Not just for cleaning saddles, saddle soap is specifically meant for cleaning and preserving all sorts of leather. Without occasional maintenance, leather will crack and warp as it dries out — whereas well-kept horse tack, knife sheaths, boots, leather armor, and more, will remain strong and supple. And while it’s referred to as “soap,” saddle soap is technically both a soap and a cream: It contains a cleaning agent to remove dirt and grime, plus emollient oils that work to preserve and condition the leather and even add some waterproofing.
The ingredients you’ll need for making saddle soap include:
- Soap, dissolved in water: cleans and helps keep the melted wax dispersed within the cream. (Goat’s milk soap or soap made with animal fat works best.)
- Beeswax: seals the pores in the leather and improves water resistance
- Neatsfoot oil: an animal-based oil, ideal for replacing the oils in the leather to help keep it supple. Normally, the fat of warm-blooded animals solidifies at room temperature, but neatsfoot oil (rendered from the shin bones and feet of cattle) is an exception. This is because the slender legs and feet of these animals have adapted to tolerate lower temperatures than their main body. This unique property of neatsfoot oil allows it to easily soak into leather.
- Modern neatsfoot oil is still made from cattle-based products, and is used for conditioning, softening, and preserving leather. The Amish use neatsfoot oil as is, and have vast baths available to dunk and soak complete horse harnesses. The highest grade is also used as a lubricant, and in the metal industry as a cutting fluid.
- Neatsfoot oil tends to darken leather, which means that applying it to light-colored leather will change its color. Take care to only source pure neatsfoot oil for leather maintenance. Neatsfoot oil compound is adulterated with mineral oils or other petroleum-based products that don’t work as well with natural leather.
To make my own saddle soap, I use the following ratio:
• 3 parts soap
• 7 parts water
• 2 parts beeswax
• 1 part neatsfoot oil
Two bars of my homemade soap will produce 8 ounces of grated soap, so I used this as the starting point for calculating the amounts of my other ingredients. Using the ratios above, I calculated that I’d need 18.7 ounces water, 5.3 ounces beeswax, and 2.7 ounces oil, making 2 to 3 pints of saddle soap, or 10 tins depending on how you choose to package and store the finished product.
I use my own beeswax, which is solid and stored inside heat-resistant canning jars. This means that grating the beeswax isn’t an option for me, so my first step is to slowly heat the beeswax-filled jar inside a small pot containing water, positioned over a heat source, until the beeswax melts. You can buy commercial beeswax in the form of conveniently small chips or as solid blocks that you can grate or chop into small, uniform pieces that you’ll add directly to the hot soap in Step 2 below.
Step-by-step instructions For making your own saddle soap:
- Roughly grate the soap. I used two bars of goat’s milk soap because that’s what I have handy from my family’s goat’s milk soap business. I also believe that using soap heavy in animal protein and made from animal fats works better for leather, just as it’s better for human skin.
- Next, place the water in a large pot no longer used for cooking. Add the grated soap to the water and heat over medium-high heat until all the pieces dissolve. When all the soap is melted, turn off the heat, and place a trivet and the pot on a scale. Tare the scale, then add the beeswax pieces straight into the melted soap. The soap will work as a dispersing agent to keep the beeswax in suspension so it won’t stick to the sides of the pan. If you use unmelted beeswax pieces, make sure the soap mixture is near boiling to facilitate a quick melt, and stir well to help the wax dissolve evenly.
- Tare your scale again, and add the neatsfoot oil. The oil usually costs about $10 per quart and is easy to find in feed stores and other establishments that cater to livestock and horses.
- With a rubber spatula, stir the mixture of soap, wax, and oil well, taking care to mix in any buildup on the sides of the pot. Turn off the heat, and stir occasionally as it begins to thicken.
- When the soap is still hot, but not boiling, pour it into containers. I like to first pour it into a glass measuring cup with a small lip that will help me pour the mixture neatly into small metal storage tins. If you plan to pour into containers with a larger opening, such as wide-mouth canning jars, and you feel comfortable doing it, you can pour it straight from the pot.
- Set out your open containers of saddle soap to cool before adding lids and labels.
With a little rag and some elbow grease, this soapy cream makes short work of dirty, dried-out leather. Make some of your own, and experience its magic!
Susan Verberg is the founder of Far Mountain Soap in Ithaca, New York. Find her handmade soaps online at Far Mountain Soap.