After working with deer leather for multiple projects throughout the years, I wanted a replacement. Deer offered a soft feel with a durable finish but was often too supple and stretched too much. When looking for similar substitutions, elk leather was suggested. A larger, heavier deer leather, elk remains soft with additional thickness and has little to no stretch.
Elk leather is the finished tanned hide of an elk. The leather offers a unique grain pattern and is highly durable but remains supple. Often compared to deer, elk provides larger and thicker skins with less stretch when crafting. Elk leather costs $3–$14 per square foot, depending on type and grade.
Let’s take an in-depth look at elk leather, showcasing the best qualities of the leather. While offering crafting tips to ensure success with the material.
What Is Elk Hide?
Elk hide is the skin of an animal used in leather production. Elk, also known as wapiti, is part of the deer species and is one of the largest. Typically found in North America and parts of Asia, elk are hunted much less than deer due to a smaller population, making the leather more uncommon.
While elk and deer are of the same species, their leather is quite different. While they share the same softness and are similarly supple, elk provides a larger, thick, and stronger hide with a unique grain pattern. Crafting with elk is also easier than with deer, as the elk hides do not stretch as much.
What We’ll Explore
- Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
- History of Elk Hide
- Elk Hide Characteristics Quick Reference Table
- In-depth Characteristics of Elk Hide
- Pros of Elk Hide
- Cons of Elk Hide
- How Elk Hide is Made
- Production Stats for Elk Hide
- Cost of Elk Hide
- When You Might Leathercraft with Elk Hide
- Tips for Leathercrafting With Elk Hide
- Examples of Goods Made from Elk Hide
- My Personal Research on Elk Hide
- Elk Hide Care & Maintenance
- Helpful Insights on Elk Hide
- Key Takeaways
Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions
The market for elk leather is fairly limited with most suppliers listing elk amongst the deer. Unfortunately, this leads to confusion as most people new to leather will assume there is little to no difference.
This is far from the truth, as their grain patterns alone make each species unique. While they may share similar qualities and applications, the significant differences in body, size, and durability make them two widely different leather types.
History of Elk Hide
Like many other animal leathers, elk have been used for centuries. The animals were hunted for their meat, and their skins were roughly preserved for belts, boots, and more. However, elk did not begin taking off until production of the hide began in the 1920s, being pushed by the U.S. Government. The leather was more durable and had fewer defects than cowhide.
Throughout the following decades, elk leather quickly grew in popularity. This was primarily due to western films, where the rugged cowboy style became popular. While elk has retained this image, the limited production prevents the leather from becoming more widespread.
Elk Hide Characteristics Quick Reference Table
|Natural or Synthetic||Natural|
|Surface Texture||Varying wrinkles on top of a smooth surface|
|Available Thickness (oz/mm)||2 oz (.8mm)–8 oz (3.2mm)|
|Largest Workable Size||32 square feet|
|Ease of Maintenance (1-10)||7|
|How Long it Lasts (Daily Use)||20+ Years|
|Available Colors||Any but typically found in earth tones|
|Cost per Square Foot ($)||$3–$14|
|Ease of Crafting (1-10)||7|
|Rarity (Common or Exotic)||Uncommon|
|Annual Production Volume||Under 400,000 hides|
|Biggest Exporting Country||Malaysia|
|Biggest Importing Country||Germany|
In-depth Characteristics of Elk Hide
Natural or Synthetic
Derived from the hide of elk, their leather is entirely natural. Depending on where the leather is purchased, some elk leather hides may have holes. These holes are characteristic of wild game hunting, a large portion of how elk hides are obtained.
Elk leather has wrinkles that vary in size throughout the leather. Its look is similar to the surface of a shrunken bison. These wrinkles offer small ridges and bumps but do not make the leather feel any less smooth.
Like deer, elk can be found in very thin sizes, starting at 2 oz (.8mm). Since the animal is much larger, the leather can be much thicker, up to 8 oz (3.2mm). Elk leather is often referred to as the thickest soft leather.
Largest Workable Size
Elks are large animals weighing over 700 pounds, and standing at close to 5 feet to their shoulder height, leading to large leather hides. The average size of an elk hide is 20 square feet; however, it is common to find them up to 32 square feet. Elk may have some holes in the leather that may require working around.
One of the biggest appeals of working with elk leather is its flexibility. The leather keeps the same suppleness as deer leather. It is a leather perfect for garments due to its flexibility, only held back in larger thickness due to the added body.
Another characteristic elk leather shares with deer leather is softness. The leather is buttery smooth, rivaling the most luxurious leather available. While elk has a wrinkly surface texture, the leather remains soft throughout.
Sewing elk leather can present a small challenge. The leather’s supple nature will bunch the material if the thread tension is not managed correctly. In addition, the leather still has some stretch, which can cause dull stitching chisels to pull on the surface, potentially leading to misaligned stitching holes.
