Buffalo leather, also referred to as bison leather, is a very strong, durable leather with a nice grain pattern. It is a great choice for many types of leather goods.
Buffalo leather (also called bison leather), is leather produced from the American bison. It is a strong, durable leather with a visually appealing grain pattern. Buffalo leather is about 2x-3x thicker than cow hide, and often used to make belts, bags, pouches, cases, and accessories.
Now that we know a little more about what it’s called, let’s take a look at why it’s popular and what leather goods or projects you might like it for.
What is Buffalo Leather?
Buffalo leather is leather made from the hide of the Buffalo animal. However, most commonly, when folks refer to Buffalo leather they are really intending to refer to Bison leather, which is leather made from the hide of the bison animal.
The buffalo is a large, bovine animal. There are three main types. They include the Water Buffalo that is found mostly in Asia. The Cape Buffalo found mostly in Africa. And the American Buffalo, found in the United States and areas of Europe. The American Buffalo, in actuality, is only distantly related to other buffalo. They are instead more accurately referred to, by scientific classification, as bison. Yes! It’s true 🙂
However, many people are used to calling them buffalo, and so when talking about buffalo leather more often than not they are really referring to bison leather. The same scientific family for “bovine” includes cattle, bison, buffalo, buffalo, yak, and some antelope. So it’s easy to see why there might be some confusion.
As we explore further, we’ll be speaking about bison when saying “buffalo leather”, since that is the most commonly understood intention. I’ll also often note next to it as “(bison leather)”, so we keep in mind what it really is. Maybe one day we’ll all call bison leather, “bison leather”. 🙂
Here’s a helpful video that demonstrates some the differences between the more common cow leather, and buffalo leather:
Where do Buffalo Live?
The American buffalo (bison), lives primarily in national parks and wildlife preserves in the midwest of the United States. The population is approximately 30,000 animals. At their peak in the late 1700’s, the population was approximately 60,000,000 bison strong. A combination of disease and excessive hunting in the 1800’s greatly reduced this iconic animal, sometimes referred to as a “majestic beast”.
Bison are very strong animals, usually live in large groups, or “herds”, and mainly feed on grasses from the open plains. While most are concentrated out west, some smaller bison farms are spread around the country, each with maybe 10-100 bison.
The Qualities of Buffalo Leather
|Thick||Buffalo leather is about 2x-3x as thick as cattle leather. This allows more usable leather to come from each animal.|
|Strong||Buffalo leather’s thickness helps add to it’s strength. This makes it a great material when used in bags, belts, and any heavier leather goods.|
|Pleasing Grain Pattern||Buffalo (bison) leather has a deep, varied, grain pattern to the hide. This is often valued as a very pleasant and visually appealing quality of the type of leather. While cattle leather has nice grains, the thickness of buffalo leather provides for a much richer, textured look and feel.|
|Breathable||Buffalo leather is a generally breathable leather. This makes it useful for year-round, comfortable use.|
|Flexible||Buffalo (bison) leather is flexible and will soften over time. While it’s not supremely soft unless treated and conditioned to be, it will comfortably curve to the body with use. It offers some stretch, though not so much it loses it’s shape.|
|Better with Age||Like most leathers, buffalo leather will improve with age. It will become softer, more flexible, and develop a pleasing patina. These are many of the characteristics that make leather such a usable material.|
How is Buffalo Leather Made?
Buffalo leather (bison leather) can be made in a few different ways, depending on the desired qualities of the final product.
Vegetable Tanned Buffalo Leather
Vegetable tanning utilizes natural plant and tree bark tannins to process the leather. The result is usually a strong, durable, natural-toned hide. This process can take anywhere from 2-30 days, depending on the steps and materials used.
Chromium Tanned Buffalo Leather
Chromium tanning is a chemical-bases tanning process that yields hides in as little as 24 hours. It is a little harsher than vegetable tanning, though results in hides that are soft and receive dyes and finishes very well. This is not the most popular process for tanning buffalo leather.
Brain Tanned Buffalo Leather
Brain tanning utilizes various parts of the animal in order to tan it. These could involve the brains, liver, fats, and other elements. The result is a hide that is very supple, flexible, and retains much of the original grain pattern. Today, different substances can be used to achieve the same characteristics from a “brain tan”.
