Skip to Content

Fish Leather – Benefits of Working With This Unique Leather

When you think of a fish, any fish really, most likely one of the last thoughts to come to mind is to turn those ocean-dwelling beasts into a wallet or lampshade. I was also like this until I discovered what could be the unlikely hero for the future of leathercraft; the durable and reliable fish leather. 

Fish leather is a sustainable, tough, and great alternative to other leather types. Despite its thin nature, this leather has a high tensile strength of 90 newtons from its multi-dimensional collagen fibers. Fish leather can be applied to almost any project requiring 1–2 oz leather. 

Utilizing fish leather can really elevate your next leather project if you know how to use it wisely. Fortunately, I can help guide you in this endeavor and ensure that whatever you’re looking to create will be a beautiful piece to show off to all your friends, family, or potential customers.

What Is Fish Leather?

Fish leather is a type of leather produced from the skin (and sometimes scales) of the Actinopterygii species (aquatic fish). When I started using fish leather, I honestly had no idea what I was doing; there was no guide, no real alternatives out there, and it left me to experiment and discover how to use it through trial and error.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here; first, we must look at the real culprit: the fish. Each fish skin has its pattern different from any other, making any project truly one of a kind.

The added benefit is that you can easily get away with telling others that you’re up to date on high fashion trends and that your friends need to get with the program; who isn’t wearing Atlantic cod these days? Jokes aside, you will be ahead of the fashion curve, so if you are a trendsetter, this leather is where you should look.

Various kinds of fish leather can include:

  1. Cod
  2. Salmon
  3. Sturgeon
  4. Tilapia
  5. Wolffish

What We’ll Explore

  • Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
  • History of Fish Leather
  • Fish Leather Characteristics Quick Reference Table
  • In-depth Characteristics of Fish Leather
  • Pros of Fish Leather
  • Cons of Fish Leather
  • How Fish Leather is Made
  • Production Stats for Fish Leather
  • Cost of Fish Leather
  • When You Might Leathercraft With Fish Leather
  • Tips for Leathercrafting With Fish Leather
  • Examples of Goods Made From Fish Leather
  • My Personal Research on Fish Leather
  • Fish Leather Care & Maintenance
  • Helpful Insights on Fish Leather
  • Key Takeaways
A Fish Leather Wallet - Fish Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
A Fish Leather Wallet

Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions

I know your first concern. No, it doesn’t smell like fish! The tanning process removes unwanted odors and leaves a neutral-smelling hide. Another detail is that since the fish leather is so thin, one would assume it’s weaker than other leathers, but it’s actually quite strong. As a comparative example, you can consider this as strong as sheepskin.

A Leather Crafter - Leather Furniture Repair - Liberty Leather Goods
Tips and Guides Pack - Cover - Liberty Leather Goods

Crafter's Notes - Free

Receive my periodic Crafter’s Notes with tools and tips. Download these free leather guides with signup.



There’s no doubt about fish’s abundance in the water, but fish leather isn’t too widely known or used. This is due more to a lack of knowledge and demand rather than a lack of supply. Simply put, the more people that know about fish leather, the more products you’ll start seeing. 

History of Fish Leather

Tanning fish leather can be traced back centuries, similar to other tannages. One place of note is Egypt and surrounding areas which were naturally fishing-dependent communities where this was a popular material that was a by-product of fishing for food.

Other countries like Iceland, whose economy historically has relied on fishing for Atlantic cod and other fish, have been tanning fish hides since the 9th century during their settling of the country. One benefit to surviving the harsh weather of this tumultuous island was that wolffish was tough enough to be used to make boots carrying the Icelanders from one side of the island to the other.

Many historical examples of using fish leather on perfume bottles, gloves, and even hats seem to have been forgotten to the sands of time, falling out of fashion. With technological leaps aiding in the resurrection of this important leather, the idea and production can be spread from one side of the planet to the other. 

