Neatsfoot oil, god or bad? Other ideas about treating leather...

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  • A few months ago, I managed to get a pair of Soubirac riding boots at an almost unbelievably good price. They turned out to be a model that had been discontinued a couple of years ago, and were badly marked (one marked on the sole as being a size 45, the other 44, but all size markings on the inside match up to being 44).


    Brand new, they were bloody tight around the calf and the leather was also quite stiff, marking them very difficult to get on and ridiculously difficult to get off.


    So for a few weeks I worked at softening them using neatsfoot oil and another new toy of mine: a hot air gun with controllable temperture.


    I blow hot air into the boot at 80°C to start warming it, and paint the outside of the boot with neatsfoot oil. Then dial up to the temperature to about 140°C and warm up the outside, playing the hot air over the surface of the leather. My hand and bare arm inside the boot allow me the feel how warm the leather is getting.


    My reasoning is that the heat will drive off some of the humidity that might be still trapped in the leather and that it will also make the oil less viscous so that it soaks into the leather more easily. And it seems to have worked well: the boots are now supple enough around the ankle that I can comfortably walk the 800 yards or so between my house and the stables, ride for a while and walk home again. The longest I've worn them for in one stretch is about six hours. Oh, and I don't need help getting them off, any more. :-) Now, I generally reapply the oil after every two or three hours or riding. The inside of the calf, where it rubs against the horse's flanks, seems to absorb the most oil. The amount that is absorbed seems to be getting less and less, so maybe the leather is reaching saturation...


    I've been using the same technique of heating to treat a few of my old leather belts and also some old odd stirrup straps fished out of the rubbish pile at the stables: a broken buckle, perished and broken stitching, dried out leather, all seem to be "good" reasons for chucking out what have turned out to be OK looking straps. I sew on a new buckle and then use the straps for bundling up bits of kit, like a raincoat rolled up behind the saddle or over the pommel when going out on an all-day ride.


    But today, looking at a thread on the Horse and Hound forum, I saw some interesting opinions about how to treat leather, especially straps (specifically girth straps, but this would apply to stirrup straps, too). The opinion is that neatsfoot oil should not be used on any strap that takes a heavy load, as the oil loosens and spreads the fibres; this seems logical to me, in that the loosening and spreading effect is what leads to the suppleness.


    There are also some interesting ideas about how the leather a century or two ago would have been made from the hides of much older animals than is the case today, and that tanning techniques have also changed, and so many of the "old-time" recipes for leather-dressing compounds would be ill-suited to today's leather.


    I scored myself a second-hand saddle a couple of weeks ago, and had already oiled the billets, the insides of the flaps and the gullet once, before reading that Horse and Hound thread. Next job is to make up a pair of stirrup straps, I bought teh buckles and a big piece of butt leather for this a while ago (I'll borrow my daughters stirrup irons). But I'll not be putting neatsfoot oil on the straps!


    I know there are a few professional leatherworkers on here, and a number of accomplished hobbyists; what do you think of neatsfoot oi, and what would you suggest using instead?

  • Neatsfoot oil should be used sparingly and it sounds like you're doing quite the opposite! Too much isn't good for the leather and is also likely to leach back out into your clothes.


    Leather boots and shoes break in with use, I'm sure everyone has had a pair of new shoes which feel awful for a few weeks and are then very comfortable for years. This is more about the fibres being worked than any lack of oils.

  • Neatsfoot oil should be used sparingly and it sounds like you're doing quite the opposite! Too much isn't good for the leather and is also likely to leach back out into your clothes.


    Leather boots and shoes break in with use, I'm sure everyone has had a pair of new shoes which feel awful for a few weeks and are then very comfortable for years. This is more about the fibres being worked than any lack of oils.

    Thanks for the advice. The boots are lined, and so far I've not seen any oil leeching through and onto my clothes. I'll leave off the neatsfoot oil, though. I have some other stuff to put on them, Paulin's black grease, I'll try that when the weather turns really wet.


    On the subject of breaking in those boots... I wouldn't have been able to, at first. I just couldn't get my feet into them. These are boots very much like Wellington boots in construction; no fasteners of any kind. They are a bit generous in the instep, which I suppose is necessary, and they'ss be more comfortable with spur straps (though I don't wear spurs when riding).

  • Maybe they're just too small, although being a Yorkshireman I appreciate the 'they were free so I'll make them fit' mentality! :)

    I'm also a Yorkshireman, and always on the lookout for a bargain. That's why I always bought my ski gear in the summer.


    These boots weren't exactly free, but at €60 instead of €550 they were bloody close! And 44 really is my size, if I'm wearing thin socks.

  • I've got a Redskins (the brand, not the NFL team) leather jacket that is about 30 years old, and battered.


    It is of far too high a quality to simply chuck out, so I gave it a new lease of life by recolouring it somewhat with two jars of shoe cream (I can't remember which brand, but it comes with a little sponge applicator in the lid), and I finished it off with a slathering of dubbin that took a week to fully soak in/dry out.


    It is still very patchy and looks like it's been dragged round the world a few times, but it's a kajillion times better looking and feeling than before I worked on it.

  • What's in dubbin?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dubbin?wprov=sfla1


    You'll read lots of nonsense about how dubbin destroys the stitching of leather goods; it totally, 100%, does not. What it WILL do is make a thick layer of crud in the seams that will retain water and create an environment for thread-eating microbes...but only if you allow it to. Essentially, you apply the stuff by hand, let it soak in for however long it requires, then use a shoe brush to clean the seams, and a rag to give it a quick buff (it'll be a matte sheen, not shiny shiny). It is proper, old-fashioned stuff (a modern equivalent would be something like Nikwax), but it's completely natural and it waterproofs leather a treat; it's all there was, a couple of generations ago. When I was a kid, we had to dubbin our school football boots on a Sunday afternoon, after they'd dried out under the kitchen radiator after Friday afternoon's PE lesson.