Donna Nobilo, NZMRA Member begins a workshop page for leather
restoration and maintenance.


North Auckland Mounted

Donna's Saddlery Workshop

Generally our Military items are made of several organic materials and various metals all requiring different treatments. Of course you can do nothing to your object but hang it on the wall. That's fine but if you intend using it, as in the case of a belt, bandolier or saddle, then some treatment is desirable - especially if your clearing sale saddle has sat in the corner of a shed being used as a perch by generations of hens!

Firstly, in the case of a saddle intended for use on a horse, it must be sound - your life depends on it!. Cracked or rotten leather and broken boards are dangerous and such saddles should not be used for riding in. Wooden boards suffer from Borer, a few small holes may be all that's visible. These indicate where the beetle exited AFTER it had chewed its way around the interior leaving a myriad of tunnels and rendering the wood weak. To ascertain if borer are present place the item in a clean plastic bag and seal. After a few days fresh dust will be noticed if the borer are active . Treatment is labourious, Pyrethrim based insect killers available from hardware stores in the "NO" brand mixed with Kerosene instead of water and injected by hypodermic needle into every hole will deal with the grubs. Check boards for cracks, usually caused by a horse rolling on the saddle, and rusted rivets with worn holes which cause the saddle to move, creating strain on the steel arches and a sore back for your horse. Providing all is well with your boards you can treat them with a wash with sunlight soap and when dry oil with a mix of turps and linseed oil (one cup turps to 1 tablespoon oil) on a clean rag well rubbed in and left to dry. Don't clean with meths based cleaner as it will remove the original shellac finish.

1902 UP saddle (pictured) as found under a pile of junk in a farm shed, the white film is a few years of liberal mutton fat dressing!. This saddle was originally owned by Lt Col Doug Morrison who, as Major commanded the North Auckland Mounted Rifles in 1938. Doug resides in Whangarei and still enjoys his weekly pool at the RSA - at a sprightly 103 years young!
In the meantime, having stripped our saddle and ascertained the boards are usable we turn to the webbing. The webbing used originally was English straining web this must be strained properly so it does not sag when the saddle gets wet. Nylon seat belting is, unfortunately, commonly used and is quite unsuitable - both in looks and practicality. The webbing on this saddle was beyond redemption so was carefully taken off - never throw anything away that might be useful as a pattern later. This left some very rusty steel arches. The rivets were rusted and needed replacing so they were ground off with a dremel and removed. What to do with the arches? You could sandblast but this can do more damage than good. An excellent gentle, rust destroyer can be made from molasses, obtained from your local farm store, cheap and easy. About a cup of molasses to ten litres of water put in a plastic container with a good fitting lid - if your object is larger then you will have to find a bigger container and use more liquid. Warning: your neighbours pets will find the smell irresistable - unlike the neighbours themselves! Keep it covered and outside! Depending on the amount of rust it will take from a few weeks to a month or more to convert, when done you simply wash in clean water and leave to dry. The molasses creates a coating which will prevent further rusting and can be painted over with a good primer/paint system. It will not affect the original sound paint or other metals, and is quite good for cleaning up nickel and brass which has bad verdigris (greening) these include stirrups, bits, buckles etc. After the molasses had done it's thing the arches were given a coat of POR gloss black and re-riveted to the boards, ready for rewebbing.
Picture shows completed tree.