A Dice Bag With Turquoise Salmon Leather - Fish Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
A Dice Bag With Turquoise Salmon Leather

Fish Leather Characteristics Quick Reference Table

CharacteristicRating
Natural or SyntheticNatural
Surface TextureSmooth to textured, depending on the species
Available Thickness (oz/mm)Range from 0.5–0.6 for salmon and up to 0.8–1mm for sturgeon, very much species dependant
Largest Workable SizeReally dependent on the fish species, the larger the fish, the larger the workable area
Flexibility (1–10)10
Softness (1–10)8
Sewability (1–10)8
Durability (1–10)8
Ease of Maintenance (1–10)5
How Long it Lasts (Daily Use)9
Available ColorsAll the suppliers I’ve purchased from like to experiment with colors, there’s a very wide variety.
Waterproofness (1–10)10 
Cost per Square Foot ($)Varies depending on the species
Ease of Crafting (1–10)6
Rarity (Common or Exotic)Technically exotic due to the availability, but there are plenty of fish in the sea
Annual Production VolumeRoughly 1.2 million hides/year
Biggest Exporting CountryGermany
Biggest Importing CountryU.S.
Fish Leather Characteristics

In-depth Characteristics of Fish Leather

Natural or Synthetic

Most, if not all, producers are very aware of the impact of harmful chemicals and keep the production as natural as possible, making fish leather a valuable natural leather to use.

Surface Texture

The natural fibers and scaling of the fish make for a beautiful pattern similar to those of snakes and alligators, which are quite expensive exotic leathers, and some may be less likely to buy due to their fondness for those animals (to be fair, some people may think of fish the same way). This is not only a cheaper version of those leathers but can draw the eye in just as much from the unique individualized scale pattern, just like a snowflake. 

A Burgundy Salmon Leather Wallet - Fish Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
A Burgundy Salmon Leather Wallet

Available Thickness

Even at their thickest, it will be hard-pressed to find anything compared to cow leather; 1–2oz thick might be found on a good day. It’s usually always on the thinner side, ranging from 0.5-0.6mm for salmon to 0.8-1mm for sturgeon.

Largest Workable Size 

The largest size of fish leather for working with depends on the fish species and age. They’re all generally “small,” so think of ordering a panel of leather for small goods with some textured edges where they staple the skins to boards to dry.

Flexibility

Fish leather is generally quite flexible. Even the firm fish leather is very pliable; it’s so thin that it allows maximum flexibility. 

Softness

Even if fish leather is made to be “firm,” it’s still relatively soft. The textured scale parts simply feel like a nice ridge similar to the texture of ostrich leather where their feather “buttons” would be. 

Sewability

With some species of fish, you need to be somewhat delicate when pulling through on your stitches to not offset the leather from being pulled. With thin leathers, there’s not a lot of room for error, and pulling a thread too tightly can make a project go from clean to chum.

It takes some time and practice, but you can achieve that aesthetic you’re looking for with enough finesse. My advice on edges and fish leather is that if you can fold the edge over on itself, do it; otherwise, hide them as well as you can. 

Fish Leather Sewn to Vegetable Tanned Leather - Fish Leather Liberty Leather Goods
Fish Leather Sewn to Vegetable Tanned Leather

Durability

Leather Coach - Liberty Leather Goods
LeatherCoach™ Cover Image

LeatherCoach™

Get a head start with my personal knowledge program and enjoy crafting more today.

Have you ever bought a filet of salmon at the store, brought it home, and noticed that the fishmonger didn’t remove the skin? What’s worse in that situation is if you don’t know how to take that skin off, it’s going to be a slimy mess with scales flopping all over your kitchen!

A seasoned chef will instinctively know to cut an incision at (and under) the tail end of the flesh, lay their knife flat, and then pull on the skin, wiggling and strongly yanking until the two pieces of the fish cleanly separate. 

Like so many other animals, fish skin is extremely resilient and more durable than you’d initially give thought to, making it a perfect material to use in your next leather project. I would compare it to sheepskin for a general understanding, and regular fish leather could be stronger for thicker-skinned species.

Ease of Maintenance

One would think that fish leather care and treatment would be a bit different than the animal leather you’ve used before, but the product can be treated similarly. Sometimes fish leathers have a thick layer of acrylic clear coat, but others have a more natural matte finish, and you can easily treat them as you would any other type of leather.

Mink oil, aussie leather balm, neatsfoot oil, etc., are all good options depending on the look you’re going for. I would like to point out that buffing some fish leather is tricky due to its texture. Think of the ones with pronounced scale patterns and how the buffing solution you’re using would get stuck in them and not shine up as well.

