One project I’ve always wanted to make was a lined leather jacket. When considering the leather types, I needed something durable yet flexible. My research brought me to chap leather, a large, lightweight, durable, chrome tanned leather.
Chap leather is durable, flexible, and lightweight, chromium tanned leather that often comes in the largest hides available. These hides are typically made for garments like chaps or other large projects. Chap leather comes in various colors and costs around $5–$10 per square foot.
Creating garments often requires the perfect leather. Let’s look at chap leather, why it is often chosen for this task, and more uses for this thin, supple leather.
What Is Chap Leather?
Chap leather is simply a chrome tanned leather with a few characteristics that set it apart. The hide is often a large full side, chosen specifically to fit long pant legs. Chap leather is also lightweight and flexible to not restrict movement when worn.
Durability also plays a key role. Leather chaps are a hard-wearing item and must stand up to wear and environmental damage. This often leads to chrome or oil tanned leather being the perfect choice, as both tanning methods provide durable yet soft hides.
What We’ll Explore
- Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
- History of Chap Leather
- Chap Leather Characteristics Quick Reference Table
- In-depth Characteristics of Chap Leather
- Pros of Chap Leather
- Cons of Chap Leather
- How Chap Leather is Made
- Production Stats for Chap Leather
- Cost of Chap Leather
- When You Might Leathercraft with Chap Leather
- Tips for Leathercrafting With Chap Leather
- Examples of Goods Made from Chap Leather
- My Personal Research on Chap Leather
- Chap Leather Care & Maintenance
- Helpful Insights on Chap Leather
- Key Takeaways
Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions
The term “chap leather” often confuses many unfamiliar with the leather, myself included. I always thought chap leather was a specific method for making leather. However, I have since learned it is a product term to help customers find the right leather for their project.
Chap leather refers to the ability to make chaps from the leather and identify pieces that are large and soft enough without being too stiff or thick. Typically chap leather is chrome tanned leather, but it can be oil tanned as well.
History of Chap Leather
Chaps are protective leather gear derived from the Spanish vaqueros. In the early 1500s, various pelts were hung across the horses they rode to protect their legs while riding. Additionally, two lighter skins were often tied to their belts to drape over their thigh and knees.
As the vaqueros pushed through what is now the southern U.S., Texans developed fully wearable chaps. These pieces were oversized to fit loosely to retain movement. At this time their needs became clear — lightweight, durable leather. As chaps became more popular throughout the 1800s, so did the need for leather.
With the invention of chromium tanned leather in 1880, it became the new chap leather. It was cheap, large, lightweight, and, most importantly, flexible. While chaps are not as common today, the leather used to make them is still popular, offering the same large, flexible hides for garments, furniture, or other projects.
Chap Leather Characteristics Quick Reference Table
|Natural or Synthetic
|Available Thickness (oz/mm)
|3–5 ounces (1.2mm – 2mm)
|Largest Workable Size
|29 square feet
|Ease of Maintenance (1–10)
|How Long it Lasts (Daily Use)
|20 years or more
|Cost per Square Foot ($)
|$5–$10 per square foot
|Ease of Crafting (1–10)
|Rarity (Common or Exotic)
|Annual Production Volume
|Over 9 billion square feet
|Biggest Exporting Country
|Biggest Importing Country
In-depth Characteristics of Chap Leather
Natural or Synthetic
Chap leather is a natural material that may have some synthetic elements to it. The leather itself is real animal hide, but the tanning method may include an artificial coating. This popular method often hides blemishes or adds an artificial texture.
Corrected grain or pigmented are two popular terms used to describe leathers that may have had their surface refinished artificially. However, it is best to talk with the manufacturer to know exactly how the leather was made.
The surface texture can be anything since chap leather is typically a chrome tanned leather. When sourcing chap leather for a project, chrome tanned leathers can have textures pressed into the surface to create an artificial texture, allowing for any consistency, including mimicking exotic leathers.
Chap leather tends to be a thinner 3–5 ounces (1.2mm–2mm) as the leather is typically used in garment making. Leather that is too thin would not be as durable. While a piece too thick can often be too heavy or stiff. In addition, any added thickness would make the piece hotter to wear, potentially causing discomfort.
