Listening to Leather

Bee Natural Leathercare® 

by Gene Fowler 

Listen up now. 

“Wisdom,” one Mark Twain once reportedly proclaimed, “is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you would rather have been talking.” “When you talk,” counsels the Dalai Lama, “you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” Will Rogers was proverbially a little blunter, though no less insightful, with his take on the subject. “Never miss a good chance to shut up,” quipped the cowboy philosopher. 

Paul and Glenna Kummer of Vancouver, Washington, understand the teachings of these three wise men. Their company Bee Natural Leathercare offers products that clean, preserve and protect leather applications in virtually everything under the sun, from furniture and automobiles to boots and shoes, saddles and sports equipment. “Most of our products,” Paul explains, “were developed just by listening to what people said they need.” 

In other words, by listening to their customers, they listen to the leather. 

Bee Natural Leathercare was founded in 1977, but the Kummer family’s foundation in leather goes back generations. “My grandfather traveled through Prussia and Austria making shoes for farm families,” Paul explains. “And my father apprenticed with him for six years. I had a shoe repair shop in Bemidji, Minnesota, before I started Bee Natural. So, I’ve been around it all my life.” 

The repair work revealed that a particular product was especially effective in leather care. “I bought into that product and then bought the company out. We improved on its formula and started developing others. Then in 1978, we moved to Vancouver and the business has grown steadily ever since. And we’re still listening.” 

Comprised of “specially blended lotions and soaps,” Bee Natural products provide “environmentally safe leather cleaners, leather conditioners, leather waterproofing, and carving and forming solutions.” They are also safe and effective on exotic leathers, such as alligator, eel, lizard, snake and ostrich. 

The Bee Natural Leathercare website is one of the most educationally useful I’ve seen. The section on caring for a western saddle, for instance, includes detailed instructions on applying their Saddle Soap. They’re careful to inform readers that they should wet as little as possible of the underside of the shearling and to keep the saddle away from heat when drying it after cleaning. Application of Bee Natural’s #1 Saddle Oil (which is said to penetrate deeply without excessive darkening) should be followed by Rudy’s Tack & Saddle Conditioner and Finish, another Bee Natural product. In addition to the features contained in its name, Rudy’s Tack & Saddle treats mold and mildew. 

The Bee Natural cyber-corral also offers tips for restoring and maintaining museum pieces and other saddles that have seen long days in the sun and rain. 

When tooling saddle leather—and innumerable other leather items—artisans often turn to Bee Natural’s concentrate carving solution PRO-CARV.  Its rapid penetration allows a tooler to begin carving or stamping after three to five minutes.  In a 2014 video posted to YouTube, about protecting leather carvings, Al Stohlman Award winner Chan Geer of Sheridan, Wyoming, says that wetting and casing leather with PRO-CARV “makes carving and tooling a lot easier.” 

Then after the leather’s been tooled and dried, Chan says he puts on a light coat of Paul’s #1 Saddle Oil. He recommends starting on the outside edge of the leather piece and working your way in, so that you won’t leave a dark spot in the middle. And he says he likes the #1 Saddle Oil because you don’t have to let that set quite as long as some other oils. After letting it set for four or five hours, he’ll apply a heavy coat of Bee Natural’s RTC Sheridan Resist & Finish. BNLC says RTC “gives superior resistance and top gloss for maximum contrast when antiquing or staining leather.” Chan advises letting the RTC dry for four or five hours, or—better yet—overnight. He says the RTC will seal the leather so that “the antiquing doesn’t soak down into it, but you’ve got antiquing in all your tooling and cuts and marks.” 

The Stohlman recipient stresses that when you apply the RTC, “you don’t wanna start with just a little dab. You want to put a good heavy coat on hot and heavy.” He also cautions that it should be done fast as RTC dries quickly. “Don’t mess around because it dries real fast and it really soaks in.” Then, Chan continues, you should let the RTC set four or five hours, perhaps overnight, providing a “real good resist.” Then you might want to take a paint brush and apply RTC to the piece’s leaves and flowers; then when you apply your antiquing, the leaves and flowers will be a lighter color and all around them will be a darker color. After that dries, Chan suggests in the video a liberal application of medium brown Fiebing’s Antique Finish paste. 

Finally, the master of Sheridan-style carving takes a clean piece of sheepskin and seals everything with a coat of Bee Natural Leather Finish. “That gives a good, waterproof coat that will last for many, many years.” Or as BNLC puts it, the Leather Finish “accentuates the richness of your leather with a natural gloss that is ‘show ring’ perfect.”    

The Bee Natural product Leather Amore is the cleaning and preserving agent of choice for the fine pieces in the Stohlman Museum in Sheridan, Wyoming. Bee Natural’s Mink Oil Creme has been used by Navy SEALs for waterproofing gear. And the company’s Rudy’s Tack & Saddle Cleaner Conditioner / Finish is a favorite everywhere, especially along coastal areas where it makes an effective mold and mildew killer. “But California made us change the label,” says Paul. “They didn’t want us to use the word ‘kill’ or ‘mold or mildew,’ so we changed our label to say that Rudy’s ‘renders leather an inhospitable host to nature’s invasions.’” 

Glenna Kummer says that while Bee Natural Leathercare products ship worldwide, most of the direct-customer business is in the U. S. and Canada.  “Our biggest customers overseas are private companies,” she adds. “We ship them product in 55-gallon drums, and then they bottle and label it under their own brand names.” 

Perhaps because the Pacific Northwest was one of the last American frontiers to be explored, the region naturally fosters experimentation. Perched on the northern bank of the Columbia River, Vancouver enjoys a reputation for historic trailblazing. And in that tradition, Bee Natural Leathercare continues to seek new combinations of materials to keep leather looking and functioning its best. Sharing that family tradition, the Kummers inspired their daughter to go where no woman had gone before. 

“In 1992,” says Glenna, “our daughter became the first documented woman to canoe the entire length of the Columbia. She and her husband did it to celebrate the bicentennial of Captain Robert Gray’s discovery of the river.” 

Now that’s listening. 

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