Leather 201 - Cleaning With Ease

April 12, 2007
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Figure 1

In the past I have discussed the fundamentals of leather, its properties and the characteristics of different types. Now let’s discuss the importance of a leather cleaning service call. When handled properly with professionalism, courtesy and knowledge, these calls will create lifelong customers, increase your business from those customers and bring lots of referrals.

Leather cleaning falls into two categories: general maintenance cleaning and restorative cleaning. The difference is simply the accumulation of soil and stains. General cleaning involves the removal of dust, light soil and body oils. Restorative cleaning involves the same process, but with the addition of removing stains and dye transfers that have accumulated on or in the leather. Here we will concentrate on general cleaning for Type A and P leathers, since general cleaning and leather protection account for the majority of leatherwork and most of the profits.

Figure 2

How can you get the most out of your leather cleaning service call? Start with the basics. Remember the old adage “You only get one chance to make a good first impression”? Well, it’s true! The first impression of you the consumer has will be the strongest, and will set the tone for the entire visit – good or bad.

  1. When you arrive, make sure the consumer can see your van or service vehicle from the entrance.
  2. Maintain a professional, neat appearance and uniform at all times. Professionalism and courtesy are the most important messages you can convey to the consumer.
  3. Introduce yourself and your company to the consumer immediately. Once you are greeted, always ask permission to enter the home.
  4. Before entering the home, place protective booties over your shoes. The booties are very inexpensive and add a level of professionalism and courtesy rarely seen. Consumers feel more comfortable paying a premium after receiving this type of introduction.


Figure 3

Once inside the home, ask to see the furniture so that you may evaluate it, and explain to the consumer what will happen during the service visit. Always include the consumer in the process and educate them as you evaluate the leather. The purpose of this evaluation is twofold; it allows you to see firsthand what type of leather you will be servicing and it also allows you to set a positive, professional tone for the visit. By discussing the leather in a professional manner and using specific words to describe the leather such as “Top Grain,” “Leather Type A or P,” “Hand of the Leather,” etc., you are establishing yourself as a knowledgeable professional who can solve the consumer’s problem and put them at ease.

After evaluating the leather, perform a rub test to determine whether the finish is in its’ original condition or if it has failed. A rub test is easy to perform, but as with any test, should be performed in an inconspicuous area where there is no damage to the finish, generally between the seat cushions. You will need a bottle of water and a dry, clean, white cloth. Both should be part of your cleaning kit.

Rub the cloth back and forth five times (Figure 1) with slightly more pressure than you would if you were cleaning glass windows. Focus the pressure on one or two fingers in the cloth. Once complete, inspect the cloth to see if color has transferred (Figure 2). Next, wet a cloth with water (Figure 3) and repeat with a wet rub test. No color should transfer on Type P, and very little on Type A leathers. This confirms that the leather was finished properly at the tannery.

Repeat the process in a seating area. If the results are the same, the leather is in good condition and ready for general maintenance cleaning. If color transfers (Figure 4), the leather is sensitive to color loss, and cleaning will have to be performed in a more gentle way.

Inform the consumer of your results. They will ask, “Why is this happening?” This is a critical moment and the better you conveyed your professionalism and knowledge of leather during the initial evaluation, the more easily you will be able to convey the reason to the consumer.

The finish rubbing off is a result of little or no leather care and maintenance by the consumer. Body oil has dissolved the finishing system of the leather and the color can be rubbed off. The next step in the degradation of the leather will be cracking and peeling. It is critical to educate the consumer to the importance of maintaining and caring for the leather regularly and the obvious benefits in maintaining the original look and feel as well as the finish of the leather. Remember education and information. Explain to the consumer what has happened to the leather and why, then provide them with options for cleaning and restoring the leather to its original look and feel. Here you have a tremendous opportunity to acquire a long-term customer. A regimen of cleaning and protecting the leather will halt the degradation and allow the consumer to enjoy their leather for years to come.

