Is Leather Waterproof? How to Protect your Leather this Winter

Do you look forward to leather jacket season every year? There are few looks as timeless or versatile as a leather bomber in black, brown, or even a funkier color (we see you, oxblood). And the best way to really nail the look is to pair it with some equally iconic leather shoe or boot.


The only thing to worry about is the weather. Many people find themselves wondering “can you wear leather boots in the rain or snow?” While leather is undoubtedly rugged, there’s a lot of uncertainty about whether to wear it in wet weather conditions. But don’t worry! In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about leather and waterproofing, including:

  • Whether or not (and to what extent) leather is waterproof

  • How to protect your leather boots and gear from water

By the end, you’ll be well prepared to keep and maintain your waterproof leather work boot safe this season—and beyond.


An Age-Old Question: Is Leather Waterproof?


According to the leather gurus Moore & Giles, leather’s history as a rugged, durable textile stretches back thousands of years. Its earliest known usages include not only sandals and saddles, but also vessels for dry and wet goods alike. In recent years, researchers have found cave paintings dating back to 5000 BCE that depict leather being used for buckets and bottles.


This begs the question: if leather was tough enough for military gear and drinkware in the earliest civilizations, why is there uncertainty about whether you should wear it in the rain?


The answer is complicated. Leather isn’t water-proof, per se. But it does have some natural resistance to water, which can be optimized with the right treatments. Before getting into how that works, let’s take a close look at the extent to which leather is weather-proof (and why).


Waterproof vs. Water Repellent vs. Water Resistant


The word “waterproof” gets thrown around a lot, but it often refers to different things, depending on the context. When phones and other electronic devices are deemed “waterproof,” it has to do with the extent to which they can be submerged in water without being damaged. For clothes, however, the rating has more to do with permeability.


Per waterproofing scientists at Triple F.A.T. Goose, there are three levels of water resistance:

  • Water resistant – Garments that are able to withstand light contact with water, such as light rain or snowfall. Under pressure, water will permeate and soak the garment.

  • Water repellant – Garments that are sealed, naturally or by treatment, so that water cannot permeate into and soak them. They remain dry even in steadier storms.

  • Waterproof – Garments whose seals are so hermetically tight that almost no water at all can permeate the surface, even under pressure—water “rolls off”.

Leather naturally has some water resistance, which can be augmented with treatment. But it is animal skin, and porous, so naturally waterproof leather can't exist because it is permeable. To the extent that a leather garment can be waterproofed, that has more to do with applied substances than the leather itself.


Different Leathers, Different Degrees of Waterproofing


One of the most satisfying things about leather is how unique each individual garment is. Leather develops a natural patina over time, so each jacket or pair of boots can be compared to a fine wine that gets better with age. However, there are several distinct categories or types of leather.


From the leather craftmaster MAHI, here’s a breakdown of waterproofing across three major kinds of leather that make up most leather goods:

  • Full or Top Grain – The strongest part of the animal hide, these leathers have the most natural water resistance but still need to be treated to be water repellent or “-proof.”

  • Suede and Nubuck – Smoother materials made by sanding down the outside of a hide (for nubuck) or its inside (for suede); these are less resistant than full or top grain.

  • Synthetic “leather” – Also known as faux leather; synthetics’ qualities depend heavily on the kind of plastic or other substances used. They’re often less resistant than full/top grain.

One option that’s in a category all on its own is patent leather. This kind of leather is shined and polished to the point of being near reflective. A staple in formalwear like tuxedo shoes, patent leather is nearly completely waterproof, according to the experts at Liberty Leather Goods.


Should You Wear Leather in the Rain?


Considering the developments above, it can be easy to jump to conclusions. You might assume you can never wear suede shoes or genuine leather boots in the rain, or that your rugged top grain bomber would be fine in a monsoon. But in reality, the call to wear leather or not depends on a couple of key factors:


First, there’s the integrity of the garment in question. What kind of leather is it? Has it been treated in such a way to enhance its resistance or introduce water repellency?


Second, there’s the nature of your exposure to water. Are you going for a quick stroll through a light drizzle? Or do you expect to be exposed to heavy rain for an extended period of time?


The only way to be sure your leather will be okay is taking proactive steps to protect it.


The Best Ways to Protect Your Leather Goods


If you live in a rainy climate, like the pacific northwest, there’s no reason to avoid buying leather goods. You can enjoy quality boots, bags, and jackets just like anyone else—but you will need to take some precautions. For example, finding homemade boot waterproofing solutions you can make or buying premade remedies to keep your leather looking and feeling fresher for longer.


