What are the different types of leather?
Leather is a byproduct of the meat industry and therefore there are many different types of hides that can be tanned to create unique leathers. Although we primarily think of leather as coming from a cow, there are also goat leathers, deerskin, sheep leathers, pigskin, and even frog leather. The process for tanning hides offers a lot of options, but which is the right choice for your project?
There are a variety of different thicknesses, tanning processes, and finishing that make different types of leather ideal for different types of projects.
Vegetable Tanned vs. Chrome Tanned Leathers
When people talk about how a piece of leather is tanned, what they are referring to is the technology and processes that developed it from a hide into a usable product. Since it is a natural product, no two pieces of leather are identical, so the finished hides are made available in a number of different styles, grades, and price points to meet the needs of the maker.
Vegetable Tanned Leather - Also known as veg tan leather, these pieces are often characterized by a natural, light brown color. The leather is a bit firmer than others, however its unique characteristics allow it to be tooled, sculpted, dyed, colored, painted, and more. It’s one of the most customizable canvases on the planet, allowing for functional, three-dimensional art. Most often when we think of vegetable tanned leather, we picture a holster or a knife sheath, however the possibilities of how to utilize its unique qualities are almost endless.
Vegetable tanning is also one of the oldest and most reliable ways to create leather. The process can take months as the leather is soaked in a natural tannin bath that primarily consists of extracted tree bark. Once the leather is cured, oils are often hand rubbed into these pieces to make sure that it retains its suppleness. As such, these are often considered premium leathers.
Chrome Tanned Leather - This is a more modern way to process leather that is faster and less expensive. These leathers are processed through a tumbling process rather than a slower soaking method, which allows them to be produced much more efficiently. The tumbling makes these leathers very supple, lighter weight, and dyes can be added that make large quantities of leather consistent in color during processing. You’ll often find these leathers used in upholstery, fashion, handbags, jewelry, shoe tops, and more.
Oil Tanned Leather - You may also come across oil tanned leather, which typically is leather that has first been vegetable tanned and then has an additional finish applied. After the leather is produced, oils can be added to give the piece unique properties. Usually these leathers are a little heavier and have a slightly waxy feel, which makes them more water-resistant and durable for heavy outdoor use. Common projects made with oil-tanned leather are boot laces, pet accessories, small outdoor bags, or chaps. Some oiled tanned leathers are referred to as “pull up leathers” because, when you stretch them, the surface color may create a textured, weathered look.
Rawhide Leather - Although less common in modern leather shops, some people may still be curious about the “rawhide” referenced in old Westerns. Rawhide does not use tannin baths or tumbling, but rather is soaked in lye, then stretched out, and dried. The result is a rigid hide that becomes somewhat malleable when wet and retains its rigidity when it dries again. This technique was used for centuries by cavemen, Native Americans, and other historical societies for things like housing, construction of items, clothing, instruments, and more. Although rawhide is still used in saddle shops and in the production of some musical instruments, the majority of its traditional applications have been replaced by more modern leather processing techniques.
Leather Thickness Guide
Vegetable tanned leather comes in a variety of thicknesses and often your project will dictate the “weight” of the leather needed. Although you are not limited to only one specific leather for any given project, here is a helpful guide and a few suggestions for how to use veg tan leather:
What’s the difference between Top Grain, Full Grain, and Suede?
As you research different types of leathers and leather products, you may come across some vocabulary that you are unfamiliar with, such as the grain of the leather. The hide of an animal can be up to half an inch thick; far too bulky and inconsistent to use off of the cow as-is. Typically the hide is thinned for consistency, often leaving several layers of usable leather from a single hide. When you hear the term “genuine leather”, typically it is referring to full grain or top grain leather.
Full Grain - Full-grain leather is considered the strongest as it doesn’t change the surface of the leather, but rather utilizes the skin just below the hairline of the animal. The hide is tight and firm, and may still feature imperfections such as stretch marks, insect bites, and brands.
Top Grain - Very similar to full grain, top grain leather is made from the surface layer of the hide, however, the outermost layer is smoothed to create a more uniform and finished look. After it is tanned, it may be finished or embossed with a pebble texture to regain the appearance of the natural hide.
Split / Suede - Remember when we mentioned the hide could be up to a half inch thick? Once the top layer of the leather is removed to create full-grain or top-grain leather, often there is a very usable second layer that has different applications. Often used as suede, the remaining layer of leather is “split” to be thinned to a usable thickness. It’s typically soft yet sturdy, and is regularly used for things like gardening gloves, lining, and other accessories.
Bonded - Although bonded leather is technically made from real leather, it's composed of compacted remnants, scraps, and dust of leather combined with other fibers and glued together with binding agents onto a backing cloth. Since bonded leather may be a little a 15% leather, it’s somewhat like the leather equivalent of particle board or bologna. Although it is not as strong or durable as genuine leather, its price point makes it popular in the manufacturing of inexpensive “leather” furniture and outerwear.