Leather Boot Care

Despite investing a lot of money into my footwear, thrashing them heavily, and depending on them to carry me further, I’ve never spent any effort on cleaning or caring for my boots. A month or so ago, I was in REI and took a gander at the footwear section. They happened to have a pair of Lowa Renegades on the rack. The Renegades remain my primary boots that I wear on a daily basis and for the vast majority of my travel. I was shocked by the contrast of the boots on my feet and those on the rack. The boots are made of nubuk leather with some cordura around the ankle band. New, the leather is of a smooth, dark blue color. The leather on my feet was dry, wrinkly, and of a brownish-green color. This made me think that maybe there was something to that whole boot care thing, after all.

I didn’t know much about leather care, nor what I should look for in a product. My first stop for research like this is the Kifaru Forums. The forums are peopled predominantly by those whom I think of as the modern day longhunters and mountain men. I take their gear advice very seriously in considering all of my purchases. The overwhelming opinion on the forums was for a product called Obenauf’s. Obenauf’s makes three relevant products: White Jaguar Leather Cleaner, Leather Oil, and Heavy Duty Leather Preservative (LP). The LP, in particular, was developed for and by wildland fire firefighters. What with the hiking, the heat, and the smoke, I can’t think of any other profession that demands more out of leather boots. I promptly placed an order for $50 worth of product.

After a week-long trek, my boots were soaked through and caked with mud. I was looking forward to trying out my new Obenauf’s products. The first thing I did was remove the Sole insoles (which I clean separately) and attack the boots with a hose, blasting the mud off the outsides and flooding the inside. After about half a day on a boot dryer, the boots were dry, both inside and out, and had returned to the familiar dry, wrinkly, brownish-green color.

White Jaguar Leather Cleaner

The first product I used was the White Jaguar Leather Cleaner. They claim the cleaner is a water based solution of natural plant ingredients. As such, it is non-toxic and biodegradable. Obenauf’s recommendation is to spray some of the cleaner onto an applicator, such as cloth, sponge, or soft-bristles brush. Then work it into the boot with a soft, circular motion, which lifts the dirt, and finally wipe the dirt off with a clean cloth. They warn against soaking the applicator. I found that this did not work very good at all on the nubuk leather. Instead, I sprayed the cleaner directly onto the boots, soaking them thoroughly but stopping just before the point where the cleaner would begin to run. Having soaked the boots, I worked the leather with a nail brush, making circular motions to lift the dirt off. I then wiped off the dirt with a clean cloth. This worked much better than the recommended method. I repeated the process 4 times on each boot, till the dirt stopped coming off.

I’m not sure if the White Jaguar cleaner is in any way superior to, say, a sudsy bath of Dr. Bronner’s, which is the soap I use on everything else. This would clean the cordura as well, and I can’t imagine it would do much harm to the leather. I will probably try this method next time for comparison.

Leather Oil

Regardless of which cleaner is used, the leather will now be very dry and free of all oils, which must be addressed. Obenauf’s says of leather that “it’s a skin, with fibers and pores that requires proper natural lubrication and needs to breathe. Because it no longer has a body to provide proper natural oils, we must.” They claim that other products “soften by weakening or decomposing the fibers and they waterproof by sealing the pores.” Their own product, by contrast, is a combination of natural oils that maintains and preserves the leather’s natural properties.

They recommend applying the oil at a temperature of 75 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. The ambient temperature when I was doing this was around 45 degrees. I decided to hit the boots with a hair-dryer to warm up the leather a bit before the application. Then I applied the oil to the boots, lobbing it on in obscene amounts. One coating per boot, then I went over both of them with the hair-dryer again to encourage the oil to soak in. Obenauf’s recommends two coatings approximately one hour apart. Because my boots took so long to dry after the encounter with the hose, it was rather late after the first oiling, so I left the boots to soak overnight and went to bed. In the morning, I did a second application the same as before, treating the leather to the hair-dryer both before and after. After this, I let the boots set another hour, then lightly wiped off any excess with a cloth.

If you’re a masochist and appreciate ugly, attention-grabbing footwear, you could also use this oil to buff the leather to a shine.

The transformation of the leather was amazing. Save for a few scuff marks here and there, the boots look identical to the brand new pair that caught my eye on the store shelf. They’ve returned to the dark, rich blue color and no longer look so dry and chapped.

Heavy Duty Leather Preservative

The third step, for long term preservation, was the application of the leather preservative. The LP is made of three different natural oils that are suspended in beeswax and propolis. This wax allows the oils to gradually seep into and lubricate the oil over time. Being exposed to flexing or extreme heat, rather than drying the leather out, encourages the wax to release the oils faster, thus preserving the leather.

To apply the LP, I once again heated the leather with the hair-dryer. Then, I turned the hair dryer onto the LP itself. Holding it over the jar for about a minute melted the wax a bit, making it easier the apply. Obenauf’s recommends applying the LP by hand, as your natural body heat will also help to warm the wax and encourage the leather to accept it. So, I dipped in a couple fingers and started spreading the wax all over the leather. After coating the first boot, I went over it with the hair-dryer again to help it penetrate a bit more. Obenauf’s recommends two coatings of the LP, which is what I did. The LP darkened the color of the leather more so than the oil, and also gave them a slightly waxy gloss. The boots actually look a bit too new and fancy for my taste now. I’ll have to rough them up a bit on the next hike.

I’m very happy with all three of the products from Obenauf’s, particularly the oil and the LP, which seemed to have worked magic on my boots. I’d recommend them to anybody who demands heavily on their boots. I plan to work them into a regular care schedule for my own boots, extending the life of my investments.

If anybody with more experience has suggestions for other products or a critique of my method, let me know.