HTBuy-Leather-art - 11/2/14
"How To Buy Leather" by The Honorable Christophe of Grey.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org
Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.
While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
You can find more of this author's work on his website at:
This article was first published in the "The Phoenix", the newsletter of the Barony of Sacred Stone, Atlantia.
How To Buy Leather
by The Honorable Christophe of Grey
Let us start at the very beginning; leather was the FIRST recycling business. Leather is a byproduct of the beef industry. If you have issues with leather stuff, go after McDonald's, the largest consumer of beef in the world. As for furs and some exotic leathers, we'll talk later about that. But do know that some items we may consider as exotic really are not. Example, reindeer hides. They are a byproduct of the meat industry in Finland. That said, let us continue.
Buying leather can be somewhat confusing. It is sold by the ounce but measured by thickness. As though that were not confusing enough, there is veg tanned, chrome tanned, drum dyed, split grain, full grain, and suede. Then we have to deal with sides, shoulders, half shoulders, and bellies. What does it all mean?
Let's start with types of leather as determined by how it's tanned. Tanning is the process of converting skin into a substance that will last for years. Without tanning. skin would soon begin to rot and become really nasty and unusable. In period leather was tanned using tannins from natural vegetable extracts. Today that type of leather is referred to as veg tanned leather. It is easily identified in its purest state by a light beige color. If the leather has been dyed (not drum dyed, that comes later) you can check for veg tanned by slicing a piece. If the edge is light beige, it's veg tanned. Veg tanned leather is NOT waterproof. If you want to stamp or tool your leather project (subject of another article of this series) then veg tanned is what you want. When it gets wet it achieves an almost clay like quality which makes it suitable for carving or tooling.
As vegetable tanning takes a couple of weeks, chromium tanning was developed. This process uses chromium salts to tan the leather and takes a few days to about one week. Chrome tanned leather is stiffer and more water repellent than veg tanned leather. If you are doing tooling or stamping, chrome tanned leather is NOT your choice. It is best for belts, straps, and some armor.
Deer and members of the antelope family hides are typically tanned using a different process. There are many ways to do this. One is to smoke it over a smuggie fire using rotted wood. Deer tanning involves working the leather during and after the tanning process to give the finished product that soft hand we have come to expect. Deer hides are very tough even though they are very thin. Deer hide makes great clothing and small items like bags and such. Elk hide has the same soft hand as deer hide but is much thicker and is better suited for items that may experience abuse like shoes, moccasins and the like. Often you can find cowhide that has been tanned using a deer tanning process that has the similar soft hand of deer hide.
Is there a difference between which animal the hide came from? Is snow different from water? Cow hide is very tough. Bull hide is even tougher but also a bit stiffer. Deer is very strong even though it is very thin and soft. Elk is strong and soft but much thicker than deer. Elk also has a cushy quality to it due to its thickness. Exotics such as rabbits, fox, squirrel, and beaver are usually tanned with hair on and prized for the fur they provide to projects. Ever felt sheered beaver? OMG!!!!!!!!
Just as a side note. Recently on the market, i.e. Tandy Leather, had reindeer hides. These come with the hair on and are from reindeer farms in Scandinavia where reindeer is one of their food sources. Reindeer and Elk are two animals whose hair is different than deer, skunk, rabbit or the rest of the lot. Reindeer and Elk hairs are hollow. They make fantastic warm garments like vests, coats, gloves, boots (upper portions) but lousy seat cushions or anything that will be sat on or pressured in any way. The hollow hairs, like glass straws, will break over time. For insulation it's hard to beat.
So what about this thickness/ounce thing? Leather is measured by how much one square foot weighs. But one ounce also relates to 1/32 of an inch in thickness. As leather is a natural product and not consistent throughout, it is rated as 4 – 5 or 7 – 8 ounce, giving you a range. You can buy leather from 1 ounce up to 15 ounce. Typically we can get domestic or imported leather. Domestic leather comes from American farms and typically is very clean, no marks. Imported leather usually comes from South America and will have brands, ticks bites or barbed wire fence scratches. I like to call that "character" much like grain in wood.
Our next dilemma is split grain or full grain. When lather comes off its original owner it is about 3/4 inch thick. It gets split down to the ounce/thickness we want. Those inner pieces become split grain leather. Split grain leather is often referred to as suede, sort of a misnomer. Leather that is rough on both sides is split grain leather. Leather that is smooth on one side, the original hair side, and rough on the other, inside of original owner, is called full grain leather. If you want to do stamping or tooling you want full grain leather. Typically full grain leather is also stiffer so it makes better armor or items that will take lots of abuse, i.e. shoes. Split grain leather tends to stretch a lot. Suede is a market name for split grain leather. Nubuck leather, which has a very slight nap to it, is actually full grain leather that is pulled through wire brush rollers rotating backwards to the direction of the pull to "rough up" the leather.
So how do you buy leather? Well it comes in sides, bellies, shoulders, and half shoulders. As you would expect, these terms are a description of what part of the animal it came from. A side is just that, one side of the animal split right down the spine. Sometimes you can find a full hide that is as it sounds minus the neck or belly part. Necks and shoulders come as half shoulder or full. This is the shoulder area of the animal and often this leather has much more character to it in the form of wrinkles and creases. These take dyes differently and provide very interesting effects much like wood staining. Bellies are long and soft. This leather is best for bags and the like. Not really good for belts as this leather tends to stretch a lot. These pieces are also typically fairly narrow.
Most full service leather shops can provide you with all the types of leather discussed in this article.
Copyright 2014 by John Atkins. <cogworks at triad.rr.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, please place a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.