Leather restoration/preservation (WWII leather)

My grandfather was a tail gunner in a B-17 in WWII. I’ve got his bomber jacket and leather “helmet” (apologies for not knowing exactly what to call it). There’s been some deterioration to both pieces, and I was wondering if anyone has any experience/knowledge in regard to the restoration/preservation of these types of things. A quick Googling in the immediate area - Souther Tier/Upstate New York doesn’t yield any obvious service providers for this type of thing.

Thoughts?

My grandparents and other older relatives always treated leather with neatsfoot oil. They used it on any leather that got wet or cracked. Shoes, saddles, bridles, and I used it on my baseball glove.

It’s still sold under various brands.

this one is for smooth leather only. That’s what jackets, saddles etc. are.
http://www.amazon.com/Tandy-Leather-Pure-Neatsfoot-21997-00/dp/B003BCUHSO/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=home-garden&qid=1300508006&sr=1-2

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neatsfoot_oil

Saddle Soap is also for smooth leather. IIRC it was more for cleaning. Afterward, we treated with neatsfoot oil.
http://www.amazon.com/Fiebings-12OZ-Saddle-Soap-12oz/dp/B000RNES2G/ref=pd_sim_k_4

Thanks for the tip, AcePlace57. The Wiki entry indicates a tendency to contribute to embrittling, which is somewhat worrisome (although I think anything would be better than nothing).

I’m going to self-bump here, just in case anyone has any better ideas.

[walking out to buy some neatsfoot oil for various other leather products… again, thanks for the tip]

Flightsuits is known as the experts on manufacturing, fixing, and restoring military type leather. They are also supposed to have unusually good customer service that can help you with with any special requests over the phone. I know they do careful restorations themselves of military jackets but you could call them to see what they recommend overall. At the very least, they could tell you what they recommend if you want to do it yourself. There are a number of posters here that can vouch for their quality.

i think jackets might be cow, horse or goat leather.

saddle soap it first.

then oil it with neatsfoot oil. there are leather products which have mineral oil including products with neatsfoot oil on the label but are mostly mineral oil, so check the label.

if it is dry don’t bend it a lot until oiled a number of times. you don’t need to soap each time but oil it and let for a day and oil again until soft.

Thanks, all.

Shag, I’ve sent an email to off to inquire whether the folks at flightsuits.com can help out.

John, I’m keeping saddle soap in mind (erring on the side of caution and hoping to have a pro do the job - it’s kind of the last set of artifacts from gramps).

I’ve also got a bracelet made with his wings on them. It’s alleged to be silver… looks/feels about right. I’m going to be getting that repaired, as well.

I’ll pop some pics up just in case anyone is interested in taking a peek.

Lexol. I would read up on their products before deciding what to do first.

My Father was in the leather business and he always used Huberds Shoe Grease. Better than Neatsfoot oil.

Or Connolly products, they have been keeping leather nice for over 125 years and supply hides to people like Rolls Royce and Ferrari. I’m thinking they know their hides.

Start with cleaning the leather, using saddle soap. Be careful doing so, because the leather will be stiff & can crack easily. Then let it dry overnight.

Then oil it. Any kind of animal oil product will work. Many experienced leather workers have their favorites, but generally any oil will work. Neatsfoot (cow/calf leg bones) is a good one, the light color doesn’t affect the leather color as much as darker oils. Mink oil is good for leather that will be exposed to water, like work boots.

When applying the oil, it’s best to do it in several light coats. Do a treatment, then let it dry for a day or two, then do another coat.
But, unfortunately, leather that has been stored for decades, and in a dry (low humidity) environment (like most houses) will have permanently, irreversibly deteriorated. The skin cells making up the leather will have changed, and can’t be changed back.

Cleaning & oiling it will help restore some suppleness and help prevent additional deterioration. You will need to repeat this treatment on occasion to keep it in shape. Also, the oil will tend to attract dirt more than dry leather, so you will have to clean it occasionally, and the repeated oilings will tend to change the color, darkening the leather. But it’s the best you can do at this point.

