How to clean and maintain leather car seats (Detailed)
On closer examination, it is clear to see that the cleaning and
caring of car leather is a little more complex than just picking up and
applying any cleaner or conditioner. Leather professionals, detailers
and car enthusiasts usually ask us questions like “What leather do I
have?”, “What is the best way to look after my leather?”, “Does the
product that prevents dye transfer also condition the leather?” and many
more. We have put together the following information with the aim of
answering most of these common questions.
BASIC KNOWLEDGE OF AUTOMOTIVE LEATHER
The use of leather in vehicles dates back to well before the first car was even built. Before the existence of our modern car, leather was used in horse carriages.
Mercedes 300D Adenauer built in 1958.
Lancia Astura 4th Series Pinin Farina Cabriolet built in 1939.
Braided Leather Handle Mercedes
Leather cuff and carpet edging
Tannins: quebracho, chromium (III), synthetic tanning
Structure of the leather fibres: fine and tear proof
Traditionally, leather interiors were installed only in the more valuable vehicles. However, the use of leather in car interiors has increased steadily and continues to do so today. Medium-priced vehicles are now equipped with leather upholstery. Classic cars which didn’t have leather interiors are now exhibited at antique car shows with leather upholstery. It would be fair to say that vehicles with leather interiors have always had a noble aura and therefore a higher resale value.
Gullwing: Original in fabric
Nowadays almost exclusively in leather
Beetle convertible upholstered in black with red piping
Porous leather: water penetrates and leaves stains
Porous leather in vintage car - not easily recognizable
Dirt in the grain? Use the brush
For barn finds, use a stronger cleaner
Real barn finds: Brush and a strong cleaner
Many leathers look as good as new after cleaning
Dye stains. A specialist is needed
The colour is rubbed off: A colour restoration is necessary
If the damage is not too big: A colour restoration is most suitable
- What precautions should I take when cleaning perforated and embossed leather? Perforations are holes punched out of the leather, as opposed to imprints which are pressed into the leather structure. When dealing with perforated leather, you should make sure that the leather doesn’t become too wet during cleaning and maintenance, as fluids will easily pass through the perforations in the leather and sit in the cushioning material behind it. This can cause the edges to swell and stains can appear. But this will only occur if you are extremely careless. Embossing provides a stronger structure to the leather surface. Care should be taken when applying a leather conditioner so as to not fill the holes. Excess application of leather creams or leather milk can cause whitish stains. The same applies to leather fats or waxes. If too much is applied, the excess must be heavily polished or cleaned away. Rubbing some of the product into a soft cloth to apply it can therefore save a lot of time and work. Also, start by treating areas of the leather which are not perforated or embossed in order to avoid overdosing.
Perforation and embossing: Clean and maintain sparingly
Perforated leather when treated too wet
Mould due to incorrect storage
- What if there is mould on the leather? Leather with
mould should be cleaned immediately and wiped with diluted vinegar. If
you act quickly on white mould, the problem is very easily solved.
However, if you have black mould, there is no way of cleaning it and if
the smell has gone deep into the cushioning material, you might get the
leather looking clean, but the smell will linger unless you can trace
the source of the smell and treat it with odour removal sprays.
Important! In the future, avoid high humidity without air circulation
inside the vehicle. Otherwise the problem will return straight away.
WHAT SHOULD BE CONSIDERED IN LEATHER CARE?
There are a variety of leather conditions and leather care
products. Most cleaners can be tested by eye as the results are visible
straight away. However, this is not the case with care products or
conditioners. The effectiveness of the product can only be judged over
time. Although, most good quality conditioners should make the leather
feel softer shortly after application.
- How do I know the need for care? New cars or classic cars in which the leather upholstery has been re-trimmed have brand-new leather.
- New leather usually does not require any special maintenance, since the tanner did his best possible. But light-coloured or bright-coloured leathers tend to get affected by dye transfer stains. Frequently used vehicles are prone to wear and tear like scuffs and colour damage. Applying COLOURLOCK Leather Shield drastically reduces this and ensures the leather stays as new for as long as possible. The only care or protection new leather needs is against these problems and only in the contact areas.
Headrest pressure test reveals no wrinkles in the middle
However in corners, the leather wrinkles significantly
Leather cross-section: left loose thin fibre structure, right dense fibres
- How do I care for older leather? Classic leather care products range from leather grease, leather oil, leather balm or leather milk. Oils and fats are pure products and therefore highly moisturising. For normal care, such products are excessive. A balm or care milk are emulsions with water. COLOURLOCK Leather Protector contains oils that are sufficient to keep the vehicle leather supple. The Leather Protector is thin and therefore penetrates very well into the leather. The COLOURLOCK Elephant Leather Preserver protects the surface more as well as helping soften the leather and waterproofing it. The COLOURLOCK Leather Protector is designed for matt leather. The COLOURLOCK Elephant Leather Preserver gives a glossy finish. In particular, very old leather of classic cars tends to be shiny and very dry. In such cases, it makes sense to combine the products. First, apply the Leather Protector and let it penetrate into the leather, followed by the protective leather wax to match the degree of gloss. COLOURLOCK Elephant Leather Preserver should be used excessively only on very dry leathers. Otherwise, use both products sparingly. For extreme cases of dry leather, use COLOURLOCK Leather Softener for a one-off treatment.
- I would like my leather to have a matt finish but certain areas are too shiny or glossy. New and modern car leathers have a matt finish. Certain older cars also have matt finished leather. The more the leather is polished or buffed, the shinier it becomes. In particular, the driver’s seat and the steering wheel can become shiny or greasy. When matt leather is viewed under a microscope, it appears to be a rougher surface. The way the light reflects on a rough surface is what causes the matt look. In contrast, light reflects in a parallel direction from glossy leather, giving it a shinier appearance. Over time, if a leather becomes greasy and polished, it loses the roughness and thereby also its matt appearance. To keep a leather matt, it should be thoroughly cleaned and maintained, but under no circumstances with strong oiling or greasing products. COLOURLOCK Leather Protector is the most suitable product within our range for matt leather. When applying the protector, ensure you do not buff or polish the leather. Apply the product by working from seam to seam and allow it to dry. Residues from any cleaners should be wiped gently with a slightly damp cloth. Additionally, COLOURLOCK Gloss Correctors can also help with adjusting gloss levels. However, we always recommend the following steps:
STEP 1 - Clean thoroughly and apply Leather Protector (do not buff or polish)
STEP 2 - Clean, degrease with COLOURLOCK Cleaning Spirit & then apply Leather Protector (do not buff or polish)
STEP 3 - If the above 2 do not work, apply COLOURLOCK Gloss Corrector. When working on an area with a large surface, it is best to spray the gloss corrector using an airbrush.
- Does car leather have UV protection? Over time, sunlight affects all materials. Whether it is the car paint, the hood or the leather interior. Therefore, the best protection is to permanently avoid intense sunlight. UV rays cause the leather colour to fade, and the warmth of the sun heats up the leather and makes it age faster. In the worst cases, it can even shrink the leather, leading to irreparable damage. The UV protection in the COLOURLOCK Leather Protector is not a must-have, but it provides additional protection.
Permanent sunlight harms leather
- How often and how much should leather be maintained? Car leather is usually not maintained often enough. For cars where the leather is in good condition and only used seasonally, it is recommended to care every 6-12 months. If the car is used regularly, at least the driver's seat should be maintained more often. However, applying excessive amounts of car e products or applying them too often can make it greasy and oily. The ideal way to treat leather is using less product, but frequently. Contact areas with hands (steering wheel, armrests, handles, etc.) should sparingly be maintained with care products. Regular contact softens the colour layers over time and use of excessive care product can speed up this process. Applying COLOURLOCK Leather Shield to areas which are already slightly damaged is best as it is a sealant which reduces friction damage.
