Leather, Rubber, and Vinyl Care

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This article is used with the express e-mailed consent of its author, Larry Reynolds (re. SHOTimes).


There are two main degrading agents that attack tires. They are UV light waves and ozone. Both of these attack the long hydrocarbon chains of the rubber and by breaking these chemical bonds, shorten the molecules with resulting loss of elasticity and other problems. Tire manufacturers add two primary sacrificial protectants to the rubber. To protect against UV, they add carbon black. This is why tires don't come in designer colors to match your paint. The carbon black will turn white/gray as it absorbs the UV and dissipates the energy as heat. Thus the basis of rubber parts turning gray as they age. To protect against ozone, tire manufacturers add a wax based sacrificial protectant. The ozone attacks the wax and depletes it. As the tire rolls, additional wax is forced to the surface of the tire. This is referred to as "blooming". This blooming refreshes the surface wax protectant. A tire that has not been flexed will have the wax depleted by the ozone and thus begin to degrade and suffer "dry rot". The silicone oil in Armour All et Al may actually dissolve the wax and be the cause of premature tire side wall cracking/failure. It is rumored that some tire manufacturers will not honor warranties on failures caused by silicone based products. I am in the process of checking with the major tire manufacturers to determine the validity of this rumor. In conclusion, any tire dressing should contain a UV protectant to bolster the efforts of the carbon black and preferably not contain any silicone.

Leather and Vinyl

The care and feeding of the leather and the vinyl components of your automotive interior are two very different processes. If you are using one product on both, that is somewhat like using gasoline as a lubricant. It will work, but not for long. I will cover the care and feeding of leather and vinyl separately. Leather having once been used to keep the insides of a cow from falling out was designed to pass moisture through tiny pores. These tiny pores absorb human perspiration and as the water evaporates, salts contained therein remain to absorb the essential oils in the leather. This accumulation of salts and other grunge should be cleaned from the leather about twice a year (more often if the seats get more than their fair share of your leftover sweat). The loss of oils within the leather is the first step to hardening, cracking and shrinkage. Leather dashes are very prone to hardening and shrinking. Your dash is subjected to the destructive UV rays and heat concentrated by the windshield. The leather (or vinyl) of your dash rests upon a metal backing that acts like a frying pan. This "frying" drives the essential oils from the leather causing premature shrinkage, cracking and hardening. Thus a dash should be treated more often than the seats or door panels.

Cleaning Leather

Cleaning leather may be accomplished by using a mild soap and water, or a specifically designed leather cleaner. Of all the products I have tried, I still like Lexol pH Cleaner. It is pH balanced, and gentle. All cleaners will rehydrate the leftover salts and grime and wash them from the leather fibers. Use only leather products on leather, do not use vinyl cleaners as these products tend to be much harsher and may not be that beneficial to the leather. Any cleaner should be rinsed thoroughly from the leather. I have tried spraying off with a hose, but that just seemed to fill the car with soapy water (a hole drilled in the floor was needed to drain it out - just kidding). I went back to using a damp cloth and repeatedly wiping down the leather. Once the leather is clean, a conditioner should be used to restore lost oils and emollients. There are several conditioners on the market. Two of my favorites over the years are Lexol Conditioner and Tony Nancy Leather Conditioner. These two seem to be the most easily absorbed into the leather fibers and tend to leave a relatively less "greasy" finish than any of the other products I have tried. Another good product is Connoly Hide Food. This product is made from rendered animal parts and will turn rancid in about two years. This and the distinctive "cow" smell removes it from my top two list (I spent too much time milking the south end of a north pointing cow, so am not a fan of cow smells). Zymol makes a product called "Leather Treat". It does not, in my humble opinion, do any better job than the much less expensive Lexol or Tony Nancy products. Again, do not use a vinyl product as a conditioner on leather and above all try to avoid silicone based products. The silicone oil will dissolve out the leather's natural oils and tend make the leather sticky. Silicone has a very high electrostatic attraction, so will invite every dust particle within miles to set up camp in your interior. Apply the conditioner to a soft cloth and work into the leather, allow to be absorbed into the fibers and then buff off the excess. You may condition the leather as often as you wish. The leather will tell you if you apply too much or apply to often. The leather fibers will just not absorb the excess.

Softening Leather

If your leather has hardened or needs some intensive softening, there is a really nifty product called "Surflex Leather Soffener". This product is made from natural and synthetic oils that restore the natural softness to neglected leather. Clean the leather and then apply a liberal coat of Soffener. Allow to penetrate the leather for about 24 hours. Wipe off the excess. If it needs an additional application, repeat the above. For really bad areas, cover with plastic and allow to sit for a few days. Once the leather is sufficiently softened, allow to "cure" for another 24 hours and buff off any excess. You are done. I jokingly say this product will turn a dog's rawhide chew into a kid glove. I have had some luck with leather dashes with this method. Once the leather has softened, I have been able to gently tuck it back under the edges of the trim and windshield clips. This is a lot cheaper than a new dash and may be worth a try before spending a ton of money.

