bruce johnson

The truth about neatsfoot oil

17 posts in this topic

Recently there have been some posts by people on how NOT to use neatsfoot oil by those who admittedly do not use neatsfoot oil on products they themselves do not make. Suspect advice when you give out information on things you don't on products you yourself don't make. They have made claim that Al Stohlman himself said it migrates, then gave their own definition of migration, and talk about some bad experience thay had overusing it sometime in the past. Go so far as to give specific instructions that they would not use it on any part of the saddle that would come in contact with the rider's clothing. Safe advice, since they don't make saddles.

First off Al Stohlman is A saddlemaker, not THE saddle maker. A lot can be learned from him but there are others too. We all take things from everyone, some things we learn to do, and some don't work for us and our leather. But he mentions in all three of his books on saddlemaking that he uses NF oil (and also a lot of NF oil compound) on all parts of the saddle. He includes the fenders and seat. On all four saddles he shows how to build he specifically mentions and shows oiling these parts. Bear in mind that these were the last books Al Stohlman wrote. Written when he had the most experience, and many of the more recent products were available. Probably the most read of any of the saddlemaking books published. The next two most widely read would probably be Dave Jones book and Harry Adams, Jr's Books. Both of them specifically mention using NF oil (or olive oil). The Harry Adams book mentions having a gallon on hand, I probably don't use quite that quantity on two. These are respected sources and not some anecdotal second hand reply.

The instructions given by Al Stohlman specifically tell you how to apply NF oil, how not to overapply NF oil and the benefits. Al felt like NF oil pentrated all layers of the leather the best. Which according to my impression of migration would mean it "migrated" the best. He felt like Lexol was more of a surface conditioner. This information is available in Volume I. I am not disagreeing with him on Lexol, but I think that is a factor of application method. Apply enough Lexol with a sheepskin swatch and it will go all the way through. Apply NF oil or Lexol with a flannel and it won't be as obvious.

The question was asked, why use NF oil? Good question. One is that it is proven to give consistant results. Another is that is gives good "color" to leather and conditions it. It does migrate, and so lubricates all layers of the leather. It has (anecdotally) been one of the longer lasting lubricants for the leather fibers. It has stood the test of time.

Can NF oil be over used? of course!!! That can be done with any leather conditioner. Put Hide Rejuvenator (one of my favorites too ) on a saddle on a hot day, and it will take all you put on - and be overconditioned. Just because you didn't know better and overoiled or over conditioned your leather with whatever conditioner you choose, DO NOT blame the conditioner. You put it on, you messed it up. You can always add more if you need it later. If you put too much of anything on, live and learn.

The darkening factor of oils has been brought up. If anyone knows of any product or leather that will not darken when used or exposed to sunlight, let me know. That is the nature of using leather. I would much rather see one of my projects dark and thin and worn out from use in ten years, than new looking and light in 50 years. I am not talking about a figure carving picture, I am talking about using leather - belts, purses, checkbooks, planners, saddles - that distinction has not been made with past advice. Leather is dead - it doesn't last forever. You condition it to last longer. Most astute buyers realize their belt or saddle will end up darker than when it is new. If they don't, educate them now. A lot of my customers would probably prefer it darker to start with. Some makers purposely solar age their new products to give them that patina of age.

Many of you know I make several different type of tooled and carved projects. Pocket business card holders to saddles. Almost everything I do has been oiled (with a paint roller!) - for color and/or conditioning if for no other reason. I try not to overoil, and use a good finish to keep it in the leather. Have had zero bleed off complaints from the oil. How many customers will ever oil their checkbook cover again? I use NF straight or with varying levels of ProDye in it to color it for the project I am doing. I buy several gallons annually, and use them.

I am interested to see how others use NF oil, and expereinces plus and minus from the users.

Respectfully,

Bruce Johnson

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...posts by people on how NOT to use neatsfoot oil by those who admittedly do not use neatsfoot oil on products they themselves do not make. Suspect advice when you give out information on things you don't on products you yourself don't make.