Certain types of fish have very shallow or no scale patterns (looking at you, wolffish); these you can treat just like any other cow leather. At the end of the day, half the fun of this craft is experimentation, and while this leather isn’t the cheapest in the world, you should still feel empowered to do a fun experiment with this type of exotic leather. 

Lifespan with Daily Use

Fish leather is just as durable as any other leather (if not stronger); the one downside is if you’re using it as a card pocket in a wallet, the top edge may end up folding over and creasing downwards, so you may want to fold it over on itself and sew the edge or line it with a supporting leather to help give it more structure.

Available Colors

Fish leather is available in various colors, based primarily on the dyes used when processing them. These can commonly include:

  1. Red
  2. Blue
  3. Yellow
  4. Green
  5. Black
  6. Tan
  7. Purple
  8. Pink
  9. Teal
  10. Orange
  11. Others

Fish leather can also be tanned, leaving its natural colors, where no dyes are added, and finished leather pieces reflect the natural tones of the fish skin used to produce it.

An Orange Cod Leather Axe Sheath - Fish Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
An Orange Cod Leather Axe Sheath

Waterproofness

If you’re looking for waterproof leather, I think this is the best type you can buy. It’s a fish, after all! This makes fish leather a great material for outdoor wet gear and footwear.

Cost

Fish leather costs vary, primarily based on the size of the hide and the type of fish it comes from. Roughly, costs range from about $15–$40 per fish leather hide. Here are a few helpful external links to popular sellers:

  1. https://www.shadileather.com/ (moving to a new website soon, Instagram @shadi_leather)
  2. https://nordicfishleather.com/
  3. https://www.sealeatherwear.com/
  4. https://fiskurleather.com/ 

Ease of Crafting

Fish leather is an intermediate leather type to work with. This material has a learning curve, but like most things, trial and error are your best teachers. Just be gentle and go slow at first.

Rarity (Common or Exotic)

Fish leather is generally deemed “exotic” and produced in smaller quantities than bovine or goat leather. Therefore, it can be a little trickier to find/source and be more expensive in some cases. Also, due to its composition, it can provide unique crafting characteristics and properties only available when using fish leather.

The grain of fish leather acts almost as reverse embossing from the scale pattern jutting out the connection points, which grab onto pigments that then act almost like a glaze on them; some have even been treated with an acrylic/waxy finisher (different from tannery to tannery) to give it a very eye-popping shine.

Pros of Fish Leather

Some may wonder, why should I use this if it’s going to be difficult? Three main points come to mind: sustainability, design, and uniqueness. Because fish leather is a byproduct of the fishing industry, what normally would be thrown away or used in various animal feeds can be utilized in a fashion-forward thinking “new” type of exotic leather. 

One huge topic of public interest is reducing emissions and waste, so if you’re looking to sell anything with fish leather, this has the potential to be a huge selling point; everybody wins! This emergence of fish leather may even help alleviate the current issues that plague the fashion industry. 

A review of bio-tanning for fish leather states, “The skin of fish is considered exotic and innovative leather, being accepted in different clothing industry segments. The high-end market also aligns itself with the current politically correct marketing strategy as ‘environmentally friendly alternative exotic leather’ because they use an otherwise wasted product.” 

Pros of Fish Leather:

  1. Sustainable
  2. Durable
  3. Unique
  4. Doesn’t smell like fish
  5. Can be sold as an exotic leather despite its abundance 
  6. Many different types of fish species to choose from

Cons of Fish Leather

While it’s strong and tough to be pulled and yanked at, the fish leather does have some drawbacks, most notably when it comes to edges. Out of all my projects, getting a nice edge on some fish leather is one of the most difficult things to do; it just doesn’t want to behave like other leathers in this regard, and burnishing a nice mirror edge is nearly impossible due to its thin textured nature. 

Cons of Fish Leather:

  1. Difficult to make good natural burnished edges with
  2. Learning curve
  3. Hard to find a supplier
  4. Flesh side can peel back when applying glue or removing stickers
  5. Small hide to work with
A Wolffish Leather Keychain - Fish Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
A Wolffish Leather Keychain

How Fish Leather is Made

Fish leather is naturally tanned, drum-dyed, and more notably dried by stapling to a board to keep its shape from shriveling up. Please note: all producers have unique techniques, so this may not apply everywhere.

