Craftsmanship : Chpt. 4 : Leather
The Quality Story - Chapter 4: A Lesson in Leather
So when Blue and I first went down to have more leather bags made, the old don of the family, Don David, told me to go down to the leather market and choose leather to make some more bags. I asked him what I should look for to make the best bags ever and he told me to ask for full grain chrome tanned leather (vegetable tanned leather is nice too, but we chose chrome). I just had to go pick the thickness and color.
I probably saw a couple hundred booths of pure love - vegetable, chrome and even brain tanned leather in every color and thickness you can imagine. Made my nose spin. Once I got to know the owners of the tannery there in Mexico, ranked 2nd best in all of North and South America in 2013, they started to give me the real education on what to look for and what to look out for with regards to leather.
Whether or not you buy a leather piece from us, you need to understand leather so you don't get burned. After reading this short page, you'll know why some bags are so expensive and some aren't. You'll know why some leather cracks and tears quickly and some doesn't. And you'll also know what to look for and what to look out for. Nice, fully tanned leather is vital to maintaining Saddleback Leather Company's good name and happy leather family, so please read on.
Full Grain, Top Grain, Genuine and Bonded Leathers - A Quick Lesson
Leather 101: Leather Types
Full Grain, Top Grain, Genuine and Bonded Leather Explanation
Saddleback Leather bags are made from American cows born and bred. We use 4 - 5 ounce Full Grain leather tanned with high grade oils and preservatives to keep it from being destroyed early by dryness and moisture. Basically, there are 4 types of leather: Full Grain Leather, Top Grain Leather, Genuine Leather, and Bonded Leather.
Notice in the drawing below how the fibers near the bottom run horizontally and the higher you go, the more vertical they get? Well, the more horizontal, the more easily the fibers pull apart. The more vertical, the tougher.
What is Full Grain Leather? Full Grain Leather comes from the top layer of the hide which has ALL of the grain, therefore, FULL grain. The natural surface of full grain leather burnishes and beautifies with use. It is the best leather money can buy and the only leather good enough for Saddleback.
Some companies sort of spray paint their inferior leather to try to make it look like full grain leather, but it just ends up looking like someone spray painted some cheap leather. From what I've seen, maybe 2% of all bags are made of Full Grain. This leather is expensive for me to buy and very difficult to work.
Caution: We once bought a recliner made with full grain leather. We sadly discovered later that only a few parts were made of leather. The back, sides and beneath the leg rest were made of vinyl that looked just like the leather. And I wondered why it was such a great deal. Technically, the manufacturer wasn't lying when he said "Made ‘with' Full Grain Leather". Watch out, they use the same trick with briefcases and luggage. All of our pieces are made completely out of Full Grain leather inside and out.
I haven't done anything to the bags to add character. The marks and scrapes and scars are all natural. Where the cow had been gored scraped by barbed wire, cactus or mesquite thorns ... bitten by a coyote ... or branded, the color sets in deep and stands out a bit. You'll be able to see the full grain running through the hide in the form of veins too.
Your bag may have a few small scars and imperfections, but those just lend a tremendous amount of character to it. Some bags have parts of the cow's brand here and there. Ride it hard; it'll look better.
What is Top Grain Leather? Top Grain Leather is the second highest grade because it is split from the top layer of blemished hide then sanded and refinished. This is how they get rid of scars and scrapes and light cow brands. Top grain leather does not age nicely with use. It is strong and durable, but not good enough for Saddleback. They sanded off the strongest fibers of the hide leaving mainly the horizontal (easily pulled apart) fibers. By the way, did you know that leather shavings are used as filler in cheap dog food? The bigger the pile of shavings in the dog food, the bigger the piles elsewhere.
What is Genuine Leather? Genuine leather is the third grade of leather and is produced from the layers of hide that remain after the top is split off for the better grades. The surface is usually refinished (spray painted) to resemble a higher grade. It can be smooth or rough. Ever heard of suede? Suede is tougher than cloth and is excellent for lining, but it's not a good idea to use it in areas where it gets stress.