Huh? Speak English, Bruce. Greg doesn't like neatsfoot oil, and you do. So what? Frankly, if you ask 100 leatherworkers a question about a certain technique, you'd probably get a 100 different expert opinions on why their particular method is best. It makes life interesting. :)

My feeling is this: listen to the folks that have opinions, then test them on your own work. See what works for you. I've used neatsfoot oil and I've used Lexol. Both seem to work just fine for my purposes. However, I'm not a saddlemaker, so maybe you have different needs than I do. That's cool.

-Alex

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Alex is correct on several levels...Bruce, feel free to use my name when you are talking about something I have said... and I have always suggested that people try out suggestions themselves... even good suggestions should be tried out on a practice piece before applying it to some project which has a bunch of money and labor already invested in it...

Bruce, you have changed what I said and you have assumed things due to your opposition to my statement which are not true. I am not talking about pictures hanging on a wall when I say I have 45 year old examples of projects which look new. I am talking about things like wooden chairs which were covered with carved leather....and a Bible cover... which has gotten lots of handling over the years because it is the most severe example of embossing from the backside which I have ever seen... it was made by my father in 1961 and given to me... so the example is something which has been in the hands of lots of people and has a fold ... two criteria which I expect a good finish to be able to withstand with minimum impact.

The newer people are to leathercrafting the more important warnings are... it does not take many messed up projects to take the wind out of a new crafter... If someone is warned then it is their job to proceed with caution... or not.... but to fail to warn when there is a known risk is not fair to others.

I will post a longer answer to both your posts about this later...

but here is something for people to think about....and which influences my choice of actions in situations with variable physics at stake...

Hides are skin. When the skin of a cow is on the animal small amounts of oil are constantly being provided from underneath... the skin is not drenched with a very heavy oil once a year... like an application of Neatsfoot Oil would be... it gets oil which is expelled at the same rate it is bing added all year long. I believe that an application of a lighter oil ... like Lexol, Carnauba cream, lanolin ( in the form of neutral shoe polish) on a REGULAR basis most closely resembles what nature was providing to that skin while it was on the animal... and has the added advantage of minimizing the risk of the leather in its new configuration and use (belt,saddle,etc) imparting unwanted oil to other items like clothes in the local vicinity.

Concerning white leather... I hate that look also.... which is another reason I like to use the Carnauba cream/Fiebings medium brown antique/neutral shoe polish on my carved objects.... it gives it a warm brown look... is not a finish which is prone to rubbing off and the neutral shoe polish is also the long term preventative action which is repeated to keep lanolin available for the fibers...

later, Greg

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The reason for the post was to correct misinformation on oil.

Other posts have left the impression it is bad stuff. It is not. Bruce has the experience to speak with authority on the subject. That is why he spoke up to correct the misinformation.

Good point about reading and trying out stuff to see how well it works. Some information has a solid background from generations of use. If oil was a bad product then the tanneries would not apply oils after tanning. I do not know if Neets Foot Oil is part of a universal formula. I do now that Cod Liver Oil was used in the past and may be used by some tanneries still today. Having people give solid advice on how to use a product from experience will only make it easier for those with out the experience.

I learn from everyone on the lists. I just wish we could stick to saying what we do and use and not comment on other methods or products unless we have found out they just do not work.

Tom Katzke

Central Oregon

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I do now that Cod Liver Oil was used in the past and may be used by some tanneries still today.

Brooks bicycle saddles are made from wet formed veg tan, the old way in england. I work at a high end bicycle shop that sells these. I repair, restore and modify these saddles on the side. They come from the factory rock hard and dry almost to the point of surface cracks. The creme that that they produce is called Proofide leather dressing. It is made from tallow, cod oil, vegetable oil, paraffin, beeswax and citronella oil. I have a saddle that i have put over 17,000 km on in the wet vancouver weather. It has NOT stretched, There is NO degredation of the leather. It is just supple enough. I apply a good coating when new, and then rub about a 1/2 teaspoon amount into the leather every six months or so from then on.

