There are a few different types of leather and for a beginner leather worker, trying to decide which leather to use can be a bit ominous.
In this post, I’m going to walk you through the main types of leathers you’ll probably start dealing with and the briefly cover a few others.
What are the Different Types of Leather?
I mean this really depends on how you look at it. Leather can have different grades, tannages, finishes, and processes which make for a lot of different types of leather. Why don’t we start with leather grades:
Generally speaking, there are 4 grades of leather.
- Full Grain
- Top Grain
This is the good stuff. It is the most durable leather that will, if taken care of, last for generations. The outer-most layer of the skin called the grain, is left intact, which is what makes it so durable. This is the layer that had to protect the animal from the elements and as a result, is the reason full grain leather is so resilient. One characteristic of full grain leather that is easy to spot is that it has visible imperfection naturally in the skin that make it unique.
Top grain leather is the next best thing to full grain. It’s still really resilient, but has a more uniform appearance on the surface that hides most of the imperfections that full grain features. This is accomplished by sanding of buffing those imperfections out of the grain and then applying an artificial grain to give it a more uniform finish. Top grain is sometimes called corrected-grain leather for this reason. It is still great leather, just slightly less durable than full grain.
Split leather is literally that: split. They take the back side (or flesh side) and split it off of the grain leathers. Since this leather doesn’t have the grain attached, it is significantly less durable. Probably the most common use of split leather is suede which has a napped or fuzzy finish. Split leather also sometimes gets a coating applied to it to try to mimic the more expensive grain leathers.
Let me start by saying just avoid this stuff. This is the lowest quality leather you can get. It is the OSB or particle board of the leather world. Made out of the remnants of leather from processing the higher grades, it is chopped up, mixed with polyurethane or silicone, and then pressed onto a fabric backing. The surface is then painted in an attempt to look like a grain leather. This stuff is not durable and it looks awful.
What About Genuine Leather?
The thing about genuine leather is that the term doesn’t really mean anything. It doesn’t denote the grade, process, or quality of the leather at all. Basically what it means is “this thing contains some amount of actual leather”.
Since genuine leather has such a vague meaning, it can be put on products made out of lower quality types of leather such as splits or bonded leathers. If you went to your local big box store and looked at the cheap leather wallets, I’d put money on them saying “Genuine leather” somewhere on the product. This is to intentionally mislead customers into thinking it is a quality item when it isn’t.
Before leather is split into the above grades, it needs to be tanned. There are a few different ways to tan leather, but the main two are vegetable tanning and chrome tanning.
Vegetable Tanned Leather
Vegetable tanned leather, or veg tan, is made using a process that is literally ancient. There are records dating this process back as far as 5,000 years.
Vegetable tannins are extracted from tree bark, roots, and leaves to create a liquid that the hides will soak in, called tanning liquor. The hides will spend several weeks to several months in these baths until they become veg tan. Because of this long tanning period, veg tan is one of the most expensive types of leather.
Veg tan can be left natural or dyed and waxed and it tends to have a stiff, firm temper. Natural veg tan absorbs water really well and can easily accept a stamp or be molded.
Chrome Tanned Leather
Chrome tan gets its name from the use of chromium salts to tan the hide instead of vegetable tannins. It takes way less time to make than veg tan. Start to finish, it can be completed in a day, making chrome tan much more affordable than veg tan.
Chrome tanned leather tends to have a soft temper and be pretty flexible. It’s also water resistant, making it one of the better types of leather for bags, clothing, boots, etc. It also tends to come in a wider variety of colours. A down-side of chrome tan is that it is difficult to stamp or burnish. To get a nice crisp stamp, you will likely need to add heat. To burnish it, you’ll need to use a lot of elbow grease or a burnishing machine.
Oil Tanned Leather
Oil tanned leather isn’t actually tanned in oil. It’s actually just chrome tan that is then finished using oils and waxes. This makes for a very durable and beautiful leather. This is also one of my favourite types of leather.
There are more ways of tanning leather but many of them are either a combination of veg tan and then re-tanning using the chrome tan method (think Horween’s Chromexcel or latigo leathers), vice versa, or the more obscure methods like brain tanning.
Are These The Only Types of Leather?
Definitely not! As you’ve probably gathered if you’ve made it this far, there are a number of different combinations of processes that can make a ton of different types of leather. And we haven’t even discussed exotic leathers or the coveted shell cordovan which comes from the back end of a horse. There are also different finishes such as nubuck which is a grain leather that is finished to look almost exactly like suede.
There are so many combinations that I could never list them all here.
Great, So What Type of Leather Should I Use?
Ideally? All of them. The best way to figure out which leathers you like to work with is to try them out. Obviously if you’re just starting out, it probably isn’t feasible to just buy all the leathers, though.
For a complete beginner, buying their first leathers, I’d recommend a cheaper natural veg tan if you can find one or a good oil tanned leather (I really like SB Foot). This, of course, depends on the type of leather work you plan on doing. If you are unsure of the type of leather work you plan on doing, check out my post on What is Leather Work.
If you can, some leather suppliers will cut hides down and sell by square foot which makes testing out a bunch of different types of leather a bit easier.