Stuffing leather with plaiting soap

Introduction

Since I started making whips, one of my biggest concerns has been to properly grease the leather used in making them.  You’ll read almost everywhere that when it comes to proper leather care, you should grease it from time to time to keep it supple and to help the grease lubricate the fibers in order to diminish friction and prevent breaking.

            Now, for those who make whips out of thin leather already greased from the tannery, like English kip and drum stuffed kangaroo, or thicker leather like latigo or redhide, this article is not important.  I’m writing this to people who only have access to dry leather like vegetable tanned, whether thin or thick.  The finish, or lack thereof, of this leather is known in the industry as crust.  It is dry, and a bit spongy, almost asking for some lubrication. 

            Commercially, I only have access to one leather tannage which is readily available in Mexico City, which is called “tanino” (a tannage achieved by the use of artificial tannins like those found in wood).  It is available in a number of thicknesses and is very strong and cheap.  The thicker leathers are available in cowhide (2mm-6mm) whilst the thinner one is called “flor de puerco” (literally “pig grain leather”) which is around 1mm thick and as I’ve been told, is used for bookbinding.    The first one I use for coarser whips like 4 plait stockwhips, and falls, and the other, I use for cores and bolsters when making kangaroo hide whips as I have no leather splitter. 

            My first whips, I would cut out from these dry hides, coat them heavily with leather dressing (Ron Edwards’ recipe which includes beeswax and glycerin), and put plaiting soap when making thongs or bellies.  This was back in 1997.  In 2008, I checked for some of the whips I made back then, and they were all squeaky and dry.  Not that I greased them much, but that got me into thinking why they dried out in that way.  The only kangaroo hide bullwhip I had, was one made by Joe Strain in 1994, (bought from Western Stage Props through the now defunct The Leathersmith) and it wasn’t squeaky at all.

            Back to 2009, I got an old book which described tanning, currying and leather dressing.  Long story short, the book advocates for soaking leather in water first, to remove the tanning components, and second, to help the emulsion of water and fat, via soap, to penetrate more deeply into its fibers.  I decided to give it a try, and needless to say, I was more than satisfied with the results.  This method I use when making my falls and when cutting out my coarser cowhide whips.  I’ve used it successfully in stuffing cores, bolsters and plaited bellies in my kangaroo hide whips.  The only reason I don’t use it in the overlay, is that for some reason, leather darkens excessively, altering the dye which comes from the tannery.

            Now, to the good stuff (no pun intended). Although I knew the benefits of soaking leather before applying plaiting soap, I always wanted to make an experiment out of it to fully understand it.

The experiment

            This experiment was intended to show the benefits of using the technique where you soak leather, wash away the tanning components, and use plaiting soap to grease it thoroughly.  It will shed some interesting details about other practices when it comes to whipmaking.

The leather came from a very old piece I bought 14 years ago in vegetable tan cowhide, and has never received any kind of care.  Three pieces of leather, equal in dimensions were cut.    These are their dimensions: 4”long, 5/8” wide, and about 4mm thick. 

The three samples before cutting them

Each one had a particular process:

  1. Sample A was left as it was, dry.  Nothing apart from cutting it out of the larger piece of cowhide was done to it.
  2. Sample B was greased with plaiting soap when dry.  Plaiting soap was applied by working it into its fibers by rubbing it on its surface (its 6 faces).  It was applied until it was seen no more soap was being absorbed (it would instead, accumulate on its surface).
  3. Sample C was soaked in water for 10 minutes.  It was then squeezed between the fingers to remove any excess water, and leave it damp.  Then, plaiting soap was applied by rubbing it thoroughly on its 6 faces, to the point it could take no more.

These were left in the shade, in a well ventilated area for 24 hours to allow the soap to be absorbed and, in the case of Sample C, to allow water to evaporate, just leaving soap and fat.  After this time had passed, the surfaces of samples B and C were cleaned with a paper napkin, to remove any soap that was not absorbed during that time.  Samples B and C were then cut about an inch from one of their length.

Results

Sample A

You can see the disorderly fibers in the middle part of the cut

Color:  Light tan

Texture:  Dry and spongy

Weight:  Very light

Observations:  None of importance aside from the fibers poking out from the faces cut.

Sample B

The shade in the cut is a bit darker, although you can see the fibers still poking out

Color: a light shade of Russet

Texture:  compact on the outside, spongy on the inside

Weight:  Barely any difference between it and Sample B

Observations: The plaiting soap seems to have penetrated to jus about half way the grain side (0.5mm),  and half way the flesh side (1.5mm), on the sides, it penetrated more than 3mm.  Thus, in an area about 16mm x 4mm, a rectangle about 2mm x 8mm was left undressed.  The fibers would poke out from where the cross section was cut.

Sample C

On the right part of the picture, you can see the shine grease gives to the surface cut

Color: a darker shad of Russet

Texture:  Compact all the way through

Weight:  Heavier than samples A and B.

Observations:  The plaiting soap penetrated all the way through the leather, to the point of making the fibers look compact and leaving a glazed surface in the cross section.  No fibers poked out from this cut, leaving a very smooth surface.  This may be due to the presence of fat.  The inside looks very dark compared to Sample B, and obviously, Sample A.  The dimensions of C were distorted a bit, as the manipulation while damp made the leather stretch unevenly.

Conclusions

Sample A, used as control, allows us to appreciate better the differences between the next two samples. 

Sample B, dressed when dry, had most of the interior of the leather left undressed.  Perhaps the dry fibers inside will in time deteriorate more rapidly that those on the outside.

Sample C, dressed when damp, was the one which absorbed the most of plaiting soap.  All of its fibers, from the inside out are properly lubricated and may offer the most long-lasting leather.

If you’re looking for the best way to dress leather, soaking and applying plaiting soap is the one. There are some points to consider:  it will be darker, heavier, easier to cut, but would need to be stretched before it is resized.

Side note:  In my last kangaroo hide bullwhip, cores and bolsters, as well as plaited bellies, were weighed dry and weighed after being dressed as in Sample C.  They all increased their weight around 10%.

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