The type of hide this process yields is often the preferred method for tanning buffalo hides (bison hides).
What is Buffalo Leather Used For?
Buffalo leather (bison leather) can be used for a lot of common leather goods. These include:
- Card Cases
- Carrying Cases
Is Buffalo Leather Waterproof?
Buffalo leather (bison leather) is not, on its own, waterproof. While it is a very strong and durable leather, it would need a type of protectant added to make it more water-resistant when used in wet conditions.
Like other leathers, applying a proper shoe polish and wax can help make it more water resistant. Further, water repelling leather conditioner with wax, or specialty wax dressings can be applied to the leather to make it more water resistant.
Depending on the type of substance used, some can be used to help make the buffalo leather (bison leather) leather waterproof. However, the stronger the layer of water proofing (often a type of wax), the more difficult it is to later reach, clean, and condition the leather underneath. The natural grain of buffalo leather can also feel very pleasant. If the leather product will be used in harsh conditions, a water proofer might be key to making the item as useful as possible.
Leather Working with Buffalo Leather
Buffalo leather is a pleasant leather to work with. Since it is thick, it provides a lot of options for leather goods that it can be used for.
It is also flexible, allowing it to be used either on it’s own, or in combination with other leathers and materials, such as in bag designs. Since it provides some stretch, while still keeping it’s form, it’s a great leather for wearable leather goods and accessories. These include wallets, handbags, belts, and straps.
Where to Buy Buffalo Leather
If you are looking to get buffalo leather (bison leather) to use on a project, it is generally available from leather supply houses and companies. Generally, a few different colors are available. Grain patterns are usually not selectable, though you might be able to get an idea from product photos what a particular supply house generally stocks.
The final look and feel is usually highly dependent on the tanning and processing styles used to produce it.
Another option for obtaining buffalo hides is a little more time intensive, though possible. Some farms allow customers to purchase specific hides from specific animals. The hides can then be sent to a specialized buffalo hide processor, and turned into the final hide. You might be able to have input into the tanning process chosen.
This can be either with input to the tanner, or merely by selection of a tanner that would process the hide in a way you prefer. this might not be a recommended option if you plan to work on a buffalo leather design next week 🙂 Though, if you have the time and resources, sourcing and processing a particular hide in a particular way can help you get the exact type of leather you want.
Keep in mind, to, that buffalo hides can be purchases “hair-on” or “hair-off”. The hair-on hides still retain the buffalo hair. Often, these are used in clothing where a smooth, tanned inside works well against the body while the original hair on the outer surface provides for much protection and warmth.
Is Buffalo Leather Expensive?
Buffalo leather (bison leather) is not excessively expensive, running similar in cost to cow leather. For example, a 20 sq. ft. high-quality vegetable tanned cowhide might cost around $150, while a tanned buffalo hide will cost about the same.
Since buffalo hides are less common than cow hides, you might often be able to purchase the one pictured, when shopping online. This is a benefit, as you’ll be able to see the piece you’ll get before actually receiving it.
Buffalo Leather Care & Maintenance
It is important to properly clean and maintain all leather goods. Since they are natural fibers, keeping the surfaces clean and restoring/conditioning them with oils will help them stay strong and looking great.
One thing to keep in mind: for any step in leather care, generally test on a small area to ensure the cleaner or finish that you are applying will not react poorly with the material. Once you know it’s safe, clean away 🙂
Vegetable tanned leather is especially sensitive to cleaners. Even large drops of water can darken the material.
How to Clean Buffalo Leather
Buffalo leather can be cleaned generally by rubbing a moist, lint-free cloth over the surface. It’s a tricky balance between having the cloth too wet and staining the leather, vs. too dry that it won’t penetrate and remove dirt, dust, and grime.
Some of the moisture will air-dry from the surface, so while it might sound like any water equals instant stain, it usually takes more than a damp cloth to leave any visible traces.
