ICS Magazine

The Myth and the Reality of Leather Furniture: It Takes a Cleaning Professional's Touch to Make it Sparkle

April 15, 2002
It has been my experience that, for the most part, consumers have no idea what type of leather they are buying and how it will truly perform. Why? Salespeople are either inadequately trained by the store or stretch the truth to make the sale. Usually the salesperson knows only what they've been told by someone else who knew very little.

What does the consumer really know when they purchase that new piece of leather furniture? Even with the best intentions, a salesperson often leaves the consumer woefully unaware of the type of leather they have purchased and the maintenance it requires.

I once had a salesperson tell me that the only difference between leathers was the color! I have been in homes where the consumer was led to believe that leather was low maintenance, impervious to pets and only needed to be wiped down with water occasionally. Herein lies the cleaner's concern: When the professional cleaner gets to see the leather piece it is, on the average, five- to six-years-old. A lot of damage can happen in that length of time.

Leather Should be Professionally Maintained
Leather is the Mercedes of furniture. It needs a skilled technician to properly care for it. Consider: If leather cleaning was easy there would be 500 leather cleaners in every city.

Leather comes with various finishes and top coats. The five main types of leather furniture you will see are Aniline, Semi-aniline, Protected, Nubuck and Suede. I will not go into the specific of how each leather type is made, but I will classify them into two categories: Protected and unprotected.

Protected Leathers
Protected leathers include Semi-aniline and Protected. These leathers have had a topcoat applied, making the surface both easier to clean and more durable. These are the least expensive leathers to purchase and the least difficult for a cleaner to maintain. Protected leathers, however, are susceptible to finishing problems related to pigment cracking from improper maintenance, pets scratching and clawing, or pigment rubbing off due to inadequate adhesion.

Unprotected Leathers
Unprotected leathers include Nubuck, Suede and Aniline. These leathers can become a nightmare because they readily absorb moisture and become stained. Oils and perspiration will penetrate these leathers causing dye displacement. Numerous types of stains and/or discoloration of leather fibers cannot be removed, even with effort of the most skilled leather cleaner. These are the softest, most comfortable and most expensive leather, and so require a high degree of professional maintenance.

Professional Care Required
Leather should be professionally maintained on a semiannual schedule. This includes cleaning, rejuvenating evaporated moisture and fat liquors and applying the proper protection. The consumer should perform spot cleaning with the proper cleaning agent.

That brings us to the proper cleaning agents. The pH of leather is approximately 4.5 and water is 7.0. Without tapping into pH, it will be sufficient to acknowledge that the pH of water is 500 times stronger than that of finished leather. I strongly suggest that only properly formulated water-based cleaning and preserving agents be used.

Many salespeople will tell you to simply rinse leather with a mild soap and water to clean it. But what is mild? We have seen water rings, dye loss, rotting leather and cracking occur because the wrong cleaning agents were used. Saddle soaps, mink oil and other products are not made for leather furniture and can damage some leathers. Always advise your customer to purchase their leather furniture cleaning agents from a professional who specializes in leather furniture care.