Chamois leather (a.k.a. Shammy, Shammie, Chammy and wash leather) has been used for years by car fanatics, window cleaners and anyone wanting to dry off delicate surfaces after they have been cleaned.
Is your chamois real?
It has been years, possibly 100 years, since the chamois goat / antelope has been ‘committed’* to the production of the chamois leather in commercial quantities due to a severe decline in species numbers. The vast majority of commercial shammy’s are now made from sheepskin. The skins being widely available as a by product of meat production.
In the UK, there is a British Standard relating to the specification of Genuine Chamois Leather (BS 6715:1991) it covers the type and grade of leather and its preparation and treatment and the absorbancy of the finished product. This allows for wash leathers derived from sheep skin to be generically described as ‘chamois leather’. This is to distinguish a product made from a natural leather from a material made from man-made fibre and is not intended to mislead the public into thinking their genuine chamois leather is made from a small wild goat from the high Pyrenees. For most people the basic test is whether or not the packaging claims to be Genuine Chamois Leather. In a world where counterfeit products do exist the easiest way to ensure that the product is what it claims to be is to buy from a reputable source. Few of us will be referring a product we buy to the trading standards office for checking.
*Referring to the old joke about the chicken being involved in the production of breakfast while the pig is committed!
How it’s made
Chamois is one split of the leather with the grain removed. The leather is snag trimmed and then tanned (oil pounded into the leather and then oxidised). The oil specified for ‘Genuine Chamois’ is fish oil, often Cod. Once the rough skin is tanned it is then ‘polished’ on what is best described as a large circular belt sander. This is called ‘wheeling’, this process gently scrubs/sands away imperfections and rough spots in the skin. The heaviest skins tend to be wheeled on one side and the finer skins wheeled on both sides. The finished product is then trimmed to the required size.
Why it works
Shammies work because the fibres of the leather are open i.e. not close together this allows water, and dirt, to be absorbed into the material taking it away from the surface being dried.
How to use a Shammie
When completely dry a shammie isn’t able to absorb water efficiently. Therefore, before starting to dry your vehicle, wet the leather and wring it out (to wring out your leather, make it into a ball and squeeze it between your hands, try never to twist and wring as this tends to tear the fibres of the leather causing it to shed bits and quickly go into holes. The perfect way to dry a chammy is to put it through a mangle so the water is crushed out not twisted out). The presence of a little water enables the fibres to absorb much more water as it is being used.
During use once the leather is soaked simply wring it out and carry on.
Chamois Care Instructions
Before using the leather for the first time wash it in lukewarm, slightly soapy water (ideally use some of your car shampoo, never use dishwashing liquid or washing powder as they contain, amongst other nasty chemicals, a lot of salt) rinse it in clean water (note it may lose a little colour as excess fish oil is washed out) and you are ready to go.
After use the same washing regime is needed to clean out any dirt picked up from the surface of the vehicle. Once clean don’t be too enthusiastic on the final rinse. Leaving a little soap in the leather helps it to stay soft. (The rinse before you next use it will remove the soap left behind and leave the leather ready to go.)
After you have washed and wrung the leather spread it out to its original shape and hang to dry. Avoid drying conditions which will dry it too quickly as it will harden. Definitely do not leave your leather wet in a bucket or polythene bag as it will mildew and rot.
Having been in the valeting / detailing / vehicle cleaning trade for years many hours have been wasted with enthusiastic supporters of chamois leathers vs staunch advocates for microfibre cloths vs the newly fervent adherents of the drying towels.
Get real folks. There isn’t one solution which suits everyone. There isn’t a best product which works well in all circumstances. Everyone is entitled to lobby for their favourite but the reality is that there are many ways to skin this particular cat. Drying your vehicle without scratching it and without leaving nasty looking smudges, stains, smears etc with minimum effort and maximum style is down to how you want to do it. In recent years we have even started to hear from people who blow dry their vehicle – presumably on the basis that if they don’t touch the paintwork to dry it they can’t possibly scratch it!
The claims are out there that one product or another makes waxing / polishing the paintwork more or less effective. Until someone comes up with a scientific test which proves it one way or another we recommend that you pick the leather, microfibre cloth which best suits how you want to work and let others do it their own way. It is even worth trying different fabrics sometimes – you might surprise yourself and like working with something new.