Dubbin, a contraction of the word ‘dubbing’ which describes the action of applying wax to leather (dub – to dress leather), dates back certainly to medieval times and is used to waterproof and soften leather. Whereas polish is a more cosmetic shoe/boot treatment dubbin is more about functionality, being rubbed into rather than onto the leather.
While there are many proprietary products now on the market currently dubbin was originally a mixture of variously wax/fat and oil. Its function, whatever the composition, is to soak into the leather and form a flexible waterproof barrier. The main component was beeswax and/or tallow and the oil component was most often neatsfoot oil. In more modern times glycerine, resins and vegetable/mineral oils may be used.
Tallow is the solid fat rendered from the tissues and fatty deposits of animals, especially from suet (the fat of cattle and sheep). Pure tallow is white, odourless and tasteless.
Neatsfoot oil is a yellow oil rendered and purified from the shin bones and feet (but not the hooves) of cattle (the “Neat” in the oil’s name comes from an old name for cattle). Neatsfoot oil is used as a conditioning, softening and preservative agent for leather. Fat from warm-blooded animals normally has a high melting point, becoming hard when cool – but neatsfoot oil remains liquid at room temperature. This is because the relatively slender legs and feet of animals such as cattle are adapted to tolerate and maintain much lower temperatures than those of the body core – other body fat would become stiff at these temperatures. This characteristic of neatsfoot oil allows it to soak easily into leather. In our modern times, the product may be called “neatsfoot oil compound” if mineral oil or other petroleum-based material is added. Some brands may use vegetable oils.
One often comes across dire warnings over the use of dubbin and neatsfoot oil and variously centres over the rooting of the natural or man-made fibres in the stitching and blame lays variously on mineral oils or neatsfoot oil. And some have expounded on the effects on leather by bacteria which propagate in the amino acids and fats contained in tallow, one of the chief ingredients of dubbin.
However, any schoolboy over the age of 50 will know of their leather soccer boots that have festered, wet and muddy, in a plastic bag left in a games bag for a week only to be turned out on the next games day covered in mould. And that after vigorous cleaning and drying the boots will have become stiff and hard as a board. That is to say, lack of care has a much more destructive effect on leather than regular, methodical and thorough leather treatment of products made for the purpose. Manufacturers just don’t make products that destroy footwear for this would be a very quick way to cause the company’s demise. There are centuries of experience that suggests it is safe to use traditional dubbin and in modern times one can rely on the diligence of the company’s research and development labs.
Some dubbin recipes:
20 lbs. beef tallow, ½ lb. rosin, 5 gals. inedible cod-liver oil, ½ lb. melted beeswax
50% beef tallow, 50% glycerine.
40% mutton tallow, 60% prime neatsfoot oil.
50% beef tallow, 50% prime neatsfoot oil.
50% mutton tallow, 50% neatsfoot oil, small amount melted beeswax.