Elk is a highly durable leather that is very resistant to scratches or tears. The leather also does not crack as easily as other leathers. With deer being considered one of the toughest leathers available, elk further expands on it by providing additional strength through the added thickness of the leather.
Ease of Maintenance
Maintaining elk leather over time should be easier than other leathers. Elk is slightly resistant to oils and will not attract as much dust or debris. The leather will not dry out as fast as cow leather and can be restored and conditioned with various leather treatment products.
Lifespan with Daily Use
When adequately maintained, elk is a highly durable leather that can last generations. Much like other leathers, elk will not degrade over time when conditioned and will not scratch or tear as easily. The expected lifespan with daily use is at least 20 years with the thinnest leathers. A thicker piece of elk leather can easily surpass this expectation.
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The most common type of elk leather is chrome tanned, allowing it to be dyed in various colors. While elk can be found in almost any color, most of the leather will be earth tones, an array of browns to golds.
Elk leather is not waterproof but offers a fair amount of water and oil resistance. In practice, the leather can get wet without getting stiff or cracking. In addition, natural oils from our hands will not transfer onto the bag as quickly, limiting the color change that might occur over time.
Despite being a well-rounded leather to work with, elk is fairly budget-friendly. Beginning at $3 per square foot for lower-grade pieces, those looking to try elk can do so without a heavy investment. When purchasing a full side of elk, the price may seem much larger, but that is only due to the size of the leather. The highest quality elk cost $14 per square foot.
Ease of Crafting
Crafting with elk will require additional planning and a sharp blade when cutting. The supple qualities of the leather may require reinforcement when attempting a project with more defined lines. In addition, the leather can be slightly stretchy. When cutting, it is best to hold the leather down firmly and have a sharp blade that won’t pull it. These are only small challenges; when overcome, provide a friendly leather to work with.
Rarity (Common or Exotic)
While not considered exotic by definition, elk leather is uncommon compared to most. The hunting season for elk is limited, which greatly affects the production of the leather. The U.S. hunts the most elks out of any country, nearly 275,000. When compared to cow hides at over 30 million in the U.S. alone, elk leather is far from common.
Pros of Elk Hide
Being considered a thick, soft, and supple leather, elk has much to offer. Elk provides a unique surface grain without sacrificing softness. The leather is durable and can be used heavily without tears or scratches. This is further expanded on by its water and oil-resistant characteristics. It is one of the few types of leather that can be exposed to water without becoming stiff or cracking.
Elk is also available in large hides, perfect for garments or other projects requiring a lot of leather. One overlooked benefit of elk leather is its puncture resistance. Patricia W. Freeman, and Cliff A. Lemen, from the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, in Lincoln, Nebraska, tested various materials, and leathers, to be used when handling bats.
They found that elk leather was similar in puncture resistance to top grain cow leather. Further discussion of types of leather gloves, those working with small mammals prefer elk skin over thicker hides, as the leather provides a balance between precision and durability.
Cons of Elk Hide
While being supple can be a benefit in many ways, it can cause issues in others. When trying to create a more structured project, elk hide will require a reinforcement material. While sewing, the leather can bunch more easily if the thread tension is too tight, making it more difficult to get a nice stitch. Elk can also be difficult for some to cut, as the leather stretches.
Even a slightly dull knife can cause cuts to become uneven. Elk may also be difficult to find in specific colors as vendors choose to stock mostly earth tones. Depending on what grade of elk you purchase, it is common for holes to be present in the leather, requiring you to work around them.
Typically found in the U.S. and parts of Asia, the elk is hunted much less than deer due to a smaller population, making the leather more uncommon.
How Elk Hide is Made
Elk begins after the animal has been harvested. The animal’s skin is preserved with salt, then shipped to a tannery. The hides are cleaned and scraped at the tannery. Once this process is complete, the leather can be tanned.
The hide is placed in a large drum with tanning chemicals that will soften, preserve, and clean the leather. Once removed from the drum, the leather will be dried, where it can be dyed or cut depending on the use. Since elk leather is chromium tanned leather, it is not limited in the colors it can be dyed.
This helpful video shows the beginning stages of the tanning process. The elk hide has the flesh scraped away and washed before continuing to be treated.
Production Statistics of Elk Hide
- Volume per year: Under 400,000 hides
- Key country or countries where it is produced: U.S., Asia
- Biggest exporting country: Malaysia
- Biggest importing country: Germany
Cost of Elk Hide
- Square Foot: $3–$14
- ½ Hide: $30–$140
- Full Hide: $60–$280
When You Might Leathercraft With Elk Hide
- When creating a soft project such as garments or bags.
- When looking for durable, flexible, and soft leather.
- When wanting deer leather characteristics but with more thickness.
Tips for Leathercrafting With Elk Hide
- Slowly pull the thread to tension to prevent the leather from bunching up when sewing.
- Firmly hold down the leather, and use a sharp blade to avoid stretching when cutting.
- When used as a lining, stretch the leather to lay flat, and cut off the excess to avoid air bubbles.