Largest Workable Size
Chap leather is often much larger than standard hides, around 29 square feet. This is due to the application of chap leather. Garments are a popular choice when crafting with this leather, and as a result, large, rectangular pieces are necessary.
During their processing, chap leather is often tested to ensure pant legs can be cut out of the hide. This seemingly small step helps define chap leather from other hides.
Chap leather is durable, flexible, and lightweight, chromium tanned leather that often comes in the largest hides available.
High flexibility is one of the key features of chap leather. Since chap leather is used to make various garments, motion when worn is always kept in mind. When combined with the thinness of the leather, chap leather can easily be bent, folded, or slightly stretched to provide comfortable leather when worn.
While chap leather is typically soft, it can have quite a bit of variation. The leather will most often be chrome tanned, a soft leather. However, oil tanned leather may also be chap leather. Oil tanned leather may have additional waxes on the surface that can make the leather seem rougher. Overall, the leather’s flexibility and thinness will often make it feel softer than most.
Sewing chap leather is very easy since the leather is thin. This makes punching holes and passing needles through the leather a breeze. A small issue that stems from flexibility is the potential for bunching. Pulling the thread too tight is not recommended with this leather. In addition, using a large clamp will help prevent the leather from flopping around when sewing.
Chap leather is chosen for its durability since it will typically make hard-wearing garments. The leather is typically either chrome or oil tanned, both highly wear-resistant leathers that can be exposed to rougher weather. Where this leather may fall short is the thickness. Since the leather is relatively thin, it is not uncommon for wear to eventually build up and make a hole in the leather.
Ease of Maintenance
Keeping chap leather well-maintained is relatively easy with the right supplies. The most important tool is a horsehair brush, which runs through the surface of the leather, removing any dust and debris. Periodically, chap leather will also need to be conditioned.
This rehydrates the leather, helping prevent dryness and cracking. A leather soap can clean chap leather if a large mess is made. However, these products may cause the leather to darken in color and should be tested before being applied.
Lifespan with Daily Use
With daily use, chap leather will typically last at least 20 years. The leather is durable, wear-resistant, and easy to maintain. Chap leather often fails due to built-up wear that may create holes in the thin leather.
Research by Aigul Kudabayeva, Bekzhan Abzalbekuly, Urana Dandar, Ersin Onem, and Behzat Oral Bitlisli, from M. Kh. Dulati Taraz State University in Taraz, Kazakhstan, found alternative chromium tanning methods using aluminum and titanium.
When used in tandem with chromium, these metals can help make the tanning process more environmentally safe while providing a leather that is more durable and elastic, potentially increasing the lifespan of future chap leathers to come.
Since chap leather is typically chrome tanned leather, there is no limit to what color it can be. During the tanning process chrome tanned leather takes dyes much more easily than others and can produce unique, vibrant looks. However, if the chap leather used is oil tanned, the color choices will be slightly more limited. Oil tans typically come in earth tones or muted colors.
While no leather is completely waterproof, chap leather is definitely water resistant. Chrome tanned and oil tanned versions of the leather have heavy-duty finishing methods, including wax and oils. This will repel water and help prevent it from soaking into the leather. However, prolonged exposure may still cause some issues in the leather as water will slowly start to seep in.
Since most chap leather is chrome or oil tanned, the leather is budget-friendly. At $5–$10 per square foot, these large hides start at about $120. Higher-quality chap leather may be as expensive as $250 per hide. The upfront cost will be higher since chap leather is almost always sold as a full hide. In addition, there is a slight premium added to chap leather for its lack of blemishes and selected size.
Ease of Crafting
Chap leather can be a very simple leather to craft with but may require a few techniques. Since the leathers are thin and flexible, they are often stretchy. This can make cutting straight lines difficult.
However, a sharp blade, shears, or a roller cutter will all make quick work of the leather without misshaping it. Similarly, thread tension will need to be managed when sewing the leather. A thread pulled too tightly may cause the leather to bunch together or ripple.
