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In the workshop: the right leather for the right job

Leather is an expensive material and leathercrafting is time-intensive work, so makers want to make sure they select the most cost-effective leather for the job, and time is money. But beyond basic leather choice and color, there are a lot of other decisions to make on which leather to use for which products.

In this post, we’ll explain what else you should look for when deciding whether a product is quality – meaning, is it using the right leather for the right purpose to ensure a long and useful life. Plus – why maker-made matters.

There are a few important questions to ask when deciding which is the right leather for a given product or use:

Leather shape

Hides come in irregular shapes and are priced by the square foot, so it’s the job of a maker or craftsperson to create regular shapes out of them for products with as little waste as possible. If not done carefully, this can create a lot of waste, which increases costs.

Example of maximum rectangle that can be achieved from a half hide or whole hide.

Leather fiber structure

Across each hide are different areas that correspond to different body parts. For example, bellies have lots of stretch, spongy fibers, and the most variable thicknesses. Butts have the tightest fiber structure, but are the most expensive.

Depending on the product and its use, it might make more sense to use the less expensive stretchy area of a hide, or not.

Parts of the hide. Image credit: Leather Dictionary

Leather durability

Vegetable-tanned leather does fine in the outdoors so long as it’s conditioned from time to time. Bridle leather is infused with waxes to stand up proud against the rigors of sun and rain, but is overly expensive for indoor use.

Garment leather fades and deteriorates in the sun or wet or mucky conditions, but it’s the least expensive choice with the most options for color and appearance for draping or indoor uses.

Full grain vegetable-tanned leather belt after 2 years of use.
Photo credit: Reddit

Leather weight / thickness

Full grain vegetable-tanned cowhide comes in a variety of thicknesses. They are the same quality of leather, but different thicknesses work for different purposes. More thickness = greater rigidity, but for example a folding cribbage board doesn’t need extra rigidity or it wouldn’t fold well. On the flip side, a barrel-shaped saddle bag needs rigidity to hold itself proud and to maximize its volume for the protection of its contents.

Leather thickness comes in a unique measuring system called “ounces” but it relates to thickness rather than weight. Hides come usually as an average of two weights because the actual hide may vary thickness across its expanse.

“Ounce”Thickness (in.)Thickness (mm)
Leather thickness gauge. Photo credit: eBay

Craftsmanship details – and why maker-made matters

This is where true craftsmanship begins. Manufacturers and craftspeople alike have to make tough choices to keep costs down while providing the best product they can. Often in manufacturing, the cost outweighs the quality.

We consider it to be the job of makers and craftspeople to be the few, the specialists, who are willing to put in the extra time and care to make a quality product, even if it costs more. Somebody’s got to do it right!

Some examples of the choices and details that are made with every product:

Hand-stitching full grain vegetable-tanned leather on a stitching horse.
Photo credit: YouTube

Lesson #7 at the Walnut Workshop

Across our Leather Drawer Pulls Collection, we use 4 different thicknesses of high quality full grain veg-tan leather, matching the right thickness for the right design. For example, some need thick structural integrity to fight gravity and stand off the cabinet door, while others need the stretch and flex to form a tight loop. 

Next Lesson

We are proud to be the makers and leather craftspeople making our own designs and our design decisions. Not only does this translate to choosing what we believe to be the right leathers and the right quality we would want in products ourselves, but also the right environmental values.

In the next post, we’ll discuss what “sustainable” leather can mean, and how products can be chosen in accordance with cherished values.

We’re writing a leather learning series, and this is the seventh 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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