What Is Vegetable-Tanned Leather
Leather is a tough material that can take a lot of abuse. Vegetable-tanned leather, the type of leather that Walnut uses exclusively, was the main type of leather used until the Industrial Age when chemicals like mercury and chrome sped up the tanning process and created the softer, draping "garment leather" that most people are used to seeing today.
All of Walnut Studiolo's products are tanned with vegetable tannins (oak bark) at our old-fashioned American tannery in the Midwest using USDA beef cattle hides, a byproduct of the meat industry. Choosing an American tannery was important to us because American tanneries have to follow more stringent environmental laws when dealing with wastewater.
Vegetable-tanned leather is a "full-grain" leather, which is considered the highest grade of leather. The full-grain leather is in good enough shape that it is left un-sanded, allowing the natural textures to shine through. The leather is dyed and finished by hand in Walnut's workshop with our own recipe of leather care dressing, which allows the natural and variable leather character to shine through and creates a lustrous surface.
Walnut uses pre-dyed bridle leather in only a few products, such as our bicycle mud flaps, where long-term durability is most important. With bridle leather, the tannery infuses vegetable-tanned leather with the tannery's waxes and dyes, which creates a homogenous surface with a matte finish and wax throughout the entire thickness for top water protection. Bridle leather generally needs less maintenance than the hand-dyed veg-tan but .
Use and Care of Vegetable-Tanned Leather
Our vegetable-tanned leather does great in all weather, rain or shine. It is the same kind of leather used in equestrian gear (horse tack). It is meant to be used outdoors and in the elements!
Being left out in a hot, direct sun is much harder on this kind of leather than wetness and rain; however, after getting wet the leather needs time to dry or else it will mildew.
Vegetable-tanned leather gains more of a luster, darkens a bit, and becomes softer with use (this is unlike garment leather, which fades and becomes more brittle with time and use). Un-dyed vegetable-tanned leather (our "Natural" color) will "tan" or darken in sunlight.
Vegetable-tanned leather just loves to be touched - the oils in your hands naturally condition the leather the more you use it. In fact, some of our products that are constantly handled, like our bicycle sew-on bar wraps, may rarely ever need a conditioning treatment - if they look lustrous and shiny from your hands touching and sweating on them regularly, then no need to worry.
Whether it's veg-tan or bridle leather, we recommend conditioning the leather occasionally, especially if it starts to look dry, using the care recommendations below.
Care Recommendations: If your product is starting to look dry, take the time to give it a little care with a conditioning treatment. Care for it as little as once every year or two for occasional use with good storage conditions and as much as once a quarter for heavy outdoor use in the direct sun with dry humidity.
Cleaning Leather: If your leather gets dirty, clean it with diluted mild castile soap (like unscented Dr. Bronners) or unscented dishwashing liquid. Dilute the soap/liquid at least 1:10 (it should not be sudsy), and allow to fully dry before conditioning.
Conditioning Instructions:Assemble your leather care conditioning treatment of choice and your clean, dry leather product.
For a conditioning treatment, we recommend our own recipe of leather dressing, or you can use any commercially-available weather-proofing conditioner product designed for vegetable-tanned leather, or even a simple oil, like neatsfoot oil (best), mineral oil (second best), or even olive oil if water is less of an issue. Walnut Studiolo's All-Natural Leather Dressing contains neatsfoot oil and lanolin for conditioning, beeswax for water resistance, and pine resin and essential oils for preservation. Our leather care was developed in-house based on research of historic, colonial-era fisherman's boot wax recipes by Valerie and tested in the workshop by Geoff.
Rub a coat of conditioning treatment into your product lightly using a clean dry rag. Even if it has been a while, use a light coat. Heavy coats of oil can encourage mildew growth. You want to apply lightly with one rag and buff dry with a second rag.
You can do this as many times as you like, even allowing the treatment to soak in overnight before buffing dry.
Keep in mind that conditioning leather usually darkens it slightly. Don't worry, this is normal. In fact, doing this several times in a row can speed up the natural darkening process that happens during aging and can also help you fine-tune the color match, if for example, you're trying to match an aged Brooks saddle.
More Information: For a lot more information on leather care than you may have ever wanted to know, check out this excellent article by DeeAnna Weed of the Midwest Fjord Horse Club. It's geared more for equestrian gear but has a ton of helpful leather care information.