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A mischievous elf has been marking up my leather. First, it was our chair in the family room, a red armchair now graffitied with blue ballpoint pen. Then, a few weeks later, he was back, a scribble of black marker on the rolled arm of our brown leather couch in the living room. I would like to catch this imp in action, but he's sly. Meanwhile, the family has been sitting on marked-up furniture, and with the holidays approaching with their hoards of sweater-clad visitors, I am eager to clean up our leather act. I spoke with Tony Toth, manager at Tony's Best Way in La Jolla (858-459-3201). "I have been in the furniture-cleaning business for 35 years," he said, "so I have quite a bit of experience."

Toth's first bit of advice to me: don't try cleaning it myself. "I could have all the same knives that a surgeon has," he quipped, "but does that mean you would want me performing surgery on you?"

I didn't tell him how I had scrubbed the black markings with dish soap and scratched away at them with my fingernails. "It's better to let a good cleaning professional do the job, because most of the time, a customer trying to clean leather themselves will do much more damage than good. And if they damage the leather and then call us, we cannot always fix the damage perfectly."

What sort of damage can be done?

"If the cleaning is not done properly," answered Toth, "with the right chemicals, you can take the finish right off of the leather, and if you use the wrong cleaner it will harden the leather." If the finish has been taken off the leather, "spot dying can be done, but it is very expensive, and the color match is not exactly the same."

He continued, "We usually use a light cleaning solution, which is on the neutral on the pH scale, though that also depends on the soil on the leather. It could need a different solution. So these are things that a professional would be able to do correctly."

Toth preconditions the furniture with a mild solution that softens the soil, "so that when we do the cleaning we can lift off the soil much easier. We use a wet cleaning, which is a much milder cleaning and better than dry cleaning. Dry cleaning takes oil off but also takes finish off. We also do a lot of toweling -- a little elbow grease, as they say -- with soft white towels. By hand, we towel off the furniture, which removes the solution that we put onto the leather, and we get into hard-to-reach areas of the piece. After the furniture is properly cleaned and dried, we put a conditioner on it. You need to be careful to put the right conditioner on the piece. The leather dries almost immediately, so once the conditioner is on, it's ready for use. The whole cleaning process takes between one and two hours depending on the condition and size of the furniture."

Are there certain stains that won't come out of leather?

"Most leather is finished leather, about 80 percent. But the other 20 percent is unfinished leather, and it is more difficult to keep it clean and to clean it. When oil from people, animals, or cooking gets into the unfinished leather, it goes deep into it and it is hard to remove. Unfinished leather is like a sponge -- everything soaks in. But with finished leather, even ink can be removed; almost all stains a professional can remove. We can test a small area to see the results, and sometimes we need to use harsher chemicals."

As you may have guessed, Toth does not recommend buying unfinished leather. "A lot of interior decorators will suggest a natural leather because of the look; it doesn't look like plastic like the finished leather. But it is not practical unless it's going to be in a room that is never used. Especially if the customer has children, or pets, they should buy finished leather."

Are there different quality leathers?

"Leather quality differs widely," he answered. "Not only the leather from different animals, but also different parts of animals, and also different layers of leather --different layers of animals are softer than other ones. Fine leather, like Italian leather, is very soft. Cheaper leathers are more solid and hard and easier to clean."

Does leather fade?

"Leather can fade from the sun or even just light. A brown or blue leather will fade more readily than a light beige leather. Also, when there is dirt in the leather, it looks faded, but when the leather is cleaned, the color comes back."

What about dying the leather?

"Dying is a specialty service that we used to do but that we no longer offer. But if a customer has old leather, or they just want to change the color of the leather, they can change it dramatically by re-dying the leather."

"What if someone really wanted to clean it themselves," I asked. He reiterated his recommendation, but added, "They need to test a small area that is heavily soiled, with a Q-tip, before they clean the whole area."

Prices for cleaning vary according to the size of furniture, condition, and whether or not it is unfinished or finished leather. "For a living room chair," Toth says, "the cost is around $100 . For loveseat-sized furniture, it is around $90 to $120 . And for a standard-sized sofa, the cost is $150 . Unfinished leather costs 20 to 50 percent more, and the results are more unpredictable, though 90 percent of our customers are happy with the results."

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