Sometimes you just can’t beat leather for work gear and personal protective equipment. It’s warmth, durability, strength and longevity make it feel like a second skin — probably because it IS a second skin. Because it’s not made of fabric but the hide of an animal, leather work gear requires a specific set of care and maintenance practices to keep it performing optimally.
Washing Leather Work Gear
As a contractor, you’re going to get dirty. It’s a fact of life that your boots, gloves, aprons, tool belts and other leather gear are going to get covered in dirt, dust, debris and who knows what else. Sooner or later, you’ll have to wash your leather. Always defer to manufacturer recommendations.
If care instructions are absent or long-since worn off, test an inconspicuous spot with a damp rag. Allow the test spot to dry and look for discoloration or damage. Grab a can of leather or saddle soap, a stiff bristle brush and a sponge or clean rag. Work the soap and warm water into a lather on your leather and use the brush to rid the gear of any dirt. Flush the gear with warm water using the sponge to open the pores of the leather to ensure a thorough cleaning.
How often should you wash your leather work gear? If it’s noticeably dirty after a job, give it a good scrub. Minor dirt can usually be wiped away, but it’s best not to let gear stay dirty: salt from sweat, minerals from metal and other environmental hazards can take their toll on work gear, diminishing their lifespan.
Drying Your Leather Gear
Once you’ve washed your leather, it absolutely has to dry. Leather care expert and saddle maker Cary Schwarz clarifies the importance of washing and drying leather goods: “What we’re talking about in cleaning leather is just a topical cleansing, opening the pores and fibers so the particles of dirt can float out. As long as it’s allowed to dry out, it’s not going to hurt the leather at all.”
Don’t be tempted to run your leather work gear through the dryer: it can damage the gear through excess heat. Instead, place it in a room temperature spot with plenty of ventilation. If necessary, stuff glove fingers, boots or jacket arms with newspaper to aid in the drying process and allow air to pass through freely. You can also aim a fan at your leather gear to aid in drying.
Conditioning Your Gear
Washing leather removes the natural oils that keep leather supple and firm. Some leathers use a wax finisher to add protection to the gear or give it a certain sheen. If you wash your gear, you’ll need to replace those to keep your work gear performing well.
Use a good leather conditioner as recommended by the gear’s manufacturer or pick out up from a leather goods or tack shop aimed at work gear that gets used heavily. Even rawhide gear, such as welding gloves, can benefit from a leather conditioner if it feels stiff or brittle.
Proper application of leather conditioners requires warmth. Ideally, the gear should be warm. Oil-based conditioners should be warmed so as to disperse into the pores of the gear. Wax-based conditioners don’t need to be warmed, but it’s crucial for the gear to be warmed either by the ambient temperature of the room or with the aid of a blow dryer. The wax needs to be worked into the gear and the colder the gear, the more elbow grease you’ll have to put in to disperse it.
Use a soft cloth and buff any excess off that isn’t absorbed by the gear.
Care and Keeping of Leather Work Gear
Your leather work gear isn’t for show, so it doesn’t need a high shine. But it does need regular care and maintenance. Washing, drying and conditioning your leather goods when they become dirty or stiff and brittle is crucial to their performance. By taking optimal care of your leather work gear, it’ll last for years to come.