Leatherworking 101 – Part 1: What Is Leather?

8 10 2008

The last series I did here was pretty well received (on protocols, you can find them here, here, and here), so I decided to do one on a subject I have some experience with: Leatherworking. Now before you say, “I can’t do that, it’s too complicated,” take a breath.  Leatherworking isn’t that hard, and all you need is some creativity, a few basic tools, and the subject of this post: Leather.

What is leather?  This is pre-leather.

pre-leather

pre-leather

Leather is the treated skin of an animal. The animal is killed (usually for meat in the case of cattle and pigs), the hair is removed, the hide is treated (untreated skin technically isn’t leather, even if it is preservered in some way, see rawhide).

The two most common types of leather you will find are chrome-tanned leather and vegetable-tanned leather. Chrome tanned leather is used in may bulk leather items such as upholstery in cars and homes, leather clothing, and other mass market items.

Vegetable-tanned leather is more commonly used by hobbiest and custom leather workers.  Many saddles are made from this type of leather.  While both types are available in several grades of quality.  Personally this is the type of leather I use for cuffs and other bindings.  My floggers are made from either type.

From wikipedia:

  • Full-grain leather or top-grain is referring to the upper section of a hide that contains the epidermis or skin layer. It refers to hides that have not been sanded, buffed or snuffed(otherwise known as Corrected) in order to remove imperfections on the surface of the hide. Only the hair has been removed from the epidermis. The grain remains in its natural state which will allow the best fiber strength, resulting in greater durability. The natural grain also has natural breathability, resulting in greater comfort for clothing. The natural full-grain surface will wear better than other leather. Rather than wearing out, it will develop a natural patina and change in its appearance over time. The finest leather furniture and footwear are made from full-grain leather. For these reasons only the best raw hide are used in order to create full-grain or top-grain leather. Full grain leathers can mainly be bought as two finish types: aniline and semi-aniline.
  • Corrected-grain leather is any top-grain leather that has had its surfaces sanded, buffed or snuffed in order to remove any imperfection on the surface due to insect bites, healed scars or brands. Top-grain leather is often wrongly referred to as corrected-grain. Although corrected-grain leather is made from top-grain as soon as the surface is corrected in any way the leather is no longer referred to as top-grain leather. The hides used to create corrected leather are hides of inferior quality that do not meet the high standards for use in creating aniline or semi-aniline leather. The imperfections are corrected and an artificial grain applied. Most corrected-grain leather is used to make pigmented leather as the solid pigment helps hide the corrections or imperfections. Corrected grain leathers can mainly be bought as two finish types: semi-aniline and pigmented.
  • Split leather is leather created from the fibrous part of the hide left once the top-grain of the rawhide has been separated from the hide. During the splitting operation, the grain and drop split are separated. The drop split can be further split (thickness allowing) into a middle split and a flesh split. In very thick hides, the middle split can be separated into multiple layers until the thickness prevents further splitting. Split leather then has an artificial layer applied to the surface of the split and is embossed with a leather grain. Splits are also used to create suede. The strongest suedes are usually made from grain splits (that have the grain completely removed) or from the flesh split that has been shaved to the correct thickness. Suede is “fuzzy” on both sides. Suede is less durable than top-grain. Suede is cheaper because many pieces of suede can be split from a single thickness of hide, whereas only one piece of top-grain can be made. However, manufacturers use a variety of techniques to make suede appear to be full-grain. For example, in one operation, glue is mixed with one side of the suede, which is then pressed through rollers; these flatten and even out one side of the material, giving it the smooth appearance of full-grain. Latigo is one of the trade names for this product. A reversed suede is a grained leather that has been designed into the leather article with the grain facing away from the visible surface. It is not a true form of suede.

Leather is sold by the square foot and by thickness (refered to oz per sq ft.  i.e. a 8 oz leather, is 8 oz per square foot (this works out to 8/64ths of an inch in thickness, each oz being about 1/6t4th of an inch).

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