This article was first published in 2009.
These days, used prestige performance cars are so cheap you could easily find
yourself steering a retro rocket. But when it comes time to look inside, you
might see something that's completely foreign to you in car interiors - leather.
Leather is a strange stuff. Made from cowhide - but with a whole lot of steps
along the way - it's a natural substance that responds in a very different way
to vinyl. It's likely that an older car with a leather interior will be showing
seats and door trims that look a bit faded, a bit dry and stiff. There's
basically nothing that you can do about vinyl that's in this condition, but with
leather it's possible with the right conditioners - and a lot of patience - to
bring the material back to looking near new.
Magic? You'd better believe it.
But whatever you do, don't apply vinyl restorers or treatment to leather -
it'll make it look a whole lot worse and may even cause irreparable damage.
The first step in restoring the look and feel of a leather
interior is to clean it. Dirt is highly abrasive and will hasten the wear that
the leather is experiencing. That's especially the case if you rub the dirt in
when you're applying conditioner - which is why a thorough clean is the first
Dedicated cleaners are available for leather and these should be used. As the
first step, try the cleaner out in an unobtrusive spot to make sure that the
leather remains colourfast with that particular cleaner. All automotive leathers
are dyed - you don't want to dye coming off as you clean...
Apply the cleaner to a damp sponge and gently rub it in a circular motion on
each leather panel, trying to prevent it from seeping in along the seams. Leave
for a few minutes and then wipe off with a damp, soft, lint-free white cloth.
The cloth should get grubby fairly fast (that's the dirt coming off) so change
If the dirt is ingrained (especially on light coloured leathers), a nail
brush and soapy water can both be sparingly applied.
The major step in restoring the look of leather is in the conditioning.
Leather conditioners contain waxes and oils that are absorbed by the leather,
bringing back the look and feel. However, they come in lots of different
'strengths' - what you use on leather in good condition isn't what you use when
you're trying to bring something back from the dead.
Typically, the leather conditioners sold by car
manufacturers are very mild. For example, BMW sell a leather conditioner which
is excellent on good condition leather. It's also quite cheap. However, applying
just the same stuff to leather that's dry and old will result in the leather
conditioner disappearing into the surface - and no apparent change to the
What's needed is something aimed at worn surfaces. Mothers Leather
Conditioner is a good next step, suitable for most leathers that have had a few
years pass under their belts (or bums sitting on them, for that matter.) But in
really tough cases it's a good idea to go to leather conditioner designed more
for leather jackets and shoes. The reason that these latter ones aren't the
first pick is that they can stain clothing - but in the case of worn leather,
pretty well all the conditioner will be completely absorbed and so none will be
left to stain any clothes, anyway. (Note that these 'strong' conditioners can
also darken the colour of the leather - fine on blacks and browns but not so
good on cream leather.)
Apply the conditioner to a clean damp rag and wipe over
the leather, one panel at a time. A clean paintbrush can be used to apply the
conditioner in tight spots. The cream should be applied quite lavishly and
left for a few minutes, before being wiped over again. (If you apply it
sparingly in the first instance it doesn't get a chance to be absorbed.) If the
leather is badly worn, the conditioner may need to be applied with a small
On perforated leather, apply the conditioner to the cloth or sponge - rather
than the leather itself - before wiping the leather. This will prevent a lot of
the conditioner disappearing straight into the interior of the seat.
Be patient during the conditioning process. This is not
like spraying vinyl with Armor-All, where a glossy shine is the immediate
reward. A car with good condition leather will still take a few hours to have
its interior cleaned and conditioned, while a car with worn leather may need
three or even four treatments, spaced a day or so apart. Beware of the initial
flush of enthusiasm - most old leather looks a heap better after just the first
application of conditioner... but a day later when all the conditioner has been
absorbed, it can look pretty much as it did before! That's the clue that you
need to do the process again... and again.
Once the leather has been fully treated, you may be concerned that it looks
dull. However, buffing with (another) soft, lint-free cloth will bring back the
shine. Following restoration, further treatments will be needed every 3-6
months, depending primarily on how much sun the interior is exposed to.
The black leather (apparently it's actually buffalo hide) in this 1985 BMW
735i didn't have any tears or really bad scratches, but it looked very faded and
had colour variations through it.
The best restorative proved to be
Renapur Leather Balsam
which contains beeswax and jojoba oil. It's
applied with a small sponge and goes a long way - just as well, as some parts of
the interior required three treatments. However, the difference that it made was
Here's the side of the centre console before (it's worth
clicking on the pic to enlarge it)...
...and here it is after treatment. The dry whitish
appearance of the leather has been replaced by a rich, lustrous black.
If you're looking at buying a used car with leather, keep in mind that even
if the interior looks quite shabby, so long as there aren't tears and the
leather hasn't gone completely hard and brittle, it's possible to make it look a
million times better at very little cost. And even if it's badly faded, leather
dyes are available to bring it back up to condition.
Sure, you start with a cow, but what happens after that?
Soaking removes dirt and salt from the raw
In this operation unwanted connective
tissue, flesh and fat are cut away with sharp knife cylinders.
Hair is detached by immersing the hides in a
liquid containing lime and sulphur compounds.
4. Bating, pickling, tanning
Bating and pickling are
operations in which the hides are treated with acid and salt to prepare them for
tanning agents, so converting the hides into leather.
The grain leather is brought to a uniform
thickness. Unevenness is removed from the back, then the pieces are grouped into
batches for dyeing.
6. Neutralizing, filling, dyeing and
First the acid from tanning is neutralized. The leathers,
depending on type, are then filled and dyed with aniline dyes. Finally,
fatliquors are added to impart the desired softness to the finished leathers.
Two methods are used for drying leather:
vacuum drying in which the moisture is suctioned off, and suspension drying in
which the leather is transported through drying ovens.
To soften the leather after drying, it is
mechanically flexed (staked) and in further operations readied for dressing
Here, in a final surface treatment, the
leather acquires its ultimate appearance. A glossy or dull, plain or
multicoloured, smooth or grained surface is obtained, depending on fashion
requirements, by grounding, application of colorants, seasoning, embossing and
ironing. The art of dressing consists in applying extremely thin surface films
to the leather without impairing either its appearance or its prized natural
properties such as suppleness and permeability to air ("breathability").
10. Quality control
Quality is repeatedly checked
between the various operations. Final checking ascertains whether the individual
production batches fully match the specification or customer's sample. The
leathers are also sorted in line with various quality criteria.
Courtesy of TFL Ledertechnik GmbH & Co. KG