Identifying and Cleaning Leather
April 13, 2009
After taking my first training in leather cleaning in the early 90s, it soon became very clear that leather cleaning is – shocking as it may seem – incredibly easy. It’s the process of identifying leather can be tricky and even difficult at times. Cleaning leather the wrong way due to misidentifying the type of leather can make a significant dent in company profits.
Identifying the type of leather really constitutes the most important step of the cleaning process. Many leather care products will permanently ruin Aniline or Nubuck leathers. It cannot be stressed enough that you need training to start you off on the right track. Too often, the training comes after a piece of furniture has had to be reupholstered or replaced. Unfortunately the old cliché rings true, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Check with your local supplier or the IICRC for the next course in your area.
From the get-go, it’s important that you establish what you are hoping to accomplish. Make sure that your client’s expectation is within your reach. Carefully document the condition of the furniture, from scuffs and scratches to stains and cuts. If their expectation is unreasonably high, and you are not successful in adjusting it to a realistic level you are confident of reaching, this is the time to pay attention to the little voice in your head and walk away.
Proper identification will lead to only one of three conclusions; Protected, Aniline, or Nubuck. The codes are likewise P, A and N. Unlike fabric upholstery, it is very unusual to find a blend of different leathers used on one piece of furniture. Once the type is known, you can begin to anticipate what chemistry and techniques will be used and establish a fairly clear expectation of the result.
Although many pieces of furniture are accurately tagged from the manufacturer, do not rely on them. To identify leather, first take a look at it. Protected (or sometimes called Pigmented) leather has a consistent solid color. Think of a coat of paint. Also, consider the color. Rarely do we find royal blue, snow white, or bright red cows. We most often find these solid, dramatic colors, and we are safe in considering these to be Protected. Fortunately for us, these are the easiest and safest to clean. Aniline and Nubuck will have variations in the color, and you may even be able to see scars, bite marks and other natural markings.
Next, feel the leather. Protected is often a stiffer leather, sometimes with a feel similar to vinyl. Aniline and Nubuck are softer than most Protected leathers. Unless waxed, Nubuck will feel like a very fine velvet, and might even darken or lighten slightly as you change the nap direction. Aniline feels very warm and soft to the touch. Confusion can arise when trying to identify waxed or oil pull-ups. Both Aniline and Nubuck can be made into a pull-up. Obviously, Aniline and Nubuck wax pull-ups will have a somewhat waxy feel, and may have the pattern of wrinkled wax paper. Oil pull-ups are just slightly oily and will usually be a deep, rich color. Lightly scratch the leather in an inconspicuous area with your fingernail. Aniline and Nubuck will become lighter in color.
If still unsure whether you are dealing with an Aniline or Nubuck, a moisture test may help. In an inconspicuous area, apply and rub a drop of a protection cream. After it has been absorbed, dry it with your hair dryer. Anilines dry invisibly while the Nubuck will usually dry to a slightly darker shade.
Here again the importance of attending a class should be stressed, as you will be able to practice identifying the subtle differences in these families of leather. Additionally, a good leather cleaning starter kit will include a variety of labeled leather swatches that will help you to compare different leathers.
Now that you’ve determined what type of leather you are dealing with, let’s start cleaning. First, prepare your work area. Work in a well lit area with good ventilation on a drop cloth. Challenges that you may be facing include dry soils, regular use (or abuse), and specialty problems such as crocking or other dyes.
The first fundamental of cleaning is dry soil removal. Using a soft-haired attachment, thoroughly vacuum the furniture. Regardless of leather type, always test clean a small hidden area. If significant dye is being removed or any other alarming surprises occur that you are unable to overcome, stop, explain the situation and walk away.
For Protected leather, using your appropriate leather cleaner, saturate your sponge over a bucket and squeeze the sponge until you have a wet foam to work with. Apply the foam to one full panel at a time. Gently rub the sponge or wet horsehair brush over the panel for agitation. Wipe the panel with the soft towels, removing the moisture along with the suspended soils. Repeat this procedure for each panel until the furniture is complete. Set an air mover to dry the furniture, paying attention to crevices and the like. Apply a leather protector to the furniture with a soft cloth.
To clean Aniline, using the proper cleaner, apply and agitate in the same fashion as with Protected leather. Dry each panel as you go. You may find stains appear more visible once the cleaned leather has dried. Again, a thorough pre-inspection and good customer communication is critical. Apply your leather protector to the furniture with a soft cloth. Once dry, use a clean towel to buff the leather, then admire its beauty.
Nubuck cleaning removes soil with the use of tack cloths. To avoid scratching and high-pressure points, wrap a tack cloth around a sponge and gently buff the leather. As you tack the entire piece of furniture, turn and change the Nubuck cloth when the contact surface becomes saturated with soil. In the next step moisture is introduced, so it is imperative that you have thorough control of your drying. Apply the leather cleaner as with Aniline, one panel at a time, drying each panel as you go. When finished and dry, apply two light coats of a Nubuck protector, being sure to dry between coats. Once that is dry again, buff the Nubuck with a soft towel, brass velvet brush, or horsehair brush to set the nap.
Pull-ups are cleaned the same way as Aniline, but may also require the use of solvents and application of wax or oil if needed. Once again, get some training and practice, practice, practice before you start a three-piece sectional for the first time.
Many cars and furniture are neglected for too long and are permanently damaged. Improper care that leads to dry and cracked leather is, unfortunately, very common. When the owners make an attempt to clean it themselves, the wrong product is often used, which can prematurely age and damage the leather over time. Due to such improper or complete lack of maintenance, sometimes restoration cleaning is required. This involves the use of more specialized products which may include a strong spotter, leather degreaser, ink spotter, and a rejuvenator that softens, moisturizes, and nourishes leather.
Remember, we’re just touching on the basics. Solutions to scratches, cuts, color repair and stains are better learned under the helpful eye on an instructor. You can then take the information back to your shop to practice and develop your skills.
Rather than being fearful, get educated. Spend some time practicing and getting comfortable, and your confidence will grow. Leather cleaning can be very lucrative, as we are protecting a big investment, and there are still relatively few brave enough to get into this field. Come on, jump in!