According to leather and dry goods traders, Buffalo Jackson, leather can get wet. But when it does, it can begin to deteriorate and lose the qualities that make leather so attractive in the first place. As water permeates into the leather, it binds with oil molecules, which give leather its characteristic suppleness. Then, as the water evaporates, it takes the oil with it.


That’s why it’s important to dry wet leather as soon as possible. But it’s also important to do whatever you can to prevent it from getting wet in the first place.


Avoiding Contact With Rain (and Snow, etc.)


The most straightforward way to protect your leather goods from water damage is simply minimizing their contact with water. Ways to achieve this straightforward goal include:

  • Not wearing leather in wet weather

  • Investing in a large, high-quality umbrella

  • Strapping or pulling rubber gaiters over leather boots

  • Carrying a lightweight rain slick to wear over a leather jacket

  • Keeping a stash of disposable plastic rain ponchos for emergencies

Importantly, even if your weather does get wet, it’s not the end of the world.


You’ll want to begin the drying process as soon as possible and facilitate it by mopping up any standing water visible on the surface of the leather. But then, make sure not to apply any unnatural heat to the drying leather. Even though Kramer famously wanted his leather jacket (and all his clothes) oven-baked on Seinfeld, doing so can seriously damage your leather.


Applying Waterproofing Solutions to Leather


In addition to simply limiting your exposure, your other recourse is limiting the extent to which water can damage your leather by actively utilizing a waterproofing method. Typically, this means applying various agents to the exterior of the leather; three common applications include:

  • Sno-seal Beeswax – One of nature’s most versatile resources, beeswax offers premium waterproofing with a slightly tedious application. Keep in mind, beeswax will leave the leather a bit tacky but is absolutely the best waterproofer and preservative. It is better suited to heavier, outdoor leathers. The more that is warmed into the leather, the more waterproof it is. Plus, Beeswax also helps preserve the leather by keeping the natural oils permeated in the leather and the drying moisture outside of the grain. Finally, Beeswax is usually packaged in a brick and must be spread on warm leather, which then needs to dry for a day or more.

  • Oil sealants – Think of an oil like you would apply lotion to your own skin. It takes the dryness out of it, and helps seal the “pores”. Usually available in either a liquid or semi-solid cream state, oils and oil-based solutions are generally easier to apply than waxes. However, there is a risk of over-applying oils and creams and discoloring (or otherwise damaging) the leather.

  • Silicone sprays – Finally, the simplest application method for leather care comes in the form of a waterproofing spray applied to the item’s leather surface. Keep in mind, silicone has a slight oil finish to it that can help lubricate the leather fibers and is not water soluble. The spray we carry at Boot World called “Burleigh” is not a silicone but a water based protectant. It can be used on any leather and/or fabric and leaves no evidence. It is a good water repellency and is better for dress leathers than the silicone which is better for a "heavier" leather. But, unlike waxes and especially oils, there is relatively little risk of discoloration with spray-on applications. However, the protection doesn’t last as long.

Each solution has its own pros and cons, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.


Nor is there one universal way to apply any given product: you may choose to focus your efforts on sealing the eyelets, seams, and other openings in your shoes (and yes, that includes holes from wear). Or, you might mix these techniques with prevention methods, like gaiters.


Whatever solution is best for you, we have you covered.


Shop Boot World for Premium Leather and Protection


Here at Boot World, we sell a wide variety of high-quality water resistant and repellent leather footwear. Even though leather can’t be waterproof itself, many models of leather work, hiking, and lifestyle boots we carry have waterproofing features pre-built in. Plus, we also sell a range of leather and footwear care products to help keep all your boots and shoes fresh as new.


We’re not just an industry leader specializing in rugged boots; we also carry men’s, women’s, and kids’ footwear for just about any occasion. With all your favorite brands and prices and customer service that can’t be beat, we’re sure you’ll find your next favorite pair at Boot World.


Sources:


Buffalo Jackson. Can Leather Get Wet? https://buffalojackson.com/blogs/insight/can-leather-get-wet

Liberty Leather Goods. Patent Leather – How It’s So Shiny, Waterproof, & Versatile. https://www.libertyleathergoods.com/patent-leather/

MAHI. Is Leather Waterproof? Or Water Resistant? https://mahileather.com/blogs/news/is-leather-waterproof-or-water-resistant

Moore & Giles. History of Leather. https://www.mooreandgiles.com/leather/resources/history/

Triple F.A.T Goose. Waterproof vs. Water Resistant vs. Water Repellent: What's the Difference? https://triplefatgoose.com/blogs/down-time/waterproof-vs-water-repellent-vs-water-resistant


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