In general, fish leather is made utilizing a tanning process similar to other leathers, yet towards the end is sometimes stapled to a board to help keep its shape. There are a few different methods used globally, depending on the region and the specific production process the tanner applies. These often include:

  1. Fat Tanning
  2. Vegetable Tanning
  3. Urine Tanning
  4. Chrome Tanning

Commonly, the tanning process includes:

  1. Harvesting – The fish is harvested, caught, or otherwise obtained for use in leather making
  2. Preparation The skin is prepared for tanning, removing fats and other unwanted elements in the finished skin
  3. Tanning The prepared skin is tanned (using one of the common methods)
  4. Dyeing – If it is to be dyed or colored, this can be done as a step within the tanning process or a subsequent step after tanning
  5. Drying – The skins are dried; at this step, it is important they retain their shape and are sometimes held or stapled in place not to allow them to shrink or distort in shape
  6. Finishing – A finish, coating, or protectant might be applied, such as a sealant or reflective coating, if desired for the visual look or functional characteristics of the finished hides

Production Statistics of Fish Leather

  1. Volume per year: Around $25M–$35M yearly (roughly 1.2 million fish leather hides each year)
  1. Key countries or countries where it is produced: Germany, Brazil, Iceland, Portugal, U.S.
  1. Biggest exporting countries: Germany, Brazil
  1. Biggest importing country: U.S.

Cost of Fish Leather

Full Hide: Each fish hide is unique in size and can vary in cost based on the size and the type of fish the hide was made from. In general, fish leather ranges from about $12–$40 per hide. Here are some more detailed examples of various types:

  1. Tilapia: $12/hide
  2. Cod: $25/hide
  3. Salmon: $34/hide
  4. Sturgeon: $40/hide
A Turquoise Salmon Purse - Fish Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
A Turquoise Salmon Purse

When You Might Leathercraft With Fish Leather

The surprise and dismay of people who hear “this is made of fish” is quite the sight to be seen, confusion at first followed by amazement that not only can leather be made from fish but it holds up to the standard test of wear and tear. From cod to wolffish, design choices are endless, especially when considering what type of fish to use. 

Do you want to have that cool “dragon scale” look without all that effort of tooling it in yourself? Fish scales leave their marks and look just the same with a fraction of effort. If you’re looking for beautiful metallic shine but also want a strong color in the background to frame a new bag you’re creating for a loved one; fish leather is that perfect choice yet again. 

The grain of fish leather acts almost as reverse embossing from the scale pattern jutting out the connection points, which grab onto pigments that then act almost like a glaze on them; some have even been treated with an acrylic/waxy finisher (different from tannery to tannery) to give it a very eye-popping shine.

Tips for Leathercrafting With Fish Leather

  1. When planning to make a project or series of items from fish leather, know that each fish skin is slightly different from than others. Thus, the resulting final appearances will likely have slight visual appearance variations.
  2. Burnishing can be tricky with fish leather; keep this in mind when planning to utilize it on a project.
  3. When sewing, stitch carefully to help prevent tears in the thinner skins.

Some Examples of Items Made From Fish Leather

Are you trying to think of what to make with fish leather? Here are a few ideas that could inspire you to create projects:

  1. Wallets (I would suggest the lining and card pocket rather than the outside panel
  2. Earings
  3. Bag linings
  4. Gloves (if you want to get fancy, and may take a few four hides)
  5. Lamp shades
  6. Ties
  7. Bracelets
  8. Key chains
  9. Small clutch
  10. Coin purses
  11. Artistic design choice on a panel (just glue and stitch like lining a bag)
  12. Shoe uppers
  13. Belts
  14. Watch straps
A Green Wolffish Hulk Watch - Fish Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
A Green Wolffish Hulk Watch

My Personal Research on Fish Leather

I reached out to an exceptional company called SHADI from Braga, in the Kingdom of Portugal. They specialize in selling fine, exotic fish leathers, and the team at SHADI took the time to help teach me more about the material and its characteristics. Here is what I learned:

What are the tanning and dying techniques you use for fish leather? Would you consider this a veg tan, chrome tan, or is it a tannage completely unique to fish? 

