As this site is dedicated to those who enjoy both the rugged and finer things in life, the leather you rock says a lot about your taste. Looking at the market itself, you’ll find that leather quality can be descried two fold. First you have the grain, and second you have the tanning process. Either way you will have different words that precede the same products. For example, GENUINE leather bag, FULL GRAIN leather wallet, BONDED leather watch strap, SUEDE, and for those who like the copies, PU leather. For probably 95% of the population it’s all the same. But what does it all mean? How can you tell the difference?
What Do You Mean By Grain?
First things first, you have to look at leather from a respectable point of view. At one point it belonged to an animal. As with most animals on earth its skin is made up of several layers, and for the purposes of making carrying goods, each layer is valued and prized accordingly.
Looking at the skin from a cellular level, the closer the layer to the surface of the skin the tighter and more intertwined the collagen fibers are arranged. Now the opposite, the further away the layer of skin is from the surface, the larger and more horizontal the collagen fibers become, essentially weakening the strength of the skin (Biologically this makes sense, you wouldn’t want the softer layers of your skin on the surface would you?). After reading this you might say to yourself “Ok, that’s fine and dandy but who cares?”. Well this “skin strength”, and collagen tightness, bears a direct correlation to how long your leather item will last. You wouldn’t want to be traversing the Rainforest miles away from civilization and your travel bag rips open and all your survival stuff falls out. Maybe your doing an awesome hike through the American Rockies, and your sweet boots tear apart, or maybe your backpacking Europe and your wallet you got at the mall, or local department store, tears and all your foreign currency is at risk of falling out. I think you guys get the picture.
What do the Different Types of Grain Look Like?
In order of strength, price, and quality, Full Grain leather comes out on top, aside from the collagen fibers mentioned above it also brings a sense of uniqueness to the table. Full Grain is essentially untouched skin, and this is evident when looking at the leather itself. Full grain will often come with all the beautiful and natural imperfections of the animal’s skin that it has sustained throughout its lifetime.
Anything from stretch marks, veins, wrinkles, to even insect bites, scars, and brands. If you look close enough you can even still see the pores of the skin. Those who opt for full grain leather can rest assured knowing that their leather item is truly one of a kind.
Another plus is the way the leather ages. With time, sun, and the oils from your hands, full grain leather will develop a soft sheen, often times enriching the color of the leather. This gives way to a cherished weathered look, called a Patina. The Tanning process can actually develop this patina even further depending on the tanning process (we will revisit that later).
The wallet on top has begun to develop a soft shine, and has given way to a richer chocolate like color due to use.
Next down the line we have top grain, which is still a great contender, in terms of collagen. Not as strong as Full Grain, but by no means as weak as genuine or bonded leather. This grain is what is left after the first layer, Full Grain, is sloughed off, along with the blemishes and imperfections of the skin. Believe it or not there are people who like leather uniform and cookie cutter, without any imperfections. This grain will not develop a nice patina with age.
In third place we have genuine leather, what remains after the top layers are taken off. This is perhaps the most common leather found on anything, and its name is also quite deceiving. After all the word genuine is used to described something that is authentic. Anyone would fall for that! It is very cheap to purchase, compared to the top layers, and is usually refinished (painted) to look like a higher level of hide. Basically it can be made to look and feel like any type of leather on the market. In fact, Suede is made from this layer of skin. But as shown above, the collagen fibers at this point are beginning to become larger, and more spaced out, thus making this layer not so great for carrying heavier things, or for those items exposed to a lot of stress.
Pro tip: This layer of leather can actually be pressed to look like the skin of any animal. You can spot the fake by looking for uniformity in the pattern. No Animal has naturally reoccurring perfect patterns. Think of it like a fingerprint. Each one is unique and different.
Believe it or not, the shavings of the top layers do have some use. They can actually be glued and pressed together along with some polyurethane (PU) coating to make a sort of faux leather that is further embossed with leather like texture. Needless to say it is the worst type of leather you can buy, essentially dust, shavings, and plastics pressed to make a fake skin.
Typically this type of leather is used for upholstery. Have you ever had an old “leather” sofa for a couple of years and noticed some tearing and ripping of the cushions?
A word or two on “imperfections”:
Skin is one of god’s many canvases. Impossible to find 2 of the same, not even in identical twins. So why remove that which gives character, that which forever forges a story in time? Understandably, there aren’t many people who would want a massive scar on a bag or wallet, but there are more tolerable imperfections that will add personality to a carry item.
Proof that the leather you are holding is indeed full grain. We all have them!
As well as veins, give the piece a marbled look.
The Marks of Wisdom.
