A candid interview with Dr. Don Jenkins and Phil Meyers from Summit Industries
Dr. Don Jenkins (left) and Phil Meyers, Vice President of Summit Industries (right)
Q. What is leather conditioning?
A. Conditioning replaces the natural tanning oils evaporating out of the hide. The smell of leather comes from these oils. If not replaced, leather will eventually dry out, become brittle and crack. Think of these tanning oils as microscopic, lubricating oils. If you look at leather under a microscope, the fibers look like a pile of rope that's all tangled up. Tanning oils coat these fibers allowing them to bend, move and slip across one another. These oils keep the leather soft and supple. Without lubrication, leather fibers will become stiff and brittle. When repeatedly flexed, stiff, dry fibers will simply break and the leather will develop cracks.
Q. That sounds simple enough. So what makes a good tanning oil or lubricant for conditioning leather?
A. All cow hides are naturally oily. Unfortunately, these natural oils are stripped away in the tanning process (Tanning is the process that renders the hide invulnerable to decay.) and some equivalent oils must be re-introduced after tanning. This last tanning step, the replacement of oils, is called "fatliquoring." Over the centuries, a number of oils have been found that have a natural affinity for leather fibers. Every leather tanner has his own, unique, blend of tanning oils. These formulas are closely held secrets, passed down through the generations. This is one reason why one company's leather can have a totally different feel, fragrance, texture and softness from another company's product. Tanning oils can contain a variety of oils including Neatsfoot oil, Sperm Whale Oil, pressed lard and Lanolin.
Q. I've heard the term Neatsfoot oil. What is it? Where does it come from?
A. Neat is an archaic name for hooved animals (i.e. cows, pigs, sheep). Neatsfoot oil is oil rendered from the feet of cattle or hooved animals. In the slaughterhouse, the feet would be cut off the animal, split, put into a large vat and boiled. The oils that rose to the top would be skimmed off and sold as "Neatsfoot Oil." Today, thanks to the US military, there is no actual Neatsfoot oil in Neatsfoot Oil! Let me explain. Back in the 1930's the US Army wrote a Military Specification (Mil Spec) that defined the properties of Neatsfoot Oil. Oil merchants bidding for government contracts quickly discovered other, less expensive, oils would meet this Mil Spec. Today, Neatsfoot Oil is any oil, regardless of where it comes from, that meets this US Government Mil Spec. Neatsfoot Oil now is mostly derived from pigs. Lard is pressed and the resulting liquid, which can be supplemented with mineral oil and/or reclaimed motor oil, is sold as "Neatsfoot Oil". Neatsfoot oil is widely used in the equestrian industry (saddles and tack) but has a tendency to be quite greasy making it unsuitable for leather upholstery.
Q. I noticed dozens of drums of Lanolin in your raw materials area. I assume Lexol uses Lanolin as a conditioning oil?
A. Lanolin is used for conditioning leather. Ironically, Summit Industries is the third or fourth largest user of Lanolin in the United States yet, despite of our considerable research, we do not use a drop of Lanolin in Lexol products! Our use of Lanolin is reserved exclusively for our skin care ointments. Lanolin has two problems. First, it's very greasy. (Lanolin is produced by the sweat glands of sheep.) Lanolin is the greasy oil that covers the sheep's fleece. Secondly, it loves to migrate. There's no way to keep it in the hide. It loves to come to the surface where it is easily transferred to any material (clothing) it comes in contact with. The complaint that most leather conditioners are "greasy" is typically attributable to the use of Lanolin.
Q. I've seen other manufacturers use banana oil, aloe and collagen as conditioning oils or additives. Are these valid conditioning oils or beneficial in a leather conditioner?
A. (Laugh) Not to my knowledge! Banana oil is commonly used as a fragrance or fragrance enhancement. It will mask chemical or foul odors and add a "sweet" aroma. Banana Oil has no value as a conditioning oil. Collagen is used for human skin reconstruction. I know of no valid reason to put it into a leather conditioner. It is not a conditioning oil. Likewise, Aloe has no value as a conditioning oil. I have never, ever seen or heard of any study that gives any valid reason for putting Aloe in a leather conditioner.
Q. I've seen "Mink Oil" used in leather conditioners. Is Mink Oil a valid conditioning oil?
A. Yes it is. We do not use it in Lexol products but it is a valid conditioning oil. "Mink Oil" is a euphemistic name for liquefied pig fat and silicone. Like Lanolin, it's very greasy and typically unsuitable for leather upholstery. Mink oil is most often used on heavy boots or other hard-working leathers.
Q. Now I'm confused. If all of these conditioning oils are so bad, greasy, what do you use in Lexol Leather Conditioner?
A. The conditioning oils we're talking about, Neatsfoot Oil, Lanolin, Mink Oil, pressed lard oils, are not "bad" conditioning oils. If fact, they are very good conditioning oils. They just have some undesirable characteristics. They are all greasy and they like to move around. In the 1980's, largely from our research in skin care ointments, we discovered a way to modify some of these conditioning oils. We found a way to make the large droplets of raw oils into a microscopically fine emulsion that can be readily absorbed into the leather fibers. We also found a way to keep these oils in place, to greatly reduce migration. This keeps the internal fibers lubricated longer and prevents seepage into adjacent materials like clothing. The oils used in Lexol Conditioner, a closely held secret, make for a very user friendly conditioner that is excellent for leather upholstery.
