What equestrian doesn’t love that secure, grippy feeling in the seat of their saddle? Calfskin and other ultra-soft traditional leathers can create this sensation, but suede and nubuck leathers can often be even grippier–like Velcro for your breeches! Unlike other leather types, however, suede and nubuck are particularly vulnerable to damage from moisture, oils, and long-term wear. To ensure your favorite suede seats or nubuck reins are useful for a long time to come, pay special attention to the care and cleaning of these leather materials.
How Suede and Nubuck Leathers are Made
Why the need for extra TLC? First, let’s look at how these leathers are made. All leather begins as a pelt that is taken from an animal–usually a cow. The pelt undergoes a many-stepped preservation process to form a leather hide. Then, the tanning process chemically treats the hide, turning it into a stable material that is strong enough for saddles, bridles, boots, and more to withstand the rigors of equestrian sports. After tanning, the hide is mechanically split and shaved to form different thicknesses and types of leather–suede and nubuck are two of these.
Suede is a split leather. The top grain is removed, and the exposed fibers of the inside layer, or “corium,” are brushed to create that soft, fuzzy effect suede is known for. This soft, fuzzy texture on the top layer of suede leather is called the “nap.” The top grain is a protective layer, and without it, suede is more both softer, and more porous and absorbent, than other leather materials. Suede tends to attract and hold dust, dirt, grease, and oil more than other leather types.
Unlike suede, nubuck is a full-grain leather. The top of the grain surface is buffed and brushed to create a soft, velvet nap. The texture of nubuck is very similar to suede! While nubuck is less porous than suede, the soft texture of the nap is still very vulnerable to damage. The use a saddle seat gets is especially hard on these delicate materials. Oil, acidity, and friction from sweat and dirt from the rider’s seat, conditioners and cleaners used on boots, and other irritants will cause wear and costly damage to suede and nubuck without regular care.
To help prevent soiling and staining, we recommend applying a water-repellent spray to new suede and nubuck before using. These sprays can be found in leather garment stores, cobblers, or in a shoe care section of a department or box store. While these sprays won’t entirely protect from water damage–especially if your leather becomes saturated–they provide an excellent first line of defense.
Suede Brush and Suede Cleaning Bar: Toolkit Essentials
A suede brush is a brush with small, stiff bristles. Use this brush to periodically remove surface dust and refresh the nap on your suede or nubuck leather. Warning! Do not brush the suede too hard or too frequently, as this may damage the fibers. Never use water to routinely clean suede or nubuck!
If you’ve been using your suede or nubuck tack for a while with minimal care, you may notice some areas of the nap have become darkened and flattened. We call this effect “slicking over.” Once the nap is slicked, it can be very difficult, if not impossible, to restore the nap to its original condition. If you’re able to catch your suede in the beginning stages of slicking over, we recommend using a suede cleaning bar. A suede cleaning bar is a type of rubber and abrasive compound that looks and functions a lot like a large pencil eraser. The suede cleaning bar is also very useful for lightly soiled areas.
Rub the bar in brisk, multi-directional strokes over the stained or slicked area. Follow with the stiff suede brush to remove the remaining dust and restore the texture of the nap.
Tip: What happens if some oil spills onto your suede when cleaning or conditioning other parts of the saddle? You can sprinkle some cornstarch or talcum powder on the patch of oil. Let the powder or cornstarch sit for several hours. When the oil is absorbed–you guessed it–finish with your suede brush.
What To Do When Your Suede Gets Wet
What can you do if your saddle with nubuck or suede areas gets wet in the rain? First, gently towel dry the wet areas as much as possible. Then, put your saddle in a warm room to begin drying out. Don’t place the saddle next to a direct heat source like a fire, radiator, or even direct sunlight. This will literally bake the wet leather–ruining it completely. Let the saddle dry out slowly and naturally. When the saddle is dry, use the suede brush to buff the nap.
Wet Cleaning for Suede
If areas of your saddle have advanced into heavy slicking and staining, you can use a wet cleaning method to restore the suede–to an extent. Remember, you should never use wet cleaning for regular care. This can result in severe drying and cracking of the leather, which cannot be repaired.
If wet cleaning is warranted, there are several different methods you can use. Here’s our technique:
- Whisk together 1 1/2 cups of warm (not hot!) water and a cap-ful of Murphy’s Oil Soap to create a good foam.
- Scoop the foam off the top and rub it into the slicked or stained areas of the saddle. Do not over saturate the suede!
- Use the edge of a tablespoon to scrape the area.
- Allow the wet areas to dry naturally. Remember, stay away from direct sources of heat!
- Finish by brushing up the nap with your suede brush.
This method can remove much of the embedded dirt that creates stains, but it won’t completely restore the nap. It’s just about impossible to fully restore very damaged suede or nubuck leather, which is why it’s so important to invest in preventative care and maintenance! With a few precautions, you should enjoy your amazingly grippy suede seat for years to come.
Saddle Manufacturer’s Warranty
We’ve shared here our methods for care and cleaning suede and nubuck leather, but you should always double check with the saddle manufacturer for their recommended leather care products and procedures. You may void your saddle’s warranty if you do not follow their guidelines! Always read and carefully follow the instructions on any cleaning or conditioning product. Improper use may damage the leather’s fibrous structures. This is especially important with suede and nubuck because these materials are so delicate. Our goal is always to ensure your leather has a long and useful life. If you have any questions about caring for your tack, please feel free to send us a message!