SHADI makes aniline drum-dyed leather. We use different tanning methods depending on the final use of the leather (it could be lighting, decor, small leather projects, etc). One day we use one, the other day, another, and sometimes it’s just a mix. The only thing we steer clear of is chrome tanning.

Would you say this tanning is harmful to the environment, both compared to other tannages and in general?

It is environmentally friendly since the production is chrome and formaldehyde free, and we also don’t use any phenols. Instead, we rely on biodegradable materials, vegetable tanning agents, and natural fats. 

Why should the consumer use fish leather versus other types of comparable leathers?

The first thing that comes to mind is the visuals. Both salmon and sturgeon leathers have this exotic and unmistakable look that makes them stand out. For most people, products made of fish leather are still a novelty, something unique and unusual. As for leather characteristics, all fish leather is extremely durable and tear-resistant compared to other leathers. 

Another interesting thing (but it only works for thin leathers such as salmon) is that it gives you room to make mistakes if you are stitching with a needle. You can easily start over if something goes wrong, and the holes you made won’t be visible. Salmon leather is something in between leather and fabric. 

If there’s anything else that you think of that I missed in my questions, please feel free to volunteer such information!

We just wanted to note once again that fish leather has a lot more potential as a material.

There are dozens of techniques, even for one fish leather type, depending on the qualities you need your final product to have. 

For example, there is an interesting project we are working on right now with squid leather — turns out it could be used for cleaning optics, and it works wonders! So as you can see, we have more of a scientific slash experimental approach than a commercial one. 

Our technologist, Mr. Akhmed Shadiev, develops fish leather manufacturing technologies aimed at reducing the production cycle and minimizing energy and water consumption. Those technologies could be implemented for large-scale production and comply with all sustainability guidelines. It’s a constant work in progress, and we are sure there is still a lot to explore!

These incredible insights help me understand a little more about fish leather, where it comes from, and when I can use it.

Fish Leather Care and Maintenance

How to Clean Fish Leather

Saddle soap is a great option, don’t use anything abrasive or that could peel off any top coat.

How to Condition Fish Leather

You don’t need to penetrate deeply with a conditioner, so just a thin layer of mink oil (or your favored conditioner) would work wonders.

How to Store Fish Leather

I like to store mine in a cool, dry location. Fittingly, I had a fish container (a short rectangular plastic box that’s usually blue with a white top) that I had taken home some filets from a local fishmonger, “why not reuse this to store fish leather?” I said, and it’s the perfect container. 

Here is an informational video of the previously known Atlantic Leather of Iceland, now known as Nordic Leather; they delve into the topics that we’ve covered here in this article a little deeper:

Helpful Insights on Fish Leather

Is fish leather good?

Yes, fish leather is good and can be used in various leather working projects. The smaller size of the hides makes it suitable for accessories, while its durability provides for a material that can last decades when well-cared for. Overall, it can be an excellent choice for certain projects.

Is fish leather waterproof?

Yes, fish leather is waterproof. It is probably the most waterproof leather out there. The natural oils from the fish’s skin make this type of leather waterproof and great for use with outdoor wet gear and footwear.

Is fish leather expensive? 

Yes, compared to other more common leathers like bovine, fish leather is expensive. I expect the prices to come down if there are more producers out there, but currently, it’s somewhat costly. However, compared to other exotic leathers, I would say this leather is a steal! 

Does fish leather smell?

No, fish leather does not generally smell. It goes through a tanning process that removes most of the strong odor sometimes associated with fish and might take on the subtle scents of the materials used in the tanning and finishing process. The great thing is that fish leather does not have a strong fish smell at all and can be enjoyed like most other leathers.

Is fish leather strong? 

Yes, fish leather is strong and durable. I would compare it to sheepskin leather for a general understanding and regular fish.

Key Takeaways

  1. Fish leather is sustainable, durable, and provides a very unique visual appeal in leather goods
  2. Given the smaller size of fish skins, it works best when used to make smaller items and personal accessories
  3. Fish leather requires gentle handling, and working, which can produce some truly unique and special items

In Closing

While exotic leather usually isn’t the first thing to bring a newbie into the craft, fish leather is a great introductory leather type with low overhead cost to train one’s self on how to work with exotic leathers. You’ll end up making truly unique pieces, as well as helping progress our industry forward with modern trends and helping keep our planet green.

Other Resources: