Some Information About Leather Conditioners

There are so many leather care products out there….how do you know which one is right for your project??

I’d like to share a few of my thoughts on three of the more common leather conditioners on the market today. They are Dr. Jackson’s Hide Rejuvenator, neatsfoot oil, and mink oil.

Note: These products are to be used more on vegetable tanned leathers, as opposed to chrome tanned leather.  For example, leather conditioners will help with leather baseball gloves, saddlery, heavy outdoor leather gear, heavy vegetable tanned leather belts, heavy duty work boots.  These conditioners are not for use on your nice black leather coat, hand-bag, or any suede product.

Dr. Jackson’s Hide Rejuvenator

This is a Tandy Leather Factory product, and I have no idea what’s in this stuff but it works wonderfully.  This conditioner will bring back old and dried out leather better than any other product that I have personally tried.  Multiple light treatments seem to work best.  The leather will only take so much and then simply stop absorbing it.  Wipe off the excess and put it back in the tub for use next time.  I work Dr. Jackson’s in with my bare hands, constantly flexing the leather as I work.  Allow a day between coats so the oils can penetrate.  As with all conditioners, too much is not a good thing (it’s just more difficult to put on too much Dr. J’s compared to other products).

Neatsfoot Oil

I regularly use neatsfoot oil on saddlery and harness leathers. I never use neatsfoot oil on chrome tanned leathers. I also commonly use a light coat of neatsfoot oil on natural vegetable tanned leather after I have done extensive carving and before I do any colouring or finishing.  The multiple wettings and drying of carving will leach out some of the natural oils and fat liquors added during the tanning process and I want to put them back to help keep the leather surface supple. This also promotes a more even dye colour.

I’ve been asked lately to explain what “neatsfoot oil” really is.  Traditionally neatsfoot oil is the oil rendered from the shinbones and feet, but not the hooves, of cattle.  The term “neat” comes from old English meaning cattle.  The bones and feet are rendered in water to separate the oils.  The oils are then skimmed off and filter pressed.  Traditionally two pressings were common.  The first press gave the lightest oil, used primarily as a fine machine oil.  The second pressing was used in the leather and textile industries.  Both pressings are 100% pure neatsfoot oil.  Products marked as “neatsfoot oil compounds” have other additives, usually petroleum based.

Neatsfoot oil does not easily evaporate or come out of the leather and is easily over-applied. My experience is too much oil will leave the leather slimy to the touch and can make the leather weak. Sewing on over oiled leather allows the stitching to pull in too tightly and can cut into the grain layer. Neatsfoot oil can also oxidize over time and actually promote the brittleness of the leather it was meant to protect.

Mink Oil

Mink oil’s reputation as a leather conditioner seem to be more in the footwear and sporting goods industry than in the saddlery trades.
Mink oil is a natural oil derived from the rendering of the insulating layer of fat from under the skin of mink.  Mink oil has a high content of palmitoleic acid, an essential fatty acid also produced in the human body. As a result, mink oil is a common component in cosmetic and leather care products.

Mink oil as a leather conditioner will usually have some additive. Primarily these will be beeswax, tallow and/or lanolin.  Some other products will have petroleum derivatives such as silicone.  My choice is to avoid the petroleums as a leather care item. Silicone has been said to cause harm to the threads used in production. Why take the chance of damaging the stitching while trying to care for the leather.  Mink oil also has a better resistance to turning rancid than other animal or vegetable oils. Mink oil can be more effective on chromium tanned leathers than neatsfoot oil, but still be careful. You can use too much and cause the leather to lose support.  Mink oil will almost always cause darkening of leather so read the instructions that come with whichever brand you choose. Mink oil seems to provide a level of water proofing as well as being a good general conditioner.

I read some of this information in the Leather Crafters & Saddlers Journal (Sep-Oct ’97 Edition), but I’m sure I’ve read other part of this information elsewhere, and to those other craftsmen, authors, and researchers I’d like to give credit where it’s due, if I only knew who you were.  Thank you.

Thanks for taking the time to read this!

Peter Grove,
Tundra Leather
Written November 15th, 2012

Edit:

Aussie Leather Conditioner

My Dad sure knew his stuff, when it came to leatherwork.  He knew which conditioner to use in which situation, and talked about his favourite three (above).  However, we also now stock Fiebing’s Aussie Leather Conditioner.  I’ve heard and read some wonderful things about this product.  It’s mostly meant for those dry climates (both extremely hot and bitterly cold), where leather has a tendency to crack and split more easily.  Used as a preventative measure, you can apply Aussie Leather Conditioner before the climate has a chance to damage your leather goods.  It was designed by Australian horsemen and contained natural beeswax.

Thanks again!

Kristi Grove,
Tundra Leather
Edited August 3, 2017

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