This stuff keeps leather supple, strong, shiny and with beautiful patina under a cyclists hot sweaty rear for 30km a day in the rain for years

. I cant think of a harsher environment for leather. Bonus is it doesn't change the color of the leather very much at all.

Edited by TinkerTailor

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Very useful post. I have been experimenting with finishing different processes to try and really understand "what does what". Right now I am working on straps that I want to be pliable, and really feel natural and wonderful. I've decided to try neats foot, sunshine, then add some color once I know what the oiled color looks like, then seal with some kind of beeswax compound.

I first tried applying the neats foot with a wool dauber and it came out too blotchy. I couldn't control it very well. I switched to a piece of old T shirt, which I would put some neats foot on, then work it in with my hands, then apply to the strap. Much better. I hadn't thought about flannel, but suspect that will be even better to work with. I am letting them soak for a day (may give the blotchy ones a week).

I was originally planning a 50/50 beeswax/neats foot combination as a finish, but now suspect it will be a bit too oily.

Thanks again for sharing your experience, I am happy to do the same.

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thanks for the "real deal" info Tinker Tailor, I just ordered a can of Proofide.

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I got a piece of advice from an old time black powder gun maker over 40 years ago, and it has stuck with me, and served me well. Basically what he said is " find someone whose work you admire and ask him what it is he does to achieve whatever it is that you are impressed with". He may have added a few colorful words in there that I didn't put in, but; basically that is what he said. As it relates to this subject, I have been impressed with the work of artisans like Bruce, Al, Keith, Bobby and Cary. That by it's self is a testament to why I use products like neatsfoot oil, lexol, ev olive oil, and all the others. At the end of the day, the results they give, reassure me that the advice I got way back then, was solid. Thanks Bruce, for taking the time to write what I have been thinking for a long time but; just didn't have the time to comment on.

Bob

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Oil lightly even if you have to do a couple of coats and give the oil time to migrate into the leather 24 hours or so no nice warm days. Just do rust it I have use NF for over 25 yrs on all my saddles, reins, tie downs, belly straps, etc always used lite coats till felt right to me.

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Interesting conversation....Thanks Bruce!

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KingsX - Yes it is! The past coming back in a post from Oct 2006. Life has changed a lot since then for me, but I am still an oil user....

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What is the best top coat for NF oil after applying to a new, veg tan holster? I'm slowly getting away from the acrylic finishes as they leave too much of a 'plastic' look and feel to it. I'm wanting something with a medium to light gloss sheen that will give a good finish.

Thanks

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I have always used the 50/50 blend of Resolene and water; it gives the finished leather a nice mellow satin gloss without the plastic look that you mentioned. Resolene applied straight has a satin finish but when cut with water it really mellow's it out without all of the glare. The trick is to get a finish that has a matte/satin sheen to it. Clear-Lac (formerly Neat-Lac) also gives the leather a nice soft sheen without all of that high gloss glare. If you want it really dull then you go with Leather Balm with Atom Wax but keep in mind that the finish will have a bit of a waxy feel and look to it and you may experience some additional rub-off for a little while (depending on what type of dye/stain is used).

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First to be clear, I have NOT in my 50+ years at this tried everything or even a lot of things. I was raised on pure NF. We bought it in 50 gallon drums. Later when I went to gallon containers of things I had some bad experiences with NF compounds and switched to Olive oil primarily because it was more readily available. Liked it better but it still left me with some appearance issues on new stuff and could bleed from chrome tanned stuff. Then I stumbled on to the product Lexol NF. For me, it was the answer to my prayers for all new items and chaps and other chrome tanned items. I don't understand why it didn't take the world by storm but it seems to have fallen out of favor and is getting hard to find in larger containers. A while back I gave Weaver's Neatselene a try and was favorably impressed. I haven't tried any of the butters or creams on the market for a variety of primarily personal reasons. First off, I just about refuse to work on anything that won't be thoroughly cleaned first which usually means at least partial disassembly so I haven't seen a real need for anything that is designed primarily for top coating. These are my limited experiences. One thing that I would emphasize is that any oil or conditioner is better than none and just because a dab of something proves beneficial DOES NOT mean that a bunch will be better or IOW be careful not to overuse whatever it is that you are using and be honest about user error when evaluating.

