Years ago, when I started working with leather I would often use the commercially available polishes on the store shelves, or the proprietary blends found at the leather craft stores. They ended up being pretty costly, but more so, they didn't last very long and contained chemicals that seemed counter intuitive to traditional craft. So I set out to create my own.
My first attempt was simply a mix of paraffin wax, harvested from candles and heavy grade mineral oil. It worked, but again, I was still using chems on my work. So the formula evolved from there. As usual, I had to research. A trip to the library proved very informative. I started by looking at recipes that were nearly 1000 years old, and although they didn't really mention ratios, they did talk about ingredients in detail. (interestingly, human urine featured heavily in most). So, I eventually made a trip to a local bee keeper and picked up some natural beeswax and started experimenting with that.
I wanted my polish to do five things:
1 - It had to soften the leather; Dying can end up removing the natural oils in the leather so I needed a way to put them back.
2 - It had to Condition; Leather should have a supple feel when you handle it and though it may not be stiff, it shouldn't end up feeling course either.
3 - It had to protect; I mean long term protection that kept the oils inside, preventing the leather from drying and cracking, and also keep outside elements like salt and dirt from saturating.
4 - It had to shine and bring out the natural luster of the leather.
5 - It has to degrease; old leather can be pretty dirty.
Now, I have my own proprietary formula that I sell, and I'm not about to give that one up, however I wanted to offer some insight into mixing your own, personalized blend of ingredients for a polish that will enhance your work.
Here's a caveat; This polish works on A LOT of different materials, and not just leather. I use it on wood, pleather, canvas (for oiled canvas) even metals, but does not play well with suede. If you're not sure if it will work, I recommend trying a tiny bit on a hidden area before using it on the whole piece.
In the first image, you can see a before and after using the polish. I generally use pieces of old cotton hoodies for buffing rags, and tho they may leave a bit of lint behind, they polish extremely well. Another interesting factoid; in a different form, this polish can be used as lip balm. It's all about switching up the ratios which I'll talk about later.
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Step 1: Tools and Supplies
Tins for your polish (I'm not a fan of plastic bottles but you can use them)
Pyrex measuring cup
Small aluminum pie plate
Bamboo skewers (optional)
Beeswax - solid; Protection for leather. Creates a barrier for environmental influences
Coconut butter - semi solid; Conditions the leather surface.
Sweet Almond oil - liquid; Softens the leather internally and replaces the natural oils lost through dying
Castor oil - liquid; Heavier oil that provides the 'shine'. Can be replaced with mineral oil if necessary.
Pure Ammonia or Alcohol - liquid; Cleans and degreases the surface before polishing. As I mentioned before, the old recipes called for human urine.
Step 2: Prepping Your Equipment
The setup is extremely simple. The small pie tin is flattened, and holes are punched in it to allow bubbles to pass through. It's a very important step because allowing the pyrex cup to sit on the bottom of the pot could cause the preparation to burn. Next fill the pot so that the water just covers the pie tin by 1/4 of an inch. Finally the Pyrex cup is sat on top of the pie tin.
Step 3: Adding Ingredients
Ingredients are broken down into three categories; solid, semi-solid and liquid and the ratio of each depends on the consistency of polish you are trying to create. A safe mixture ratio would be 2-1/2-1/2 liquid to solid and semi-solid respectively, however you can change it up depending on your application. If you wanted a softer polish, you can increase 3-1/2-1/2 or even as much as 4-1/2-1/2, however I wouldn't go much softer than that. If you reduced to 1-1/2-1/2 you would be making something the consistency of lip balm. More beeswax/butter means firmer mixture while more oil means softer. The choice is yours.
When using your polish on older items, grease and dirt can embed themselves in your project. That means cleaning before you apply, however, it's difficult to get everything out. For this, we add a grease cutter to the mix to ensure that the polish soaks in evenly allowing for max protection. It doesn't take much to do the job. In fact, only a few drops will do the trick as it really doesn't blend well with the mixture. I've tried it with more and found there is no benefit so 4-5 drops per cup should be enough.
Caveat; if you intend on making lip balm, leave out the ammonia.
Add the beeswax and coconut butter. If you need a measurement to start with you can use 1/8 cup of beeswax and 1/8 cup of coconut butter. Allow them to melt completely and add your ammonia, if you choose to include it.
Keep stirring then slowly add your almond oil (1/4 cup). It will cool the mix causing lumps so add it slowly allowing the mixture to re-melt. When it's fully blended, you can start adding the castor oil (1/4 cup). It's quite a bit thicker, so you'll need to stir it good to blend it in.
Keep heating the mixture for 4-5 minutes making sure that it never boils. If you see steam rising from your mixture, reduce the heat and keep mixing. Don't worry about water steam covering the outside of the pyrex cup. It shouldn't interfere with your concoction. You can wipe it off and keep going.
Step 4: Pouring Your Mixture
Get your tins ready by removing the lids and lining them up. You can pour your mixture directly into them from your pyrex cup, filling them to 1/8" below the lip. If you can't find small tins, old altoid, mint, candy tins will do just fine, or you can purchase small plastic cups with lids from the dollar store.
Step 5: Let It Cool
That's it. All that's left is to let the mixture cool down. The ammonia will leave small bubbles in the mixture and won't mix completely, but that's alright. They'll stay suspended inside as sort of, 'micro beads' that will degrease your items as it conditions and protects.
As I mentioned before, this preparation will work on a huge variety of materials, is very long lasting, and is the basis for things like lip balm, oiled canvas, waxed leather etc. All you need to do is change up the ratios of ingredients. Experiment with them and never spend a cent on commercial chemicals that are designed to wear off quickly, forcing you to re-apply often and spend more money.
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