Proper Care for Your Antique Leather

The reaction by Arts & Crafts reformers against the excesses of the Victorian age was manifested in many ways, right down to the choice of leather over velvet or silk as the preferred upholstery fabric.

Unfortunately, leather is an organic material that begins to break down – and continues to break down – beginning on its first day. Left in its completely natural state, leather will eventually turn to dust. Tanneries and Arts & Crafts furniture manufacturers recognized this and treated their leather with a variety of products, ranging from oils and dressings to wax and even shellac. Some worked, others did not.

The proper leather conditioner or dressing can delay the deterioration process, as it coats the fibers and keeps them flexible.

Today we have learned that antique leather cannot be treated as you would treat new leather, horse tack or even car leather. Many of these products contain chemicals that will hasten the demise of your antique leather.

A classic example is neatsfoot oil, which is made by rendering the bones and feet of cattle. Often manufacturers add lard or mineral oil to the solution, both of which attract damaging bacteria. Neatsfoot oil almost always darkens leather and can actually do long term damage. Avoid it.

Since the condition and finish on antique leather can vary from firm to firm, general rules are dangerous unless you start with this very important one: test every product, every step in an inconspicuous place. If you don’t, you may ruin your valuable leather.

1. Remove surface grime with a soft, dry cloth. Use a clean paintbrush to remove dust from corners, crevices and around tacks.

2. If your leather is in good condition, wash it carefully with a water-based leather cleaner specifically designed for antique leather. Do not use leather wipes or any furniture cleaner or polish, as the ingredients can damage your antique leather. If your leather is brittle and breaking, washing it may do more damage, so skip this step.

3. Let it dry slowly. Do not place it in the sun or use heat to speed up the process.

4. Apply a leather conditioner designed for antique leather. Again, never use furniture polishes, furniture finishes or car care products, as they can harm old leather. Follow the manufacturer’s directions.

Finally, heat and sunlight speed up the deterioration process, so keep that in mind as you display your upholstered pieces.

One of the best sources for a variety of leather care products, including a leather dressing formulated for antique leather, is Pecard at They have been in business since 1902.