Holster Care and Preservation
by Marvin Cook

 

Luger and other holster leather are one of the more fragile items in our firearms collection which we cherish so much. Leather itself is a porous, organic material that, when seen in a World War I or II collection, has probably been weakened by wetting and drying, humidity, fungus, and bacteria, abrasion, dirt, improper “preservation”, sunlight and other factors just to name a few common ravages. In addition, most of these valuable and treasured items were never intended to serve beyond their original purpose and their original construction caused them to be weakened with stitching, stressed by weight and sharply bent – then poorly stored, modified and reissued. It is really surprising that many of these holsters have survived at all.

Tanning started out as a specialized trade and generally remained a small industry until the outbreak of a war which required leathers goods in vast quantities. The tanning process quality from these different tanneries can cause variations which affect them in different ways. To name a few effects: inability to hold a dye or interaction with a dye so as to change its color within a short period of time; the ability to repel water; tendency to harden, curl and crack; loss of strength.

Leather, then as now, is a very versatile material – allowing bending, twisting, stitching, coating, imprinting, water setting/forming, dying and, of course, considerable wear. New, it is a fairly forgiving material, and has seen hard service. However, the limits of its versatility and strength was often exceeded by the designers and its users. Examples of the design which were only short-term expedients and which we all see as damage include the closure tabs which are merely strips of light leather, perforated with a large hole, then subjected to constant pulling and stretching.

None of the German Army had materials that mitigated these stresses for long-term preservation; they were expendable items and could be replaced fairly easily. The materials that were available for preservation was Neatsfoot type oil (which was actually destructive), sperm oil, tallow, and boot polish. None of these materials are good for the leather.

Good stitching, generally well done, has not been a problem over the years because a high quality linen thread, waxed, was used and held up very well.

From simple, on the shelf aging, to hard use or neglect, the oils in the leather fibers (impregnated as a last step in the tanning process) have dried/evaporated to such a point that oxidation has begun to effect the fiber bundles. As time goes on, oxidation continues, the leather often lightens in color, looses strength (and maybe surface finish), then evidences obvious powdering. This process is called “dry rot” and has nothing to do with fungus or bacteria. If untreated, all leather will dry rot. If treated incorrectly, it can be destroyed long before dry rot could take its toll.

Dry rot is what occurs if nothing is done to leather to preserve it. Other factors can also have taken their toll and the collector must assume some of these have had their effects: ultraviolet light, ozone, particulate matter, treatment with improper oils, serious flexing, hardening from wetting and drying and abrasions.

Leather goods are usually made from several types of leather, Finished, Buff, and Rawhide. Luger holsters are generally made from the Finished type leather. Finished leather can be any thickness but is composed of both the epidermis (which has any type finish applied) and the under-leather, the dermis, which gives the leather its basic strength. When the bond between the finished epidermis and the under-lying dermis begins to breakdown, “crazing” or a cracking of the surface occurs followed by a release of particles of the surface, i.e. flaking.

Leather is composed of fiber bundles which, when on the animal, are lubricated and moisturized by an elaborate, natural system. Once the skin is removed from the animal and chemically “cooked” by the tanning process, some oils are put back into the leather as a final step in the tanning process. When these are washed out or eventually evaporate, the fiber bundles, instead of sliding against each other, begin to chafe, break and lose strength. They also have no protection against oxidation (as when covered with oils and waxes) and this also begins to weaken the fibers. (Note: it is the active petroleum distillates of many leather care products, notably Neatsfoot Oil, that are absorbed by the dry fibers but then chemically burn and weaken the fibers.)

Conditioners for leather is a tricky subject, as anything you put onto leather can damage it, usually at the minimum darkening the leather.You will hear of several products.There are two types of conditioner which folks use, I donít like either one (EBT) to preserve a nice holster. They are Lexol and Pecards. I also want to advise that either of these products should be used very lightly. If they are “slopped” on the leather and allowed to soak in, the leather will turn “mushy”. A nice Luger holster was never designed to soft or “mushy”, so I must warn anyone using these products to use a small amount and the holster will be protected and preserved.

 

The one used by many collectors today is Connollyís Hide Food (I think itís called Connollyís Hide care or preservative now); it will darken your leather but does minimal damage to it and is suggested by folks like Jerry Burney as the best conditioner out there (if ANYTHING has to be used)

There are differences in both these products. The Lexol is a water-based product and the Pecards is an oil-based product. With the Lexol being water based, it should be used as directed with a light coat. If you feel another coat is required, wait at least 24 hours before another application and this final application should also be light. The water will evaporate and leave the oils to nourish the leather and protect it. The Pecards, being an oil base type should be applied as directed and will protect and nourish the leather as well.

A good leather care product should be long lasting. Every time a holster is treated, especially if it is flaking, the handling poses a potential danger of lifting the flakes. So, a good treatment should penetrate, protect and lubricate both the inner fibers and surface, and not require re-treatment if properly stored for a number of years.


