April 15, 2021 8 min read
What characteristics should you look for in leather and what makes a leather good or bad? Is there even a good and bad? (spoiler: it's 100% subjective)
Today I wanted to show you a little bit of what to look for in different pieces of leather and specifically what I look for in pieces of leather. Maybe your leather crafter and you want to know a little bit more about this material. I'd like to teach you a little bit more about leather. In specific Horween leather.
Let's get into a little bit about some of the different features and characteristics that I look for in different pieces of leather. I've brought a bunch of stuff that I had laying around our workshop here and these are all Horween leathers and different types of leathers. So the first thing I like to do when I get a piece of leather is just sort of look at it. What does it look like?
This top piece of leather here this is a leather that is called Latigo. Horween’s Latigo is a little softer and more round than most other tannery’s latigo. I look at the surface here and it looks really grainy. It looks almost like little hair holes of the animal but I'm also seeing something of a more sugary look. When the leather folds in on itself and we flex it in the middle were these like it kind of looks like if you were to pour a bunch of sugar. So oftentimes that is a layer of finish on the surface called the top coat. It's often bright and shiny and when it's creasing it de-laminates in a very small way. That's what that sugary look is in the middle but the Latigo is often characterized by these small grain holes. When you fold the leather you see those little holes there that are where the hair of the animal was. That's what we call the leather grain.
EMBOSSING HAIRCELL TEXTURES
You can sort of fake that grain character by impressing (aka embossing/debossing) different textures into it. There's actually a texture called a hair cell which is often very challenging for me to tell if it's real or not because the textures are so accurate these days. The way that a tannery can press them in the leather are really good so you can often fake it.
FULL GRAIN vs. CORRECTED GRAIN
I happen to know this one is a full grain leather and all that means is we have not buffed down or sanded down the grain of the hide. Full grain is a really important characteristic that we'll talk about a little bit further. The opposite of full grain is called corrected grain and that's when you take a sandpaper and sort of smooth it down. Tanneries do that to upgrade the leather it sort of removed some of the imperfections that are in the grain like this little bit of scar on the bottom here. Sanding/buffing will remove a lot of that very prominent looking scar and level it out. You're able to finish on top of it and hide it a little bit. So that's what corrected grain is. Full grain stuff you see everything. Describing a leather as full grain doesn't make it better or worse. That's actually a really common misconception that I see. Just because it's full grain doesn't mean it's great. It just means that it hasn't been buffed. It's just different. So there's more to this than just the look. There's also the feel.
This leather, when I feel it, I like to grab the leather sort of like a book and sort of squeeze it. You can feel if the grain is smooth or waxy or silky or if it's a little dry. You also get a nice idea of the hand feel: Does the leather spring back to you? Is it's super drapey and soft? Or, is it like a piece of cardboard and is very firm in temper? For me that one has a really nice roundness to it but it also bites back to your hand that's something I call a veg bite (veg bite meaning vegetable tanned bite). It's like it's not firm but soft at the same time. It has like its own body. It kind of follows your hand. There is chromium in this.
VEG TAN, CHROME TAN, COMBO TAN
Latigo is a combination tanned leather. Latigo is chrome tanned with the vegetable retan. Latigo in particular from Horween has an incredible amount of tree barks that they tan into there so it's really well aging. I've actually got a Latigo key fob that's ten years old and it just looks ancient. So the more you wear the Latigo the better it gets because it has tree barks tanned into it. Vegetable tanned leather is called veg tanned because it is tanned using different tree barks.
PULL UP, AND BURST EFFECT
This is a leather called Dublin and you can see the pull up effect. What you're seeing there (when you flex the leather) we actually call a burst effect on the Dublin leather and that's because it's bursting the wax layer that's on the top surface. The wax floats up above the leather it's sort of moving and bursting that wax when you flex it. You’re seeing through underneath the wax when you move it. It's a slightly different than a pull up. A pull up effect you would see on this Chormexcel leather. Where it's not a wax burst that's happening. It is the mobilization of waxes and oils that are tanned into the leather. You're just seeing color come from underneath. It's the same look as the burst effect but we just call it different things.
