Subject: Care and Feeding of Leather and Vinyl
by Larry Reynolds
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. Here's some tips on the
care and feeding of leather and vinyl.
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 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 use a damp cloth and wipe down the
leather repeatedly .
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.
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.
Leather & Vinyl Scuff Marks, Scratches
If your leather or vinyl has scuff marks, scratches or areas on which
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 color-fastness 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).
Old Finish Stripping!
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 haven't 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.
Leather & Vinyl Colorant
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
Repair of Cuts, Crack or Holes
Small cuts, cracks or holes in leather may be partially repaired using
another Surflex product called Flex-Fill. This is a semi-flexible
cosmetic filling material. You use it like a spackle compound. It will
take the Surflex colorant similar to leather or vinyl. I have been
able to repair several damaged areas and hide them so they are not
visible to the casual observer. Will it make a three inch crack in
your dash look like new? No, but it may help hide it so that it isn't
quite so obvious. I have found that forcing Flex-Fill under the
repaired area and forming an inverted T patch works best. Once the
patch is dry, sand lightly to blend in with the leather or vinyl.
Clean the area thoroughly and refinish with the Surflex Colorant. This
is a learned skill, so you should practice on a test piece of leather
or vinyl. Perfect your techniques before you tackle your expensive
Vinyl is the carefully prepared hides of virgin pampered Arctic
Naugas. Many Naugas must die to furnish enough material for just one
The dash, door panels, seat backs, and numerous other
interior/exterior trim pieces are usually vinyl. Vinyl may be viewed
as raw semi-liquid vinyls that are held in place by a solid vinyl
"skin" (this description is for illustration only and not a PhD
chemical dissertation ). The dash and other vinyl parts of your car
are constantly bombarded by ultraviolet rays (UV) that breaks down the
molecules of the skin, allowing the raw vinyls to escape
(off-gassing). These free vinyls then may deposit themselves on the
glass, forming a haze that is difficult to remove. If you have such a
haze, it is probably your dash that has decided to pick up stakes and
migrate. Silicone based vinyl dressing products do not usually contain
UV protectants, and the silicone may act as a magnifying glass,
intensifying the UV degradation. Silicone oil may also dissolve the
essential oils in the vinyl skin, hastening the premature formation of
cracks in the vinyl skin. A quality vinyl protectant will contain a UV
protectant and essential oils to replace lost oils from the vinyl.
These protectants are expensive, so the K-Mart specials may do more
harm than good. Silicone also has very strong electrostatic attraction
which may be considered beneficial in that it will tend to stay where
it is placed, but will also attract every dust particle in the
surrounding three counties.
Vinyl Protectant Application
Any vinyl protectant should be applied to a soft cloth and worked into
the surface. After a few moments of allowing it to work into the
surface, buff off the excess. The dash should be treated more often
than any other area, as it is subject to the most severe attack by UV
and heat. Here are some vinyl products. None contain silicone.
* Lexol Vinyex Spray -- this is my personal favorite vinyl
protectant and, in my humble opinion, it has it all. A very strong
UV protectant, essential oils, anti-static (helps keep dust off)
and a soft patina finish.
* Harly Polyguard -- this used to be my favorite, till I lost my
heart to Vinylex. Leaves a touch more shine to the finish than
Vinylex. Something else -- this is the sister to Black Again. Has
all the right ingredients and people who love it are
died-in-the-wool. I prefer the Vinylex, but that only a subjective
opinion. It leaves a "new car" smell. I think that is why it is
not my favorite. I am not a fan of artificial smells.
* Harly Interior Magic -- an old standby that leaves a lemon scent.
Some people love it. I don't think a car should smell like lemons,
but that's my opinion and I could be wrong.
* Zymol Vinyl -- another tropical oil product. Leaves a pina colada
smell. Diehards will defend this product to the death. I just
think it is too expensive.
* Meguiar #40 -- a great product that cleans and protects. Does not
leave a slippery finish.
* Meguiar #39 -- a very strong cleaner. This should be used
carefully and very infrequently. It will clean just about anything
out of vinyl. Must be followed by #40 or other vinyl protectant. A
great cleaner for plastic Targa tops.
* Tony Nancy Rubber/Vinyl Cleaner-- I don't recommend use on the
inside. The smell is a bit much for me (reminds me of dead rats).
Some people do and swear by it.
* Sonax Cockpit Spray -- this is a German product that is designed
for German vinyl. Does a great job, but leaves a little more shine
to the surface than I care for. There are a gaggle of users who
* Wurth Cockpit Spray -- ditto above. Wurth people don't like Sonax
and vice versa.
* Formula 303 - this leaves an Armour All type of high gloss shine
to the vinyl. I personally don't like this type of finish. Some
people do, so feel comfortable using it.
I hope this has shed some light on the subject leather and vinyl
care. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to call or
write. If you can't find the products locally, I stock all of them
except the Formula 303 and would be glad to send a product
description/price package by mail.
For any additional information or help please contact me
Larry Reynolds also operates Car Care Specialties Inc.,
Distributors of Quality Porsche Care Products,
Post Office Box 535,
Saddle Brook, NJ 07663-0535.
Phone 201-796-8300, Fax 201-791-9743,