My Life In Leather
For all of human recorded history and even well before we were able to make records of our activity humans have used the skins of animals to assist them in life. Leather is simply an animal skin that has been processed so that it does not decompose. This process is called tanning and there are several methods of tanning. For the most part leather is tanned today the same way it was done hundreds of years ago.
Leather can be seen as one of the cornerstones of civilization. No matter what the culture and what period of mankind leather is used in all aspects of life. It's use for case making is almost incomparable when the ease of making a container and versatility is considered. Leather can be tanned using naturally found chemicals and it can be worked using rudimentary tools. Once tanned it is incredibly durable and long lasting. And as long as there are animals there is an endless supply of raw material.
One of my fondest memories as a young man was the first time I went to a leather factory in the mountains of France. Walking into a cavernous warehouse filled to the ceilings with stacks of leather, mostly goat, was intoxicating. The smell, the textures and colors were overwhelming. I spent $2000 on leather I couldn't even really use, that's how green I was to the business at the time. Then several years later and much wiser I went to a leather broker's warehouse in Germany and spent all day and $10,000 climbing racks of leather to find the hides which would become our Limited series of cases. To me there is almost nothing better than being in such a place and hunting down the choicest pieces of well tanned leather. I think that most cue makers probably feel the same when buying wood.
For the purpose of this article we aren't going to get into the very technical descriptions of each tanning method. In general the main two methods are chrome tanning and vegetable tanning. Chrome tanning uses the chemical Chromium as an additive. This produces a soft and supple leather. Vegetable tanning uses the bark of trees, primarily oak and this produces a stiffer leather.
Vegetable tanned leather is known as veg tan and while it does come in several varieties the most common type is simply called veg tan. And the most commonly known term for non-leather working consumers is saddle leather. When the average person thinks of saddle leather they think of cowboys and harsh conditions and something tough and durable. In reality saddles are made of many kinds of leather and the saddle maker will adjust his methods to account for the various types. But for the most part veg tan leather is the most durable of the many types.
When you see a cue case that has been hand-tooled, meaning that it's decorated with cuts and sculpting and stamps then it's almost certainly veg tan leather. Other types of leather don't take this type of manipulation well if at all. Let's just run down the main types of leather you might see in a typical description of a case:
- Veg tan/saddle – this type is easy to carve on and is preferred for hand-toolers. This leather is easy to dye and shape.
- Oil Tan- this type has a high oil content and is preferred for uses in moist environments. It resists moisture and allows for scratches to be rubbed out.
- Nappa – this is a soft leather that you will typically find used in upholstery, car seats, couches and the like.
- Prints/Embossed – Prints are typically cowhides which have had a texture imprinted or embossed onto the surface. The bonding process often creates a leather that is stiffer than nappa but not as stiff as veg tan.
- Suede/Nubuk – Suede is simply the rough side of the leather. When leather is split then it's rough on both sides. Nubuk is a very fine suede. The leather is shaved and sanded to the point where the feel is similar to velvet.
- Exotics – this applies to the skin of animals such as python, alligator, crocodile, ostrich, shark, elephant and so on, basically any uncommon animal. Each of these has varying properties and levels of availability from relatively easy to get to difficult. So the price varies accordingly. Some exotic animals are farmed but since the luxury bag makers use so much of it then it's difficult to get pieces large enough for cue cases.
Now that you know the main types of leather let's talk about quality. Leather is generally graded in three ways, top grain, corrected grain, and split. A piece of cowhide will be split into two or more layers. The upper layer, the one where the hair grows is called the flesh side. It is uppermost layer. When this layer is stripped of hair and then nothing else is done to it then the leather is called top grain and natural grain. Basically this means the leather's texture is as it came off the cow. All the scars, scratches, bite marks and stretch marks are visible and tactile. When the leather is very clean with little to no marks then it is the highest grade of top grain leather. The price goes down from there with the appearance of the leather.
So the next step down is corrected grain. This is where the top layer is sanded and buffed to correct the marks and make the leather smooth. This results in a very nice even layer. The leather has no little to no natural character at this point. But it's very good to work with if the goal is to have a product with a very consistent and even color. Some case makers prefer this blank canvas as it gives them a consistent work surface with no need to work around any blemishes.
Then the next quality level is split leather. Splits have no top grain so the texture has a suede feel. Essentially the back of a piece of top grain is what both sides of a split feel like. Leather manufactures have a wide variety of techniques to apply textures to the leather. This ranges from sanding and rolling the leather and impressing textures on it to bonding a layer of plastic on the surface. There is typically a wide range of quality in splits having to do with the look and feel and durability of the surface treatment. Splits are commonly used on handbags, shoes, and upholstery. Unfortunately there is not a good way to test the quality of a split without doing a scratch test. We use a razor blade to test the surface of leathers we consider to determine if it will be durable enough for use on our cases.
In general if the piece feels very stiff and plastic then it probably has a plastic top layer. This doesn't mean it's not good quality because the surface treatment can be very tough and durable. Bad quality is when the surface treatment is easy to remove and flakes off with light use.
And finally there is recycled leather. This is known as bonded leather in the trade and it's leather's equivalent of plywood. This is a material made of ground up leather bits which is pressed together with glue under high pressure. It is produced in sheets and the surface texture is typically painted on or bonded to a layer of plastic. Legally this leather may not use the term Real Leather. Done well this is actually a decent material for cases. Done wrong it's a terrible material. You will never find recycled leather used in custom cases.
And that's pretty much the education you need to figure out what kind of leather is being used on the cases you are looking at. The important thing to remember is that each type of leather requires different methods to work it and the experienced case maker will know those methods. For example a nappa leather case will need extra work to secure the stress points.
As durable as leather is it can still be weakened by improper techniques. With care in putting the parts together a leather case can last for dozens of years. With proper care of the leather the case can last even longer. Unfortunately most people don't realize that leather requires the same type of care as a person's skin. At least once a year it should be moisturized and preferably twice a year. It should be inspected for mold and treated against it if found. Doing these simple things will keep your leather case healthy and durable. When you are considering a leather case check the fittings, check the fit, check the edges, check the stress points. Inspect the leather and make sure that you feel comfortable with the durability.
Leather is a skin and it reacts to the environment, tightens up in cold weather and expands in hot weather. So the better that leather is worked the more it can withstand. Those cowboys who had to spend most of their lives in the saddle out in the country knew the value of a well built saddle and they knew the agony of a crappy one. In my opinion, the the purest form of leatherworking is to use leather to build something intended to outlast it's owner. You don't need to be an expert to figure out when you have a leather case in your hands if it's built to that standard or not.
If you would like to educate yourself about leather you can find an endless supply of great information on the web. After all this material has been part of our lives long before we used it to record our achievements.
See you next month,