Leather Lacing Revitalization Question.

Scot T

LOVES Wooden Canoes
I am starting on my first restoration project. It is a recent acquisition that I believe is a "Huron", though a bit better material and construction than others I've seen. It has all the hallmarks of a Huron (with my limited knowledge as it is) so I'm calling it that. I don't think it has been used much but it has sat for a long time outside under cover so needs some TLC. Nothing serious mainly new canvas, a couple short pieces of planking replaced, small bits and pieces here and there, new outwales and some linseed oil and varnish. I will be asking questions as I proceed.

Firstly, the seats are in very good condition but the leather lacing is quite dry and may crack or break if not attended to before using. Does anyone have any good ideas on what to use to revitalize the leather? I'm hoping not to have to replace the lacing as there is no damage...yet.

The only thing I have ever come accross that might help leather is neatsfoot oil. ( Think about all those poor neats in wheel chairs crippled by having their feet squeezed!) Fieblings sells a neatsfoot oil compound which I suspect is just the same stuff cut with some type of thinner. It soaks in better than the straight stuff. It should be available at most good hardware stores, or if you have a horsey supply place around, they are sure to carry it. If the leather is too far gone, this will not help, but it's worth a try.
Bonjour Scott,

Neatsfoot oil is a -non- drying oil, I would not use it if I planned to varnish the seats: the varnish won't stick. Sorry Andy... I've had a "Huron" that had all the varnish on the babiche flaked off. The rawhide seemed fragile and dry. I gave it a few coats of 75% boiled linseed oil/25% turps. This gave back the strenght, flexibility and translucent look. Waited a month before varnishing, also waited for a very dry day so the babiche was tight and had no sag, babiche has a lot more sag on high humidity days. Can't remember where I read this but it was suggested to add borax to the linseed oil as a preservative. Never tried it.

Hope this helps,

Louis Michaud
Sounds like good advice from Louis. I was not thinking about the oil bleeding into the wood. Neatsfoot would definitely disourage varnish adhesion. I suppose you could varnish first and oil second.
Seat lacing is rawhide, not leather. It hasn't been tanned and pumped full of chemicals or oils to make it soft and supple as leather is. If it was, it wouldn't work for uses like snowshoes or canoe seats. It needs to be able to shrink tightly and be stiff enough to pretty much stay that way. Then it needs to be stabilized to keep it from both soaking up moisture and stretching out and also from drying excessively, which would allow it to continue to shrink over time and eventually tear itself apart. Varnish is by far the best substance available for stabilizing it in this fashion. A good marine varnish with U.V. inhibitors is best since U.V. will deteriorate and weaken the rawhide, just as it will just about anything else that is left out in the sun.

The process of making rawhide is pretty simple and starts by carefully scraping away any grease, tissue or natural fats from the inside of the hide and the hair fron the outside. This is followed by a lot of rinsing and when finished there is very little oil left in the stuff. This allows it to shrink and harden up. Adding oil to "recondition" a substance where somebody worked hard to remove the oils and fats in the manufacturing process just doesn't make sense. It's essentially more like an attempt to turn rawhide into shoe leather - which is not what you want for this job.

Yes, it's dry - but it's supposed to be dry. If it's still sound, a little sanding, scraping or wire brushing to remove any flaking finish and regular varnishing is all that it needs. You don't want to put anything on it that softens it or makes it more prone to stretching (like oil will). Assuming that it hasn't deteriorated over time from wet rot, mildew, rodent or U.V. damage, the biggest problem with old rawhide lacing is weakening from not being protected and stabilized. Getting damp from periods of either water exposure or humidity and then being allowed to slowly dry-out are perfect conditions for it to just keep on shrinking - to the point of breaking the fibers. The addition of oil will not cure broken fibers, it just makes them soft and oily. Varnish might help a bit by gluing a few of them back together, but chances are, it's not going to be a long-term fix, either. Even if it still looks good, if the lacing is structurally shot, it's done. I'd probably thin the first coat of varnish with a fast evaporating solvent, like naptha and then follow up with two or three more coats of straight varnish. If that won't fix it, nothing will.

The alternative is re-lacing with new rawhide, which isn't particularly difficult and can actually be kind of fun. Start by making a good-sized drawing of the existing seat with an accurate map of the lacing pattern. It's all done with a continuous strand that's spliced from shorter lengths as you go. Find either the beginning or the end of the current lacing and follow the strand as you make marks or arrows on the drawn lacing map so that you can duplicate the pattern later. Save the drawing as there is always somebody who is trying to re-lace their seats and is hunting for a map, but there aren't a lot of them floating around.

You can buy either full-grain or split-grain, real rawhide lacing from the snowshoe companies. Full-grain is stronger and as long as you're doing the project, you might as well use the good stuff. Different widths and weights of lacing also have different levels of strength. Narrower, lighter weights need tighter, closer-spaced weaving patterns to provide adequate strength, so if you plan to duplicate the original pattern, you want to use the same lace width to maintain strength. Soak the rawhide overnight before you start lacing, but not more than about 24 hours maximum unless you want to smell something R E A L L Y bad (...dead cow to the max...don't ask me how I know this). Lace them and let them dry for a few days until the rawhide is tight and hard. The edges of the strips can be fairly abrasive and sharp. Your pants will last longer (I'm not kidding) if you lightly go over the dried strips with fine sandpaper to round the corners of the laces a bit and knock down any sharp edges. Then varnish the seats well and maintain the varnish.
Right on Todd

I have restored many Hurons with the babiche seats. May I add that I have found that using paint stripper on these seats works great to remove all the old varnish from the wood and raw hide. Soak the entire cleaned unit in water over night. Reposition the now soft, flexible raw hide so that it is flush with the top of the seat rails if required. Repair to any broken raw hide is now done. If you can't find any raw hide locally a long doggy chew from your pet store works great. Soak it over night, then cut into strips as required. Finally, allow the seat to dry completely then varnish the whole unit well top and bottom.
Thanks guys, for all the good info. Sorry to have called the babiche "leather". I had for the moment forgotten the correct name. When I was a little younger, I had (and still do) snowshoes made the same way. I have covered a lot of wonderful miles on them and intend to do many more with my butt on these canoe seats.

Thank you very much Todd for your detailed posting. I appreciate all the background and lacing explination. It greatly helps me to understand the correct steps to take to be sure of a positive result.

I might have a fight on my hands over the doggie chews as I have a couple mutts who might not see the value in wrecking a perfectly good chew just for some "stupid ol' canoe seat".