The best treatment for old Luger holsters should, of course, be neutral in color. However, as discussed above, leather may change in color as it dry rots and changes from other causes. Also, each holster is different. Some have been changes by sunlight, others by heat; some have absorbed sweat or fine dust. The basic question for the collector is, do you want to preserve the leather holster or not? From there, a true collector concerned about preserving his collection for posterity, the course is clear. Once you have a safe, color neutral treatment, you must accept minor changes brought on by treatment preservation, knowing the leather will be enhanced by it. The other option, non-preservation, is sadly egocentric. There are folks, and major collectors, on some of the areas with major swings in temperature and humidity, have the holsters stored in cardboard boxes and brag that none will be treated. Inevitably, dry rot will inflict more damage on all the collection leaving less for the future by someone who professes to love their history.

A good example of this is the Rock Island Arsenal collection. For years, the leather goods produced by them were not stored properly in their museum, never treated with any conditioner, and were almost totally ruined. The Rock Island Arsenal began a study to determine what could be done to preserve the collection of historically important leather pieces in their museum. The product they settled on was Pecards as the best product to preserve the leather.(it has been found that Percards, although it preserves, also leaves a thick residue)

The following will be a discussion of proper treatment of holster leather and will cover several specific areas and their types of leather, and their special needs. By far, the most commonly used leather for holsters is the finished leather. The finished surface of the Luger holster (whether smooth or grained) has all the tooling, embossing and, especially the makers mark and inspection marks. In constant contact with the air, the surface finish first evidences drying, then crazing, then flaking. Crazing and cracking have usually been hastened in spots by constant flexing as on the top flap of a holster. The surface is subject to abrasion and dirt, also. When the surface finish begins to deteriorate, valuable marks and cosmetic appeal are proportionately lost. Through the breakdown of the bond between the finished surface and the under-leather cannot often be exactly determined, the only safe course of action is for the collector to treat the finished leather surface of the holster with a quality product like Lexol or Pecards. Treatment should be done in a relatively warm environment (approx. 65-75 degrees) and applied sparingly to prevent over penetration of the conditioner. I recommend that the bare fingers be used to apply the conditioner to avoid raising and flaking that may have taken place. The holster should be left at least overnight in this warm environment to give the fiber bundles time to absorb the conditioner. (Note: leather should never be artificially heated to accelerate the absorption of the conditioner. The added heat will cause damage to the fibers).

As the leather absorbs the conditioner, some areas may absorb more than others. Simply smooth any excess from other areas onto those spots or add a little more. After the waiting period, any excess can e wiped off. Then, with a clean, lint-free cloth, can be used to gently wipe surface and leave the conditioner. On a very flaked surface, this can be a problem, but I feel the Pecards will work best in this situation. The Pecards will stop further flaking. There is no way to repair any damage that has already occurred, but we can prevent any further deterioration.

The conditioner should be rubbed into all lines of stitching, where it will moisturize both the leather and stitching. Another critical area is where bends are common such as the belt loops and flaps. The tab really takes a beating and should be treated carefully since they take are flexed constantly during use.

There are some good and simple rules for display of Luger holsters:

1. Never hang the holster by the belt loops. Support the holster from the backside with a piece of bubble wrap
or acid free paper inside the loop. Never keep the pistol in the holster!
2. Keep the holster in a constant humidity and temperature as much as possible.
3. Keep the holster out of the sunlight and a dust environment.
4. Never store the tool or magazine in direct contact with the leather. This is not good for the holster or the tool/magazine.
I use RIG to coat the tool and magazine and then wrap in Saran Wrap. The tool and magazines are them place into their
appropriate place in the holster and this helps the tool pouch and magazine pouch to hold their shape.
5. Do not display the holster with the leather tabs snapped over the finials. Do not keep the buckle, buckled.
6. Check periodically for any drying and retreat very lightly if required.
7. Never use shoe polish!
8. Avoid getting gun oil on the leather.

In closing, Iíd like to comment about leather preservation and expertise. I am not an expert, but I have had many years of trial and errors and I want to pass this information along to others. There will be shoe salesmen, leather repairmen, who will be glad to point out products they have for sale which are either polished or waterproofs. Even tanners and manufacturers cannot be trusted to know what will be best for leather after some years have elapsed. Many museum curators neither understand nor care how to properly conserve these leather items. You may have noticed in almost any museum visit, that leather items on display are deteriorating from improper treatment. You will see them all quietly turning to powder or hardening to a wood consistency while tastefully displayed in expensive glass cases.

This information is place for your consideration from my years of experience in dealing with holsters. My holsters are neither “mushy”, nor dry rotting, because I try to maintain them for the future. I hope you can use this information and you must form your own opinion as how you want to preserve your holsters. These are my opinion only.

Marvin