When choosing a cleaning agent, I recommend a water-based cleaning product specific to leather. Many products on the market are advertised as “cleaner/conditioners.” Stay away from these products. A conditioner implies that something is left behind on the leather when used. There are two problems with this theory. One, most leathers do not need conditioning. If it does, you can offer an additional treatment for a fee. Second, the purpose of cleaning the leather is to remove what has accumulated on the surface. If a product is designed to leave something behind, then it is obviously also leaving the soil, dust, dirt, body oil, etc. behind. Again, use a product specifically designed to clean leather. Preferably, use a milder product first and work up to a stronger product if necessary. Many times a milder, less expensive product will work well, especially when cleaning leather that may have a sensitive finish.

Once you have selected the proper cleaning agent, you will also need a bucket of clean water, a large sponge, plenty of terry towels and a soft bristle brush. Before beginning the cleaning process, it’s very important to take steps to prep and protect the work area to prevent any spills or mishaps, and also to build the consumer’s confidence in your courtesy and professionalism. Remember, this is the consumer’s home, not a workshop.

Place drop cloths around the working area and a separate drop cloth in an open area of the room. Use the second drop cloth as a drying area for any loose cushions. Consider using an air blower if you do not already have one, as it will help expedite the dry time.

You are now ready to begin the cleaning process:
  1. Dampen the sponge with water. Dispense the leather cleaner into the sponge and squeeze the sponge repeatedly until enough foam is created to commence cleaning. In my opinion, this is the easiest way to achieve the foam but you can also create foam by “whipping” the cleaner with a long handled brush in a separate container or bucket.
  2. Begin on the loose cushions, applying the foam to the leather and working in with the sponge. The golden rule of cleaning is to allow the cleaner to work on its own and avoid friction. Friction will cause color loss and damage the leather. If you are using the proper cleaners, the product should perform on its own without using force and creating friction. If the soiling is more advanced, use a soft bristle brush to gently work the foam solution deep into the grain of the leather. Always work “seam to seam,” especially on Type A leathers. This will eliminate the possibility of a “ring” forming on the leather. Cleaning just part of the cushion is a common mistake that allows the wet edge to form a ring as it dries. Applying product completely across the cushion eliminates this problem.
  3. Allow it to stand 30 to 40 seconds and gently wipe the foam away with the terry towel. While the piece is drying, move to the next area. Complete the process in stages on each piece. While waiting for foam to activate and penetrate one cushion, remove foam from the previous cushion. Once complete, set them in tent position to dry on the drop cloth and proceed to the frame of the furniture. Continue working in this manner until all pieces are complete.
  4. Once all pieces are completely dry, apply a protection product to the leather. While it is drying, re-evaluate the leather with the customer to be sure you have their approval. Recap the cleaning process and ask them if they have any questions. Recommend the leather be cleaned and retreated every six months and schedule a future appointment. Ask if you may leave some business cards, and thank them for the opportunity to serve them.


  5. You will notice the color of the sponge change as the sponge accumulates soil from the leather. Continually rinse the sponge as you go in the bucket of water. Replace the water if it gets cloudy.

    Never scrub the leather. Do not cause friction. Allow the chemicals and the bubbles to lift the soil from the surface of the leather. You will see the results in the terry towel and the water in the bucket.

    Figure 4

    Type P leathers absorb very little water and will dry very quickly. Plan on 30 to 45 minutes for an average sofa from beginning to end.

    Type A leathers absorb more water and may take a considerable amount of time to dry. Also, the leather may darken when wet and has a tendency to shrink when wet (similar to cotton or wool). It is always best to massage the leather to keep it moving as you dry the leather. This will make sure ringing doesn’t occur and the leather color returns as it dries. Plan on at least an hour for the average aniline sofa.

    When protecting the sofa, use a water-based product that does not contain silicone, lanolins or any solvents. Be sure to match the product to the leather so it will not alter the leather color, hand, or breathability. A quality protector for leather should provide resistance to absorption in the event there is a spill. Your ability to clean the leather in the future will be made significantly easier if you use a quality protection product.

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