If you’ve ever shopped for leather, it doesn’t take long to become overwhelmed by the various leather types and terminology listed at the various retailer and distributor websites. To be honest, I’m still baffled by the sheer number of options to choose from and know little about most of them since I’ve mostly only dealt with vegetable tanned leather for holsters and related accessories. I plan to update this page as time goes on and as I learn about something new. So, let’s discuss leather types and terminology!
Grading is generally broken down into the three different classes. Those classes are typically referred to as something akin to one of the follow:
- “First, Second, Third”
- “A, B, C”
- “Standard, Utility, Special”
There is also a “Tannery Run (TR)” classification. This is normally what is left over after the tannery has pulled out the very best and worst of a batch of hides. TR allows for some imperfections in the leather, such as scars and bug bites. If you order TR hides, expect to get a totally random grade on your doorstep. Often times, you can call your distributor and let them know your intended use or expectations and they can hand-pick a hide for you, though this sometimes seems to make little difference. If you’re ordering over the internet, you’ll probably receive whatever hide was laying on top of the stack.
There are quite a few tanning methods used to convert animal hides and skins into leather, but I’m only going to discuss a few of them. For more information on additional types of tanning processes, please refer to this article.
Vegetable-tanned leather has been tanned using tannin and vegetable matter. It is the only tanning method suitable for tooling, carving and forming leather. This is the type of leather used in holsters, and can also be used for journal covers, bags, purses, etc.
Chrome-tanned leather is tanned using chromium sulfate and other chromium salts. This results in a softer, more pliable leather when compared to vegetable-tanned leather. Chrome-tanned leather can not be tooled, carved or formed. It should never be used for anything that will be in contact with metal that can rust, as the chromium salts will damage the metal finish. It’s cheaper to buy (compared to vegetable-tanned) because it’s quick and easy to produce.
Oil-tanned leather is not actually tanned with oil – it is usually a chrome-tanned leather that has been treated with oil to make it more weather resistant.
Aniline Leather has been dyed through and has been given a finish to make it more resistant to dirt. The hide can still breath and maintains natural leather characteristics, with a natural feel. Over time, it will develop a unique character and patina with use.
Semi-Aniline Leather has been dyed through and a water-based mixture of binder, fixer-agent and color-pigment has been applied to the surface. Even though the surface has been treated to help withstand the wear and tear of regular use, it still maintains some of its natural qualities, but will not take on as much of the character and patina as aniline leather.
Bonded Leather is produced by grinding up all the scraps leftover from trimming, splitting, etc. This mixture is then mixed with glue, then pressed into sheets. This “leather” is very weak and not suitable for extended use.
Bridle leather is a vegetable tanned leather that’s had oils added to help it withstand weather.
Chrome Oil Tanned Leather
Chrome oil tanned leather is a chrome tanned leather that’s had oils added to help it withstand weather.
Cordovan leather is made from equines (generally horses), taken from beneath the hide on the rump of the animal. Generally used in shoes and gloves, as well as some archery equipment. It’s also frequently used by holster makers since the leather generally results in a stiffer, more durable end-product when compared to cow hide.
Corrected-grain leather is an even lower quality than the top-grain leather mentioned above. Like top-grain leather, it has had its outer surfaced removed prior to stamping a new grain pattern on the hide so it “looks like leather” again. It then has stains or dyes applied, which helps to hide the man-made grain pattern and remaining imperfections in the hide.
Full-grain leather is the best of the best. It has not had its grain (the outer surface) sanded, buffed etc., and still shows all its natural beauty and imperfections bug bites, scars, etc.). Full-grain leather will take on a natural patina over time from use.
Kipskin leather is a vegetable tanned leather prepared from the skin of small or young cattle.
Latigo leather is a leather that has been tanned using a combination of chrome and vegetable or vegetable and aluminum tanning, which has been hot stuffed with oils and fat liquors, resulting in a rigid, but very pliable leather. This gives it great strength, but also great flexibility.
Nappa leather is full-grain, dyed through (color goes all the way through the hide) leather that is chrome or aluminum sulfate tanned, and is usually made from either kid (young goats), lamb or sheep skin. The skins are soft and durable and are often used in high-end furniture and some upscale automobiles.
Nubuck leather is top-grain leather that has been sanded or buffed on the grain side, which results in a smooth, velvety surface. Nubuck leather feels like suede, but is more durable since it’s produced from the outer side of the hide with the grain layer still intact.
