Any enthusiast will tell you that leather is one of the most hardwearing, adaptable and long-lasting materials around.
But if you’re about to step out in a new pair of suede brogues (or any other leather accessory for that matter) and a torrent of rain starts falling, one key question comes to mind: is leather waterproof?
So we’ve spent some time compiling everything helpful we know about leather and water.
In this article, we’ll look at the effects of leather goods becoming wet, how to waterproof them at home and much more.
Is leather waterproof?
When it comes to working out whether leather is waterproof, you first need to define what ‘waterproof’ and ‘water-resistant’ mean. These two terms are often used interchangeably, but they have two very different meanings.
If a material is water-resistant, it’s usually able to partially resist water penetration, but it won’t be completely protected from water damage. For example, it can survive splashes or a rain shower, but not sustained exposure to excessive amounts of water. On the other hand, waterproof often means a material is treated so it can be submerged in water without any issues or damage. It’s important to note that most waterproof treatments only last for a temporary amount of time.
Leather and water don’t mix very well, although leather does have a degree of natural water resistance. This is okay if it comes into contact with small amounts of water (such as light rain), but as natural animal leather is a porous material, it will never be 100% waterproof.
Too much water exposure will leave the material wet due to leather’s permeable properties. The fibres then become dried out when the water evaporates. This explains why leather eventually becomes hard and stiff when water gets spilt on it.
Leather can also be prone to rot if the water doesn’t dry out quickly enough, as the fibres weaken and become easier to separate due to a lack of natural lubricants. These weakened fibres are the reason dry-rotted leather has a cracked appearance and can sometimes tear a little.
Water resistance of different types of leather
Though we have so far spoken generally about leather and its degree of water resistance, the truth is that it differs depending on the type of leather. It can also be affected by the particular treatment the leather receives. Here are some common types of leather and insight into their level of water resistance.
Is full-grain leather waterproof?
Full-grain leather and top grain leather are often the most water-resistant and durable options, because they are crafted from the toughest sections of the animal hide (the exterior section) — and these properties translate into the end material.
In its raw state, full-grain leather isn’t completely waterproof, so treatment sprays and wax are applied to make it as water-resistant as possible. But if a leather product needs to be long-lasting or durable, you can bet it will be made from full-grain leather.
Is synthetic (artificial) leather waterproof?
So, is faux leather waterproof? Well, synthetic and faux leather products are made from plastics and are generally waterproof as a result. The most common plastics used are PVC and PU, two petroleum-based plastics. However, you can find some alternative eco-friendly substitutes too, such as cactus leather or pineapple leather.
Is nubuck waterproof?
Nubuck leather is effectively full-grain leather that has been treated and buffed down to give it a distinctive napped finish. This leaves nubuck leather with a very fine surface that’s more durable than other fine leathers (such as suede). Many hard-wearing shoes are made from nubuck; they darken when wet, but will not become permanently damaged by rainwater. The material has a minor degree of water resistance, but it requires a water-repellent spray to enhance protection.
Is suede waterproof?
Unlike other leathers in this list, suede is much more sensitive and easily damaged by water. This is because it comes from the underside of the animal hide, which has a weaker grain structure and is consequently less robust. Suede is also softened by being buffed down, raising the fibres and accounting for the distinctly smooth, ‘velvet’ touch we associate with the material.
As suede isn’t as durable as full-grain leathers, it stains and discolours quickly. It can also be affected by humidity and moisture in the air, so we recommend regularly treating your suede products, and also being conscious about using them in poor weather.
Consequences of wet leather?
From changes to the texture and appearance, as well as odour and rot, wet leather has many negative side effects.
As we know, when leather gets wet, the texture goes from supple and soft to brittle and stiff (and extremely heavy). This process occurs due to water permeating the material and binding with the natural oil molecules in the leather. Like human skin, leather requires oil for its moisturising and conditioning properties. So when the water eventually evaporates and takes these oil molecules with it, you’re left with a dried out product. The leather cracks and becomes brittle, and leather rot (or dry rotting) sets in.
Splashes may not dry your leather goods out, but they can leave unattractive stains and watermarks. Sometimes salt is included in the tanning process of leather, and when the material gets wet, the internal salt can rise to the surface and create salt stains, too.
If leather goods become exposed to excessive moisture or humidity, they can assume a stale odour. Take a vegetable-tanned leather briefcase with a naturally earthy, rich scent. Say it’s left in a damp closet or not allowed to dry properly after you’ve been in the rain on the commute home, then mildew and mould can build up quickly over time. It will lose its signature smell and take on a musty and pungent scent.