- What do you do when dealing with hardened leathers? Leather that has become hard by age but not shrunken because of heat or sunlight can be treated using COLOURLOCK Leather Softener. This product contains very low-viscosity oils that need to be applied patiently. Apply the product and knead the leather. This helps to loosen the fibres. Please contact us if you are facing a similar situation, as hardened leather needs to be treated differently if it has a lot of scratches to be repaired or needs to be coloured.
- Do leather care products really penetrate the colour surface? Unlike synthetic leathers, surface-coloured car leathers have more breathability. This allows care products to sink into the leather. Care products penetrate better into damaged or older leather. In fact, the older the better. New or well-preserved leather does not need care to improve its condition. However, it needs surface protection like the one provided by COLOURLOCK Leather Shield. If the car is older than 3 years, either COLOURLOCK Leather Protector or a combination of both Protector & Shield can be used for optimal protection.
- Which product should I apply first? Always clean first. If the Leather Shield is applied in combination with the Leather Protector, the following procedure is the best: First, apply the Leather Protector. Take some Protector in a soft cloth, and apply gently. You don’t need to polish the leather. Visible excess product can be removed with a cloth dampened with water. Wait a few days before applying the Leather Shield. This way, you allow the leather to absorb the oils in the Protector which will keep it soft and supple. A week is optimal as the products need time to penetrate through the top ink layer. The Shield prevents wear, scuffs and dye transfer and therefore must be applied only in areas of contact. This includes steering wheels, door handles and leather gear knobs. Backs of front seats and trim parts in unstressed areas can be left out. Take some Leather Shield in a cloth and apply thinly working from seam to seam. Then let it dry by itself without polishing. If you cannot allow much drying time, you should reverse the order. First, apply the Shield and dry with a hair dryer. Then apply the Protector and do not polish. The Protector will eventually penetrate through the Leather Shield. If the Leather Shield is applied directly on the Leather Protector, it will not stay on the lightly oiled surface as the Protector takes time to penetrate the leather. If the Leather Protector is used in combination with the Elephant Leather Preserver wax, first apply the Protector as it is a thinner product and feeds the leather well. Following this, the surface can be protected by using the Leather Preserver.
- How long should you wait between steps? Allow the leather to dry after cleaning. You can speed up the drying process by using a hairdryer or heat gun. Ensure the air is not too hot. When applying a combination of products, always allow the first product to completely dry before applying the next one.
- How long do you have to wait until you can sit in the car again? Leather care products should always be used sparingly but regularly. After a light application, the care products are absorbed fast and dry quickly. Once that is done, you can strain the surfaces again. In pleasant temperatures, it should take less than 15 minutes. On cold days, you should wait a little longer, as it will take longer for the leather to dry.
- Does the working temperature matter? Yes! It is recommended to clean and maintain the leather only on warm days or in a heated garage. Let’s face it… cleaning is not fun on a cold day, but more importantly it is not advisable to dry the leather in very cold weather. Also, working on a cold day would mean the doors in the car will be shut not long after cleaning. This means there is a risk that residual moisture stays inside the car which in the long term can encourage mould formation. However, it should not be done under any circumstances in the blazing sunshine. Slightly moist leather can be damaged immediately by direct sunlight.
If you are in doubt: oil/wax-based products are more suitable for glossy leather, cream or milk products are more suitable for matt leather.
- How important is it to waterproof leather? A leather waterproofing product is only used to make surfaces water-repellent and has no emollients (agents that soften the leather). Car leather needs moisturising to stay supple, but any liquids or water that come into contact with car leather do not penetrate through the protective layer of paint. A hydrophobic product or waterproofing spray is therefore more suitable for shoes, motorcycle suits and perhaps convertibles or cabriolets because they are directly exposed to the weather. It is not very logical to test the waterproofing properties of care products on car leather. Unlike sensitive aniline leather (suede & nubuck), factors that damage pigmented leather are not influenced by liquids penetrating the leather. In fact, you want the care products to penetrate to ensure the oils reach the fibres. Therefore, any water repellent product for car leather is actually counterproductive. Leather waxes have a waterproofing effect and melt when hot, eventually penetrating the leather.
