The Types Of Leather And Everything You Ought To Know About Them
Before you read the article, test your knowledge!
There are plenty of types of leather out there, but you might have found yourself wondering about them from time to time. You might have even noticed that the type of leather seems to influence the amount of money you need to part with to get the item. Ever wonder what you’re paying for?
There’s actually a lot to know, but we’ve done the research so you don’t have to.
The types of leather are determined by the composition (the grade and/or grain) the tanning process and the finishing process used to make it.
If you want to learn about the various leather grades, tanning techniques and so on so you can know what to shop for in a fine leather item, we’re going to tell you exactly that. Read through this Bigfoot Gun Belts guide to leather and you’ll have all the information you need to shop smarter when it comes to leather products.
How Is Leather Made?
Leather is the skin of an animal. Most leather is cowhide but other hides such as elephant, kangaroo, ostrich leather, fish, deerskin/buckskin, horse hide and crocodilian leathers (virtually all crocodilians, including alligators, crocodiles, gharials and caimans, are hunted for their hide) are also common.
After the animal is skinned, hair and any remaining muscle tissue is removed. Then it’s stretched, dried and subjected to a chemical treatment (tanning) that stabilizes the proteins in the skin and keeps it from rotting. Said chemical treatment has a high concentration of tannins, a class of polyphenols (usually a weak astringent acid) that solidify proteins. After tanning, leather gets dyed and subjected to a finishing process.
Chromium tanning is by far the most common, but other methods such as vegetable tanning, aldehyde tanning and rose tanning (exceedingly rare and expensive) are out there as well. Ultra-rare is brain tanning, where literally the brains of an animal are used to tan the hide, though today it is mostly reserved for small operations that typically specialize in buckskin.
However, most leather you’re likely to find is either chrome or vegetable tanned. Chrome-tanned leathers are typically softer than vegetable tanned leathers, as vegetable tanning usually produces a stiffer product, so vegetable tanning is a bit more ideal for working leathers. When it comes to the sort of leather products you’re likely to wear, vegetable tanned leathers are a bit more common for shoes and belts rather than, say, for jackets, upholstery or luggage.
The Leather Grades and Leather Grains Explained
Before we get into types of leather, there are also leather grades – also called “grain” – to be aware of. They’re pretty important, as the grade of leather product does impact its quality and usually the price as well.
Skin has several layers, and the grade/grain is determined by which layers a piece of leather is made of. Cowhides are separated into two main layers, the grain and the corium, the fleshy bottommost layer of skin. The more grain, the higher the quality but also the tougher the leather.
The most common leather grades are:
Full Grain: full grain leather is almost fully from the grain, though it includes grain and the grain/corium junction, about a 70-30 mix. Full grain is the strongest hide, but also receives the least amount of finishing. It’s the most desired because of the durability and appearance, but it also has a slightly rustic quality because of the natural blemishes that remain from the skin of the animal.
Top Grain: top grain leather is comprised of roughly equal proportions of grain, grain/corium junction and corium. It’s as strong as full grain, but a bit more uniform in appearance. A little cheaper to buy, but with no loss in durability.
Split Leathers: split leathers are made from the corium. Usually, the grain and grain-corium junction is split from the hide and made into full grain products, and the remainder is used for split leather products such as genuine leather and suede. They aren’t as strong or durable. Genuine leather is usually heavily treated to give it the same appearance as full or top grain.
Bonded Leather: bonded leather is a cheap, inferior product – period. Leather scraps are shredded and reconstituted with a filler. Know how sawdust is used to make particle board? Same thing.
Sweet Aniline: Leather Finishes
After the grains and grades, there are leather finishes. The three most common are:
Aniline: aniline leather is dyed but is given no further treatments. This is reserved only for the finest of leathers, as the pits, pores and imperfections of skin are visible. Aniline leather isn’t as stain resistant as other types, but is softer and more pliable. Aniline leathers also develop a patina as it ages, which a lot of people consider highly desirable.
Semi-aniline: semi-aniline leathers are dyed but are given a thin protective coating, usually a light top coat of a sealant (commonly wax) of some sort. This protects the leather from staining but also corrects the grain to a degree for a uniform appearance. However, semi-aniline leathers will also patina with age though perhaps not to the same degree.
Pigmented: pigmented leather is generally lower quality leathers that are sanded and buffed for uniform appearance, then fully embossed and sealed. These leathers resist stains very well and are still durable, but won’t patina or age at all which many people desire in leather products. These leathers are well-suited to upholstery, but a great many of poor quality leathers are pigmented for appearance.
Leather Types Are The Sum Of The Parts
Leather types are a combination of all of the above factors. The tanning process, grain/grade, and finish all add up to the type of leather.
For instance, bridle leathers are typically full or top grain semi-aniline leather, finished with oil and wax after dyeing. Regular bridle leather is given a smooth coat; a wax coat with a bit of spew for texture (like spackle on walls but you’d have to use a microscope to see it) is English bridle leather. The tough but supple nature of bridle leathers make it ideal for tack, as well as great leather for gun belts, shoes and other applications.
Latigo leather, by contrast, is partially chrome-tanned then fully vegetable tanned, making it a bit more supple than bridle leather. It’s also given a hot bath in oils and wax. This gives it a darker appearance with an incredibly smooth feeling in the hand. However, it’s also strong enough for saddlery straps and belts.
Bullhide is cow leather, but is made from a bull, which is a stronger overall hide. Typical cow leather is from cows, heifers and steers. Calfskin…is self-explanatory.
Harness leather, much like bridle leather, is a vegetable-tanned semi-aniline leather, finished with generous coats of oils and waxes for durability. However, harness leather is typically not dyed as extensively. It also has much more oil and wax infused into it than bridle leather, making it more weather resistant but also heavier and more rigid. Show harness leather is similar, but the oils and waxes of show harness leathers give it a “pull-up” effect, where the leather lightens when stretched.
Patent leather uses a plastic coating for a high-gloss shine, though is still often fine grade leather under the coating. Oddly enough, the man who invented patent leather – inventor Seth Boyden – never actually patented it. Originally, the treatment was linseed oil but it’s been replaced by plastic coating.
Napa leather is more or less a chrome-tanned soft leather, often grain-corrected and well-regarded for use in upholstery, handbags and clothing.
Nubuck is top-grain leather that’s been sanded on the grain side to create a nap of fibers, just like suede. However, the difference between nubuck and suede is that nubuck is made from a finer grade of leather.
Russia or Russian leather is vegetable tanned, but after tanning is treated with birch oil, making it hardy, though flexible and much more resistant to water than other leathers.
There are others, of course. However, that’s what adds up to the types of leather.
Now that you’ve read up on our Guide to Leather, learn some more. Here are four related blogs:
About The Author
Born in southeastern Washington State, Sam Hoober graduated in 2011 from Eastern Washington University. He resides in the great Inland Northwest, with his wife and child. His varied interests and hobbies include camping, fishing, hunting, and spending time at the gun range as often as possible.