GRAIN FIGURING (aka grain character)
The other little natural striations that you're seeing that that run sort of horizontal. Those are fat wrinkles in the animal. These are natural grain characteristics that I call figuring. I happen to like them. A lot of manufacturers can't work with the natural variances because they need to make the absolute same thing every time. So they can't deal with any variation. At Ashland, we embrace all of the natural variation and I will cut it because I think it looks cool. I like a natural look.
This is a very famous leather called Chromexcel. We make a good amount of Chromexcel products. What you kind of already identified a couple things about the Chromexcel. One of which one is that pull-up effect. It is very much like a classic characteristic of Chrome Excel. Pull up is how much color changes from the surface of leather to the undertone of leather. We call that table color as as it would lay on the table. If you just were to throw it down that's the table color. Then, once you pull it up, it's when you start to flex the leather, you start to see a little bit more color. Oftentimes from the inside of the Chromexcel. The thing that really signifies Chromexcel to me is how rich it feels. It's super waxy and super rich. That's because the leather itself is actually about half grease and wax and oil. It's incredibly rich. It's starting to get a little bit hazy on the top but what's happening there and what's cool about it is when you buy a Chromexcel shoe you're able to just polish brush it and it comes back to life. Sort of like it was new. Chromexcel was originally sold as a self polishing leather for that reason. It just has so much wax and oil in it. You’ll see this Chromexcel leather used a lot in boat shoes. You see a lot of wallets out of it now.
WATERPROOF VS WATER RESISTANT
Chromexcel is not waterproof but it's very water-resistant. So if some water got on top of this it beads and rolls off. If you let water sit on top of it it will eventually soak through. That's an important designation between waterproof and water-resistant.
It is very important to look at the break of the leather because where your shoe flexes you're going to see this sort of de-lamination and pebbling effect. I think it's because it's bison and it has that texture already in it you're starting to see these sort of loose break effects. Here is another piece of Chromexcel that has much more of a tight break. So there's different types of break. What's happening with break is the de-lamination of the grain layer from the fiber layer of the hide. They're starting to separate. They get more or less pebbly in certain areas of the hide. What we would call is a tight break look something like this where the pebbles are very much close together. The de-lamination is not piped. That one's a little bit more of a coarse break. This is a finer (tighter) break. Most times we are looking for a tight break. Here's another type of break which we would call a sugary beak. Most people identify shell cordovan as a very tight break. Most people would think of most calfskin as a very tight break. We don't do it much calfskin here but generally speaking those are often true.
VEG WILL DENT AND SCRATCH
An inherent characteristic of veg is how easily it will dent. I'm not actually sure why that's happening physically. It's just an observation that it tends to dent and scratch a lot more easily than the chrome stuff.
NATURAL INCONSISTENCIES – ANILINE FINISH
If you're buying leather and you see these natural inconsistencies that I like but if you're trying to make a hundred of the same thing it's gonna be really, really difficult for you to try to get this exact pattern every time. One more thing I think we should probably talk about is different amounts of finish. I mentioned that this one was drum dyed red and we finished a heavy coat of pigment on top. When you put that much finish and you're trying to cover up something else you don't get what we call an aniline leather. This is a very important word that is often thrown around as marketing spin. People call things aniline when they're not. What aniline leather means is that you're not using any solids (paints) in your finish. Essentially the difference between paint and stain. It’s like finishing wood. If you painted these walls behind me you're not gonna the natural wood character and color. Aniline leather is like stained wood where you're bringing out the characteristics of the grain and not covering it up. There's a spectrum of different finishes. The least amount of finish is something called naked where there's no stain no paint no nothing on it. It's just a naked piece of leather that's oftentimes called a crust. There's aniline leather which is just stain. There's semi-aniline where it's stain but with a couple drops of paint and it covers it a little bit more. Then there's a full pigmented finish which covers up everything so you'll see this in cars a lot because the specs for car interiors those leather seats need to be very much painted on because not only are they making thousands and thousands of cars and thousands and thousands of seats they need them all to be the same. But also when somebody sits on it the leather has to be resistant to all the scratches. What it is is there is silicone in the finish, in that topcoat. The top coat makes it too smooth can't grab it. let's look at it in practicality here. So this is a full finish next to an aniline finish and I think the difference is pretty obvious. Horween does a nice job with their full finished stuff – making it look real. You'll never see a full finish leather look like this it will almost always look like paint.