What is Bonded Leather? Bonded leather is the dust and shavings of the leather glued and pressed together. It is the PT Cruiser of the leather world... pure junk. Leftover scraps are ground together with glue and resurfaced in a process similar to vinyl manufacture. Bonded leather is weak and degrades quickly with use. Most Bibles are covered with this.
Little known fact, you can also mix up dog poop with flour and water, press it flat and let it dry in the sun for about two days and get a bonded leather equivalent. Genuine and bonded leather is usually spray-painted to look like full or top grain leather. Watch out!!!
What Is the Leather Tanning Process?
Here’s how it works. A hiker finds a cow dying in the wilderness. The cow dies.
1. The hiker skins him and takes the hide to the tannery where they remove the excess meat, fat and hair.
2. The tannery extracts the moisture, oils and natural preservatives and removes the hair. At this stage, it's called "Wet Blue".
3. (The most important step) They tan the wet blue hides into a giant drum with the new oils, preservatives and coloring and let it tumble for hours and hours. Depending on the thickness of the leather, it can take up to 10 hours for the new life giving liquids to penetrate all the way to the middle of the hide.
4. Finally, the leather is pressed in heated presses, hung up to dry at a certain humidity level, sprayed with finishes and sealers and then pressed again.
Saddleback's great leather is a huge part of our success. I found perhaps the most expensive tannery in the western hemisphere and arguably the best. It's the same tannery that Hartmann, Tony Lama, Justin Boots and other big names use. You can almost eat off the floor. We are very pleased with the excellent leather they deliver every single time.
Watch out for leather that isn't tanned long enough; it looks nice on the shelf, but it'll crack and tear in no time. Basically, all of the natural oils and preservatives are extracted from the hide and the tannery replenishes them by tumbling the skin in a big drum for hours and hours. Some tanneries only tumble the leather long enough to coat the outer layer and therefore the inner part never gets the oils and preservatives it needs.
The difference between high and low grade leather is like the difference between a Porsche and a Dodge. They both look great on the outside, but quickly you'll be able to tell which one cost a lot to make and which one didn't.
How Do Leather Tanneries Cheat?
A drum usually costs well over $100,000 USD and therefore many tanneries don't have as many of them as they need. Therefore, in order to put out more leather, they cut the tumbling time by up to 90%. This is a big money maker because not only do they get to process more leather in the drums, but they don't have to use as much oil, colors or preservatives. They only have to buy enough of the liquids to tan 10% of the mass of the leather instead of 100% of the mass all the way to the center.
These liquids are really expensive and by using cheap liquids to tan, even if they do tumble it long enough, they can save thousands and thousands of dollars a year. Also, if the tannery uses cheap dyes and colors, your leather will fade and crack with too much sunlight. Saddleback's leather takes anywhere from 10 - 20 hours to tumble, depending on the leather and only the expensive hypoallergenic detergents, solvents and oils are used. You will regret it if your leather was made with the extremely cheap and allergenic Chrome 6, detergents and solvents instead of our hypoallergenic Chrome 3 and expensive detergents and solvents. A large company can save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year by buying cheap leather.
How to Tell Good Leather from Cheap Leather?
Sometimes, a company thinks they're using good leather, but the factory halfway around the world that they outsourced their production to, is buying cheap leather. Of course, the general manager of the factory only pays for the cheap stuff, charges them for the more expensive stuff. And... it's hard to tell the difference since most companies either paint or fold over and sew the edges. Now, painted or finished edges like this don’t always mean cheap leather. Some quality leather companies finish their edges like this to give their leather a refined and polished look.
All of our edges are unfinished and unpainted so you can see they're roughly the same color throughout. The shade may vary, but you won’t see any blue in the middle. They don't look as perfect and "Pretty boy" this way, but that's fine. They're not perfect and that's what makes them perfect.
I hope this information helps in your understanding of leather and in your search for the perfect leather piece. I would feel honored if you were to choose one of mine, you won't be disappointed. If you should leave here and keep on searching, I wish you great success.
How to Knock off A Leather Bag
Watch this offensive video we put together that touches the tip of the quality iceberg and you'll see what I've been learning.