How the Heck Do I Take Care of Chromexcel Leather?

If you’re an American who likes boots there’s a very good chance you own some Chromexcel. These days, it seems like every other boot on the market is made from this leather. It’s on everything from $200 boots like Thursday to mid-range boots like the Wolverine 1000 Mile and the Allen Edmonds Higgins Mill to $700 boots like the Viberg Service boot.
So why is this the default leather for American service boots? In this article, we’re joined by leather worker Weston Kay from Rose Anvil to learn all about:

  • What Is Chromexcel?
  • What Are the Benefits of Chromexcel?
  • Is Chromexcel full grain leather?
  • How to clean Chromexcel
  • How to condition Chromexcel 

What Is Chromexcel Leather?

Chromexcel is the brainchild of the Horween Leather Company, a beloved American tannery that was founded in Chicago all the way back in 1905. It’s had an interesting history (it was used on engine seals in tanks during World War 2) and it’s known for its rich depth of color.

So why is it such a big deal? The unusual method of processing the leather. It’s not chrome-tanned as the name might suggest, it’s a combination tanned leather that has been processed largely the same way since its 1913 birth. (We say ‘largely’ because a couple of controversial ingredients, like whale oil, have been swapped out.)

According to Horween, Chromexcel (or CXL) undergoes “at least 89 separate processes taking 28 working days and utilizing all five floors of (their) facility.” You can read about the lengthy processing from skin to CXL on their site but the long and short of it is that the leather gets imbued with an enormous variety of oils, greases, and waxes, including food-grade beef tallow and cosmetic-grade beeswax. They call this “hot stuffing” and it’s responsible for the leather’s “pull-up” quality, meaning that when you give the leather a good firm rub you can see the oils and waxes moving around the leather itself.

helm boot leather
Some unusual “teak” colored Chromexcel on the Helm Muller

What Are the Benefits of Chromexcel?

All of these fatty, waxy ingredients give Chromexcel its famous lustre and depth that make it look pretty fantastic on a boot, particularly as it ages.

“Because they infuse so much into it, it’s a really saturated leather. It’s almost impermeable by oil and water because there’s so much in there already,” says Kay. “It’s really great for a lot of different products. We use it in camera harnesses because of its strength and its malleability. It’s one of those leathers you don’t have to break in super hard, it’s weather resistant, so it has a lot of characteristics that make it a really great leather.”

As a combination tanned leather, some consider it to have the best characteristics of chrome tanned and vegetable tanned leather — it’s softer, easier to break in, and retains color better than purely vegetable tanned, but it’s more durable and lustrous than most chrome tanned leathers.

[Learn more: Chrome Tanned vs Vegetable Tanned vs Combination Tanned Leather] 

red wing blacksmith leather
Note the “grain” on these Red Wing Blacksmiths — it looks a lot more like skin than the highly corrected Dr. Martens boot next to it in the foreground

Is Chromexcel Full Grain Leather?

First up, definitions:

  • Full grain leather is generally defined as leather that leaves the skin’s grain in tact, meaning you can see the pores and markings of the animal’s actual skin
  • Top grain leather is generally defined as having the very top layer of the skin sanded away to produce a leather that’s a bit more uniform in appearance

“Horween themselves consider it top grain,” says Kay. “But that doesn’t mean it’s a poor leather. That just means they shaved off that very top layer to give it a more even finish and texture, because full grain can sometimes have too many flaws for whatever project or product you’re trying to make. Horween does a great job of sanding away just enough that it’s a really clean and evenly colored and textured leather, but still leaving enough grain in the leather to keep it strong and durable.”

[Learn more: Horween Discusses Top Grain vs Full Grain Leathers]

Wolverine 1000 Mile steps
The Wolverine 1000 Mile

How to Care for Chromexcel

Caring for this leather comes in two stages: cleaning and then conditioning. It’s smart to remove as much dust from the leather as you can before conditioning so that you’re not trapping too much grime and bacteria in the hide when you apply the conditioner.

How to Clean Chromexcel

First, you want a good horsehair brush. Brushing vigorously — and you want to brush it vigorously — not only helps to remove dirt but it also heats up the leather, moving around the oils and helping to remedy scratches and scrapes. Chromexcel scratches pretty easily, but the “pull-up” nature of the leather means they can be buffed out pretty easily as well.

