Leather cleaning and conditioning


I get asked on UK horse forums how to make leather conditioner and care for veg tanned saddlery leather, hope this article helps.

Firstly a bit about oiling and veg tanned leather.

NEATSFOOT OIL used on it's own, is a popular choice to condition modern hides BUT although modern neatsfoot oil is still made from cattle-based products, it has a tendency to speed oxidation of the leather.

If mineral oil or other petroleum-based material is added, the product may be called "neatsfoot oil compound".

Some brands have also been shown to be adulterated with rapeseed oil, soya oil, and other oils.

The addition of mineral oils may lead to more rapid decay of non-synthetic stitching or speed breakdown of the leather itself


You won't always see the damage to the fibres of the hide with the naked eyes and think it's ok to use it but you get down to the cellular level and look at the fibres under a microscope of hide oiled with neatsfoot and you'll see what I mean.

I am talking about modern leather here remember not leather that is 20-40 years old that some people still use. The rearing of the cattle, the slaughtering and tanning processes have changed over the years and leather today is not the same as it was years ago.



If you have any white or black mould on your leather please read THIS first



All I use to clean saddlery is warm water with a liquid soap such as the soap you use for washing up. This is for very dirty tack that comes into my workshop though that is needing lots of cleaning and care.

Everyday I would just use a very mild solution of the soap and warm water, rinse with cloth with warm water. Let it dry naturally. Keep an eye on the leather, when it starts looking or feeling dry, hard  or it's creaking when you flex it, add the leather conditioner to get the fat content back up.

Saddle soap (glycerine) is to be avoided,it was ok on old hides but it's not that good for modern hides, the Ph levels are wrong for modern hides. I often get saddles and bridles in for repairs that are covered in hard black lumps, it's the build up from the saddle soap, we call these lumps "jockeys" in the trade and they are very hard to remove having to often resort to scraping them off with a knife and risk damaging the surface of the leather. I have heard of people altering the Ph by melting half a bar of saddle soap in milk and using that, whether this works or not I don't know as I have never tried it.

Another good reason to avoid saddle soap with glycerine is it's a humectant which means it keeps the moisture in the leather which is what the manufacturer's of the soap are trying to do but the downside is it also draws moisture in from the surrounding air and encourages mould to grow on your leather.



All veg tanned leather, old or new, will lose moisture everyday whether it's used or not, best thing to condition leather to make it last is any product without any silicone, spirits, softeners or preservatives (that some modern leather conditioners contain) and to include tallow and bees wax as well.

I make my own leather conditioner simply because I use so much veg tan in my trade, I have hides that I have hand dressed in 1987  that are as good as new.



My own recipe is a secret one I have perfected over many years and it's for sale on this site here it's better than this recipe as this one is a beginners basic one you can make yourself, it will condition your leather reasonably well.

You will need to get hold of some beef fat (I make my own fat and tallow but you can use beef dripping bought from supermarket-Waitrose were selling it last time I looked and the name on it is Britannia).

You'll need beeswax and some lard (pig fat, again I make my own but you can get it from the supermarket), make sure any product you buy isn't adultered with other ingredients. Try to get it as pure as you can.


Do roughly a 50% beef fat, 25 % beeswax and 25% lard mixture, gently melt it down on a low heat and make sure you mix it thoroughly.

Let it set in an old empty and clean margarine tub. Keep it in the fridge out of the reach of pets as they will eat it.



Remember any moisture you add to leather whether water or leather conditioner can darken leather down, so if in doubt try a test area first.

When conditioning the CLEAN leather, wipe it with a warm wet cloth (just warm water) and whilst still wet/damp cut a lump off the block of conditioner, as it will be hard. Get some conditioner on your fingers, the heat from your hand and your fingers will melt it and it's by far the best way to apply any conditioner, it's a mucky job but forget sponges, cloths or brushes at this stage.

By putting the warm water on first it acts as a medium that aids the penetration of the fats right into the fibres of the hide.

The flesh side of the hide is far more porous than the grain side,try to imagine a funnel shape to the fibre with the wide open mouth end as the flesh side (flesh side is the underside where the flesh used to be) so allow a little more conditioner that side.

Rub it all over and massage it into the hide, then leave it to dry naturally in a dry room and not in any sunlight or near artifcial heat. Leave it at least overnight to be asorbed into the hide, the longer the better really if you have time.

When it's dry, then get a lint free cloth, I use old bath towels cut up, the bobbly bits of the towelling act like a polishing stone and this is where it gets hard work, you need a lot of elbow grease.


The idea is to rub the hide fast and fairly hard, not too hard to scratch it, the friction heats up any fats you have left on the hide (the white stuff) and gets it further into the fibres to add to the already absorbed conditioner that you put on it previously.


Lastly, this where it looks like I am contradicting myself about saying not to use oil on hides as I do but I use cod liver oil (NEVER neatsfoot as explained at the beginning) and wring a cotton cloth out in the cod liver oil so almost dry and put a very LIGHT film on both sides of the hide,wipe off any surplus and give it another gentle polish to buff it up with a bit of clean, dry bath towel, you are merely giving it a final dressing with the cod liver oil NOT conditioning or feeding it as that's already been achieved at this stage , it also gives the hide back it's leathery smell, a good trick of the trade to know if you sell second hand saddlery or leather, people love the smell of leather!


When completed you should have hide that is fairly stuffed full of fat and wax which is what it was designed for and it will have a nice bloom/shine to it, it should feel slightly moist/clammy but not sticky, if it is sticky you need to rub it more, it should feel heavier too.The conditioning will act as a rain barrier to keep the wet out.


It's basically good old fashioned saddler's grease which most saddlers, leatherworkers and cobblers would have made hundreds of years ago and is a far cry from the commercially made stuff you get today. It's fairly cheap to make and the best bit is, you KNOW what is in it!


Lastly, for those of you who use a commercially made leather conditioner, do you know what the ingredients are?

In the leather conditioner recipe above there are all natural ingredients that will not harm your leather and here is a list of ingredients of a well known commercial brand of leather conditioner, people rave about it but think what these ingredients can do to your leather, your own skin and your horses skin. I have heard of 2 horses with allergic reactions to some of these ingredients.
I've highlighted the suspect ingredients in red and included data for them in the links next to them.Please DO read up as much as you can on these ingredients and make you own minds up.The companies that make and sell them will have you believe they are safe to use. I for one doubt this.






PARAFFIN (see data HERE)



LANOLIN (from Sheep's wool, it can affect some sensitive individuals, usually makes them itch and is not contained in my own leather conditioner for this reason)


CERA ALBA (Bees wax)

PARFUM, (to make it smell nice for you)  I for one have an allergy to parfum it brings my skin up in a rash.Parfum has nothing to do with conditioning or of ANY benefit to the leather.

CI 12700 (this is a Yellow dye product to make it look nice for you)  Safety data (page 41 onwards) HERE my thoughts are, WHY would any manufacturer KNOWINGLY put chemicals in their product that can cause skin irritation to not only the person using it but it will be on the leather and against their horse's skin?

HOW can some of these ingredients be of any good for the leather, you or your horse?

Most of them certainly aren't natural and are man made and some have unpleasant side effects.


Copyright Unicorn Leather Saddlery 2017