Thursday, August 23, 2012

Leather Care 101


Let me first say that I don’t have the foggiest clue how to care for chrome tanned goods.  I’ve never had any luck oiling shoes, which is probably okay, since I live in a relatively humid environment (not a hot humid one, but there’s enough humidity here that the moisture isn’t constantly being sucked out of everything.

Anyway, when properly cared for, your vegetable tanned leather goods will last you a lifetime.  But, since your relationship with your leather piece starts when you take it out of the box, we’ll start there, too.

I’m often asked how to soften leather when people first receive their goods.  I heard a rumor, when I presented luthier Austin Clark with his trout mandolin strap, that the Native American women used to chew their leather to soften it.  Austin’s wife, Cynthia, spent the first few days of Wintergrass working the strap back and forth in her hands.  With a little elbow grease, the strap quickly softened up. 

This is the first bit of advice that I give all my customers – just use your new leather goods! They’ll soften up on their own.   No leather chewing necessary.  If you’d like to give it a little encouragement, I don’t recommend chemical conditioners or softeners, I also don’t recommend using anything that you find in your kitchen or bathroom.  My preference is Lexol.  It smells good, and doesn’t leave a greasy film on your leather.  Now, how to apply it – I squirt a bit on a paper towel and rub it on my leather goods.  Then let it soak in.  Simple as that.

As your leathers age, if you use them the oils on your hands will get transferred to the leather and keep it soft.  Though, if you want it softer, there’s nothing wrong with conditioning it now and again.  If you live in a dry environment, I’d definitely recommend oiling your leathers.  Also, if you don’t use them frequently, you will definitely want to take them out and oil them periodically.  When leathers are left alone, they can dry out, and crack. Once they crack, there’s really nothing you can do other than enjoy the rugged finish your leather has just achieved.

Now, for cleaning.  For vegetable tanned leather, a damp cloth (not soaked) should remove any surface dirt and grime.  My leathers have an acrylic topcoat on them, so dirt and grime won’t really soak in.  If you do things like I do, like keeping sippy cups of milk in your purse, then you’ll need to wipe your leathers off with a damp cloth now and again.  Lexol does also make a leather conditioner, but I’d recommend testing it on a small patch before applying it to your entire piece. You never, ever, want to soak your vegetable tanned leather in water.  It will get hard.  It can withstand some water – the occasional downpour, a sprinkler, etc., – but leaving your water bottle open in your purse, upside-down, isn’t advisable (speaking again on experience here).

When it comes to repair, your best source is a local shoe repair.  They’re all leather workers and have many of the same tools that whomever made your goods in the first place did.  Plus, they’re local, so you won’t have to try to live too long without your trusted purse!

If you do need to store your leathers, keep them in a temperature controlled environment (not the basement or the attic eaves, but rather someplace that you can actually live, like your closet). For belts, many recommend storing them hanging up (and the Container Store has some great belt hangers, as well as just about everything else you might need) so that they don’t get permanently configured into a coiled shape.  This may be more necessary with chrome tanned and “dress” belts than with veg tanned ones – I’ve had perfectly fine luck keeping mine in a coiled mess in my drawer.  As for purses, I’d put them on a shelf, in a dust bag if you prefer (though since it’s really only to protect from dust, totally at your discretion!).

Does that cover it?  The most important thing is to protect your leather from extremes – extreme heat, extreme cold, dryness, or excessive humidity.  It can stand any one of those for a short period.  Love your leather, and it will love you back for years to come!




(for more leather care information, has a comprehensive article on how to care and clean different types of leather).

(the photo above is my “purse dump” – contents available at, except for the camera!)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

What is this “Vegetable Tanned Leather” anyway?

Okay, so nobody has asked it quite like that, but I have had that question asked in many ways over the years, so I think it is about time that I answer.

The leather that I use is vegetable tanned, or veg-tan, leather.  The vegetable tanning process I believe is the second most popular tanning process, after chromium tanning (chrome-tanned leather).  The chromium tanned leathers are the ones that most people are familiar with, since they’re used for almost all handbags, belts, upholstery, shoes, and pretty much anything else you can think of.  I say almost all, since there are vegetable tanned leather accessories out there!

The vegetable tanned leather is tanned using tannin and other vegetable-based ingredients (well, tree bark and such).  It stays the natural color of the leather which is a light tan/camel sort of color that can then be painted and dyed to whatever color you’d like.  There is definitely variation from hide to hide in the color and also the properties of the leather – when you go to dye it, each accepts the dye differently.  Chrome-tanned leather, on the other hand, is dyed with chromium sulfate and other chromium salts and is dyed during the tanning process.  The result is a total rainbow of colors.  If you want to see some of the variations, Hide House and Just Leather have an amazing selection.

Below are some photos of a vegetable tanned leather piece in progress.  The first photo shows some of my branding lines and painting.  The second photo is fully painted, and the third shows the piece with the leather dyed in the background. 


Besides the color, one of the main difference in the veg-tan leather vs. the chrome-tan leather is the surface.  The veg-tan leather has a very smooth surface, whereas the chrome-tan has more of a grainy, or fleshy, look to it.  It reminds me almost of goose bumps or follicles. Aside from some scars and other variations, the surface of the vegetable tanned leather is more like a piece of paper than goose bumpy skin.

