A pair of good quality leather saddlebags should give you many years of faithful service, providing you take good care of them. This article will tell you how to clean, care, and condition your leather saddlebags, helping them to look great and last a lifetime.
Origins of the Leather Saddlebag
Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. And the humble saddlebag can trace its origins back to the Assyrians. These ancient people invented libraries, a postal system, iron weapons, and masonry dams. Is it any wonder the saddlebag has remained almost unchanged for around 3000 years? Talk about a design classic!
Early saddlebags were in all likelihood made from woven cloth. As the design became more streamlined, tanned leather took over as the material of choice.
Fast-forward 2000 years, and it’s the cowboy who is inextricably linked to the leather saddlebag. Is it any wonder then that when motorcycles became a common sight on our roads, bikers only had to look west for luggage inspiration?
By the early 1940s, ornate leather saddlebags were a regular factory fitment on both Harley-Davidson and Indian motorcycles. Both of these manufacturers are still tapping into the retro vintage look and some of their current models on sale today, feature the same style of saddlebags.
Why do we need to take Special Care of Motorcycle Leather Saddlebags?
There are at least four different grades of leather. The two most common ones used for saddlebags are full/top grain, followed by corrected/embossed grain.
If you want long-lasting bags, then full/top grain and corrected/embossed grain are the two grades to look out for. Irrespective of which grade you choose, both are porous by nature, which means that if you neglect them, they’ll go downhill fast.
Leather saddlebags take one hell of a kicking, just look at where they’re located. They have to withstand heat from the exhaust, road crud thrown up from the back wheel, every type of weather condition, and boot scuffs.
Clean Up Your Act
The first thing to do is clean your saddlebags. To do this, you will need a few light-colored, good-quality microfiber cloths and some type of leather cleaner.
There are lots on the market to choose from, including sprays, shampoos, and soaps. Everyone has their favorite. Make sure yours is leather specific and also test a small area of your saddlebag first.
I’ve come across people using all kinds of horrible chemicals on their motorcycle seats and bags. A leather-specific cleaner will gently lift the ground-in dirt and won’t mess with its color or texture.
Be aware that less expensive products may contain some form of petroleum-based derivative, to help penetrate or lift the dirt easier. Always check the ingredients. You should avoid any petroleum-based cleaners as they can strip the leather’s natural oils and do more harm than good.
All manufacturers have their own instructions on the packaging. In general, if you’re using a spray, squirt the fluid onto your cloth and work it in using circular movements. Clean one saddlebag at a time and once the bag is covered, wipe the residue off using a clean cloth.
Have you ever wondered why the cloth needs to be light in color? It’s so that when you wipe off the cleaning fluid, you can see how much grime you’re removing from the leather. If the saddlebags are super-stinky, keep going with the cleaning process until the rags are grime-free.
Top Tip The front of your saddlebag may look like bug splat central, while the back, depending on where your exhaust ends, can have carbon or oily deposits. If this is the case, a soft-bristle brush will help you work the cleaner into the bag and eliminate stubborn grime without scratching the leather.
Once the essential cleaning is completed comes stage two; the important conditioning. So now the saddlebags are clean, is this enough? Not quite, intensive cleaning is essential, but next comes stage two. Conditioning the leather is even more important, and here’s why.
The final process of tanning a hide is known as fatliquoring. This process pushes a specially formulated coating of emulsion into the grain, which protects it and keeps it supple. Over time, rainwater can bring the emulsion to the surface, and once there, it evaporates. For this reason, we need to either halt the evaporation or replace the emulsion to maintain its flexibility. Leather that doesn’t flex, cracks; and that’s the end of your saddlebags.
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Once again, there are a huge number of products on the market to choose from. These range from lotions and creams to oils to waxes. Find one you like the look of, but as with the cleaner, read the container contents. Some conditioners contain solvents to carry the active ingredient into the nooks and crannies, so some detective work is needed.
Oils are fine as long as you use them sparingly. Remember, leather is porous, which means it will absorb oil at different rates. Use too much or misapply it, and it may leave unattractive oil stains. Not a big problem for black saddlebags, but dark oil patches on tan bags suck.
Saddle makers and leather workers have used products such as neatsfoot or mink oil for decades. Some leather experts maintain that over time, neatsfoot oil, in particular, can rot stitching and oxidize, which will make the leather brittle. It may also leave your leather glistening like an oil slick, which means the second you head out on the road, your oiled saddlebags will become an instant dust magnet.
As for one of the new generation of leather specific conditioners, most of them should be applied in the same way. Use a clean microfiber cloth and work the product into the leather. Depending on the instructions, leave it to soak in, then buff off using a clean cloth.
Top Tip When conditioning leather, pay lots of attention to the back and underneath of your saddlebags. Both of these get more of a kicking from road grime and rain.
You may notice that some manufacturers also offer leather-waterproofing products. Technically speaking, a good conditioner should be all you need, but if you live somewhere that tends to be wet, this might be the one for you.
Top Tip Remember, only use this product once your leather saddlebags are correctly cleaned and conditioned. Do not use it as a one-stop option.
Disclaimer: This part of the article contains affiliate links*
Top Picks for Trouble-Free Saddlebag Care
|Top Choice||Product||Key Features|
|Best Cleaner||Leather Honey Cleaner||A little goes a long way|
|Best Conditioner||Bickmore Bick 4||Keeps leather supple|
|Best Waterproofing||Skidmore’s Beeswax Cream||Great for bad weather road trips|
|Best for applying||Zwipes 8 Pack||Quality + machine washable|
|Best Cover||Unigear Backpack Cover||Rear strap keeps them in place|
Best for Cleaning
Leather Honey Cleaner is made in the USA by a small family business who offer an unlimited satisfaction guarantee with all their products. The Cleaner needs diluting and can also be used for leather jackets.
Best for Conditioning
Bickmore Bick 4 leather conditioner making cowboys happy for over a hundred years, this product will take good care of your saddlebags.
Best for Waterproofing
Skidmore’s biker edition beeswax waterproofing cream this cream made from all-natural ingredients is great if you live in a wet part of the country.
Best for Applying Product
A good quality microfiber cloth will make sure the product gets worked in and buff it off perfectly. The color of the Zwipes Auto 8-Pack means you can see the dirt coming off.
Best Saddlebag Cover
The Unigear backpack rain cover, as the name suggests, is aimed more at hikers. However, I’ve used these successfully on my panniers when I’ve suspected lousy weather was on the way. They are available in a range of sizes and feature retaining straps at the back to prevent them from blowing off.
It all sounds like a lot of fuss, can’t I opt for an all-purpose household furniture spray instead?
There’s nothing to say you can’t, but you’ll just be giving your leather saddlebags a cursory clean. The ground-in dirt will remain, and if the spray you choose contains silicone, you’ll seal in the dirt and debris.
How often do I need to clean and condition my saddlebags?
That depends on two things. First, the type of environment you ride in and two, the quality of the conditioner. As a rule of thumb, opt for every 12 weeks or so.
Will a cleaner or conditioner affect the color of my saddlebags?
A leather specific cleaner shouldn’t, but some types of conditioner may give your leather spots, stains, or darken the color. It will depend on the original color of your saddlebags, though. If in doubt, try a little underneath or on the back first.
*Products in our Buyer’s Guide section are carefully chosen and we recommend only the best for our loyal audience. Bear in mind that this article contains affiliate links and if you purchase via our links – Old News Club will earn a commission.