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Hides are skin. When the skin of a cow is on the animal small amounts of oil are constantly being provided from underneath... the skin is not drenched with a very heavy oil once a year... like an application of Neatsfoot Oil would be... it gets oil which is expelled at the same rate it is bing added all year long. I believe that an application of a lighter oil ... like Lexol, Carnauba cream, lanolin ( in the form of neutral shoe polish) on a REGULAR basis most closely resembles what nature was providing to that skin while it was on the animal... and has the added advantage of minimizing the risk of the leather in its new configuration and use (belt,saddle,etc) imparting unwanted oil to other items like clothes in the local vicinity

Compared to many who post on these forums I am a very novice leatherworker. However, based on my own limited experience, I would definitely say that the proper application of neatsfoot oil as a preservative/restorative agent has it's place within the craft. I think Bruce's point is well taken.

For myself, being a relative newbie, I consider application of neatsfoot to be along the lines of a 'baseline' industry standard practice. Kind of like how 440C is like a 'standard' baseline for stainless steel: there are many other specialty alloys having different characteristics, arguably superior under certain circumstances, but 440C is universal.

Likewise, in leatherwork, I have read/heard about many different mixtures of oils, tallows, waxes from fish, bears, deer, cows, bees, etc. and different methods for applying them. I am sure that many of these recipes/mixtures do produce good results with many possibly performing even better than neatsfoot oil.

However, to continue my analogy, this kind of knowledge is hard-won through experience and it's probably for the best if novice leatherworkers don't try and render animal fats to finish their first project (also that kind of thing isn't sold by the gallon). Similarly it's probably for the best if you don't try to make your first knife out of M390 or something. Start with 440C, see how it goes, gain some experience, experiment a bit, and then branch out.

The second point I want to make is that the argument 'hides are skin' and should be treated as such is logically flawed. I doubt at this point it will affect how anyone feels about treating leather, but anyhow...

Yes, 'hides are skin' when they are still attached to the ass of an animal. However, the 'skin' is transformed into leather through varied chemical processes (i.e. tanning). It was an animal's skin but now it's leather; the two are obviously related but are not the same.

This would be akin to arguing that preserving mummified remains should require lots of water; when the mummy was alive it was a human person, made mostly of water, who drank lots of water, and so therefore as a mummy he must want a drink of water! Not so.

Just because the 'skin' wasn't being 'drenched with a very heavy oil once a year' when it was still on the cow's ass is irrelevant. The skin has now been transformed into a different material and a new set of rules may now apply.

Some food for thought.

The point about too much oil transferring to clothes, etc. is well taken. I imagine this is a mistake that everyone makes once.

Braden

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I "over saturated" my first attempt at a belt. I really liked the darkening color change--until it became a sponge!

Based soley on 'perception', I'll be applying 3 coats to my projects; I'll not re-oil any 'light' areas as they disappear the next day due to 'migration' of the oil throughout the hide.

The results retain the 'wet molded' form & still feels & sounds hard.

It took 2-3 times as much Neatsfoot oil to bring my 40 yr. old tool pouch & belt back to life. It's not a sponge & feels 'normal' & strong.

Good luck to all, & pls. respond to my query for assistance to find a darker Walnut stain formula.

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We used 100% neatsfoot oil on thousands of saddles over the last 40 years and found that it works great as long as it is applied evenly and allowed to dry between applications. Also, note that we only use 100% and not compound. Many makers of the compound use all types of oil to mix in with the neatsfoot and even add baby powder. We haven't had great success with the compound as it brings mixed results. Also, since the neatsfoot oil is made from cattle hooves, it is already used to being part of the animal, and part of keeping it looking good for years to come.

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