The leather market has been steadily growing for over 15 years. Not only is more leather being sold, but the average piece of leather upholstery has a longer useful life than fabric upholstery. More and more leather is everywhere from cars to offices to family rooms to hotel lobbies. The list goes on and on.
Eighty percent of the leather being sold is Protected leather (also known as painted leather or pigmented leather.), This is simply aniline dyed leather with a pigment coat sealed by a polyurethane resin. The average life span of leather furniture is at least ten years, which assures cleaners of service opportunities for years to come.
Identifying Protected Leather
Protected leather is fairly easy to identify when compared to two other popular upholstery leather type Aniline and Nubuck. Visually, Protected leather has consistent coloration resulting from the pigmentation process. Generally, when you open a cushion you will see a color difference between the front and back. This difference is the result of 200 dye choices initially applied to the leather, covered by any of over 1200 choices of different pigments. This test sometimes is misleading as the pigment on the surface and the dye seen on the back can be too close to show a distinct difference.
Sometimes it may have been given a two tone effect called kela or sauvage which is usually a black dye rubbed over the base pigment color.
Protected leather is also stiffer than Aniline or Nubuck leather because you are feeling the polyurethane rather than the soft surface of naked leather. A fingernail scratch will not penetrate the polyurethane to scratch the leather surface as long as the finish is intact. Aniline and Nubuck leathers will generally scratch easily to a lighter color.
Water drops will absorb into the surface of Aniline and Nubuck leathers even with quality surface protectants, while water drops will sit on the top of the polyurethane for an extended period of time. In short, differentiating Protected leather from Aniline or Nubuck leather is a fairly simple task.
Inspection of Protected Leather
Protected leather is by far the easiest leather to clean, since if the finish is intact, you are cleaning the protective polyurethane and not the leather itself. Your greatest difficulty is persuading your customers to clean their leather on a regular basis. Typically, they hear that Protected leather is low maintenance from furniture salespeople. The new buyer translates that into a no maintenance product.
The polyurethane finish is durable in the short term, but somewhat fragile in the long run. The finish of Protected leather is 90% polyurethane and 10% plastifiers and is very durable as long as that balance is maintained. Oils from the body or other sources attack the polyurethane softening the finish to the point of it being able to be peeled off. Improper cleaning products attack the plastifiers drying the finish, causing it to crack. Peeling and cracking of the finish transform a low maintenance situation into a need for extensive restoration to repair the damage. I know of leather professionals, who do not clean leather, but wait for nature (time and use) to take its course, thus providing an abundance of major restoration business to refurbish Protected leather. The old adage, “Pay me a little now, or pay me a lot later” is especially true with Protected leather.
Now that you have identified the leather as Protected, you need to closely examine the furniture. Look for split seams, natural marks, stains, damage to the finish in the form of deep scratches, cracking and/or peeling. Be sure to examine areas closely where body oils are prone to accumulate. Record any issues on your inspection form. Doing this in the presence of the customer assures you that the problems of the leather remain with the customer. Damage to the finish is not going to be resolved by cleaning and in some cases will become more noticeable after cleaning. For example, areas impacted with hair oils and body oils can hide damage to the finish.
Cleaning Protected Leather
Not all leather is tanned the same way. The leather used in upholstery is not the same as leather used in clothing, purses or to cover baseballs. Some leather cleaning products, saddle soap for example, have migrated to our industry but were originally formulated for use on other types of leather. Select leather cleaning products formulated specifically for upholstery leather. Beware of one-product-fits-all cleaners.
You are now ready for the easiest part of the cleaning process, using LeatherMaster’s Strong Cleaner, a water-based that produces plenty of foam. Simply apply the Strong Cleaner to a sponge dampened with warm water. Foam it up and apply to the leather in a circular motion. Remove soil released by the cleaner with a clean terrycloth towel. For heavy soils, the use of a horsehair brush or even super fine steel wool (0000) will add some additional agitation to aid the cleaning process. Periodically rinse out the sponges to remove collected soil. Typically there will be a need to use some additional spotters to take out stains that have bonded to the surface of the finish.
The spotters that you will use for Protected leather are LeatherMaster’s Super Remover, Soft Remover, Ink Lifter and possibly Leather Degreaser (aerosol).
