While visiting my local leather supply store recently, I was taken by the vibrant, soft, and playable chrome tanned leather on the shelves. Wanting to make a bag, chrome tanned leather seemed like the perfect option, as it wasn’t as rigid as the vegetable tanned leather I had been using.
Chrome tanned leather is a leather type that undergoes a tanning process using chromium salts. It is favored for its flexibility, soft hand, and versatility, making everything from jackets to boots and bags. The material is often available in thicknesses from 2oz–8oz and costs $2–$7 per square foot.
Since chrome tanned leather is the most accessible leather available for us crafters, let’s take a look into its uses and history.
What Is Chrome Tanned Leather?
Chrome tanned leather is leather that is tanned using chromium salts. Unlike more traditional tanning methods, by using chrome salts, the leather can be tanned within a short period of two days. The resulting leather is soft, supple, and water-resistant. Since chrome tanned leather refers to the method of tanning, the leather can be made from any animal, including:
What We’ll Explore
- Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
- History of Chrome Tanned Leather
- Chrome Tanned Leather Characteristics Quick Reference Table
- In-depth Characteristics of Chrome Tanned Leather
- Pros of Chrome Tanned Leather
- Cons of Chrome Tanned Leather
- How Chrome Tanned Leather is Made
- Production Stats for Chrome Tanned Leather
- Cost of Chrome Tanned Leather
- When You Might Leathercraft with Chrome Tanned Leather
- Tips for Leathercrafting With Chrome Tanned Leather
- Examples of Goods Made from Chrome Tanned Leather
- My Personal Research on Chrome Tanned Leather
- Chrome Tanned Leather Care & Maintenance
- Helpful Insights on Chrome Tanned Leather
- Key Takeaways
Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions
A common misconception surrounding chrome tanned leather is that it is less durable than vegetable tanned leather. This is far from true. In fact, the process of making chrome tanned leather has become rather refined over the last 160 years, and the resulting leather is extremely durable and used everywhere, from the automotive industry to the shoe and apparel industries.
Although veg tan leather is favored among many leather crafters — especially for tooling — chrome tanned leather offers many benefits, such as being more pliable while having extremely strong tensile strength compared to the same thickness of veg tan leather.
In fact, the majority of leather goods are made from chrome tanned leather, as it counts for roughly 90% of all leather produced. The durability of the leather comes down to the quality of the hide rather than the method of tanning.
History of Chrome Tanned Leather
Before chrome tanning, nearly all the leather produced was vegetable tanned. Veg tan leather is tanned using tree bark that is high in tannins. It is a labor-intensive and time-consuming process — taking months to tan an animal hide.
During the mid-1800, scientists were looking for alternatives to tanning leather. During this time, Frederick Knapp discovered that chromium could be used to tan leather. By using chrome salts, animal hides could be tanned in days rather than months. The resulting leather was soft, supple, durable, and more water resistant than traditional veg tan leather.
By the late 1800s, chrome tan leather grew in popularity, as did synthetic dyes, which meant that the leather could be dyed in much more vibrant colors than veg tan leather. With the faster production time, it also met the innovative demands of the industrial revolution.
Now, chrome tanned leather accounts for nearly 90% of all leather produced. It is used in nearly every application, including:
Chrome Tanned Leather Characteristics Quick Reference Table
|Natural or Synthetic||Natural|
|Surface Texture||Can be smooth, corrected, or pebbled, but is usually soft and supple.|
|Available Thickness (oz/mm)||2oz (.78mm) to 8oz (3.18mm)|
|Largest Workable Size||A large cowhide will typically be 60 square feet.|
|Ease of Maintenance (1–10)||6|
|How Long it Lasts (Daily Use)||With care, it can last decades.|
|Cost per Square Foot ($)||Cowhide will typically cost $2–$7 per square foot|
|Ease of Crafting (1–10)||7|
|Rarity (Common or Exotic)||Common|
|Annual Production Volume||52,9109 Tons a Year|
|Biggest Exporting Country||India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia|
|Biggest Importing Country||India, Italy, Pakistan|
In-depth Characteristics of Chrome Tanned Leather
Natural or Synthetic
Chrome tanned leather is a natural leather. Chrome tanning refers to the process in which an animal hide is tanned and can be made from any animal, including:
One of the best qualities of chrome tanned leather is that it is extremely soft and supple. The surface itself can have any texture, as it can be grain corrected, pebbled, or coated.
Chrome tanned leather is distinct from veg tan leather because it is generally only found in lighter weights. Most common weights are 2–5oz but can be up to 8oz. This makes it ideal for making bags, shoes, and accessories.
Largest Workable Size
Since chrome tanned leather only refers to the method in which the animal hide was tanned and not the source animal, it is limited in the size of the animal. A large cowhide can be up to 60 square feet.
Chrome tanned leather is extremely flexible, especially compared to veg tan leather. However, this can vary depending on how the leather is ultimately finished and what animal species was used.
In general, chrome tanned leather is considered to be an extremely soft material. However, it is largely dependent on what animal is used to make the leather since chrome tanned leather refers only to the method of tanning used. For example, cow and horsehide leathers aren’t as soft as lamb and deerskin leathers.