Scuff Marks

If your leather or vinyl has scuff marks, scratches or areas that the surface color had been removed, you may refinish it yourself The key is another Suflex product. The Suflex Colorant Finish for Flexible Surfaces may be matched to the exact color required. Any interior leather or vinyl surface may be refinished. It is not recommended to spot finish any area. If your seat bolsters have belt loop scuff marks, you should refinish the entire front of the seat. I usually do from welting to welting. This provides a visual break that does not make the non refinished areas appear quite as shabby. But then why not do the whole seat, dash, or door panel? Start by cleaning the area(s) to be refinished with a suitable Organic Solvent. I prefer Wurth Citrus Degreaser or P21S Total Auto Wash. Prior to usage, test all solvents on an area that does not show. I use the excess on the underside of the seat to test colorfastness of the finish. Spray the solvent on a soft lint free cloth, and then wipe down the surface(s). Repeat after a few minutes. Rinse with a damp cloth and allow to dry thoroughly (at least 24 hours). The manufacturer of Surflex says to strip the old finish off using lacquer thinner, commercial paint remover or C-P Stripper. I don't, because most interiors are not in that bad a shape and I have never found it necessary (They also recommend lightly sanding the area prior to usage, I don't do that either - no guts). Mix the Surflex completely and use it like a wood stain. I use a small piece of lint free cloth and work the Surflex into the leather or vinyl just as if I were staining wood. Once the desired color of finish is achieved, allow to dry undisturbed for at least 24 hours. I allow the surface to "harden off" for about 2 weeks before applying any conditioners to leather or vinyl protectants to vinyl parts. I have not had a lot of luck refinishing a dark leather or vinyl a lighter color. The old color tends to show through in small "cracks" and the whole panel seems to be "muddy". Maybe if you strip off all the old finish, it would look better. Someday, I will get an old seat and give it a try. The Surflex Black Colorant works great on black bumpers, black spoilers or black rubber/vinyl trim that has been scratched or scuffed. Clean the entire part thoroughly with Wurth Citrus Degreaser, rinse and dry thoroughly. Stain the area with the Colorant and allow to dry. It will look like new. After about 3 weeks hardening off, coat with a protective coating of Mequiar #42 Rubber Treatment or Black Again.

A leather background from Christopher Hindle.

Yes, the seats will crack and such. There was a message earlier. I sell leather goods, luggage, etc. as a salesman. Yes, conditioning alone won't help. Cleaning is a necessity. But, the leather itself may or may not be the best you know?

Leather is divided into 3 grades, and those grades can also be rated.

First, leather is skin of bovine (calf, adult male cow).


Layer One

Layer Two

Layer Three

Think of the above as the three layers of the skin and note this...The thickness and quality may vary...When I say quality, I mean the characteristics like thickness, consistant color (for naturals), amount of scarring (by the way, scarred leather is MUCH stronger), blemishes, and such....Also note, that layer one is exposed to the air, diet, elements, barn doors, burrs, etc. and protect layer 2 and 3.

Layer One can look like absolute cr#p. A piece that will be seen has to be perfect to be aesthetically pleasing. It's a bit infrequent to find a large piece. So the cost of the layer (called full grain) is expensive, but is the strongest. It also carries "the grain", which is appealing to the eye, so it is desired. The Taurus SHO seats may have been made with this, but a low quality (relatively thin) piece, but I doubt it because noone perferates Full Grain. 6% certainty (I haven't researched the Taurus SHO seats as of yet)

Layer Two is called the Top Grain. In the event that layer one doesn't look good, layer one may be lightly shaved off. The strength is a slight bit weaker than layer one. It has the look of vinyl many times, BUT can be imprinted or embossed with a "grain" (faux) for the Full Grain (layer one) look. It is often mid-priced. I would guess this is what the Taurus SHO was made with. 45% sure.

Layer Three is called split grain. It's thickness varies. It may or may not be present in adequate thickness with every hide. It is oftened very weak, i.e. soft, nondurable, won't hold stitching well even in the better examples, full of blemishes (often stained black, brown, burgundy, etc. for this reason), tends also not to hold a faux grain (has a slight veining naturally). Taurus SHO leather seats might be this with thicker examples only. Cheap price. 8% chance it's this.

Misc. non-taurus SHO info (sorry) FYI. The smell of leather is the small of either natural oils in the skin or ones used in the production. Any layer can be made to look like any other. Strength can't be altered.

The best of all fabrics in terms of durability is called Bomb Cloth. Seats made of this would never wear...probably not show dirt...easy to clean...variety is limited by money...it's a combo ballistic nylon and cordura nylon suitable for use in bulletproof vests...Andiamo Inc. out of Santa Anna, Ca uses it for elite luggage. Attractive, especially with gold flecking on black or olive.