Super Remover will be used frequently to remove pigments transferred from blue jeans, newsprint, mustard and other difficult stains. It should always be pre-tested in an inconspicuous place before use. If the protective finish has been degraded, this spotter may remove the stain plus the pigment in the leather and/or the dye used to create the two tone effect on some leathers. When a less aggressive product is needed, it can be diluted down with distilled water as much as 1 to 4.
Apply Super Remover to a soft cloth and let it glide over the surface of the leather. Pressure on the surface of the leather will result in pigment loss. It will take some time to dwell and begin working. Be patient and continue the light touch as long as you are making any progress. Remove as much staining as you safely can without removing pigment then rinse thoroughly with the water-based cleaner discussed previously.
Solvent based spotters, Soft Remover and Leather Degreaser, should be used in well-ventilated areas. Soft Remover is especially effective in removing residuals oils from the surface of the leather to prevent long-term accumulation. Sometimes it can be effective on the same stains on which you might use Super Remover. Soft Remover needs to be thoroughly rinsed with the Strong Cleaner.
The Leather Degreaser is sprayed on the leather and allowed to dry for one hour. The staining material is transferred to an absorbent powder. It is then brushed or vacuumed off followed by cleaning / rinsing thoroughly with Strong Cleaner. This process works great on hair and skin oils. Plus it allows you to take care of other tasks while it safely works on difficult oil stains. More than one application may be needed for if oils have built-up.
If it is necessary to use a degreaser, liquid or aerosol, then you need to pre-qualify with the customer that the pigment and finish may be damaged by the long-term presence of oil. If the oil has visibly collected on Protected leather, then it has done some damage to the polyurethane finish.
Ballpoint ink and lipstick can be removed from protected leather if the spotting is done with-in several days after the stain. Ink Lifter, in solid form (like a tube of lip balm), is rubbed into the ink allowing the stain to be wiped off with a soft clean cloth. Older ink stains will require more effort and or repeated attempts. Pigment from the leather may be removed along with the ink. As with other spotters, you want to finish by rinsing using the foam of a water-based cleaner and a sponge. For permanent marker or ink that is not being removed by Ink Lifter, use Super Remover.
Following cleaning, it is important to apply a protector to prevent stains from penetrating into the leather. This is especially critical for items that get a lot of use or where the original polyurethane finish has become worn. Protection Cream also keeps the leather soft and supple rather than becoming stiff with age. LeatherMaster Protection Cream should be applied every 6 months for heavily used leather and annual for pieces that get less use.
The leather needs to be dry before proceeding with the application of Protection Cream. It is not necessary to dry with a hair dryer, but some air movement will speed drying. Apply Protection Cream to a soft lint-free cloth and rub evenly over the surface of the leather. If a lot of soil is coming onto the soft cloth, then you may need to stop and reclean before you continue. A second coat of Protection Cream is beneficial on pieces that have accumulated some wear. Allow the final coat to dry naturally without any assistance from heat or air movement.
If the leather dries tacky, then the protector was applied before the leather was completely dry. Reclean with Strong Cleaner to remove this tackiness.
In most cases the cleaning of Protected leather is now complete. However, leather exposed to a lot of sun, dry climates or age, usually need the use of a revitalizer. This remoisturizes dry leather and gives it a softer feel. Leather Vital is the product of choice. In addition to keeping leather soft, it eliminates squeaky leather-on-leather noises. It should be applied after the Protection Cream has dried. Leather Vital should be allowed to dry on its own. This assures penetration from the surface to the back of the leather.
Like pricing for any cleaning service, there are variations according to the local market and the level of service delivered. Pricing for the cleaning of Protected leather should be divided into maintenance and restorative cleaning. Because leather should have a protector applied following every cleaning, I suggest your charge include both cleaning and protecting. The application of a leather revitalizer (Leather Vital) would be optional at additional cost
Charges for routine maintenance cleaning would be approximately 50% higher than for a similar piece of fabric upholstery. Your fees for restorative cleaning would be significantly higher.
As you become comfortable with the process of cleaning Protected leather, you will gain confidence to take the next steps, cleaning Aniline and Nubuck leather. Some information on these materials can be found in the Technical Resources section of CleanWiki. Watch for more articles on these leather types in the coming months.
By Tom Forsythe and Scott Warrington
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