Restoring Old Tack: How to Fix Years of Neglect


Conditioning tack with Passier Lederbalsam
Passier Lederbalsam is my first choice for conditioning leather that's gotten dry. Photo from http://www.kristineoakhurst.com

Earlier this month I was looking for my lunging surcingle. That search took me inside a box in my tack room that I probably haven’t opened for at least five years. What a surprise! I had no idea that I had so many bits and pieces of bridles stashed in there and was horrified by the state of the leather. Left unattended in a box for so long I was lucky that there was no mold but the leather was unbelievably dry.

So, what to with my tack truck full of dry leather? I know that many people like to oil tack. In fact, I’m amazed by the different types of oil that people put on their tack: olive oil, neatsfoot oil, hydrophane oil, mink oil, lexol, l’ve even heard of people using butter! At the same time there are a host of people telling you NOT to use the same products. Who should you believe?
I’ve never been a big fan of oil. Years ago a saddle fitter told me to avoid saddles that have been over oiled because the oil can break down the fibers in the leather. A little research into the structure of leather explains why.

When leather comes from the tannery it has an oil content of about 16 to 19 percent. Much more than that and you can weaken the leather fibers and trap moisture (causing mold); much less and the leather can become dry and brittle, causing cracks or tears.

Oil is both good and bad for leather. Applying some oil is good, but a little oil goes a long way. The oil acts as a lubricator allowing the fibers to slide over each other and also causing the fibers to swell. As the fibers become “looser” the leather feels soft. However, these physical changes also cause leather to weaken. Too much oil, also, keeps the leather from being able to breathe and will hold excess moisture and cause the leather to rot. Too little oil and the leather can become brittle and dry, causing it to crack or tear.

Water, too, is necessary (and not evil). Without water, the oil cannot penetrate the leather fibers. If you apply oil when the leather is dry, the oil simply fills the spaces between the fibers rather than duplicating them. The water also helps you keep from over oiling and causing the leather fibers to weaken.

As for what type of oil to use, avoid products that contain mineral oils or petroleum distillates as they can break down over time into a solvent. Applying edible oils (olive oil, butter) also can be problematic as they can become rancid. However, the old story about neatsfoot oil rotting stitching is just that: a story. When stitching rots it’s because of the moisture trapped in the leather because of over oiling, regardless of the type of oil that’s used.

For my old tack I started by taking everything apart. Then, I cleaned off all visible dirt with a damp sponge and Castile soap, dried it so that it was just damp and rubbed in Passier Lederbalsalm. I applied a light coat, rubbing the leather with my fingers and then it soak in overnight. The next day it was mostly adsorbed. I rubbed it all with a cloth and applied a second coat of the Lederbalsalm. Then I started using it — it’s great to have all this “new” tack!

The care of leather hasn’t changed much in the past century. I found the instructions that follow in the “Privates’ Manual,” by Major Jas A. Moss in 1915.

Cleaning. Daily, or as often as used, leather equipment should be wiped off with a cloth slightly dampened in water, merely to remove mud, dust or other foreign substances.

At intervals of from one to four weeks, depending upon the circumstances, it is essential that the equipment be thoroughly cleaned in accordance with the following instructions.

  1. Separate all parts, unbuckle straps, remove all buckles, loops, etc., where possible.
  2. Wipe off all surface dust and mud with a damp (not wet) sponge. After rinsing out the sponge, a lather is made by moistening the sponge in clear water, squeezing it out until nearly dry, and rubbing it vigorously upon the soap. When a thick, creamy lather is obtained, thoroughly clean each piece without neglecting any portion. Each strap should be drawn its length through the lathered sponge.
  3. After the leather has been allowed to become partially dry, it should be rubbed vigorously with a soft cloth to give it the neat, healthy appearance that is desired.

How to apply oil. The quantity of oil to be used can not be definitely prescribed. If not enough oil is used, the leather will be stiff and brittle; if too much is used, it will soil the clothing and accumulate dirt. The leather should, therefore, be saturated with sufficient oil to be soft and pliable without excess sufficient to cause it to exude. In applying the oil the following general instructions should govern:

  1. The oil should be applied to the flesh side of the equipment where practicable when the leather is clean and still damp after washing (about half dry), because it penetrates more uniformly when applied from the flesh side, and when the leather is damp. If the leather is dry it will absorb the oil like blotting paper, preventing proper distribution.
  2. The oil should be applied with an oiled rag or cotton waste by long, light, quick strokes—light strokes, so the pressure applied may not squeeze out an excess of oil; quick storks, so that the leather may not absorb an undue amount of oil. The endeavor should be to obtain a light even distribution.
  3. After applying the oil the leather equipment should be allowed to stand for 24 hours, if practicable, in a warm dry place. It should then be rubbed with a dry cloth to remove any unabsorbed oil.

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