If the dirt is deeper, it has difficult stains, or you want to thoroughly clean the leather, a dedicated leather cleaner might be a helpful choice. Saddle soap is a popular choice. It is intended for saddlery and similar leathers that are vegetable tanned. Working it in with a soft cleaning brush can also help, just be sure the bristles are very soft and intended for leather cleaning.
Lexol is another leather cleaner that is formulated to be very gentle on leather while removing dirt and grime.
How to Condition Buffalo Leather
Since buffalo tanned leather (bison leather) usually has no surface finishes applied, the leather fibers dry out more quickly than on other types of leather. Thus, it is important to more frequently condition veg tanned leather.
Generally, this involves applying a wax, oil, or cream onto the surface and letting the leather absorb it in. When conditioned, the leather is more supple, flexible, resistant to scratches, and feels better in the hand.
Once the surface has been thoroughly cleaned, the conditioner can be applied using an applicator or soft cloth. Conditioner is generally applied in small circles, allowed to soak in, then the excess wiped off with a clean, lint-free cloth.
A protective finish can be applied at this stage, if preferred. The benefit is it will help the leather be a bit more water and scratch resistant. The potential downside is that it will introduce a layer on the leather surface that hides some of the desirable look and feel of the natural leather grain. Protective finishes are usually natural waxes or synthetic waxes/acrylics such as resolene.
Usually, a well-cleaned and conditioned buffalo leather piece is best, without a finish applied.
How to Fix a Scratch on Buffalo Leather
There are a few ways to fix and repair scratches in buffalo leather (bison leather). Generally, you’ll try one before moving on to the next, depending on how large and deep the scratch is. Since natural leather has many fibers in it, and originally had oils in the skin, adding oils back into it is usually a first step to try in fixing a scratch.
For small scratches, rub your finger over it to try and buff it out. If the scratch is deeper, try applying some leather conditioner to the scratch and surrounding area, then buff it out after a short while.
If the scratch is very large or deep, you might need to try a leather filler kit. They usually have a substance that can be squeezed into leather cracks/cuts to fill them in. The substance generally has color matching options available so it’s a close visual look to the existing leather. Follow the specific instructions on the kit, though usually once it’s dried the surface can be smoothed and conditioned.
How to Fix Tears in Bison Leather
Tears in buffalo leather (bison leather) can often be fixed by sewing. The fixed tear will usually never look as smooth/finished as the original piece (those joined fibers actually made up the original hide), though ripped or torn leather can definitely be joined back together. Usually a fine, strong thread can be used to sew through small holes, and mend the tear.
For smaller tears, leather glue can be used. It will join the two torn areas. If a glue is selected in a color that is near the original leather color, it will be less noticeable. If the glue available is very different in color, once dried, the glue can be painted with an acrylic paint that closely matches the leather color. Acrylic paint is beneficial as it will have some flexibility to it, usually helpful if applied onto a leather good.
How to Store Buffalo Leather
Buffalo leather (bison leather) should be stored in a cool, dry, dust-free location. Generally, leather products benefit from low-average humidity environments. Air flow is also beneficial, as it allows the natural fibers of the leather to “breathe”.
If kept in a sealed environment, the humidity might rise and the leather start to deteriorate, and mold. In an environment with too-low humidity, the leather can start to dry and that could lead to cracking and weakening of the fibers.
A good place to store buffalo leather (bison leather) is a dressing room or closet that has an average livable temperature, humidity level, and frequent airflow. Some leather goods come with storage bags. They’re usually a breathable fabric that helps keep cut off. Storing it in one of these can be a great choice if available.
Most commonly associated with the United States, buffalo leather provides a great option for crafting leather goods that you want to have a pleasant grain pattern, is strong, and wears well over time.
If you’re looking for other durable, unique leathers, click here to read an article I wrote about Yak leather.
Is buffalo leather stronger than cow leather?
Buffalo leather (bison leather) is about a similar strength as cow leather and cattle leather. However, to preserve the grain pattern, it’s usually not stretched during tanning. This gives it a bit more tensile (pulling) strength than cow leather.
Is bison leather durable?
Yes, bison leather (buffalo leather) is very durable. It has similar characteristics to cattle leather. It is a thick, strong leather with a very pleasing grain pattern. Bison leather is often used for belts, bags, pouches, cases, and accessories.
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