Rarity (Common or Exotic)
Chap leather is commonly produced at over 9 billion square feet annually. This is largely due to the popularity of chrome tanning, making up the majority of leather produced today. While chap leather has a few extra prerequisites, it is not uncommon to have large animal hides thinned down to the recommended thickness, making it widely available and found in many retail stores.
Pros of Chap Leather
Chap leather can be a great choice for various projects, offering a unique combination of flexibility, durability, and variety. The leather is often chosen for lightweight goods that benefit from a thinner, more flexible leather.
- Versatile, especially for lightweight leather goods
- Durable and highly flexible
- Large hides with fewer blemishes
- Wide array of colors, textures, and finishes
Cons of Chap Leather
While chap leather has many benefits, there are points to consider before purchasing it. Chap leather, while versatile, has unique properties to be aware of, including the potentially shorter lifespan compared to other leathers.
- Shorter lifespan than other leathers
- Thin, potentially requiring additional layers
- Does not patina
- Requires alternative edge-finishing methods
- May be difficult to cut cleanly
How Chap Leather is Made
When the hides are harvested to be turned into chap leather, they are immediately preserved by salting them and then shipped to various tanneries. When a tannery receives the salted hides, they immediately wash and process them. Once the leather has been fully washed, hair will be scraped from the surface. The hide will then have its flesh side cleaned, removing fats to create an even surface.
Once the surface has been prepared, the hide is ready for tanning. Hides will be added to a large drum containing chromium, where they are slowly rotated. Over time the intensity of the tanning agent increases, helping fully penetrate the hide, turning it into leather.
After the chap leather has been fully tanned, it can be dyed in different drums while tumbled. Tumbling not only helps dye the leather but also breaks down and softens it. Once dyed, a finishing coat can be added to the surface of the chap leather, sealing in color and helping protect the surface.
Production Statistics of Chap Leather
- Volume per year – Over 9 billion square feet
- Key countries where it is produced – India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, and China
- Biggest exporting country – India
- Biggest importing country – India
Cost of Chap Leather
- Square Foot – $5–$10
- ½ Hide – $75–$150
- Full Hide – $150–$300
When You Might Leathercraft With Chap Leather
- When creating large projects such as garments or furniture
- When looking for a thin, flexible, yet durable leather to work with
- When wanting a budget-friendly, versatile leather
Tips for Leathercrafting With Chap Leather
- Use a sharp knife, or shears, to prevent the leather from stretching when cutting.
- Plan larger projects with a paper pattern to ensure they will fit
- Attach a second layer if additional thickness or stiffness is needed for a project
Some Examples of Items Made From Chap Leather
My Personal Research on Chap Leather
With “chap leather” being an industry term, I wanted to see how different groups define it. I explored key characteristics which separate the leather from others by looking at what is expected of chap leather by the retailers and the consumers buying it.
Any leather store will most likely be the one to mark leather as chap leather. I looked through various leather catalogs to see how they determine what is used, and compared the information. This information included:
- Weaver Leather Supply
- Maker’s Leather Supply
- Springfield Leather Company
- Maverick Leather Company
I first noticed tannage, as all the leathers I looked at were chrome tanned, with a few oil tanned listings. Size also played a key role, with the smallest side offered being 22 square feet and the largest 29 square feet. The thickness of the leather was mostly between 2 ounces (0.8mm) and 4 ounces (1.6mm).
However, I did find a few that were as thick as 6 ounces (2.4mm). All the leathers I looked at were described as soft and flexible. Though it is important to note, words such as “milled” and “tumbled” were used to help describe the process the leather underwent to become extra pliable.
I searched various groups online for information to find what consumers considered chap leather. My goal was to find the expectations of leather crafters and compare them to what was being sold.
Most of the information I found regarding chap leather was from those looking to make a pair of chaps. A common concern was the thickness of the leather, wary that it may not hold up in use. For many, the right thickness was between 4 ounces (1.6mm) and 6 ounces (2.4mm). However, they considered thinner leather perfectly fine for decorative chaps.
The size was also often discussed, considering a minimum of 20 square feet when purchasing the leather, but usually, the largest pieces were recommended. In their experience, chap leather was not always as blemish free as they expected, requiring a larger size.
