Marv Obenauf, former wilderness firefighter turned master of leather care

By TODD OPPENHEIMER

Marv Obenauf had been a Wildland Firefighter in Idaho for 10 years when he started noticing that his boots weren’t holding up the way they should–by a lot. “They were lasting a fifth as long as they used to,” Marv says.

For a firefighter—who has to work through hot ashes, mud, water, and sometimes melting plastic and other nasties—good boots are everything. Many will happily spend $500 or more on a custom pair, just to be sure their feet are as protected and happy as they can possibly be.

So Marv started nosing around to figure out what the trouble was. His first step was to call Nick’s and White’s Boots out of Washington State, which are two of the world’s leading custom bootmakers for rugged, outdoor wear. “They assured me that the integrity of the leather and stitching was as good or better than it’s ever been,” Marv told me.

Maybe, they suggested, the dressings that Marv was putting on his boots had changed. Once he started looking into it, that’s exactly what he discovered.

Over the years, the companies that make leather care products have been trying to figure out how to simultaneously cut down their costs, as well as the time that increasingly impatient customers want to spend breaking in boots. Both desires pointed in a single direction: synthetics, primarily petroleum additives. This is why so many companies promise (or warn) that their dressings will soften your leather. Paraffins and other petroleum products do exactly that–they break down the microfibers inside leather to the point where it softens. Unfortunately, that breakdown also deteriorates the leather, as well as any stitching and adhesives. Counterintuitively, these synthetic oils and waxes also dry leather out, which leads to dry rot. And there goes your $500 pair of boots.

To solve this dilemma, Marv started experimenting with a range of substances, searching for a set of natural ingredients that would feed leather instead of harm it–just as one would want in a skin care product. After all, he says, “That’s what leather is—it’s skin without a critter in it.”

After testing 43 different plant oils, along with various natural waxes, he settled on his set of ingredients. These include two kinds of beeswax, some extra propolis—an anti-bacterial tree resin that is found in beeswax—and several different refined plant and animal oils. Marv proceeded to blend these, he says, into “a suspension formula” that creates “a time release of natural oils into the skin.”

The result was a new set of leather-care oils called Obenauf’s, which Marv and his wife have been selling with runaway success for the last 31 years. After starting his business by mixing his ingredients in his garage, in a 55-gallon drum with a hotplate under it, then selling them around the country from his motor home, Marv says his oils are now carried or recommended by more than 1,000 different dealers. Their names include boot makers such as Nick’s and White’s; outdoor goods stores such as Sportsman’s Warehouse and Cabela’s; and Nokona, a leading manufacturer of baseball gloves.

Unfortunately, exactly which oils Marv uses I cannot disclose. Leather care is a competitive business, and ingredient poachers are lurking everywhere. So the specifics are proprietary. But I can tell you that they don’t include many ingredients that are widely promoted as helpful to leather, including mink oil (too acidic), carnauba wax (too thick, clogs leather’s pores), and lanolin (too prone to rancidity).

I can also tell you that Obenauf’s oils feel far more natural and penetrating than other commercial leather-care oils, creams, and waxes. (I’ve tried them, and now occasionally use one–the thicker, waxier of the two–as hand cream). By all indications, they work. Several years ago, Marv submitted his oils for testing at the Leather Research Laboratory at the University of Cincinatti, in Ohio. The lab put his oils through nine different stress tests, which analyze leather’s ability to avoid premature cracking, scuffing, and abrasion; dehydration and dry rot; mold and bacterial growth; and damage from acids, salts, and caustic chemicals.

According to the lab’s report (which I have now seen), Obenauf’s beat out five competing brands on every single test. Some of those products failed because their ingredients aren’t as effective as the ones Marv uses; others failed largely because they use synthetic additives such as petroleum distillates.

How do you know if you’re buying a dressing that’s stuffed with synthetics? Sadly, since leather dressings aren’t food, their ingredients don’t have to be listed. But you can do your own test, in two ways: First, read the label—it’s a bad sign if the label warns that the product “may be harmful or fatal if swallowed.” Second, smell it—it’s another bad sign, Marv says, if the dressing “smells like diesel.” Says Steve Lange, the research lab’s director, “I would think that’s a pretty good rule of thumb.”

There is one important caveat about Obenauf’s. Oils of any kind are only meant for certain kinds of leather—primarily leather that’s been “vegetable-tanned” (i.e., with tannins from bark and other plants) or “oil-tanned”–in other words, items that you don’t mind getting darker, and perhaps a little oily. (We’re talking boots, certain shoes, saddles and bridle leather, and the like). Highly colored luxury items, like leather jackets or women’s handbags and purses, are not meant for oily dressings. The leather in those products has been treated with highly modernized chemical tanning processes, called “chrome tanning,” which deeply impregnates the leather with fine lubricants, and then seals it. As Kadir Donmez, a leather chemist at the research lab told me, “Most leathers with a finish on them are not meant to be messed with. They are like a sealed box.”

Then how should you clean up your fine handbag or briefcase? Apparently, all you need is a cotton cloth; some warm, mildly soapy water; and some elbow grease. Just don’t forget to wipe off any soap residue. “You wouldn’t leave soap on your face, would you?” says Shep Hermann, the fourth-generation owner of Hermann Oak, which is one of the last natural vegetable tanneries left in the U.S.

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© 2019 Todd Oppenheimer, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: December 1, 2016