Understanding Leather and How It's Made

The process of tanning involves five distinct stages. Tannery factories can process hundreds of hides per day. Large drums are used for the soaking and pre tanning process. Each of the processes involved is complicated and requires many steps.

The easiest way to understand the process of leather preparation is to understand the layer separation in which the leather is split across it’s thickness to produce a top layer (hair side) and the under layer. The top layer is called full grain and is the side exposed to the elements giving it the durability and malleability it needs to be considered fine leather. The underside is much stiffer and less durable than the top layer. This is practical for use after a coating or treatment is applied.

STEP 1: PRE TANNING

  • Soaking : When the leather arrives at the tannery it may be soaked to extrude salts used in preserving leather. This is done in revolving drums which can hold up to 200 hides.
  • Liming : Hair and epidermis are removed and a solution of lime (calcium hydroxide) and sodium sulfide is applied to soften and enhance hide for softness and flexibility needed for upholstery leather.
  • Splitting : The hide is split into layers. The top, or grain, layer will produce a fine, smooth grain leather. The bottom is used for suede or split leather for other uses.

STEP 2: TANNING

This is the process which converts pre-tanned hide into leather. Mineral tanning is normally done with alkaline chrome-3 salts (Chromium sulfide). It penetrates the hide fairly quickly (24-48 hours). This results in a pale duck-egg blue, which, after processing, yields a fine, soft, modern finish. This is what is referred to in the industry as a “Wet Blue”.

STEP 3: SELECTING

After tanning, excess water is removed from hide. Hides are then graded according to the quantity and locations of natural features and flaws. Aniline and Nubuck leathers demand the best quality hides. Heavily coated or embossed leather can utilize a lesser quality of hides.

STEP 4: DRESSING

Dressing the hides involves the following:

  • Shaving : Hides are given a uniform thickness.
  • Dyeing : Dyes are added to color leather.
  • Re-tanning : Additional tanning substances are sometimes added to modify the physical characteristics of the leather to suit its final use.
  • Setting : A process which mechanically removes creases and excess water.
  • Drying : The hides are stretched dried on large frames or vacuum dried.
  • Trimming : The rough and ragged edges are removed.

STEP 5: FINISHING

The purposes of finishing are:

  • To minimize the appearance of grain blemishes without losing the natural beauty of the leather.
  • To give the required degree of gloss.
  • To ensure the leather is soft, malleable and moldable.
  • To give a more protective surface.
  • To provide a surface, which is easily cleaned.
  • To give special effect such as antique or special grain effects.