What did seem to match was the tannage type and the flexibility. Crafters were looking for chrome tanned leathers that were not overly stiff regardless of the thickness.
The term “chap leather” may generate some expectations when purchasing it. Each person will have their own needs with the leather, which may not quite match what retailers offer. In these cases, it is best to fully look at the specifications of the leather or contact support for help. With my findings, I created a small list of key things to look for when purchasing chap leather.
- Chrome tanned or oil tanned leather
- Minimum 20 square feet side, but often much larger
- Depending on the project, 2-ounce (0.8mm) to 6-ounce (2.4mm) thickness
- Highly flexible, with keywords such as “supple,” “milled,” or “tumbled.”
Chap Leather Care and Maintenance
How to Clean Chap Leather
The first step when cleaning chap leather is brushing off the leather well. This is best done by using a horsehair brush, as the bristles can remove hard-to-reach debris. If the leather still requires cleaning, leather soap can be used. Leather soap should be applied using a damp clean cloth, a small amount at a time. Always test leather soaps on a hidden area of the chap leather to see how they react.
How to Condition Chap Leather
After chap leather has been cleaned and fully dried, conditioning can take place. Apply a leather conditioner to the surface with a clean cloth to condition chap leather, rubbing it in a circular motion to help it saturate.
Remove any excess conditioner from the surface, and let the leather fully dry before using the leather item again. Like leather soap, conditioner should be tested on a hidden area before being applied to the entire item.
In this helpful video by Big Bend Saddlery, Gary Dunshee discusses various leather conditioners that can be used for chap leather while demonstrating how to apply them to leather chaps.
How to Store Chap Leather
Keep chap leather in a controlled environment away from sunlight to store it properly. Sun can easily cause chap leather to dry out from long exposure and bleach the color of the leather.
Chap leather should be kept away from water and heat to prevent any damage from occurring. A damp environment may cause mold to grow on the leather, while excess heat may cause the leather to dry out and begin cracking.
Helpful Insights on Chap Leather
What is chap leather good for?
Chap leather is a fairly versatile leather that can be useful in many places. The most common use is as a garment leather. Since chap leather is light and flexible, it can be used to make gloves, jackets, and of course, chaps. The leather may also be used in other projects that benefit from flexible leather, such as bags or furniture.
What kind of leather do you use for chaps?
Chap leather is specifically selected to be used for chaps. It is typically chrome or oil tanned leather that is durable and flexible. This makes it perfect for being worn in tough environments without restricting the person’s movement. Leather selected for chap leather is also larger than average hides and has fewer blemishes on the surface. This provides enough surface area to make a pair of chaps from a single hide.
How thick is chap leather?
Typically chap leather is a strict 3–5 ounces (1.2mm – 2mm) as the leather must be thin enough to allow a full range of motion when used for garments. Thinner leather may not be durable enough for the hard-wearing purpose of the leather. Thicker leather, while more durable, will restrict the motion when used for garments making it difficult to be worn.
Are leather chaps waterproof?
No, leather chaps are not waterproof — only water-resistant. This means water will be repelled from the surface, often sliding off, leaving no damage. However, with enough exposure or worse conditions, the water can build up on the surface, slowly making its way into the leather. It is at this point that the leather may begin to experience damage.
Do cowboys wear leather chaps?
Yes, although leather chaps have become less popular, they are still worn by plenty of cowboys. Chaps are not only traditional, adding a decorative flair, they functionally protect the rider from abrasion while riding a horse.
Why do horse riders wear leather chaps?
Chaps are worn by horse riders to protect their legs from abrasion when riding. Cacti, rocks, and other thorny vegetation can easily tear at a rider’s legs if unprotected. Chaps provide customizable protection while not restricting the horse rider’s movement.
- Chap leather is thin, flexible, chrome tanned leather.
- It is often used for garments and other lightweight projects.
- Chap leather hides are often bigger, with fewer blemishes on the surface.
Leather projects can come in all shapes and sizes, with different projects requiring different leathers. Chap leather fills the need for thin, flexible leather while remaining a high-quality material, opening up the possibilities for leather, including garments and furniture.
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