Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Learning About Leather, A Guide for Beginners: Part I

by Derek “Hygar” Booke
Edited by Renee “Kindrianna” Booke

Starting a new hobby can be a very daunting thing. Not only are you discovering the techniques and tricks of your chosen art form for the first time, but you’re also being exposed to new terminology and an entire market of products. In the beginning, you may spend just as much time obsessing over what to buy as you do actually crafting. Leatherworking is no exception to this. Some of the most common questions I get asked by new leatherworkers are: “What kind of leather do I need?” “How much leather do I need to make this?” My goals with this guide are to help you feel comfortable navigating those questions as they pertain to LARP and LARP crafting and teach you more about how leather is sold.
Animal Type
Many animals around the world are used for their leather, (sheep, goats, pigs, horses, deer, alligators, stingrays, etc.) with cattle/cows dominating the market and accounting for an estimated 65-70% of world production. Bovine leather has many qualities that make it desirable for leatherworking, chief among them are its versatility, firmness, and affordability. For the purposes of this guide, this is the type of leather that we’ll primarily be discussing since it’s the one you’ll be most likely to use for a wide variety of LARP projects. Helmets, bracers, greaves, pouches, and belts are all examples of things I have personally made using this type of leather. Surprisingly, the type of animal isn’t the only way leather is broken down by “type.” It gets even more complicated!
Leather Grade
There are also different “grades” of leather. Grade can tell you how strong and durable the leather is, and how much it has been altered from its natural state. Full-Grain leather is generally considered by many to be the highest quality there is, though that isn’t necessarily true. It is leather that hasn’t had its outer surface sanded or buffed. Beyond hair removal, it hasn’t really been altered and will probably still show imperfections on the hide such as scars, scratches or bites. This leather can be pricier than other types, but because it still has the full thickness of the skin any products made with it will last for a long time. Top-Grain leather is the “second best” and is far more common in the manufacturing of handbags. Top-Grain leather has the imperfections of the hide removed which does make it thinner but more workable. Oftentimes a coat or a finish is applied to top-grain leather so it can retain its appearance.
The last two leather grades I’ll mention here are Corrected/Embossed Grain Leather and Bonded Leather. In Corrected Grain/Embossed Leather the outer surface has been sanded and buffed to remove blemishes and natural texture and a new grain or pattern is basically stamped on top of it. People do this to make hides look more uniform throughout. If a hide has excessive damage, this technique might also be used to salvage it for market. If you go to buy this leather, it has most likely already been dyed and embossed. Bonded Leather is one of the cheapest types of leather you can get and commonly used in furniture upholstery. Imagine a bunch of leather scraps getting shredded and scraped down until they are almost nothing. Throwing them out would be such a waste, right? Luckily, Bonded Leather is made from those smaller scraps being joined with an adhesive (likely polyurethane or latex) onto some kind of fiber mesh. I know that is a gross simplification of the process, but it at least gives you an idea of what I’m talking about.
There are other classifications and grades beyond the common ones I have mentioned in this guide, so if you are passionate about this subject and want to branch out and do more research know that we have only scratched the surface here and there is an entire world of leather knowledge out there waiting for you. Additionally, the information above, while potentially interesting to some of you, may not come up if you’re buying leather from major retailers who have their own sale categories. We will talk more on that later when I give you my personal recommendations based on what has worked for me with crafting. In the meantime, there is another way that leather is broken down into categories/types after the hide is split and placed on the leather grade spectrum and that all depends on treatment and tanning methodologies.
Tanning Process
Simply put, tanning is the process in which animal skins and hides are turned into leather. On a scientific level, the proteins in the animal’s skin are being altered and changed to prevent decomposition and breakdown and increase durability. Historically tanning was a very smelly trade and tanneries were either forced into isolation on the outskirts of towns or, sadly, placed among the poor. The two common tanning techniques I want to touch on with this guide are Chrome Tanning and Vegetable Tanning.
Tanning can be done with a variety of animal, plant, or mineral products. Chrome Tanning uses chromium salts or chromium sulfate. This method is the most popular one to date and more than 80% of global leather production uses it. One of the benefits of Chrome Tanning is that it produces very water-resistant leather. Chrome Tanning is also much faster than Vegetable Tanning which tends to make it less expensive. Out in the field, because of what it is primarily used for, you may hear people refer to Chrome Tanned Leather as upholstery or garment leather.
Vegetable Tanning, while less common nowadays, is the more traditional tanning method that focuses on the use of natural materials. Instead of chromium salts, Vegetable Tanning relies on the use of tannins, an organic substance found in the galls, bark, and leaves of different plants. Though it does take longer to complete this process, it is believed to be more environmentally friendly. From personal experience, I believe Vegetable Tanned or “Veggie Tan” leather is the way to go for LARP crafting. While it isn’t impossible to brand or stamp Chrome Tanned leather, it is far more difficult, and many people rely on machinery to do so. Veggie Tan can be stamped, carved into, hand-tooled, wet-formed and easily retain detail even when using less expensive tools. It is also more of a blank canvas when it comes to color and dye, so if you want to experiment with dye or paint techniques you don’t have chemicals or a base coat that are going to get in the way. Please note that this is merely my personal opinion and I in no way consider myself a professional. For me, leatherworking is a fun hobby, and it is my hope that my experiences and experiments will save others some trouble and effort if they decide to delve in.
Hopefully, you have found this piece informative and helpful in some way. In the next installation, we will touch on how leather is sold and categorized by major retailers and break down some project-specific recommendations. Thank you for reading, and if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask.