October 06, 2014

An odd story of how I came up with leather treatment (Or was it expensive lip balm?)

I tell this story a lot, and it's kind of odd:

One of the big problems I have had over the years as an everyday skier, wearing leather-palmed gloves, is that they dry out after repeatedly getting wet and drying in the warm environment of my 7500-foot-elevation living room in crazy-dry Utah. Eventually, the cracking of leather begins and the gloves go south way too fast. Then to replace them, I have to trudge through online sales, eBay, discount bins in ski shop basements, and ski swaps, just to find a premium pair of gloves (which I require for the toughness and dexterity needed for backcountry skiing). There is no way I am going to pay $130 for gloves that some ski glove company (scam artists) made in China for $12 a pair.

So, I discovered the use of leather conditioners, dressings and treatments, to try to keep the leather soft and moisturized. I started with leather boot dressing, but that was way too expensive and it seemed like it made the leather very rigid and slippery. I had no clue as to why that was. So, I moved on to the next thing collecting dust in my garage workshop: saddle soap. That seemed to work great to soften the leather of my expensive gloves, but eventually it occurred to me that it might be attacking the stitching. The glove seams that never wore out in previous gloves of the same model became afflicted with this disease of destruction. I had no clue as to why that was.

The next thing I went to was the expensive balm that the fancy ski glove company made. It kept the leather really supple and nice, but it seemed like my gloves had now turned into sponges, which was deteriorating the leather even faster. It was the dreaded Wet-Dry Cycle.

I finally came up with a new strategy: I'd try at all costs to keep the leather from getting saturated with any water. The answer was really efficient water-proofers like Sno-Seal, Nikwax, and even silicone-based sprays. At first they seemed to work great. No more water build up on the outside of the leather! 

But I quickly noticed something odd: I had trouble lifting my newer, fatter, heavier skis. The palms of my gloves were too slippery. (But my hands and forearms got super buff with the iron grip I needed to lift my ultra beefy RD Cayotes and Head Monsters). I had no clue as to why.

The years of not knowing commenced. I chose to just go with duct tape and cold hands.

Lo and behold, one day I hatched a crazy idea to start my own ski glove company. But how to keep the (f*****g) leather from turning to s**t, stitching coming out, holes in the middle of my thumb and falling apart simply from the terrible wet-dry cycle

I sat down and began doing research to find the ultimate formula for a leather treatment. The goals:

1) It has to keep the leather soft and grippy.

2) It has to keep water out, but not at the expense of using your hands to grip your skis, poles, climbing skins, etcetera...

3) It can't eat the stitching and kill the seams.

I began the exhaustive research, plowing through the information posted at all the leather treatment company websites, all the leather craft forums, horse riding forums, ski forums, and every other website that got all deep, down and dirty with all things leather. 

And let me tell you, leather is a world of disinformation - the great gift to humanity of the Internet. (You know, all the geniuses were wrong, the Internet has much more disinformation than information so it might not be making us smarter after all- sorry, that's for another blog post).

One treatment (or ingredient) that is the Holy Grail of leather savior to one person, is the end of leather and all-things-good to another person. I learned that leather is not leather. There are different kinds, from different animals that have different levels of thickness (gauge), different levels of natural fats, different levels of sun tolerance, humidity tolerance, wetness tolerance, dirt tolerance, grease tolerance, and on and on. And leather is used for different purposes and tanned (process of making leather) for a different set of desired variables. Some leather is meant to accept rugged stitching, other leather is meant for delicate stitching. Some uses for leather require rigidity, while others require softness.

So, why are all these people and websites talking about something as if it is all the same?

Then I saw the light, the Leather Gods bestowed upon me a higher knowledge and wisdom: lots of ingredients that people use in their leather treatments have good, if not, excellent qualities, but too many people overlook the bad qualities of those ingredients. The real trick is to find the ingredients that have the excellent qualities that you desire without the bad qualities that would be best to avoid. A process of elimination gets you to the real Holy Grail of leather treatments.

I came up with 6 ingredients. There may be more, but I factored in cost as well. Why pay more for one ingredient that serves the same purpose as another for a higher price:

1) Triple-filtered organic beeswax: the best natural waterproofer that does not degrade the leather. There are other waxes that are almost as good, but they're more expensive, without more benefit. 

2) Anhydrous lanolin from organically raised sheep. Lots of leather nerds are probably jumping up and down here. Don't. I said organically grown, anhydrous. That means no pesticides that degrade stitching and no water (anhydrous) which fosters rancidity. Lanolin is serious grease that's a lot more expensive than the much more commonly used petroleum jelly. The petroleum-byproduct has its way with delicate stitching.

3) Avocado Oil. High in fat and antioxidants. It is a great emollient, moisturizer of animal skin. It's better than olive oil because it's a better anti-fungal, anti-microbial substance. 

4) 76 degree Coconut Oil. Has a similar set of characteristics as avocado oil and is cheaper. It's also available in solid room temperature state, which is helpful when you want a higher melting point.

5) Cocoa butter. There are cheaper alternatives with somewhat similar characteristics as this powerful emollient, but Cocoa Butter has really high levels of Vitamin E and strong anti-microbial properties. It also smells like chocolate!

6)Tahitian Manoi Oil (Which I discovered when my wife received as a gift. From Neiman Marcus). This is a really nice smelling coconut oil made by soaking Tahitian gardenia flowers in it. It leaves an incredible silkiness to animal skin.

As you can imagine, we figured out that in various densities this was a seriously nice skin cream/body body/lip balm for us humans. We went to Whole Foods one day and discovered that my leather treatment mixture of ingredients was even fancier than the most expensive lip balms and body butters in their huge skin care section.

We got all excited and decided, maybe, we'd scrap the ski glove and leather treatment business and become skin care moguls!

Our excitement was short lived when we discovered the FDA's new regulations for skin creams. (Apparently, the former lobbyists and skin care company executives that ran that section of the FDA were none-too-happy about their large market share loss to the homemade skin care crowd on eBay and Etsy. So, re-write the regulations and testing compliance protocols for public safety! Thereby attacking the small businesses that make it at home). That's for another blog post.

Sorry, I got off on that tangent. But, it explains why we're selling the fanciest, most luxurious lip balm ever as leather treatment. (Oh yeah, it still makes my ski glove leather last longer and work better).