If dirt isn’t coming off, consider cleaning it with Saddle SoapBe careful, though, as too much Saddle Soap can strip the boot of oils, waxes, and color.

“Some people saturate the entire boot, soaked all the way to the flesh side, and it pulls as much of the oil as it can,” says Kay. “What you’re trying to do is put a light level on the top to remove dirt.”

You can use the horsehair brush from earlier, but a dauber brush is best. When you open the tin, you’ll see the Soap is hard, just like bath soap. Put some water in a dish, wet the brush, and rub it around the soap to work up a lather.

using saddle soap

Rub it over the entire boot (not just the dirty spots), let it sit for just five or ten seconds, and wipe it off with a paper towel or a rag. If a stain remains, you can apply a little more just to that area itself and do the process again once or twice. Then wash all the Saddle Soap off with a wet towel and leave it to dry before conditioning.

Remember that most guys restrict using Saddle Soap to the times they’re planning to condition the boots afterward, since Saddle Soap is a little alkaline.

[From my video comparing Saphir Renovateur vs Venetian Shoe Cream on Chromexcel]

How to Condition Chromexcel

Next, your job is to replenish the oils and waxes lost from the soaping. Even if you didn’t go as far as using Saddle Soap, oils and waxes are lost simply by using the boots over months and years. It’s skin, it gets dry, it needs moisturizing.

What’s the best conditioner for Chromexcel? Plenty of products will do the job but if you ask Nick Horween, who makes the stuff, he likes these three:

1. Saphir Greasy Leather Cream

This is a neutral-colored shoe restorer that’s neatsfoot oil and jojoba oil-based.

2. Saphir Renovateur

Renovateur is pigment-free and mink oil-based. It’ll produce more of a shine on the Chromexcel, if that’s what you’re after.

3. Venetian Shoe Cream

Actually made in Chicago, this is one of the most popular creams for conditioning leather and is great for keeping it moist and flexible. The company is pretty cagey about the ingredients, but I do know it contains a blend of different waxes and it’s widely recommended among leather experts, including Nick Horween himself. See it in action in my Venetian Shoe Cream review

The video above — actually, both videos in this article — have step-by-step instructions for applying Venetian Shoe Cream to Chromexcel. In short: you’ll get a better result with a few light coats than one heavy coat, so apply a thin layer with a rag or your fingers, let it sit for an hour or two, and see how the boot looks. How much luster and shine has returned to the boot will depend on how dry the leather is and how long it’s been since its last conditioning, but I’d recommend using two coats. Once it’s all soaked in, buff it with a horsehair brush one more time to restore some shine.

Avoid waterproofing sprays or creams if possible, since they can suffocate the leather and trap dirt and dust inside it — just clean ‘em with a brush and rub in some cream once or twice a year, remove serious dirt and grime with Saddle Soap when needed, and your Chromexcel boots will age like a fine wine.

[Related: My list of The Best Boots]

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By day: Manhattan-based journalist with reporting experience on four continents, published in Vice, Men's Health, Popular Science, and a bunch of other places.By night: ravenous consumer of anything and everything related to high end men's boots.Stridewise is where I nurture a maniacal obsession with footwear and share my findings. Say hey: [email protected]

28 thoughts on “How the Heck Do I Take Care of Chromexcel Leather?”

  1. Hi Nick, I just picked up a pair of Thursday Vanguards and Thursday recommends Venetian Shoe Balm on the shoe care page of their site. What’s the difference of Venetian Shoe Cream vs the shoe balm? Thanks!

    Reply
    • I understand that the balm is a tiny bit more concentrated so you need to use less of it and it’s easier to carry around, but a little harder to apply.

      Reply
  2. ‘Brushed vigorously — and you want to brush it vigorously — not only helps to remove dirt but it also heats up the leather, moving around the oils and helping to remedy scratches and scrapes. ‘ Dangling modifier error.

    Reply
  3. I’ve got to buy MORE Saphire Renovateur ?

    I really should buy shares in that company, or start buying catering size jars of it. Oh well. (It is very good indeed).

    Reply
    • Saphr is great! Trying to do more in-depth stuff on shoe care and trying to find cheaper alternatives — a lot of people think Lexol is perfectly fine on boots and it’s cheap as chips.

