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A Gentleman’s Guide to Keeping Up Waxed Cotton and Leather

You’ve heard this one before, but it bears repeating: treat your leather gear right, and it’ll last forever. (The same goes for waxed cotton, while we’re at it.) And since you’ve already got your boots and Barbour, it’s time to learn about keeping them fresh.

As it turns out, it’s not too different from your skin care regimen—a little goop and a little diligence. For the details, we sat down with Chris Chase of Portland’s Otter Wax, maker of some of our favorite leather and waxed cotton revitalizers. (If you were wondering where to pick some up, it’s available from our brothers at UD Perks.) Here’s what he had to say.

First things first, how did you get into the business?It’s funny, I had the heavy-duty fabric wax ready for a long time before I even started a company. I had this Filson Tin Cloth raincoat, and I had had it for so long that it lost some of its water repellency. I tried all the waxes on the market, none of them really worked, and what I realized was that every one of them was paraffin-based wax, which is made from petroleum. It was giving this oily texture, and it didn’t smell very good, so I went looking for something that was all natural.

I knew sailors in New England had used flaxseed and beeswax to treat their sails, but there wasn’t any modern, natural equivalent. I wanted a bar that could go on easy, too. The other ones came in tins and you had to have rags. If I was camping on the mountain, I wanted something I could take out of my pocket and use to reproof the hood if it started leaking. So I went about formulating it in a bar that you could just rub on like deodorant. Eventually I got enough interest that it just made sense to start a company.

So is that the whole process for re-waxing?Yeah, you just rub it on. It evens the surface because the molecules separate and spread out. All you have to do is create a layer and smooth it out.

So what’s the game plan for taking care of leather?It’s a three-part process. There’s the saddle soap, that’s based with beeswax and castile soap, which is a real gentle, plant-based soap that doesn’t leave behind any harsh dyes or chemicals that might dry out the leather. That just goes on with a rag.

After you clean, you condition. That’s the leather salve, which is probably the best product in the whole line in terms of the difference it’ll make. It applies a lot like a car wax. You can put a thick coat onto really dry leather, and the leather will just absorb everything. Then you just buff out with a horsehair brush. That helps to create a seal to help keep all those butters locked in, and keeps out water and stains. You only need that every one to two months.

In between, the leather oil is a great way to add a natural shine. If you’re going out, you can just put a little dab of it on a cloth, rub it on and then buff it with a soft brush.

What are some warning signs of when leather needs to be conditioned? Well, there are two kinds of creases that you see in leather. There are folds from use, and then cracks from dryness. These products won’t affect the creases from use that have become a part of your boot from being on your foot for so long. I’ve always viewed those creases as being very well earned. But the other creases are more like dry skin, and that means it's time to condition.

Also, when leather is dry, it gets a little discolored. It appears lighter than it actually is. The leather salve helps restore the deep color, the natural color. It happens so gradually, you don’t notice from one day to the next, but once you use the salve you can see it pretty dramatically.

People forget that leather is skin, too. It doesn’t have the regenerative properties of our own skin. It doesn’t have a body feeding it moisture. So you have to take it in your own hands to moisturize it, and then it becomes naturally waterproof. Leather only absorbs water and stains because it’s dry.