• Red Nichols, Holstorian

Post 32: The myths about neatsfoot oil and chrome-tanned leather linings

Updated: Jun 11

As I mention on my home page, there are many myths that have been started by gunleather makers who don't know what they think they know, then perpetuated on forums by well-meaning consumers who want to be 'right' and warn off the rest of us.

A couple of popular ones from my decade of participating in online forums that focus on gunleather: the myth of 'never use neatsfoot oil on your holsters!' and 'never buy a holster with a chrome tanned leather lining'. And one can practically hear the shrieks in their heads while they wrote the words.

These two can be dispatched in a single sentence: all gunleather of any major maker you can think of, if the gunleather is brown, is treated with neatsfoot oil (it's what gives the leather its color for one thing); and every lined holster you've ever seen from Bianchi and Safariland since the late 1960s are lined with chrome tanned leather.

That's literally millions of holsters since then and the sky hasn't fallen in on them even a half century later. See the image above of an early Safariland holster that is not only colored with neatsfoot oil, but also lined with chrome tanned suede.

Within the last decade I was at a local tannery to choose some leather and other materials. The gal there, who doubtless knew her leather, also supplied a local saddlery of prominence who were to become my good friends when they supported my efforts to get back into designing/making gunleather. She pronounced, with absolute certainty, that not only must one never use neatsfoot oil on vegetable tanned leather because it would rot the stitching (false) but that local saddlers would refuse to even repair a saddle that had been treated with it for fear of contaminating their sewing machines. Also false because straight from there I visited our mutual friend the saddler -- where I observed them literally drenching their new, A$20,000 saddles in neatsfoot oil from a 50 gallon drum of it kept there for the purpose!

And for good reason. Neatsfoot oil does several things for gunleather when veg tanned leather is used. Fred Hermann of Hermann Oak Leather explained to me in the Seventies that veg leather has interwoven fibres tangled inside it and the oil lubricates them so that they can move across each other without damage. This makes the leather stronger, for longer. The oil also gives weather protection; Lawrence is an example of this carried to the extreme and is noted for the very dark color we encounter in Lawrence products. Yes, this can then lead to a greasy feel (!) because the leather, like a sponge, can only absorb so much oil before it begins to ooze back out:

And that leads us to color: the color of a Bianchi or Safariland or Galco vintage holster or belt has had the oil applied to achieve a benchmark golden color. At Bianchi this was done with sponges vs dipping the holster in vats of oil. That latter approach is unpredictable for color and it's mighty easy to go too far with it. And if one hasn't gone far enough, one has to resort to the sponges anyway or, guess what, a second dip takes the color too far anyway.

When I first interviewed to work for JB I was fascinated, while having been given some time to wander around his inventory of gunleather waiting to be picked for orders, by the glorious variation of colors in them. Like autumn leaves! Turns out they weren't glorious at all; they were all meant to be the same color and this variation created impossible situations when picking a complete set for a single order (we got lots of retail orders). That meant that sets had to be made in our Specials department so that the pieces would all match. But by the time my tenure as QA manager had ended, one could pick any tan (we called them) holster with one's eyes closed from the box and get a perfect match of color for pouch, holster, belt, sling, whatever.

Now: to the 'horrors' of chrome tanned leather against your pistol. First understand why it would be used at all, and it's not just that chrome tanning is faster and therefore cheaper for the tanner and therefore for the gunleather manufacturer. It's that it's the stronger of the two -- chrome vs. veg -- in thin layers such as for linings or shoulder harnesses. In the same thickness of say, 4 ounces, the veg can be torn especially if it's nicked first. And if that veg layer is a split -- that is, the layer that's been split off the thicker hide to make the latter into an ideal 'weight', then that split will tear like paper. But a chrome tanned leather in that thickness, in both a top grain and a split, will not tear regardless. So it's used for . . . wait for it . . . lining gunleather. And as mentioned, if you've ever owned or do own a vintage Bianchi or Safariland holster since the late 1960s IT IS LINED WITH CHROME LEATHER.

Chrome leather will NOT harm your steel pistol in blue or chrome finish. Especially benevolent with stainless pistols never mind a Glock, for example, with its plastic frame. What WILL harm your steel pistol if it is wet is . . . wait for it . . . the veg leather that you thought was the ideal for gunleather. Which it is if it's kept dry. But when wet it will literally attack the steel and both the steel AND the leather will be damaged. The leather itself will actually 'char' and can be broken away. It will certainly turn black where the steel has touched it. Chrome tanned leather is virtually impervious to water.

How about sueded leather linings, which are chrome tannage? Won't they do what the pundits imagine, and collect dirt and dust and act like sandpaper against your pistol? Maybe don't roll around in the dirt without cleaning out your holster and dusting off your pistol. Certainly the sueded leather is not going to act like a vacuum cleaner and suck the dust particles from the air to attack your collectible S&W.

Holster wear? Well, then, in a future episode of our mythbuster series, we'll talk about how THAT is prevented. The answer is going to surprise you -- and the know-it-alls who make your gunleather even today :-). The revolver above is Tom Threepersons' personal Triple Lock. I read a 1980 interview where Neale Perkins is telling newb writer Mas Ayoob that leather 'flakes off the bluing'. Really, Neale? Bluing comes off in FLAKES?


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