So, What Is Leather?

And what is not?

It would probably surprise you how many people bring me items asking if they can be repaired and they are boggled to find out that it actually isn’t real leather, but is actually vinyl, Naugahyde, or “genuine leather” (more on that in another post).

Leather, simply defined, is an animal skin that has been treated in order to preserve it so that it can be used to create clothes, shoes, furniture, and other objects. The animal most associated with leather is the cow, but almost any animal skin can be made into leather. Horsehide, toad skin, ostrich, lizard, snake, buffalo/bison, shark, salmon, elephant, hippo, alligator/caiman; the list goes on and on. Basically, any animal that has an epidermic and dermic layer can be and has been made into leather.

Tanning Process:

So, how does leather go from the skin of a recently deceased animal to the beautiful finished product you see at Davis Leatherworks and other fine establishments? I’m so glad you asked!

Leather is tanned in basically one of two ways. Traditionally it is vegetable tanned, meaning that it is tanned over a period of a couple months to a year in a mixture of tannins which are extracted from plant matter (tea and coffee both contain tannins, which give both liquids their deep brown hues — most tannins, however, are obtained from tree bark and tissue). The second, and more modern, method is chromium tanning, which uses a combination of chromium salts and other chemicals to quickly cure and tan a hide in a matter of days rather than months. (Note: There’s several other types of “tanning”, but vegetable and chromium tanning generally take main stage when we’re talking about tanning.)

There’s a constant debate about which type of leather is better, vegetable tanned (or veg-tan) or chromium tanned (chrome tanned). In my opinion, the argument is a moot point. Both types of leather are suited to different purposes and have their place.

Vegetable Tanned Leather:

Natural Vegetable Tanned Leather Field Notes Wallet
  • Longer Production Time
  • More “Natural” Form of Tanning
  • More expensive due to production time and the fact that only a certain amount of hides are considered “clean” enough to be tanned
  • Gains patina with age (darkens, will pick up indigo from jeans in the case of small goods)
  • Able to be dyed, tooled/stamped, and molded
  • Common Products: Belts, Durable Bags, Holsters, Knife Sheaths, Wallets, and Horse Tack & Saddles

Chromium Tanned Leather:

Chromium Tanned Dopp Kit (Notice the white/light-blue coloring at the edges — this is due to the leather not being dyed all the way through, which is very common with chrome tanned leathers)
  • Very Short Production Time
  • Requires the use of acids and other chemical in addition to chromium salts
  • Less expensive due to the fact that almost all cowhide can be used, regardless of how “clean” they are, since the dye and finishes used will often cover up scars and other marks
  • Water-Resistant
  • Softer and more supple
  • Available in almost any imaginable color and will hold its color longer
  • Common Products: Bags, Wallets, Smaller Items (keychains/fobs, pouches, etc.)

Combination Tanned Leathers:

Combination Tanned (Horween Chromexcel) Flap Wallet in a Brown Embossed Croc-Print
  • Utilizes both Vegetable and Chromium Tanning Methods
  • Often stuffed with waxes and oils, which can give the leather a beautiful pull-up (lightening when the leather is folded)
  • Retains many of the features of both tannages (water-resistant, moldable [to a degree], can gain a patina,
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