These tiny marks show as either white or dark spots.
Arguably the rarest and most praised in the leather world. If you find yourself with a branded piece, it is regarded as a sign of good luck!
Tanning, Vegetable vs. Chrome
Regardless of which style you choose, the tanning process can be an art form when performed correctly. Now each style has pros and cons, and involves a complex chemical process, which I’ll summarize to save some time.
Both processes begin with the dehairing and desalting of the hide before staining.
Let’s begin with Chrome Tanning, as it is the most common form of tanning. The process from start to finish requires use of a combination of checmicals, both salts and acids (chromium sulphate) to dye the skin. In comparison to Veg tanning, it is a very quick process, usually taking about a day’s time. Before all else, the skin is “pickled” which essentially removes all non-structural proteins (fatty tissues, excess flesh, etc) and leaves all the structural proteins (i.e. collagen fibers) allowing the tannins to bind to the structural proteins much more thoroughly. Pickling requires bathing the hide in an acid salt mixture before the placement into the chromium sulphate solution. The finished product of this step is what they call “wet blue”. The wet blue is what will eventually be stained and finished to the appropriate color desired.
Next we have Vegetable tanned leather, a more environmentally friendly approach to tanning a hide. This process uses natural ingredients like tree bark of the chestnut tree to tan the skin. Plant extracts act as the main ingredient and requires a painfully lengthy amount of time. Anywhere from 40 – 60 days of tanning. The Finished product typically sports more natural browns, as opposed to the multiple colors that can be obtained with the chrome tanning process. Because of the organic approach to tanning the pre-staining product gives off a natural white color, thus called “wet white”.
Both processes are very different and have their individual pros and cons:
- It has a high degree of thermal resistance.
- Finished hide is more stain resistant and water can roll off the surface easily.
- The finish is more soft, and supple.
- Color remains much more constant throughout the products life
- Very quick to produce, taking about a days time
- Chrome tanning is not so great for the environment.
- Often massed produced.
- Because it is easier to produce than veg, there are a lot of people who attempt the process, but perform the practice incorrectly.
- If performed incorrectly, the chemicals may become carcinogenic upon reaction.
- Much more environmentally friendly as natural tannins are used
- Because of the natural ingredients Patina will develop much nicer over time
- Typically used for high performance leather items, saddles, holsters, etc
- Vegetable tanning is an excruciatingly long process. Can take up to 60 days.
- Vegetable tanning products don’t react well with water and can stain easily.
- Naturals colors are typically the results, thus making the color palate limited for finished hides.
- Direct heat can cause shrinkage and or cracking to vegetable tanned products.
To summarize, the steps in both processes are basically the same. The hide is de-haired, desalted, and then rehydrated. The excess natural oils and greases (meat), are displaced by entirely new oils and chemicals that further strengthen and soften the collagen fibers, whether with synthetic or naturally occurring tannins. However with each process you have different benefits and disadvantages.
Chromexcel is a proprietary tanning process created by world famous Horween tannery, in Chicago. Horween Leather Company was founded in 1905, and after more than 100 years, have pinned leather down to a science. Their secret formula takes elements from both chrome and vegetable tanning. The development undergoes at least 89 separate processes and takes a whopping 28 days to reach a finished product.
With some minor changes in ingredients, the first part of the process is essentially chrome tanning until arriving at the wet blue stage. The secret proprietary formula, and the intro to the vegetable tanning process begins from this point on. The hide is retanned with proprietary blends of bark extracts, dyes and stains, obtained from naturally occurring pigments. Everything comes together with some heat, steam, pressure, human hands, and time. After the retanning, natural oils, waxes, and grease are impregnated into the hides (food-grade beef fat, and cosmetic-grade beeswax).
Finally, the hide is finished with several hand-rubbed coats of aniline, allowing for even staining of the hide. A coat of Neatsfoot Oil is then applied to the hide to condition the leather
With the Chromexcel process, you get the best of both worlds. Chrome tanning will give soft and supple long lasting leathers, while the veg tanning process will yield more round and full feeling pieces, that will patina well, and are easy to shape using heat and moisture.
The finished product…..
The Decision is yours
Ultimately the leather you choose is entirely up to you. The deciding factors come down to,
- Price: Full grain being the most expensive, Bonded and Genuine being the cheapest.
- Preference: Do the natural beauty marks and imperfections of full grain leather turn you away?
- After all, European style goes more along the lines of top grain leather, with decent strength without the natural markings
- Full grain is more of an American style, reminiscent of the rough and tough cow boy days
- Longevity: Are you looking for more of a timeless piece, or a temporary fix for a carry item?