Q. How is Lexol Leather Conditioner different from other leather conditioners?
A. First, it contains no petroleum solvents or silicones. It is an aqueous emulsion that quickly penetrates into the hide where it is absorbed and retained by the leather's fibers. Lexol Leather Conditioner provides long lasting lubrication (within the industry, we call this lubrication nourishment) without migration or surface seepage. Unlike most organic conditioning oils, Lexol Leather Conditioner is non-flammable, odorless, non-toxic and non-sensitizing to the skin. It does not impart a greasy or tacky feel to the surface of the leather (unless overused). While there are many fine leather conditioners in the marketplace, we know of no other manufacturer in the world that has been able to match our technology in controlling greasiness or oil migration.
Q. How soon should I start conditioning the leather in a new car?
A. The leather in a new car is fully conditioned. There is no reason to use a conditioner for at least 60 to 90 days. After that, application is somewhat climate dependent. Monthly leather conditioning of cars in Florida, Texas and Arizona, especially during the summer months, would not be out of line. In a northern climate or during winter months the interval between conditioning could be extended 90 to 120 days.
Q. What is the proper procedure for applying a leather conditioner?
A. Clean the leather first to remove surface dirt. Lightly dampen a cotton or Microfiber cloth or applicator pad with water so that it doesn't absorb too much conditioner. Spray the applicator cloth or pad with conditioner and wipe it into the leather. A little conditioner goes a long way. Multiple light applications are better than one heavy application. Wipe the entire leather interior of your car and then allow 20 to 30 minutes for the oils to be absorbed. After this time, lightly buff the leather with a dry cotton or Microfiber cloth to remove any excess conditioner.
Lexol Leather Conditioner maintains the strength, beauty and utility of leather while protecting against the destructive effects of time and the environment. It also brings new life and resiliency to old or neglected leather that has become cracked or hardened.
Lexol Leather Conditioner leaves a soft, satin finish without a greasy, surface residue. For the very best in leather conditioning, insist on Lexol.
Proper leather cleaning.
A continuation of our interview with Dr. Don Jenkins and Phil Meyers from Summit Industries.
Q. How should you clean leather?
A. First let me tell you what not to do. Never, ever use a multi-purpose, high pH, or highly alkaline cleaner on leather. Your better, aniline dyed leathers, the kind used by Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Porsche, Audi and Lexus, should be cleaned with a product in the pH 5 to 5.5 range. That's actually a mildly acidic solution. Most multi-purpose cleaners and spot removers have a pH of 12 to 13. If you spray a multi-purpose, high pH cleaner on leather and buff with a dry cloth, the cloth will often turn brown. The consumer will believe it's dirt coming out of the hide. It's not dirt, it's tanning agents. You are actually detanning the hide! Remember, whatever chemical solution you put on leather remains in it.
Secondly, avoid cleaning or conditioning leather that is hot from being in the sun. Do not spray a cleaner directly on the leather. Use an applicator sponge or cloth to apply the cleaning solution. Spraying a cleaner on hot leather can cause spotting and discolorations.
Q. What is the proper procedure for cleaning leather?
A. Clean one manageable section at a time. For example, with bucket seats, clean the seat back and then move on to the seat bottom.
Wet a washcloth or Microfiber cloth with water, leaving it as damp as you would if you were going to wash your face. Spray the cleaner on the cloth and begin to wash the leather as if your were bathing. Don't forget the stitch lines. Dirt left in the stitch lines can cut through upholstery thread over time but proper cleaning will extend thread life. Especially soiled areas can be agitated using an upholstery or soft leather scrub brush.
After bathing each section, rinse the washcloth to clear it of dirt, wring it out, wipe off any excess cleaner then towel dry with a clean, dry cotton or Microfiber cloth.
Q. What about saddle soap?
A. In the late 1800's the final tanning of leather required the talents of a "currier". This craftsman took the tanned but stiff hide and worked oils into it until the desired flexibility was obtained. This process is called fatliquoring. The fatliquor of choice was an emulsion of oil in soap. This "saddle soap" was not used as a cleaner. It was a softening conditioner.
In fact, saddle soap is a very poor cleaner. It must first dissolve its own oils, limiting its capacity to dissolve dirt and oils in the leather. Saddle soap is also inherently alkaline but alkalinity is damaging to leather. Another problem arises during application. Most saddle soaps instruct the user to work the lather into the leather. Since loosened dirt is suspended in the lather, it is pushed back into the leather's pores.
Saddle soaps have long been replaced in tanneries by modern emulsions which penetrate, soften and condition with greater ease and stability. The popular myth of saddle soap as a cleaner however persists as modern folklore.
Interesting info on Saddle Soap too.