- Can pressure marks, wrinkles and bumps on leather be removed with care products? Wrinkles and bumps are usually a natural process of change in the ageing of leather. As long as it is not a clear crack or scuff, they are part of the leather. Wrinkles and bumps cannot be repaired using care products. If the fibre structure of the leather is permanently overstretched by use in these areas, it will not stiffen or revert back to its original condition again. In case of pressure marks, re-oiling and loosening the fibres using a hairdryer and massaging the leather can have a positive effect and reduce the signs. It is also important to note how long and how heavily the pressure was applied to it.
Wrinkles on leather: They belong to the leather
Pressure marks on leather: Can be improved
Dents in leather: Will need re-trimming
- Can new car leather smell be recovered by regular care? Due to the current tanning methods, modern leather no longer has that beautiful smell of old vegetable-tanned leather. But most smells and odours evaporate over time. If leather is maintained, this will ensure it stays for longer. However, anyone wishing to re-introduce the leather smell can try COLOURLOCK Leather Essence. It comes with a patch of vegetable-tanned leather to leave inside the car. The more product applied and warmer the temperature inside the car, the more intense the smell.
- What to look for when the vehicle is stored for an extended period? Vehicle leather is actually a very economical material that does not get easily damaged. It may be damaged in extreme conditions if stored for a long period. Extremely dry air would make the leather dry. Therefore, a humidity of 50-70% with sufficient air circulation is optimal. In the absence of airflow, 70% humidity is enough to start the formation of mould. Ventilate the car by opening the window slightly if humidity levels are quite high. If humidity is low, maintain in shorter intervals. In any case, it always makes sense to regularly inspect the condition of a vehicle. Is there enough air in the tires? Does it smell of mould? The optimum storage temperature for leather is 15-20°C. But permanently lower temperature is not bad! Leather suffers more when subjected to constant changes in humidity and temperature or to permanent sunlight. Constant use and visual inspections plus an occasional maintenance treatment are the best methods of conservation. Keeping heavy items on leather leads to pressure marks. If kept in contact with leather for a long time, they can become permanent.
- Leatherette, Faux leather, Vinyl or Artificial leather, also known as imitation leather, or even plastic parts are often indistinguishable from genuine leathers, and both materials are often combined in a vehicle interior. Do normal leather care products harm Leatherette? When cleaning, it does not matter whether one uses the leather cleaner on real leather or vinyl. Since leather is the more sensitive material of the two, other materials are not damaged. Not every leatherette or any plastic can withstand permanent and intensive greasing. Unlike leather, oils and fats cannot soften vinyl or plastics. Although occasional care does not cause any harm, it is best not to apply leather care products on hardened artificial leathers or synthetic materials.
- Do care products change the patina of leather? Patina refers to a change in a material due to ageing, but this is seen as an embellishment and not as damage. Modern leather is heavily dyed, and due to abrasion and wear a similar but slightly faded colour appears in the damaged area. These visible marks are not seen as patina but as damage. On the other hand, vegetable-tanned leathers used previously were not dyed, but just coloured on the surface. Over time and with use, the lighter natural colour gets revealed, leading to an age-based patina. It is common to find this type of leather in classic cars, where this isn’t seen as a flaw or damage. It only adds to the beauty of the leather.
Wonderful patina: Glossy and small wrinkles
In direct comparison: New leather lacks the patina
New leather re-trimmed in classic car: Leather looks artificial
Beautiful patina: Vegetable tanned leather
Aging beautifully despite signs of wear
New leather with traces lacks the appearance of a patina
Most problems occur because people react very late. Whilst leather interiors can always be replaced, vehicles with well-preserved original leather with patina will always be worth a lot more!
Recommended products for cleaning and maintaining leather car seats