Leather Types

This is a basic guide as tanning is a process that can be modified to get a range of finished products depending on requirements.

Chrome Leather (Chrome Tanned Leather)
First developed at the end of the 19th century this is a fast-tanning process using chromium. It now makes up approximately 90% of the leather produced worldwide. It is generally, a soft supple uniform leather (due to the chromium salts breaking down the proteins and fibrous structure of the leather) with minimal maintenance requirements. It is used in fashion and for upholstery. It has a good resistance to heat, staining and being marked through use. It will degrade through use (how quickly depends on type, quality, and usage).

Returning it to its original condition is exceptionally difficult if not impossible once degradation and wear begins. Although good quality chrome will last many years if treated right, do not expect it to last a lifetime or look as good as it did new. It is very difficult to tell the quality and type of new chrome leathers apart although this will be apparent through use.

The chemicals left in chrome tanned leather will tarnish metals and can cause skin to blister if left in prolonged moist contact. This is why chrome tanned leather isĀ NOT used for quality knife sheaths or equestrian leather. There are also major environmental concerns around the chrome tanning process, especially in less regulated countries.

Veg Tan (Vegetable Tanned Leather)
This has been done for thousands of years and is commonly referred to as “traditional” tanned. This process uses tannins to preserve the natural structure and proteins of skin producing an almost rot proof material. Traditionally these tannins are derived from what’s available in the natural environment, this includes leaves, bark, roots, peat bogs and some cultures even used the brains of animals.

This process has developed from simply burying a skin in a peat bog for a year to a complex process involving multiple staging vats of different concentrations that the skins are moved through; this can take up to 18 months. Most modern methods of creating veg tan are said to take about 28 days, but you will find virtually all tanners keep their exact process a secret.

Due to the natural structure of the skin used being maintained, the properties of the leather produced depends not just on the type of animal but also what part of the animal the skin is from. For example, with leather derived from cows:

  • The Butt, the back end, produces a tougher stiffer leather where the hide generally isn’t flat and is mainly use for belts, straps, and webbing.
  • The Bend, the middle section, this is the largest, flattest, and most uniform section, thus the most sort after by industry and crafters and fetches the highest price.
  • The Shoulder, the neck, this produces a very supple leather which has most contrast / variation in the grain (the surface pattern) and is usually the smallest section. This all leads to a more expensive material to both produce and work.

So why is Veg Tan still a thing?
Simply put, it’s a very different material to chrome leather. The largest market is equestrian as veg tan possesses no risk to the horse’s skin when the horse sweats. Veg tan can also be “tooled” (embossed and carved) and shaped (wet formed) without affecting the life of the leather.

If veg tan is treated correctly it won’t just last a lifetime it will last for generations, the British museum has leather work from over 2000 years ago.

Dependent on finish used, veg tan can be easily restored to its original condition, excluding actual damage. Overall veg tan is a far more durable and robust material than chrome that a broader range of products can be made from.

The main drawbacks are, veg tan is prone to heat damage and will degrade very quickly if allowed to become “dry” of oils. It also takes a greater knowledge and skill to get the best out of the material as how it takes dyes and reacts to being worked varies even within the same hide.

Although some knowledge is needed, it is easier to tell the difference in quality and types of veg tan leather.

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