentioned in Part 1 of this series, will be machine stitched, which is difficult to replicate by hand. If you are determined, we’ll give you a few pointers. Clean out all the old thread from the problem area with tweezers, and brush away any dust for a quick clean. Scalpels can be used to cut loose threads. When selecting threads, make the color and size as close as possible to the original stitch to keep up integrity and appearance. Once you’ve cleaned out the loose stiching holes, grab two blunt harness needles and thread a length of beeswaxed linen thread on each end. Now carefully begin to restitch the damaged leather. Avoid using sharp embroidery needles – these can break apart leather fibers very easily and are too difficult to work with on a delicate project like this. For your sewing 101, pass the thread through the stitch holes until there’s an even amount on each side, then take one needle and pass it halfway back through the work. Take the other needle and do the same. So on and so on. You get the drift. Again, call a professional and get their advice before doing any work, and take pictures!
Lastly, after you have successfully restored your antique leather, it's important to keep in the right place to keep its luster. Sunlight and heat are bad - aim for cool, clean indoor environments. Some coverage couldn't hurt either to protect against dust. Try a blanket, or perhaps an extra cushion. If your antique is a bag, a dust jacket or breathable wooden box works just as well. Give it some action as much as possible, because honestly, how would you like to sit around the house all day without any change of pace? Don't answer that. Just remember that leather is an adventure bear, and grows more healthy with use. Show it the world.
Unless it's fragile. Or furniture. Don't do it then.
Jolly job, you! That should be enough to solve most problems you’ll run into when working to restore antique leather. I know it sounds like a lot of work, but when you take a gander at your finished product, just make sure you’re sitting down. There’s a reason antique leather is classy and never out of date, and if you’ve read this far for an antique of your own – just classy. But I digress: thanks for reading, and congratulations! A true leather aficionado, you be, and right proud of it. Flourish that leathery masterpiece with pride! Each glow and glimmer is a constant reminder of the mountain you’ve just conquered, and the breathtaking vantage it now affords you. Little else like it.
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