      Reply
  4. I have the Alden 403’s bought new 20 years years ago at Alden of S.F. they told me to use Alden Boot Cream. That’s all that I’ve ever used. Boots still look great. The only bad thing I can say about the Indy boot is the sole . I go to Europe a couple times a year and the boots soles are slippery in the wet and on cobble stones. I no longer take them.

    Reply
    • Yeah the 403s are great shoes, Charles! I’m always surprised how the nitrile cork isn’t as slippery as it looks like it should be, but it’s no Vibram mini lug.

      Reply
  5. Hey Nick! Big fan of the website and YouTube channel. Bought and love the RM Williams Comfort Craftsman on your recommendation (kind of a gamble getting them to Canada!).

    Have you done much in the way of shining your Chromexcel-type boots? I have the Thursday Boots Wingtips in their Brown Thursday Chrome, and like a shinier boot. I’ve used a light coating of Venetian Leather Balm on the whole boot, with a couple extra applications and horsehair buffings on the toe cap and heel cap to get a nice shine and to give the boots a layer of wax protection for when I bang into things. It seems a little strange to use this product just for the shine and protection of the wax, and I am concerned that I may be over-conditioning. Have you used your Saphir wax polishes on Chromexcel or Thursday Chrome?

    Reply
    • I haven’t! Honestly I just condition my shoes, I don’t really shine them. I definitely think Saphir’s polishes are a good bet.

      Reply
  6. I just received a pair of Doc Martens Made in England burgundy Horween chromexcel oxfords. Can I use Red Wing mink oil to condition them?

    Reply
  7. Hello Nick, all the way from Panama City Panama. I don’t own CXL boots but a pair of Allen Edmonds McTavish CXL shoes in natural finish. This article has been very educational and helpful!

    So which is it then for natural CXL? Saphir renovateur or their greasy leather cream? or any of them? I also have some kiwi saddle soap…

    Cheers!

    Reply
    • What’s up Panama! Natural CXL the same products will work just fine. Saphir or the Greasy Leather Cream. Saphir will give it a bit more of a shine and might be slightly better at preserving the color, Greasy Leather Cream a bit better at actual conditioning.

      Reply
  8. Hey Nick! I have a pair of Thorogood 1892 Beloit (Genuine Horween Chromexcel Leather)
    I guess what I am trying to get to is, would 1 of the products above work just fine? Of course I’ll brush vigorously before hand and apply the cream afterwards. Just needing conformation. Thanks man!

    Reply
  9. Nick:

    Appreciate the post, but I find a few things confusing:

    1) “Before it leaves the factory, CXL is coated in neatsfoot oil, which is made from the rendered shin and feet bones of cattle. Horween says that’s usually his go to recommendation, which is why one of his favorite products is…” — it seems conflicting. Is the go-to recommendation Neatsfoot Oil the …Saphir Greasy Leather Cream mentioned immediately thereafter.

    2) Regardless of the above, it goes on to say Nick Horween leans towards the Renovateur or the Venetian Shoe Cream.

    I just find it confusingly written overall (perhaps I’m being dense). His go-to recommendation is Neatsfoot Oil but one of his favorite products is Greasy Leather Cream, but he tends to lean towards Renovateur/VSC in personal use? Am I interpreting this correctly?

    Long/short, I have a briefcase in #8 that I would like to have a more polished/shiny finish so I was leaning towards using Renovateur, but I don’t want to ruin the depth of color in the #8

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment, Jordan. Basically, Horween is happy recommending any of the three products, it’s a bit silly to say there’s One Conditioner that’s better than every other as plenty of them work just fine on Chromexcel. Those are your three options. Greasy Leather Cream is neutral, renovateur has more of a shine, and Venetian Shoe Cream is cheaper and might darken the leather teeny tiny bit, but still a great conditioner.

      Reply
  10. is Saphir Creme 1925 good for chromexcel if i want to restore the colour?
    Appreciate the colour variations developed by extensive use.
    Understand it’s quite a character of pull up leather. However want to give it colour polish at times.

    Reply
  11. Thank you for a great review! Is the Indy in the shell cordovan basically the same boot and is it worth the extra money? For me, I have balance issues and fell more comfortable walking in a hiking boot. I was considering a pair of Danner s but stumbled upon Alden s by chance and the shells by choice. ??

    Reply

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