Start with cleaning the leather, using saddle soap. Be careful doing so, because the leather will be stiff & can crack easily. Then let it dry overnight.

Then oil it. Any kind of animal oil product will work. Many experienced leather workers have their favorites, but generally any oil will work. Neatsfoot (cow/calf leg bones) is a good one, the light color doesn’t affect the leather color as much as darker oils. Mink oil is good for leather that will be exposed to water, like work boots.

When applying the oil, it’s best to do it in several light coats. Do a treatment, then let it dry for a day or two, then do another coat.
But, unfortunately, leather that has been stored for decades, and in a dry (low humidity) environment (like most houses) will have permanently, irreversibly deteriorated. The skin cells making up the leather will have changed, and can’t be changed back.

Cleaning & oiling it will help restore some suppleness and help prevent additional deterioration. You will need to repeat this treatment on occasion to keep it in shape. Also, the oil will tend to attract dirt more than dry leather, so you will have to clean it occasionally, and the repeated oilings will tend to change the color, darkening the leather. But it’s the best you can do at this point.

Just wanted to say thanks again to everyone for their ideas.

@Shag: flightsuits.com says they only work on the products they sell. But still, it was a good tip for the type of service I’m looking for. Anything “.com” probably came along after the B-17. :smiley:

I’m going to try to scrounge up a good, gentle cleaner and neatsfoot oil (or analog). Hopefully,I don’t screw anything up.

If you’re looking for a jacket, I can recommend the former Flightsuits Ltd., now Gibson & Barnes. (But they’ll always be Flightsuits to me.)

Spud bought a jacket from them in 2009, and as of November he still liked it.

ETA: I bought some Pecard’s from them, and it works a treat. Also softened my hands.

.

If the leather has already deteriorated nothing is going to bring it back. Oils and preservatives are only useful in staving off decay etc in if used beforehand. Short of plasticizing it in some manner so it can be displayed or using the pattern to fashion an entirely new jacket, your options are limited.

Yeah, I’m aware of that. The sucker is in pretty good shape, considering it never got any TLC since the end of the war. I picked up the saddle soap today… and mink oil, but I’m not sure mink oil is a good idea (perhaps that will get repurposed for shoes or something).

It looks like it’s in comparable condition to those displayed at the National Museum of the USAF. Surprisingly.

I used nivea on the leather parts of my great-grandfather’s oak-and-brass trunk, but then, I didn’t know who to ask. It worked quite well, too; obviously the already-existing cracks didn’t go away, but with enough careful application the handles could again be used without hurting my hands or giving the impression that they were about to disintegrate.

The “helmet” was, in fact, a helmet.

Thanks, DontAsk - as it turns out, my grandfather was shot down twice, so the portion about the survive/evade/escape portion was particularly interesting.

I’ve appreciated all this advice in this thread. I, too, have an old WWII bomber jacket that I’m looking to restore. I’ve been carefully using saddle soap, and will look for neatsfoot oil.

However, there’s a trickier problem here: there’s a tear in the left shoulder of the jacket (dry leather + weight of the jacket = rip) that’s several inches long. I’m being very careful around it, trying not to stress it and tear it further. How best to patch this up? Just a leather repair place? Or does this need a specialist?

I am new to this site and have a question. It seems there are people that have a background in the topic and I have a special need. I have only started to look for the item(s) that I need. I have a supply of sheep hides because my wife is a shepherd and has a small business where she sells everything but the “bleat” from the sheep she raises. This puts me in the position of have tanned hides available. I have located a person that would be interested in sewing these into a jacket to exact specifications of the B3 Bomber jacket used in the B17 and B29 planes from WWII. I have looked for a pattern to use for this purpose, understanding that sizes may vary but that the general design is what is important and the jacket made to fit a particular person, me. Do any of you have any suggestions on where such a piece of information could be found? Thank you for your kind consideration.