Compared to veg tan leather, chrome tanned leather is a much more approachable material to sew. Although this can vary depending on the thickness and animal used to make the leather, typical chrome tanned cowhide is much softer and more pliable than veg tan leather. This means it can be sewn on lighter-weight machines or easily punched for hand sewing.
Chrome tanned leather is softer and more flexible than veg tan leather, making it easier to cut, sew, and shape.
Chrome tanned leather is very durable. One of the best qualities about chrome tanned leather is that the chrome salts used to tan the leather make it more water resistant than veg tan leather. Like all leather, it is still a natural product and requires conditioning. Chrome tanned leather is used to make heirloom quality goods that last a lifetime.
Ease of Maintenance
Chrome tanned leather is durable and requires little maintenance to last years. It can be approached like most leathers by being cleaned with mild leather soap and conditioned with leather conditioner.
Lifespan With Daily Use
Chrome tanned leather is used to make heirloom quality goods. As long as it is cared for, it can last a lifetime. With daily use, even without proper care, it can last decades.
Since most chrome tanned leather is dyed during the tanning process, it is available in any color. Additionally, because the leather is typically drum dyed, the color penetrates the entire piece of leather. This makes the material colorfast and will not lose its color or patina like veg tan leather over time.
Although chrome tanned leather is not waterproof, the chrome salts used to tan the leather make the leather extremely water resistant. Unlike veg tan leather, which inherently absorbs water, chrome tan leather does not.
However, it is still a natural leather, and it is recommended to condition the leather to help keep the water out.
One of the reasons that chrome tanned leather is so popular is because it is so cost-effective. Since tanning a hide can be done in two days, it can cost half the amount that veg tan leather would. Typically, chrome tanned leather costs $2–$7 per square foot, making it a popular option for mass production and crafters alike.
Ease of Crafting
Chrome tanned leather is softer and more flexible than veg tan leather, making it easier to cut, sew, and shape. It is a great option for crafters, especially when making items that require more flexibility, such as:
Rarity (Common or Exotic)
Chrome tanned leather is extremely common. It accounts for roughly 90% of all the leather produced today. If you have leather shoes, bags, or clothing, it is most likely made from chrome tanned leather. It can be produced in one to two days and is cost-effective.
Pros of Chrome Tanned Leather
Chrome tanned leather is versatile and extremely soft, flexible, and strong. Since it is dyed during the tanning process, it comes in a wide variety of vibrant colors, making it more colorfast than veg tan leather. It can be used to manufacture a wide array of leather goods, including:
Cons of Chrome Tanned Leather
The primary disadvantage of chrome tanned leather is its environmental impact. Chrome tanning uses a harmful mineral called chromium. Chromium has a negative impact when exposed to both the environment and the tannery workers.
Much of the supply of chrome tanned leather comes from countries with less stringent environmental regulations and can result in chromium leaching into the water, as seen here by Kazi Madina Maraz, who explores the history, benefits, and greener alternatives to tanning leather.
How Chrome Tanned Leather is Made
Similar to veg tan leather, the animal hide is first treated to remove the hair from the animal hide. The hides are then cleaned and put through a series of baths.
The first bath the hide goes into is intended to lower the PH of the animal hide. This allows the chrome salts to have a uniform and consistent absorption into the animal hide. This part of the process is called “pickling.”
After the pickling, the hide is put into a chromium tanning solution that stabilizes the hide by bonding to the collagen fibers, preventing it from decaying.
Once stabilized, the leather is left with a blue tinge from the chrome salts. The leather is then cleaned, neutralized, wrung, and transferred to a drum to be dyed.
Once these steps are complete, the leather will go through a process called “Fatliquoring.” At this point, oil is reintroduced to the hide to replace the fat lost during tanning, according to a compilation of air pollutant emission factors from the Food and Agriculture Industry. This is essentially done by putting the leather in a heated drum of oil for approximately 30 minutes, after which the leather is wrung and dried.
Further treatment can be done to the leather, such as grain correction or applying any variety of finishes. The overall process takes only one to two days, unlike veg tan leather, which can take months to tan an animal hide.
Production Statistics of Chrome Tanned Leather
- Volume per year: 52,9109 Tons a Year
- Key country or countries where it is produced: India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia
- Biggest exporting country: India
- Biggest importing country: Italy
Cost of Chrome Tanned Leather
- Square Foot: $2–$7
- ½ Hide: $120–$360
- Full Hide: $60–$180
When You Might Leathercraft With Chrome Tanned Leather
- If you are looking for soft and flexible leather
- If you want bright vibrant colors that penetrate the entire hide
- If your product is going to be exposed to water, as chrome tanned leather offers great water resistance.
Tips for Leathercrafting With Chrome Tanned Leather
- Consider using edge paint, as burnishing tools don’t work as well with chrome tanned leather.
- If hand sewing, make sure to keep even tension on your thread, as the thinner leather will be more prone to becoming wavy.
- Take your time cutting the leather and use a straight edge, as it is softer and more malleable than veg tan leather.
