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Sleigh Bell Care
After using bells on a horse, wipe off any dirt, dust, water, or sweat with a soft, damp cloth. If the leather is wet, allow the strap to air dry away from sunlight and direct heat.
Repair or replace damaged leather promptly to extend the life of your bell strap. Remove any broken bells if there is a chance that they could injure you or your horse.
Storage and display. Store or display your bells protected from extremes of temperature and humidity. Keep them out of the reach of insects, mice, and teething puppies.
Display a bell strap by hanging it from its buckle or draping it over a large diameter support, such as a bridle bracket or garden hose hanger. If you hang a strap on a narrow hook, eventually the leather will deteriorate from being bent too sharply.
Wrap a bell strap for storage in an old sheet, towel, tissue paper, or other clean, breathable material. Avoid plastic bags and air-tight containers.
Conditioning. Preserve the flexibility and appearance of the leather by occasionally wiping on a thin layer of a good quality leather dressing. We use Harness Honey™, Lexol™ and Leather Therapy™ conditioners because they are water repellent, resist mildew, and do not make the leather feel oily or sticky.
Do not use products not intended for leather, such as cooking oil, mineral oil, or petrolatum (Vaseline™). Avoid greasy leather conditioners such as mink oil, neatsfoot oil or Sno Seal™. They tend to make the leather limp and mildew prone. The only time I might use these products is if a bell strap is used a lot in all kinds of weather.
Regardless of the product used, the main problem I see is that people put too much conditioner on. Properly conditioned leather should never feel oily or sticky.
Apply a thin coat of conditioner to the leather only. If the leather still feels very dry a day later, apply another thin coat. I recommend stopping at two coats and waiting several months before lightly conditioning again.
Old, hard or dry leather typically cannot absorb much conditioner at a time, so sparing applications of conditioner will give the best results. Do not expect conditioner to strengthen old, fragile leather -- it will only improve the flexibility. Newer, flexible leather should be kept that way by also lightly conditioning it on a regular basis.
Cleaning. If the leather strap is very dirty, use a gentle cleaner specifically meant for leather -- farm and tack stores are good places to locate such products.
Products from Lexol™ or Leather Therapy™ work well. My preference is low-tech -- a small squirt of hand dishwashing detergent or Simple Green™ cleaner in cool water.
Thoroughly work the cleaning solution over the leather, following product instructions. Be especially gentle with fragile old leather to prevent it from cracking further or losing its surface finish. Good cleaning tools are your fingers, soft cotton rags, and paint brushes.
Rinse well with cool water to make sure all of the cleaner is thoroughly removed from the bells and out of crevices in the leather. Blot with a soft cloth to remove excess water. Let the strap dry flat, away from sunlight and direct heat. When the leather is just damp, wipe on a thin coat of leather conditioner (see previous section.)
Lacquered. If the bells are lacquered, clean them as you would a painted surface -- with water or mild water-based cleaner and a soft, clean cloth. Do not use alcohol or other solvents, metal polishes, abrasive cleaners, or abrasive pads.
Unlacquered. For light tarnish, a dry jeweler's rouge polishing cloth works quickly and well. This product is available from jewelry stores, online merchants, and department stores.
For moderate oxidation, we recommend using a polish in a paste, lotion, or "wadding" formulation. This type of product will not run or drip easily as a liquid polish. Use care when polishing the bells to avoid staining or damaging the leather. Wipe the polish off well -- any residues may cause brass corrosion and leather damage and leave black marks on your horse, walls, and clothing.
For heavy oxidation and grime, we strongly recommend removing the bells from their strap and cleaning them as described below in "Loose bells".
Be advised before you start cleaning grimy old sleigh bells by hand: There is no "magic bullet" that will make the job painless and fast. It is a messy task that requires hard work, patience, and elbow grease.
Cleaning and polishing. If the bells are coated with lacquer, paint, or other finish, you will first need to remove the coating with a suitable solvent or stripper. Carefully follow the manufacturer's directions for use -- these products are usually flammable or poisonous.
Next, soak the bells in hot water and a good squirt of hand dishwashing detergent for a day or so. (Do not use detergent meant for dishwashing machines -- chlorine bleach is not good for brass.) Be sure the bells are completely submerged in the water at all times while soaking so the metal does not discolor at the "water line".
Soaking the bells will loosen the old harness oil and dirt that often coats old sleigh bells, inside and out. The bells will sound better and your job of polishing will be easier.
After soaking the bells, rinse the bells with clear water. Use a mild abrasive pad, such as the kind used on non-stick pans, to scrub off any remaining loose grime that comes off easily. Remove foreign material lurking inside the bells with a toothpick or other slender tool.
When the bells are clean, use a good quality brass cleaner and elbow grease to remove the remaining oxidation. Please ... avoid strong acids, steel wool, or coarse abrasives. If you change the surface texture or color of the bell metal or remove design details, you will reduce the collectible value of your bells.
Lacquering. For polished bells that are on display or will only see light use, we recommend coating them with a clear lacquer to preserve the shine. Bells that will be used regularly will look their best if they are left uncoated and hand polished as needed.
Choose a good-quality clear gloss lacquer formulated for indoor and outdoor metal items. One spray can will be more than enough for 30-60 bells.
Before lacquering, degrease your cleaned and polished bells with lacquer thinner or other suitable solvent. Make sure all traces of oils and waxes are thoroughly removed.
Handle degreased bells with exam gloves or clean paper towels. This will prevent acids and oils on your skin from contaminating the clean surface. Allow the bells to dry thoroughly before applying any finish.
Following the manufacturer's directions, spray the bells with three or four coats of lacquer. Keep the coats very thin, especially the first coat, to reduce the risk of drips and runs.
Allow the lacquer to dry thoroughly -- at least 12 hours -- before you handle or use the bells.
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