How to treat red rot and other bad problems
Updated: Jun 24
I have unfortunately had to work on several articles with red rot, such as this project here.
Red rot is when leather has deteriorated over time and appears as a red "dust" on the surface of the leather. Although you see this on the surface of the leather, the deterioration goes deep into the fibrous structure of the leather.
If left untreated, leather suffering from red rot can disintegrate completely into a red powder.
The causes of red rot are not fully understood but it is said that various acids, including those used in the tanning process and exposure to pollution among other examples, cause the breakdown of the fibre in the leather.
There is no treatment that can reverse the effects of red rot. So we are into arresting and conservation mode.
To arrest red rot, sealants and consolidators can be used. The best we can do is improve storage such as museums use, where articles are stored in archive boxes or cabinets where temperature and humidity is controlled and acid free tissue paper.
If left untreated and not suitably stored, the leather will continue to disintegrate into powder.
There are many articles I have treated in this state. Just one example is this holdall.
I get a lot of articles that are dry and brittle, especially heirloom pieces that have been around for decades and untreated.
Dry leather feels and looks dry and will tear easily. You may find that even the thread in the stitching has rotted and breaks easily. The surface of the leather may have cracks.
Drying out of the leather due to age, heat and the weather, etc.
Restoring leather that has cracked is not possible so again, we are into arresting and conservation mode.
I use a specialised leather care product, produced in the UK by tanners of the finest vegetable tanned leather money can buy.
It is specially formulated to feed the leather to extend the life of the leather. Crucially, there are no oils in this product.
If left untreated the leather will continue to dry out and deteriorate. It will become more and more brittle and fragile. Over time it will become so fragile that it will tear very easily.
Stains are particularly difficult to remove.
Think of leather as blotting paper! Leather soaks up liquid deep into the fibres and even water will leave a stain mark.
Spillages, rain, water, etc.
This depends on the type of leather and nature of the stain. Suede is particularly difficult to deal with. Some, and I mean very few suede items can be washed - not something I will do since this will dry the leather out, shrink it and make it stiff.
On veg tanned leather, such as in the photo above, it is just as difficult to remove stains and it certainly can't be washed out.
There are tricks I use to minimise the look and severity of stains, but in all cases, it is not possible to remove stains entirely.
Tears and cuts
Unsightly and damaging tears are common especially in older articles.
Tears and cuts appear from dry leather or of course cuts from scissors and blades.
I am often asked if I can repair tears and cuts.
Yes I can - if the leather is in good condition. There is no point in repairing leather that is already frail and tears easily.
You will still see the tear or cut as it is not possible to hide a tear or cut altogether.
It is better to replace the torn or cut leather.
Improper use of the item, stresses placed on the leather, e.g. seats, bag handles, heavy loads in bags, etc.
If left alone, the tear or cut will expand.
I use methods to minimise the traumatic look of a tear or cut if the leather is not being replaced, however, I do not stand by the repair work as permanent.
If the leather is dry, then replacing it will be the better option.
Scratches, scuffs and fading
I do a lot of work on articles that have felt the wear and tear of life and every day use like this extreme example.
Lighter areas where dye has faded
General usage, wear and tear.
There are different treatments for different types of leather and on how the original leather was finished.
For example, leather used on furniture is often sprayed and is therefore resistant to liquids. This makes recolouring a difficult task and requires specialist dyes and application to bring colour back.
Vegetable tanned leather, such as that used for horse tack is just as hard to treat. If a recolouring is agreeable, then using specialist dyes for veg tanned leather is used.
I use my own methods for applying colour so that the article does not look brand new (unless this is asked for by my client).
I prefer sympathetic restoration and repairs where the article still looks like its had a life but does not look ruined.
Deep scratches can't be removed but the look of the scratches can be minimised and blended so as not to look so severe.
For fading and scuffs, most articles can be recoloured. My method for recolouring is such that all wounds will be blended so that scratches, scuffs and fading don't look so bad.
Tips for leather care
Leather is a natural product that needs to be maintained and fed. There are products that are designed for purpose. There are different products and methods for caring depending on the type of leather.
I suggest first identifying what leather you are caring for before going ahead and applying any treatments!
Do not use any product with oil content. Be it mink, coconut, neatsfoot or others. Oil oxidises over time and will deteriorate your leather. Paradoxically, oils will dry out the leather and it will crack over time.
Do be careful about what you find on the Internet. Not all sites do know what they are talking about and are just out there to sell their products (which may not work and in some cases can make things worse!).
Do not use furniture polish and spray polishes.
Store your items in a cool dry place.
Depending on the leather, cleaning is possible in some cases. Use the correct processes and products for cleaning.
If the leather is in good condition, keep it so. Use a wax based, clear boot polish. Coloured polishes contain pigments and powders that you do not want on your leather item.
Handle your article with care, trying not to get it scratched or scuffed.