Some Examples of Items Made From Chrome Tanned Leather
- Designer shoes
- Car upholstery
My Personal Research on Chrome Tanned Leather
I started this exploring chrome tanned leather with the desire to make a bag. Having made a bag from 3–4 oz veg tan, I wanted to see how chrome tanned leather compared.
I purchased a sizable piece of 3–4 oz chrome tanned cowhide from a local shop. The objective was to keep this bag simple. So I came up with a design for a tote bag, as I wanted to assess how easy or hard it was to cut, sew, and skive chrome tanned leather.
I immediately noticed just how soft and easy it was to work with chrome tanned leather. It was easy to cut – although since chrome tanned leather is so flexible, I took extra care to make sure it didn’t slide around under my straight edge.
Skiving the leather was the most challenging part of the project. The leather was very flexible, which made it stretch under the skiving knife. It took a lot of patience to get the desired effect.
The easiest part of the whole process was sewing. Since chrome tanned leather is much more malleable, I was able to use a medium-weight sewing machine for this project. It made sewing the bag together much faster than sewing by hand. However, I did skive the leather prior to avoid bulky seams.
Working with chrome tanned leather was much easier than working with veg tan leather. It was soft, flexible, and easy to manage. Because the leather was so flexible, I found that skiving it was much more difficult, but, in general, it was far less bulky.
Chrome tan leather is definitely not a replacement for veg tan leather, as both have their place. I will continue using veg tan when making belts and wallets, but chrome tanned leather will be my go-to for bags. I plan to pay close attention to where the leather is sourced and buy either Italian or U.S. tanned leather as much as possible to reduce the environmental impact of the chrome tanning process.
Chrome Tanned Leather Care and Maintenance
How To Clean Chrome Tanned Leather
Cleaning chrome tanned leather is easy and can be done with water, leather soap, a soft bristle brush, and a lint-free rag.
- First, use a lint-free rag or soft bristle brush to remove all loose dirt.
- Then, use a mild soap, like saddle soap to remove stubborn dirt and stains.
- Once you have lathered up the leather, use a clean damp rag to clean the soap off of the leather.
- Allow the leather to dry fully
How To Condition Chrome Tanned Leather
Once the leather has been cleaned with a damp cloth or leather soap and allowed to dry, use a leather conditioner or cream to condition it. A cream is a good choice, as it will rehydrate the leather and help it stay soft and flexible without changing its color.
To do this, simply take the conditioner, apply it to a clean rag, and gently rub it into the leather.
How To Store Chrome Tanned Leather
Once the leather is cleaned and conditioned, putting your item into a clean, lint-free bag is always the best practice to keep the dust off. Also, always store your chrome tanned leather goods away from heat and direct sunlight. This will prevent the item from drying out and keep the color vibrant.
For a better understanding of different leather types, check out this interesting video explaining the difference between chrome and vegetable tanned leather.
Helpful Insights on Chrome Tanned Leather
What is chrome tanned leather?
Chrome tanned leather is leather that is tanned using chrome salts. The resulting leather is soft, durable, and water-resistant. It accounts for almost 90% of all leather produced today.
Is chrome tanned leather real leather?
Yes. Chrome tanned leather is a natural leather that can be made from any animal. Chrome tanned leather refers to how the leather is tanned rather than the specific animal that the leather is made from.
Is chrome tanned leather good?
Yes, chrome tanned leather is durable and hard-wearing. It has been used for over 160 years to produce everything from luxury footwear to car upholstery. With care, it can last a lifetime.
What are the pros and cons of chrome tanned leather?
Chrome tanned leather is a versatile leather that is durable, soft, and flexible. However, it does not develop the same patina as veg tan leather. Its biggest downside is its environmental impact since the chrome salts used in the tanning process are hazardous if not managed and disposed of properly.
How do you protect chrome tan leather?
The best way to protect chrome tanned leather is to clean and condition it regularly. Use a quality leather conditioner, and never store your chrome tanned item next to heat or in direct sunlight, as this will dry out the leather.
Does Hermes use chrome tanned leather?
Yes. Hermes largely focuses on quality, and they use various leather for their products. This includes veg tan, chrome tanned, and even a combination of the two.
How does chrome tanned leather age?
One of the distinct qualities of chrome tanned leather is that it does not develop the same patina as veg tan leather. It maintains its color better, as the leather is typically drum dyed. It is still susceptible to cuts and scrapes, but as long as it is well cared for and conditioned, it will maintain its original appearance for years.
- Chrome tanned leather is the most readily available leather for crafters, accounting for 90% of the leather produced today.
- Chrome tanned leather’s largest downside is that it uses chromium, a harmful mineral to the environment and people if not disposed of properly.
- Chrome tanning became the predominant method of tanning leather in the late 1800s.
Chrome tanned leather is an excellent option for us crafters looking for a strong, durable, and cost-effective option for our leather goods. Although veg tan leather is a more environmentally friendly method of tanning leather, it is worth considering what countries you source your chrome tanned leather from. I will continue to use chrome tanned leather, especially when making bags, but I will try to source it from U.S. and Italian tanneries.
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