Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Darkening leather accessories with Proofide

Most people who own a leather bicycle saddle know they're supposed to treat the leather with a conditioner and waterproofer to soften and preserve the leather.  Brooks makes a big point of this and markets "Proofide", their proprietary paste of a blend of various waxes and oils.  They also make a point of not over-applying their product: saturating the leather can soften it too much and make the saddle too saggy.  Perhaps that's one of the reasons they sell it as a paste and not a liquid. In fact, on the burnished side of the leather (the side you sit on), the paste doesn't even penetrate (burnishing seals the surface of the leather and gives it that smooth feel).  You apply it like a polish, then buff it out.  Since the paste doesn't penetrate the burnished side of the leather, it doesn't usually affect the color (soaking oil into leather darkens it considerably).

I recently bought a Minnehaha saddlebag for my Shogun touring bike.  Like many saddlebags, it has leather straps, but they are natural colored, very light:

I also purchased a new Brooks saddle in "honey" color for the same bike (not the saddle in the above photos), and wanted to darken the leather on the Minnehaha saddlebag to match. I tried using neatsfoot oil, since that's generally regarded as the oil of choice for conditioning leather.  However, after testing neatsfoot oil on a small section of leather and finding that it does indeed soak in and darken the leather, I later discovered that the color darkening was only temporary.  Within a couple of days the leather lightened up again!  It was as if the neatsfoot oil evaporated (a plausible idea, because I don't know how much of a solvent base there is in the neatsfoot oil I bought).  So, I wanted to try a more permanent treatment.  I rubbed in some Proofide paste, and found that it darkened the leather a little bit, but not as much as I wanted.  I wanted a dark honey color.  I wondered if "forcing" more Proofide into the leather would make the leather darker.  So, I decided to pre-heat the leather, so the Proofide would melt upon application.  My hypothesis is that the melted Proofide would soak into the leather, then as it cooled down again, it would again become a non-volatile solid (it wouldn't evaporate).  To do this, I simply placed the saddlebag in the oven at 200 degrees for a few minutes.  Then, I used an old toothbrush to apply the Proofide to the hot leather.

Proofide has roughly the same consistency as soft butter, and it melts upon contact with the hot leather much as butter does on a hot skillet.  Wow!  The leather soaked up the melted Proofide like a sponge! Compare the two treated straps on the left with the untreated strap on the right:

I found that the leather cooled down very quickly, and I had to keep returning the saddlebag to the oven every 5-10 minutes to reheat.  Also, after a while I ditched the toothbrush in favor of just using my finger to spread the Proofide (I wore nitrile gloves the whole time). Here's the finished bag:

The color is very close to Brook's "honey", and so far, it hasn't lightened up since applying the Proofide two days ago. I'm hoping the color is somewhat permanent.  In case you're wondering how much Proofide this small amount of leather soaked up, consider that this 4 oz tin was new before I started:

The last tin of Proofide I had was good for at least a half-dozen applications on leather saddles, applying to both the topside and underside of the leather.  Here, I've used up half the tin on a few straps! Given the premium price of Proofide, I think the next time I need to stock up I'm going to try Velo Orange's new leather paste, at about one quarter the price of Proofide.

And in case you're wondering whether so much Proofide on leather is potentially damaging, well, I am inclined to think not, at least in this case.  In the case of a saddle, which has to support a lot of weight, I would agree that too much Proofide may overly soften the saddle, compromising its ability to properly support the weight of the rider.  But since saddlebag straps don't have much of a structural role, I doubt excess oil/wax can cause any harm.  At any rate, the straps that attach the bag to the saddle are replaceable should they become weakened.

Another idea for the adventurous is to experiment with wood stain.  Wood stain of various colors can be mixed with Proofide (maybe melt the Proofide to mix with stain, then let harden again).  This might result in even darker tones to match darker saddles.

Lastly, here's the saddlebag along with the new Brooks saddle, in place on the bike:


margonaute said...

Gorgeous results, as usual. It makes me wonder-- have you had any spectacular failures in any of your restoration projects?

I love the image of you "baking" your saddlebag! So funny.

somervillain said...

heh, i've had my fair share of failed endeavors. the key is to spin failures as successes :-).

i even set the timer! mmm... fresh baked leather! actually, since proofide contains citronella oil and is actually fairly pleasant smelling, my wife didn't object to my zany escapade.

Chip V. said...

A cheaper near-equivalent to Proofide is Kiwi Mink Oil Paste, sold at Walmart & lots of other places. It's as good for the leather as Proofide but doesn't smell as good.

somervillain said...

chip, that's a great tip, thanks!

MandG said...

Very nice! I've been trying for awhile to permanently darken my VO Elkhide covers on my Bridgestone to better match my honey Brooks. While the leather definitely soaks in the products, it lightens a few days later. I didn't realize VO had a leather treatment. Maybe I'll try it.

somervillain said...

MandG, thanks. it's possible that the minnehaha straps will lighten with time; so far it's only been two days. then again, i really soaked them. if they do lighten, i might try out some wood stain mixed in with the leather conditioner.

Velouria said...

That looks great, and we've been meaning to do that to ours as well. The instructions the bag comes with seem to suggest that the darker colour will remain. Let us know whether that is so!

Amy said...

How interesting! I'm wondering, do you think it would have worked out just as well to heat the Proofide instead of the bag? Or could Proofide be potentially combustible? I would be concerned about repeated heating and cooling of leather, since heat dries it out, and dried leather cracks (though, I suppose that the application of the Proofide directly afterwards would help prevent that). I would also be concerned about wood stain, and how it may effect the leather structurally. Fiebings makes several leather dyes, and they are all inexpensive and easy enough to use. Or you could try a protein fiber dye like Jacquard Acid Dye, Cushings or Gaywool. I haven't tried those out on leather, but use them all the time on other protein fibers. Here's a couple of shopping links:




somervillain said...

amy, thanks for that input and for the links! i will keep those dyes in mind! i have some other leather-coloring projects in the pipeline, and that information is very useful. i hadn't considered the potential structural effects of wood stain on leather fibers.

i wasn't overly concerned about repeated heating of the leather, since leather is normally exposed to weather extremes when on the bike (consider that a black leather saddle may reach 150 degrees F on a hot sunny day). but perhaps i should be more careful next time!

as for heating the proofide versus the leather, that's a good point. i did think about simply melting the proofide in something like a double boiler. my concern was that it might cool down too quickly upon contact with the leather, and not soak in completely. With the warm leather, the proofide could continue to soak in. but this was just my thinking... in reality it may have worked equally well using either method.

Amy said...

That's true about a black leather saddle in the hot summer sun. I hadn't thought about that. So, yeah, I guess an oven at around the same temperature wouldn't be too different.

Your welcome (about the links)! I'm curious now about dyeing leather, and if I can find some scraps I may play around with the dyes that I have here. If I have any success, I'll let you know! :)

Anonymous said...

My best saddle is a very old Wrights (similar to a Brooks). I once read that they were made out of elephant hide! I don't know about that, but it's certainly tough leather. I used to remove the saddle at the start of the season, turn it upside down and cover the underside with Mars Oil, which came in a small can with an applicator brush built into the lid. When this had soaked through and was apparent on the upper surface, I mopped up any excess and remounted the saddle. I'm just about to do this, but my Mars Oil is running out (probably enough for just this one application), and I see that the original product is no longer made. It seems to be something like linseed oil, but probably with some other oils added. It might be worth taking it to a laboratory so they can tell me what's in it, and I can maybe make my own.

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