Some Examples of Items Made From Elk Hide
- Watch Straps
My Personal Research on Elk Hide
To better understand elk in leather craft, I researched retailers and learned various tips and insights provided by crafters. Each group’s unique perspectives on elk leather and its origins helped me uncover a greater appreciation for it.
To me, elk leather was a well-kept secret, but as I dived into various forums, I quickly saw years of appreciation for this quality type of leather. Initially, much was discussing the best way to finish leather edges. With most elk leather being chrome tanned, many crafters offered the option of edge paint.
While this is a great option for elk with more structure, I find it may be best to roll the edges of the leather when possible. Another common discussion with those working with elk leather is the projects it works best for. These posts were flooded with demonstrations of outdoor projects such as rifle slings, jackets, and pouches.
Many crafters touted the leather’s beauty was only surpassed by its durability. The crafters loved working with elk leather, describing it as supple yet hefty and encouraging others to test it, especially those looking for hard-wearing leather. When discussing elk leathers, crafters warned about buying craft, or low-grade leather, when doing larger projects.
In their experience, mine included, elk leather will have holes in the hide, and lower-grade leathers have a higher chance of having these holes in key parts of the leather. To get the most out of a hide, purchasing high-quality sides is best to get the most out of the hide. However, if the elk is intended for smaller projects, crafters note the ability to save money by purchasing lower-grade leather and working around the holes.
When looking for information regarding elk leather, I found many companies spoke highly of it. They provided, in great detail, the leather’s history and qualities. One such company was the specialty dealer American Elk & Deer Leather.
They provided information on what sets elk leather apart from other types of leather, including well-known qualities such as durability and flexibility, to lesser-known details such as breathability and temperature resistance. The company helped showcase the leather through comparisons to other wild game leathers.
They stated that elk strikes a balance between durability and versatility. For projects, they suggest elk leather is perfect for making vests, chaps, gloves, and other items. American Elk & Deer Leather also provided information on where they source their elk leather, including the Rocky Mountains Region in the U.S.
With this being one of the largest populations of elk, the company can provide high-quality elk hides while not posing any threat to the sustainability of the animal. Another added benefit is all their hides come from American tanneries, supporting domestic companies.
As a crafter, I am often in awe of the passion within the community. From the retailers to the crafters, no other hobby has such pride for the product they are creating. In the case of elk leather, the wealth of knowledge and appreciation for the hide surpassed my expectations.
The retailers respect the animal, helping maintain their population while providing high-quality leather. Legacy crafters share their tips and tricks with those new to the leather. Elk leather, which may not seem impressive to those outside the craft, is greatly regarded due to its beauty and versatility.
Elk Hide Care and Maintenance
How to Clean Elk Hide
Elk hide is wear-resistant and will not need to be cleaned as often as other leathers. When it is time to clean the leather, a horse hair brush is preferable for dusting, as the material has many wrinkles. Leather soap can be applied in small amounts and rubbed with a clean cloth. The leather will need to be conditioned after the soap is applied.
How to Condition Elk Hide
Conditioning elk leather should be done periodically, after cleaning, or after being exposed to large amounts of water. To condition elk, a leather conditioner can be used with a clean cloth to rub into the surface of the leather. Elk leather may take longer to penetrate, requiring more conditioner than other leathers.
How to Store Elk Hide
When storing elk leather, keeping it in a cool, moisture-free environment, away from light, is important. While the leather is durable, prolonged exposure to heat, water, or sunlight can cause damage due to dryness. Elk leather stored improperly may crack or become dried out, requiring leather conditioner to treat issues. Storing elk leather products in a breathable dust bag is ideal when possible.
Helpful Insights on Elk Hide
How much is an elk hide worth?
Elk leather hides start as little as $3 per square foot. As the quality and grade of the leather increase, some elk hide may be priced as high as $14 per square foot. Since the leather sold is mostly above 20 square feet, a full hide may cost between $60–$280.
Are elk hides durable?
Yes, elk is one of the most durable leather types. Often compared to deer, which is considered one of the strongest leathers, elk surpasses it in both wear resistance and durability. Elk leather can be hard-wearing at greater thicknesses, providing water, and oil resistance. A well-maintained elk leather item will last generations.
Is elk leather easy to work with?
Elk leather has some challenges that may require more attention than other leathers but remains crafter friendly. Lower-grade elk may have holes that will need to be worked around. The leather is extremely supple and can stretch. It is best always to use sharp tools to prevent unwanted stretching. When sewing the leather, monitor the thread tension to prevent the leather from bunching together.
- Elk is a stronger, more durable version of deer leather.
- Hides may contain holes and can stretch, requiring additional care when working with the leather.
- While not exotic, elk is not widely produced and may require specialty stores for purchasing.
There is a wide variety of leathers available to us as crafters, and often we can find exactly what we want in leather if we look hard enough. Elk leather is the perfect example, offering all the beautiful qualities of deer or similar soft, supple leathers while also providing thickness and strength.
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