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In the store: tips for spotting craftsmanship details and leather quality

You may appreciate our leathercrafting approach here at Walnut Studiolo, but how can you tell if leather is good quality when you’re looking at it in a store or from a photograph online?

Can you tell what kind of leather it is, or if it’s recoverable when you’ve found a hidden gem at a thrift store?

In this post, we’ll discuss observable design details so you can make informed decisions about leather goods.

What to look for: leather quality

Hand-rubbed oil dye.
Photo credit: Erin Berzel for DK Publishing

You want to make sure the object contains the right leather for the right job of the various kinds of leather out there.

Here’s a short run-down checklist of design details that will help you quickly determine if a piece is using the right quality leather — or not.

🚩 Red flags. Walk away from any of these:

Graphic from our friends at Saddleback Leather.

What to look for: craftsmanship details

Edges


We think of the edges of leather like trimwork in a house, except that the leather edges are meant to be regularly handled and touched. They should be beautiful, tactile, and durable. Here’s what to look for:

Beveling leather edges. Photo by Erin Berzel for DK Publishing.
Burnishing an edge with wax.
Photo credit: Erin Berzel for DK Publishing

Stitching

Leather stitching carries extra importance in the durability of the product. In crafting leather goods, the placement of stitch holes is un-doable. When stitching fabric with a machine, the needle can pierce through the weave without leaving an indelible mark, but in leather once the hole is punched you can’t un-punch it. Stitching can also be the weakest spot of a leather product, so it’s important that it’s done right, and with good quality thread.

Hand-stitching showing a stitch groove.
Photo credit: Erin Berzel for DK Publishing
Waxed “sailmakers” thread.
Photo credit: Erin Berzel for DK Publishing
Photo credit: Bag’n-telle

Baseball stitch is another popular hand-stitch and is unbeatably iconic.

Baseball stitch.
Photo credit: Erin Berzel for DK Publishing

Thrift shopping

If you’re in a thrift store and looking for a hidden gem to recover or refurbish, we can only recommend shopping for full grain vegetable-tanned leather, which is the only kind that ages well. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be found in an old thrift store looking rough, but that a conditioning treatment would bring them back to life, just like sanding and refinishing a wood piece.

In looking for used full grain vegetable-tanned leather, you have to turn a critical eye to the item, just like with old cast iron pans. The leather should have integrity and structure, even if it’s been broken in. The surface of the leather should be smooth like well-used cast iron pans. On the back side – if you can see it – it should have a slight fur or nap to it. If there is a wear pattern – an area that is darker where most likely the oils in the hands have been repeatedly glossing the leather, then you’ve found a good piece, go for it.

Old pleather, Naugahyde, or garment leather is unlikely to be rejuvenated well. Luckily, vegetable-tanned leather was the norm until the 1960s, so there’s a good chance if it’s older than that.

Lesson #9 at the Walnut Workshop

The Whiskey Case shows off some our finest craftsmanship. The sides of the case meet perfectly together, a detail that can only be done by hand-stitching. The large piece of hand-dyed leather shows the natural swirl of full grain. The bottom has a delicately cut contrast line and debossed logo that show the natural veg-tan leather underneath, a detail that can only be done by hand. 

Next Lesson

Armed with this knowledge, you are now prepared to examine your next leather goods critically in the wild – and gain an insight to the production methods and care used in creating them. that our full grain vegetable-tanned cowhide is in the workshop and finished, it’s ready to be turned into products.

In the next post we’ll tell you how to rescue moldy or mildewy veg-tan leather and rejuvenate neglected leather.


We’re writing a leather learning series, and this is the ninth of eleven posts. In the series, we go through the different kinds of leather and the different ways it is tanned and finished, then talk about how leather as a raw material is turned into products, how to tell good leather products in the store, how those products should be maintained, and what ethical leather choices are.

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Bonus Video

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