1902 UP Saddle

One of the most destructive pests you will come across in Military object conservation will be the moth - or rather the grub before it turns into a moth (the moth has no mouth parts so cannot eat). The grub is virtually a set of jaws of life attached to an expandable storage bag with a huge appetite and munches its' way through wool (ie felt), leather and most other untreated organic products. The grub then pupates in a tough cloth-like cocoon which it spins in hard to get at areas like seams, under buckles and linings and the insides of canteens. Spraying with insecticide has little effect, the best way to deal with these guys is freezing. Museums use this method as an excellent way to control most pests and can be used safely on textiles, leather and wood. Home freezing would suit uniforms, numnahs, canteens , hats, boots etc.
Possibly a good start is to ask "Mum" if it's ok to put your beloved saddlery amongst the apple pies and peas first! Next place your dry object in a plastic bag - supported if necessary by heavy card or thin wood, to keep from bending. Remove as much air as possible from the bag and secure with a tie. Write the date on the bag. Leave in the freezer for AT LEAST TWO WEEKS - this ensures the grubs body has completely shut down - they can survive being frozen for short periods. DO NOT bend the object whilst it is frozen or you will have several pieces when it thaws out! After the freezing period leave in the bag and place somewhere safe to thaw naturally for at least 24 hours.
Of course you will have to be vigilant and make sure further generations of moths do not invade your collections. Natural pyrethrim based sprays in the form of Robocans are a good deterrent and can be used safely in sheds or homes.

There is as much written on this subject as there are stars in the sky. However I am a firm believer that the old blokes knew what they were doing, after all there was no such thing as synthetics in their day - everything was made of leather.

If your leather object is to stay on a shelf in your collection then you need do no more than to, perhaps, dust it. A vacuum cleaner with an upholstery brush head attachment is a non invasive way of gently removing hard to get to accumulations of dust and dirt. For very grubby gear a careful wash with sunlight soap and lukewarm water is good. Avoid over soaking and excessive scrubbing as this will damage the leather surface - a good cleaning tool is made from a rolled up wad of hair from your obliging mounts mane or tail. Try using a pencil eraser on stubborn marks when dry.

Saddle soap is excellent for new gear or objects which are to be in regular use. Most saddle soaps contain glycerine which help preserve and soften leather. Glycerine also encourages mould growth and its use is to be avoided if leather is going to be stored for any length of time. NEVER use household cleaners or silicone products on leather.

Dry leather naturally (ie not in the sun or by excessive heat) it was a punishable offence in the Mounted Rifles to be caught drying your saddlery by the fire! When dry a conditioner will need to be applied to replace the natural lubricants lost during storage and/or use. The "modern" excuse for not conditioning leather is that oils rot the stitching. Rubbish! There have been scientific studies done by Master Saddlers in the 1990"s to prove that pure neatsfoot oil (not compound) does not rot leather or thread. What will rot it, however, is water and salt (sweat - both yours and your horse's) in other words lack of cleaning and conditioning. Up to 10% of the weight of any new leather item is fat and oils added in the tanning process, this must be maintained or the life span of the leather will be compromised.

Leather conditioners are available in a mind boggling array in Saddlery Shops. Because of the amount, and subsequent cost, which I was using with the Museum items I began experimenting with making my own conditioner. I have an English Saddlers Training Manual which was given to apprentices in 1904. In it are several good recipes for leather dressings one of which was adopted by the British Army and is in Barry and Mathew O'Sullivan's excellent book "NZ Army Personal Equipment". The 1904 Manual also has several recipes for leather dyes which includes one in which the main ingredient is urine. Of course urine is ammonia which is widely used in the leather industry and would have been in plentiful supply given that hundreds of men worked in the saddlery industry. Needless to say this recipe remains untried! The British Museum gave me a recipe for a leather preservative which they use and I "improved" on this to use here, our sub tropical climate dictated the need for a "dry" mould repelling preserver. To date this has been a great success.

Use conditioner and oils sparingly - little and often. Allow to dry and buff with a soft cloth. Some products contain beeswax - this is added as a polish and also for it's waterproofing value.

Store leather items in a warm, dry, well-ventilated area away from direct sunlight and heat. Cover with a cotton sheet - never use plastic.

Finished Tree

North Auckland Mounted Rifles Pennant showing
damage by moth

Lt Col Doug Morrisons saddle after restoration

(Modeled as always by Donna's best friend "Sundown")
more coming