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How to clean leather: a step-by-step guide

Leather is naturally an incredibly hardwearing and long-lasting material. It can last for many generations, but this is only possible if you look after the leather correctly. From backpacks to shoes and belts, knowing how to take care of leather will mean your products will stay in top condition for as long as possible.

Cleaning is important but it’s also vital to regularly treat your leather, particularly premium full-grain leather, with products that are specifically designed to do so. A bit like caring for your own skin, leather needs to be maintained and protected with a regular routine.

Follow our 5 step guide and keep your leather products clean and protected for many years to come.

How to clean full grain leather

Step 1 - plan

As with pretty much anything that you want to do properly, planning is key. In order to work out the best method for cleaning your leather bag or product, it’s vital to know what sort of leather it is made from.

Different types of leather require different cleaning methods, so always check before washing. If your leather is vegan or PU, it can be cleaned in the same way as any artificial material - give it a wipe or stick in the washing machine!

These instructions will share how to care for full-grain leather rather than suede or any sort of artificial leather. It should be obvious if your bag is suede, nubuck or another buffed leather and these will all require special treatment so please don’t follow these instructions. 

Full-grain leather means that the natural top layer of the hide or skin is still intact and hasn’t been corrected or removed in any way. You should be able to see the characterful textures and markings that are unique to each hide and most obviously, you will likely have paid more for this premium leather. Find out more about the different types of leather.

Rolltop Backpack Black

Step 2 - clean your leather with water

We often get asked, does water damage leather? Too hot and it can, but with careful application, it's the best way to keep your leather clean.

The first step is the most simple, but something often overlooked. Fill up a large bowl or bucket with water that feels about the same temperature as your hand. Too hot and the water could damage the leather and too cold and you won’t get the cleaning benefits.

Dampen a clean sponge in the water and use it to gently wipe the entire external surface of your leather bag to remove any dirt. It’s important not to use any soap or detergents as these could damage your full-grain leather. Don’t be alarmed if the leather darkens when wet as this will lighten as it dries, but if you are in any doubt it’s best to test on a small area first.

Be careful not to soak the bag or product with too much water and regularly wash out the sponge as you go. Make sure to give any handles particular attention as these have been in contact with your hands the most. We have found that sponges designed for cleaning leather saddles and equestrian tack are the best as they are robust while still being gentle on your bag.

Step 3 - let the leather air dry

Once cleaned with water, the next step is to allow your leather to dry naturally and out of direct sunlight. It might be tempting to put it near the radiator or in a hot room to speed up the drying, but this has the potential to dry the leather out too aggressively and cause irreparable damage.

A useful tip is to fill your bag or shoes with some plain coloured paper so that it keeps its shape while it dries. Rather than risk inks from a newspaper running into your bag’s lining, we find the plain paper packaging that comes with deliveries from a certain all-powerful online retailer works perfectly.

Rolltop Backpack Close-up

Step 4 - how to condition leather

Your bag or leather goods should now be clean, but it’s also important to keep the leather protected and in good condition. To do this you need to choose the most appropriate conditioning and protecting product for your leather bag and your desired finish.

We also recommend going for a product that uses ingredients such as beeswax and other natural oils that protect without leaving unpleasant odours or residues. Our go-to brand for leather care products is Collonil, a company that has been making quality leather care products in Germany since 1909.

It’s best to follow the instructions given with each product but assuming you have gone for a leather cream, use a clean cloth to apply the cream gently and evenly across the surface of the bag. Be careful not to coat stitching, as this can be harder to clean off. Again if you are in any doubt about darkening, treat a hidden area before covering the whole product.

Step 5 - polish your leather

Much like when polishing a pair of shoes, the final step is to gently buff off any excess leather cream. Wait until the product that you have applied has dried naturally and then using a clean cotton cloth, give it a polish all over.

How much you polish is a personal preference, but the more you do it the glossier the leather will end up. Make sure to choose a quality cloth that won’t shed fibres as you use it and if you have accidentally used too much of your chosen care product and it won’t polish away, you may need to try a soft brush.

Leather cleaning FAQs

Can you dry clean leather?

It is not recommended to dry clean leather as it will remove the material’s natural oils and cause it to become stiff and cracked. Instead seek a specialist cleaner who can treat your leather products. 

Can you waterproof leather?

Whilst it can withstand a light drizzle, leather isn’t naturally waterproof. If it gets too wet, it will become hard and lose its softness, so it’s important to wax and condition your products regularly. Doing so will make the leather water resistant. Find out more about how to make leather waterproof.

How do you get scratches out of leather?

Light scratches can normally be removed with leather conditioner, simply buff a small amount into the scratch in a circular motion and leave to dry.

Deeper scratches should first be cleaned using the steps above. Next, gently dab the area with white vinegar or leather cleaner. You can also blend the scratch with colourless shoe polish before using conditioner.

How do you get pen off leather?

To remove biro or ballpoint pen from leather you should first use rubbing alcohol. Gently rub the ink stain using a cotton swab, keeping as close to the affected area as possible.

It's also recommended to try a spot test first (such as the bottom of your bag) to check beforehand. The alcohol shouldn't cause any damage, particularly if you don't scrub too hard. Once the pen marks have been removed you should condition your product.

How to get creases out of leather?

If your leather jacket or bag has gained a few creases with use, you can try to get rid of them with a number of methods:

  • Try gently stretching the leather to pull out any wrinkles for a few minutes, being careful not to be too forceful
  • Hang up your jacket or place your bag in the bathroom as you take a long shower (about 20 minutes) before gently pulling out any creases
  • Leave heavy books on small wrinkles over night 
  • As a last resort, very carefully iron your jacket by using the coolest setting and placing a clean towel between the iron and fabric

How to remove paint from leather?

You can use a cotton swab with a number of different products to try and remove paint from leather. Depending on the type of paint, cooking oil, warm water, rubbing alcohol and nail varnish remover can all get paint off leather.

Always do a spot test to ensure it doesn't leave lasting damage and condition the product after cleaning.

DISCOVER THE BILLY TANNERY GOATSKIN LEATHER CARE KIT

To help owners of our British goat leather goods keep their products in perfect condition, we have put together our ultimate leather care kit. Our care kit includes our highly recommended Collonil Wax Leather conditioning and waterproofing cream plus two cloths - a premium Collonil leather polishing cloth and also a special jewellery cloth for polishing metal fittings.

Our vegetable-tanned goat leather has a particularly pronounced natural grain, so a light cream is essential as it doesn’t cover this in any way.

Discover more of our leather care tips and purchase our specialist cleaning kit.


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