Cleaning your leather furniture might seem like a daunting task, but it could be easier than cleaning many other types of upholstery if you know what you are doing. Before you start, identify what type of leather the furniture piece you wish to clean is, as the different leathers and finishes will have somewhat different methods of care. Once this is done, read on for simple cleaning methods for the most popular types of leather furniture. It’s important that you test a small discreet portion of the leather before committing to any cleaning or conditioning product to make sure no discoloration or other adverse effects occur.
Pigmented or Semi-aniline
Fully treated leather, also called pigmented or semi-aniline, will have a plastic feel to it, several seams, and could vary in sheen from patent (highly reflective) to a matte (non-reflective) finish and will have a top coat of dye to disguise flaws in the hides used. This is the most common type of leather used for furniture, and easy to clean, but you have to be gentle as the thinner hides mean that it’s also easy to tear. After dusting the furniture with a soft cloth or feather duster, a solution of two parts water to one part liquid hand soap, or saddle soap if you have it, with a damp sponge will take care of almost all of your cleaning needs. Costlier leather furniture cleaners are available and just as effective, but at an added expense without much further benefit. After each section or cushion of furniture has been wiped with the sponge, wipe a dry towel across it to remove excess moisture and then allow to air dry the rest of the way.
If you have a trickier stain, say a pen mark or crayon, a white vinegar and water solution might be necessary for spot treatment. Start with two parts of water to every one part of vinegar solution on a damp sponge or washcloth, applying a firm, but not an agitated motion to the area of the stain, adding more vinegar to the solution only if the stain remains stubborn. Do not go over a one to one water to vinegar ratio or you will risk damaging the finish. Magic erasers also work well for leather stains, but once again be careful not to scrub too hard or the finish could get damaged or you could tear the leather. Never use rubbing alcohol, ammonia, or other harsh cleaning agents when cleaning leather.
Distressed or Sauvage
Distressed, also called pull up aniline, and Sauvage, or full aniline, is typically softer in texture than pigmented leather. Despite this, it’s typically also thicker and more durable (and more expensive) and has fewer seams than pigmented leather. Pull-up aniline is simply leather that’s been treated but had the outside coat of that treatment removed to give it an aged, rustic look, while Sauvage comes from higher quality hides left uncoated at the end of dying to show off their natural beauty and suppleness. While the same two parts water to one part hand soap mixture should work for cleaning distressed or Sauvage leather, you should be careful to note that these leathers will absorb water more rapidly, and extra care should be taken to make sure your sponge or cloth is not too wet while cleaning it. Once finished, allow plenty of time (at least an hour) for it to air dry completely before sitting in it or the leather may stretch. Never put any leather furniture in direct sunlight.
Both fully-treated and distressed leather should be conditioned at least once a year, or every six months if it’s used heavily or in a drier climate. Commercial leather conditioners work well without a lot of fuss, but if you wish to make your own, a combination of two parts melted beeswax mixed with one part baby oil and one part water, mixed thoroughly, will generally suffice and is affordable. After cleaning, add a small amount of conditioner to a soft rag, gently apply to the furniture in a circular motion and buff into the skin (as though applying lotion) evenly over the entire surface.
Suede or Nubuck
Suede (or Nubuck) is a little more complicated, but there are tricks to make cleaning it go smoothly. A soft dry beach towel should be rubbed over the furniture to remove any surface dirt. For stains, as long as they are not absorbed into the leather, try using either a white drafting eraser or a four-sided fingernail buffer along with a suede brush (a large, stiff horsehair paintbrush will also work) to draw them out and away from the suede, being careful to rub with the grain as much as possible. If the stain won’t come out at that point, a one to one water to white vinegar solution, magic eraser or a Tide To Got stain marker could be used very cautiously. Use extra special care not to get the suede too wet or you may permanently damage it, and make sure to pat it dry with the towel after each application.
To condition suede, it’s recommended that you purchase a commercial treatment specifically formulated for suede products. This will typically come in a spray bottle or aerosol can to avoid saturation. Hold the bottle a foot away from the furniture, spray a small amount, and then wipe it in with a soft cloth, being careful to wipe with the grain rather than against it.