How to fix wet leather
If your leather product becomes wet, make sure you wipe off any excess water molecules and let the product naturally dry to the stage of being mildly damp. Don’t let the leather become completely dry and never use unnatural heat (like a hairdryer). When the leather is damp, apply leather conditioner using a microfibre cloth or soft-bristled brush and leave it for several hours. The conditioner penetrates the leather through the pores and replenishes any evaporated oils. Apply extra conditioner as needed when dry.
Benefits of waterproofing leather?
Waterproofing leather has a range of obvious advantages, including keeping your premium full-grain leather wallet or backpack looking fresher for longer. Put simply, when leather is treated with a waterproofing agent, there is less chance water will permeate the surface and interfere with the natural oils that keep the material supple. Visually, this results in a product that looks healthier, with an appearance and texture that is more consistent and natural.
Another benefit to waterproofing leather is that it substantially increases a product’s lifespan. The protective shield offered by waterproofing treatments means leather is less likely to become dry and cracked, which in turn makes it more durable and gives you more wear. Similarly, the chances of your leather accessory developing rot are dramatically reduced.
Lastly, if you waterproof your leather, you also get better overall protection against the elements. This is essential for products designed for outdoor use. Take a pair of durable leather boots. They might possess a degree of water resistance, but additional treatment will ensure your feet stay dry at all times, negating the effects of bad weather.
How to waterproof leather
Are you looking for effective waterproofing solutions? Let’s explore two of the most popular methods for waterproofing leather goods to ensure they remain healthier for longer. Before we begin, it’s important to establish that different types of leather require unique treatments. For example, a delicate suede is more susceptible to water damage than other hardier leathers, so a more intense waterproofing treatment is advisable.
We also always recommend patch testing any treatments on a concealed part of your leather good before applying it fully; this way, you can determine if the treatment will lead to unwanted stains.
A common method for waterproofing leather, and keeping it soft and supple, is to apply a homemade leather wax. This is easy to make and, with a little initial effort, will save time and money in the long term. You can also purchase leather waxes. If you already own one, please skip ahead to step 4, where you will learn how to apply it correctly.
To make the wax you'll need a clean buffing cloth; cold water in a medium-sized pan; a glass jar; beeswax (2 ounces); extra virgin olive oil (1 cup).
- Start by adding the ingredients into a clean glass jar. Pour the olive oil in first and then break the beeswax up into small pieces and place these in the jar too.
- Next, gently warm the pan of water on your stove. Place the glass jar in the pan and begin stirring the mixture. The heat allows the beeswax to melt into the olive oil. Keep stirring until the wax pieces are completely melted into the oil.
- Remove the pan from the stove and take the hot jar out of the water. You should keep stirring the mixture as it cools and stiffens to ensure the ingredients are mixed well. The cooling process can take between 10-20 minutes, so take your time to ensure the beeswax is completely stirred in.
- Clean your leather product thoroughly to ensure no dirt gets trapped when you start adding wax to the surface.
- After the mixture is cooled, spot test a small section of the leather. If it doesn’t leave a stain, start to apply the wax and gently buff it into the surface with the buffing cloth. Take small amounts of the wax onto the cloth and gradually build up the amount as needed to cover the surface of the leather product. The wax will leave an oily film, so apply it sparingly. Leave the product for 30-60 minutes to allow the wax to soak in.
- Repeat the previous step 2-3 times to build up a few layers of protective coating. Once finished, buff the surface with a dry cloth to remove excess wax. Repeat the process a few times a year to ensure your leather goods stay waterproof over time.
Water repellent sprays
An alternative to waxing is water repellant sprays. These sprays are often tailored to different types of leather, such as everyday leather, suede protector and full-grain leather sprays. Ensure your product receives the right treatment by researching which type of leather it is made from.
Water repellent sprays work by covering the surface in a coating that seals out any moisture. This prevents the leather from losing its suppleness and drying out. These sprays can be easily purchased online. Once again, make sure you do a patch test to ensure the spray will not heavily stain the surface.
Carl Friedrik Leather Cream
One product that can offset the eventually dehydrating effects of wet leather is Carl Friedrik's leather cream. Containing natural carnauba wax and lanolin, it moisturises and nourishes dry leather, reviving the appearance and texture of leather. The nutritious cream will also leave your leather briefcase or wallet with a noticeably soft and supple texture.
When it comes to waterproofing your prized leather products, it’s important to know which type of leather they’re made from, so you can find the optimal waterproofing solution. Whether you’re trying to protect a delicate suede or robust full-grain leather, follow our simple steps to achieving waterproof protection.
Have you tried waterproofing leather before? Let us know your favourite methods in the comments.