Growing up West Texas, I have a deep affinity for this unique and stylish type of footwear.
What I wasn’t impressed with though was the way he had been caring for them – they were a year old and he had never conditioned them!
Stop right there I told him.
That day I had Ryan order some leather conditioner from Amazon.com.
It arrived the next day, and we recorded a quick video on why conditioning western boots is important and how it should be accomplished.
Below is my video with Ryan Masters on why and how to condition your leather western boots.
Leather Product Basics
I ordered some Leather Honey leather conditioner delivered to our hotel for this video. There’s a couple of good products you can use (Leather Milk is another equally good option I’ve tested), but basically you’re looking for a conditioner, as opposed to a polish or wax. It should sink into the leather, rather than coating the surface.
Conditioner is one of three main types of leather care products you’ll see:
- Soaps – These are tough cleaners that work into leather to get dirt and tiny particles out from under the surface. They’re good for thick, hard-working leather, and you’ll usually find them sold at places like Farm & Fleet and of course Amazon.com. You can use them on tough work boots that need a serious cleaning, but for the most part they’re overkill on footwear unless you’ve been caking on the polish.
- Conditioners – This is what we used today. Leather conditioner is designed to sink into leather and keep the interior supple, rather than resting on the surface. It adds strength and flexibility to the leather, but not much exterior protection.
- Polishes – These are waxy substances designed to make a smooth coating on the surface of leather. They add a useful layer of protection to smooth-surfaced boots, but tooled and embroidered Western boots don’t always take polish well, and it doesn’t do anything to strengthen the insides of the leather.
You may also run across creams, which are designed to work as combined polish-conditioners. Some of them aren’t bad, but they’re not as thorough a treatment as a proper conditioner. I generally recommend applying a conditioner and then a polish, rather than using a cream.
The Importance of Conditioning Leather
Ryan’s boots were in pretty rough shape when we started this video. They were nice boots to begin with, so they’d held up well, but they were definitely showing the wear-and-tear of hard use.
Now, boots like these are a big investment. (Ryan’s cost about $500.) You want to make them last so you get your money’s worth. They can hold up for years — decades, even — but they need some care along the way to get the most milage.
We were in Arizona when we talked, where everything’s very dry. Leather, of course is skin (a couple different types of skin, in the case of Ryan’s boots, which had were alligator). The skin contains thousands and thousands of tiny fibers, all criss-crossing one another in a flexible web. That web is designed to flex, which means your boot can move with your foot without breaking, but over time the fibers slowly dry out and loose their suppleness. When that happens, your boot starts to crack at the points that flex the most.
Leather conditioner is designed to sink into the leather and infuse the fibers with moisture.
The moisture here is primarily oil-based, not water-based — water actually draws moisture out of leather, and leaves it more prone to cracking over time. A good conditioner helps give the leather fibers a water-resistant coating that keeps the oils in.
Ryan and I ran through the step-by-step process of conditioning the boots together:
- First, give the boots a quick cleaning rub-down with a dry rag or cloth. This is to remove any dirt or particles clinging to the surface. You don’t want to rub those into the leather when you apply the polish. A toothbrush is also handy for getting dirt out of any seams, especially where the uppers meet the sole (the “welt”).
- Leather conditioner does darken leather very slightly, especially for the first few days when it’s soaking in, so if you’ve got a light-colored boot or a thin, exotic leather, do a spot-test somewhere hidden and let it sit for a couple hours before conditioning the whole boot.
- Once you’re comfortable with the conditioner and confident that it won’t ruin the look of your boot, go ahead and start applying it. Pour the conditioner onto a soft rag (chamois or terrycloth work well) and rub it in gentle circles on the surface of the leather. You don’t need to push down hard — just keep the rag damp with conditioner and work it back and forth along the boot.
- Use as much conditioner as the leather seems to need. That’s not a very exact measurement, but needs will vary — a boot that’s been neglected and is quite dried-out will need a couple applications, while one in good shape will only need a quick rub. Watch to see when the conditioner stops soaking in and vanishing, and begins to dampen the surface of the leather. That’s a good stopping point.
- Let the boots sit overnight to absorb the conditioner fully. Once they’ve rested for 12-24 hours, you can give them a rub with a dry rag to absorb any excess oils and moisture.
- You can polish boots after conditioning them if you want to. It’s not necessary, but it’s a good combination for smooth leather boots — the waxy polish helps lock the conditioner in, extending the time you can go between applications.
Conditioning should happen as often as it needs to.
It’s not hard to spot a boot that’s drying out: the points of the leather that flex the most will start to discolor and hold creases or tiny cracks.
Try to stop it before it gets to the cracking point by conditioning. In a dry, desert climate you’ll probably be looking at conditioning every six months or so for boots that get worn once or twice a week.