Patent leather starts with a high grade of leather (generally the cleanest, best of the best of hides) that undergoes a multiple applications of linseed oil, which is hand-rubbed and polished between each application, resulting in a nearly waterproof final product. Modern patent leather is coated with plastic or resin coatings – not as durable as true patent leather and is easily scuffed, which allows the thin coating layer to easily begin to peal away.
Split leather is what’s left after the top grain of the hide is remove. Depending on the thickness of the original hide, multiple splits can be cut from the same hide. Split leather is used to create suede leather. Because the grain layer provides a great deal of strength to the leather, splits are generally not as durable as those containing the top grain of the hide. However, that also results in a softer end-product compared to full-grain leather.
Suede leather can be made from the splits from cows, pigs, deer, etc. – basically anything with a hide thick enough to work with. Suede cut from cow hides is generally quite fuzzy due to the larger fleshy fibers in the hide. Suede is often used for liners, but is not generally recommended for holster liners due to the textured, open pores, as it may get dirty and cause excessive wear on a firearm’s finish. It’s also harder to clean than the smooth surface of a full-grain leather.
Technical Leather undergoes the same treatments as aniline and semi-aniline leather, but is given additional pigmented finishing and other treatments. As a result, technical leather has a less natural feel, but is extremely tough, durable and easy to clean. It’s commonly used in the automotive an aviation industries.
Also referred to as “Genuine Leather”, top-grain leather has had the top layer removed, which removes the bug bites, scars, etc., making the grain side more uniform in appearance. This allows more of the hide to be usable. However, it has had a finish coat added which usually results in a cheap looking, plastic feeling leather. Because the actual grain surface will be removed, the hide can be a lower quality, which ultimately results in a cheaper finished product, though it is a bit more durable than a full-grain leather due to the protective coating that’s been applied.
Leather can be made from pretty much anything with a skin. Cow, deer, chicken, fish, pig, kangaroo, shark, elephant, osterich, etc. and nearly anything else with a pulse can be made into leather.
The following list shows an overview of the various cuts of a hide. Note that not all cuts are available from all suppliers, and actual terminology may vary.
A,C = Cheek
B = Face
A+B+C = Head
D,G = Fore Shank
D,H,L or G,K,M = Belly
H,K = Middle
L,M = Hind Shank
E+F = Double Shoulder
E+I or F+J = Back
E+F+I+J = Double Back
I or J = Single Bend
I+J = Double Bend
H+I+J+K+L+M = Double Butt
A+D+E+H+I+L or C+F+J+G+K+M = Side
Now, you’re probably wondering what the pro’s and con’s are of the various cuts? Each hide is a little different and the way each hide takes to the tanning process varies a bit too. For example, some hides may be easy to cut, while others have you banging your head against the wall wondering how your knife got so dull so quickly!
- A,B,C – This area typically has a lot of wrinkles and scratches. This is a durable cut with a lot of ability to stretch without tearing.
- D,H,L and G,K,M – This “belly” area is generally referred to as the “waste” section. Depending on the supplier, you can ask to have the belly removed prior to purchase. They usually charge a fee to remove it, though this results in an overall smaller amount of billed square footage. Depending on your intended uses, this cut may or may not be of any value to you. Personally, I like to mock-up new holster designs with it to test my stitch lines and patterns.
- E,F,I,J – This area is typically the premium area of the hide with the least amount of waste. It’s the thickest and firmest part, and is best suited to items that require minimum stretch and maximum firmness. The closer you get to the spine, the more firm the leather gets, which can also make it more prone to cracking.
Leather is usually sold by the square foot, and the thickness (weight) is usually measured in ounces. As a general rule, one ounce equals approximately 1/64″. Eight ounces equals roughly 1/8″ thick leather. Four ounces would be half as thick (1/16″). Even though the hides are run though a machine to split them to a desired thickness, there is still some amount of variation across the hide, which is why leather is usually sold as (for example) 8-9oz, or even 8-10oz.
When you order leather off the internet, you’ll usually see a drop-down selection box where you can specify a desired thickness, as well as a desired size. The thickness options will largely depend on the particular type of leather you’re looking at, and the square footage will usually refer to how many actual pieces (cuts) of hides you want. For example: If I want to buy 3 sides, and the quantity option is in increments of 24 square feet, I would select “72″ square feet, which tells the shipper I want 3 hides.
If the hide is selling for $5 per sq ft, you’d think the price would be $5 X 72, right? Close… The “24 sq ft” is simply an average hide size for a “side” of leather. The shipper will likely grab the next 3 hides off the top of the stack, which could happen to be 25 sq ft each, so you’d be charged $15 more than you were expecting. This is to be, well… expected.