Vegetable tanned leather also starts out much more rigid than chromium tanned.  It’s got a life, and shape, of it’s own.  This makes it ideal for my purpose, since I can construct something like a leather wine tote that will hold it’s shape without using anything other than leather.  There are different thicknesses (referred to as the “ounces”) that veg-tan leather comes in so I have the flexibility to choose the the leather that will work best for the project given the end weight I want to achieve, and how stiff or flexible it needs to be.

Veg-tan does soften up quickly once you start using it and you get that nice, worn-in, leather look and feel.  Chrome-tan doesn’t seem to change much, other than scuffing and wearing.   I am particularly fond of this picture of two boots (from Blue Owl Workshop), the one in the front using chrome-tan and the one in the back using veg-tan, both with the same color dye, at least in theory:

The one in the back has that old, worn in, vintagey satisfying look to it where it’s not entirely even.  The one in the front just looks like a boot.  With age, that one in the back will just look more and more lovely, too.

The reasons that I choose veg-tan leather, besides the strength and durability, are primarily because I have the freedom to work my paints, carving, dyes, etc., into the surface of the leather and then seal it with a protective coat and actually have them stay, which is something that doesn’t work so well with chrome-tanned leather.  Because the chrome-tan is already finished, it doesn’t accept dye or paint well, it can’t be carved or tooled effectively (though it can be embossed), and I would hate to think of what might happen if I took a branding iron to it!

Because I am doing all the dying and sealing on my leathers, and because I’m using veg-tan, I can create a piece that is colorfast – unlike chromium tanned leather, when dyed properly, veg-tan will not redeposit dye on your clothes or other items.  My personal theory about why purses are lined is to keep the dye on the inside of the chrome-tanned leather from re-depositing on other items in your purse.  Of course, if you carry a vegetable tanned leather purse, you don’t need the lining since it is colorfast.

Something interesting that I found out in writing this blog post is that chrome-tanned leather shouldn’t be used in anything that comes into direct contact with metals – sheaths, pen holders, holsters, etc. – since the residual chromium salts can corrode the metal.  I had no idea – did you?

If you’d like to watch a video of the tanning process, there is one by Hermann Oak Leather Tannery that is interesting.  I do warn you though – watching a tanning video is a little gross, so click and view at your own discretion.

Okay, that’s all for today.  Hope you learned something, and if not, hope you at least enjoyed reading or looking at the photos!



Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Choosing a Leather Belt – For Men or Women


I went to pick up supplies today and overheard a conversation between the shop manager and a customer about a belt that the customer wanted to revitalize.  It was a woven leather belt, and it was starting to crack and fade, right around where he was buckling it. The advice?

“Well, you could hang it up on the wall and look at it”

I laughed, quietly, to myself.  It’s the kind of honest answer only someone who has been selling leather for thirty years will give you.  He’s right – unless you want to take out those links and re-weave the belt, it’s toast. 

Belts wearing out quickly is a complaint I hear all too often.  Not from my customers, of course, but from pretty much anyone who has purchased a manufactured belt.  It happened to me, too, before I started working with leather.  The belt I was wearing actually started splitting in half – the front from the back – and once that started to happen, there was nothing to do but throw it away.

Here are some recent photos of a customer’s belt that he wanted color matched.  It was his favorite belt, but had split completely apart and was unusable.  The top left shows my solid color belt (left) next to his old belt for the color match (the leather will darken over time so I didn’t want to start out too dark!).


If you look at the top right and center left photos, you can see that the belt was constructed of three separate, thin, pieces of leather that had been glued together.  The center right shows the seam in the back of the belt where the two pieces of the outer leather are sewn together.  The bottom left shows where it was attached to the buckle, also falling apart, and the bottom right is another view of the side, where you can see that three pieces have been glued together to make one.

So, how do you avoid this?  Well, the simplest explanation is to make sure when you’re buying a belt that you buy one that is constructed from full-grain vegetable tanned leather and cut from a single piece.  The vegetable tanned leather will start out a little stiff, but it softens up incredibly quickly, and there isn’t any glue to come undone, or seams to unravel. 

Here’s what to look for:

Seams:  Steer clear of any belt where you can see that two pieces of leather have been stitched together, especially by machine.  This will eventually fail, and is not easily (or neatly) repaired. This applies to the edge of the belt as well as seams in the back or near the buckle.  Snaps or screws near the buckle are a much safer bet, and if there are no seams you’re good to go.

Two types of leather:  Look at the front and back of the belt.  Are they the same color?  The same texture? A lot of dress belts are a glossier leather on the outside and have a softer, lighter colored, leather lining the inside of the belt.  These aren’t two sides of the same leather.  I promise. If it is obviously the same type of leather front and back (shiny on one side, rough on the other) then you’re a-ok on this one.

Exotic leathers: Lizard, ostrich, snake, and even calfskin, will all be cut out of multiple pieces of leather and stitched together, or glued together.  It may even have plastic on the inside to stiffen it.  Look for vegetable tanned leather (usually cowhide).

Inspect the edges:  Look carefully at the edges of the belt.  Can you see where two pieces were glued together?  If so, prepare yourself for a belt that will split apart in the near future. If it’s obviously  just the side of one piece of leather, you’re set.

So, if you’re looking for a belt that will last, that should give you a head-start on what to search fore if you’re going to the department store, or looking on the internet.  If you want some style advice there’s plenty to be had, just don’t forget the tips to make sure that the belt you splurge on is going to last you a lifetime! And, if you’re in the market for a unique one, I have a few handmade leather vegetable tanned belts to get you started.