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I was given an old horse harness with brass bells attached, the kind you put on horses that pull sleighs. How can I clean the bells and renew or recondition the leather? I'd love to clean it up and use it for some sort of decoration.
By Louise from Harrisburg, PA
To clean a leather item, first choose a cleaner that will help preserve the natural lubricating oils instead of stripping them. Saddle paste and glycerine soap are commonly used products for saddles and tack. The cleaner of your choice should not leave any greasy residue behind. Residue makes leather susceptible to bacteria and can break down the stitching of your item. Before applying anything to your leather item, be certain to test it out for effect and possible color distortion on an area that isn't visible to the eye. Once you've determined that the leather care product is acceptable to use, apply it to your item and thoroughly remove the cleaning product with a lightly dampened cloth.
Leather conditioners are meant for occasional use. They contain fats and/or oils that help lubricate leather and replenish the suppleness. Look for a product that will penetrate the strong fibers in leather, but beware of any that include petroleum or mineral oils. While petroleum by-products won't damage your leather immediately, they do over a period of time. After 21 years, we still prefer Ray Holes Saddle Butter.
Saddle Butter for your tack is like lotion for your hands Saddle Butter contains a combination of fine waxes and ingredients, including beeswax and carnuba wax, tallows and pure neatsfoot oil. Each ingredient is a pure animal or vegetable product. Absolutely NO modern synthetics, mineral oils or commonly used leather-treating chemicals which break down the natural fiber and slowly rot your fine leather goods are used in this dressing. Its designed to re-nourish the oils in your leathers. First, clean your saddle and tack with your favorite soap. Rinse, pat dry and apply a couple of light coats of the Saddle Butter and see the difference.
Rawhide needs the same care as high quality leather. Ray Holes Vaquero Rawhide Cream cleans and conditions rawhide in one step. You should feel the difference on a bosal after applying this cream. Its also helpful while braiding rawhide. Ray Holes Vaquero Rawhide Cream is also excellent for cleaning and conditioning light leathers.
For leathers more exposed to the harsh elements, such as boots and chaps, moisture barriers are extremely crucial in preventing rain or other liquid hazards from damaging leather. There is a drawback in protecting leather with a moisture barrier product. They tend to fill in the pores with a greasiness that makes cleaning, conditioning, and polishing difficult, but it's a necessary process to ensure leather isn't destroyed. Periodically apply a moisture barrier and allow it time to penetrate and dry before using your leather item.
For best results, waterproof with Ray Holes Chap Wax or Dri-Boot. After cleaning the leather, warm the jar of Chap Wax or Dri-Boot in the microwave on low until soft (like room temperature margarine). Apply over the whole area, heavier at the sole of boots. There are no salts or chemicals in the products, so apply as often as necessary.
Polishing is done for special occasions when you want a more glossy finish on your leather. There are a couple things to be wary of when purchasing a polishing agent. Some products contain coloring factors that will brush off on things you come in contact with. Some products also have a tendency to clog the pores in leather or dry leather out. Just as with cleaning, be sure to test out the product on a small area and when ready, buff to a shine.
To remove mildew from leather, create a mixture of one-cup rubbing alcohol per one-cup of water. Wipe the mildew area with a cloth dipped in the diluted alcohol, and then allow it to dry completely. Once all mildew has been removed, condition the leather to replenish the oils before reuse.
An important key to keeping leather in top-notch condition is to treat wet leather before it has a chance to dry. Remove any dirt, mud, or other stains with a mild cleanser, then condition while the pores are still fully responsive. It is critical to remember that leather should be dried away from heat.
Remember that leather is a natural material and should never be stored in plastic because it encourages the growth of mildew and bacteria and will ruin the leather. Always store leather in a cool, dry place away from heat. If necessary, use a breathable bag for storage.
If the leather is old and in really poor conditon try soaking it but not your brass bells in a pail of warm olive oil. Submerge the harness and let soak for several hours. remove and let dry. The natural oils will soften the leather without any artificial additions. I've used this to revive several old harnesses with good results but harness should be stored dry and hung properly. I have mine all hung in a tack room with my saddles in my home mouse free. As for your bell sthere are several commercial brass cleaners out there but a paste of baking soda and water rubbed on can work depending on the level of dirt.
You got some great advice here, however do not soak your leather in oil. I am a retired Pony Club Mom and oil will rot the stitching on your harness. We always used a glycerin bar with a damp rag for cleaning. Oil will also darken leather and make it stretch when it shouldn't. Glycerin or the products mentioned here should give you a good result. Clean the brass with brass cleaner, or just soap and water and enjoy the patina. If you have a local tack shop they should be able to help you with ideas and product. Good luck!
I have a cousin that has a set of harness made in the 1950s, all it ever had was washed and soaked in oil. Stiching is fine.