I thought it would be helpful to write this article detailing the different types of leather hides, some of the most common uses for them, and good places to find quality hides. Maybe this will help cut out some of the trial-and-error for you and give you some good insight on the various different types of leather hides.
Leather hides are the processed skin of animals. They are treated to yield a material that is tough, durable, and strong. Leather hides come in a variety of colors, thicknesses, textures, and softnesses. They are used to make a variety of goods, clothing, upholstery, and personal accessories.
We make choices everyday. Walking into a leather store to get the supplies to finish that project you’ve been working on can be daunting. There’s a ton of choices. Do you need the durability and thinness of a kidskin? What’s latigo? Is that really a sharkskin? Well that’s why I’m here. Learning the difference between the different types of hides can make your project go from great to amazing. Let’s explore.
What are Leather Hides?
Before I got into leatherworking when someone would say the word ‘leather,’ I would picture a nice smooth, soft and supple leather couch or maybe even a big, bearded guy in a leather biker jacket and chaps on a Harley. Now after being in the industry for some time, whenever I hear ‘leather’ my mind thinks of a million different uses but that knowledge was only attained through quite a bit of trial-and-error.
Let’s start with the question, what is leather? Well the short answer is that leather was once the skin of an animal and is imbued with protective collagen and fats to protect the animal from the elements. Once removed from a harvested animal through butchering or hunting, the leather hides’ protective characteristics still remain.
By far the most popular type of leather, bovine hides dominate the leather world with over 67 percent of the total annual hide production globally.
An animal’s skin, like your skin, protects the internal organs from exposure along with hair and fur. Our skin is made up of three layers, the epidermis or top layer gives us our skin tone, the dermis which consists of hair follicles and sweat glands, and the hypodermis which contains fat and blood vessels.
Typically animal hides will have four layers, the top grain which is the “finished” side of a leather hide, the grain and corium junction which is a blend of tight and loose fibers, the corium which is mostly collagen and the thickest part of the hide, and finally the flesh side which consists of muscle and fatty tissues.
There are various ways to separate or “split” an animal hide. The most desirable part of the hide is the top layer or top grain because of its durability. Other parts of the hide can also be used for various things like linings, suedes, and lower quality leather goods.
Now that you know a little more about the layers of hides, let’s take a closer look at their uses.
The leather hide is the skin from an animal. Typically, animal skins are removed as a part of the butchering process or after a successful animal hunt or harvest. The hide provides the same protective qualities and characteristics as it did when it was a part of an animal.
The hides’ main purpose was to protect the internal organs of an animal from external elements through the use of various layers of fibers, collagen, and tissues. Leather hides consist of four parts: The Grain, The Grain-Corium Junction, The Corium, and the Flesh Side. Below you can see a cross-section of the layers.
So to summarize, the hide of an animal is the harvested skin that contains many of the same characteristics and properties that benefited the animal when living. Now let’s take a look at some of the most popular types of animal hides used in the industry.
Popular Types of Leather Hides
Bovine and Cow
By far the most popular type of leather, bovine hides dominate the leather world with over 67 percent of the total annual hide production globally. Given the number of cattle across the world this isn’t surprising and cattle leather can be used in a wide variety of goods. Typically most people think of a black and white milk cow standing in a field when they think of the animal, but there are a number of different types of “cows” and each produces a different type of leather hide.
Uncastrated male cattle are called bulls and produce a much thicker and tougher leather while castrated males are called steers. Steer hides make up the bulk of all the annual cattle hide production while bull hides are much more scarce.
A female cattle that has had calves is formally referred to as a cow and a female that has not had calves is called a heifer. The hides of both cows and heifers are generally very similar by having soft and pliable characteristics and are used in most common leather projects. Young male and female cattle are called calves and their hides are typically soft and thin.
Goat hides or “skins” are very soft, strong and thin making them great lining material. Goat hides–like other smaller animal hides–are referred to as skins and most leather B&Ms will sell them by the skin. These stores typically do not cut skins and price by the square foot. Most goat skins range from 4-7 feet.
If you remember your nursery rhymes, Mary had a little one of these and their hides are pretty unique in that one side is leather and the other is wool. These skins make them ideal for use in year-round seat covers, shoes, gloves, and moccasins because the wool naturally draws moisture away from the wearer. Sheep (or lamb) skins are similar in size range to goat skins, but usually run a bit on the smaller side.
Horse hides are hard to come by and because of this they can be expensive. However, horse leather is very sought after for its toughness, denseness and smooth finish. Horse leather is referred to as “cordovan” leather which primarily comes from the butt section of the horse. Because it comes from such a small section, horse leather is used in smaller items like gloves, clutches, wallets, and shoes.
Bison hides are another popular leather for its thickness, durability and soft hand. Although the American Bison is commonly referred to as Buffalo, this is a misnomer and the word Buffalo (another species native to Asia and Africa) was attributed to the Great Plains Bison by early European explorers. None-the-less, Bison hides are very unique in their look and spongy feel. They make great tool pouches and bags.
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Deer are plentiful and a popular sport hunting animal. Their leather is soft, supple, thin, and strong. Popular uses include moccasins, bags, car upholstery, and gloves. Deer hides are fairly easy to find at your local B&M and they are typically sold in black, white, and brown.
Other popular animal hides for leather uses include:
- Water Buffalo
- Kangaroo (the world’s toughest leather)
Hair on Hide Leather
Hair-on-hides is exactly what it sounds like. These are typically from cattle and consist of a split or flesh side and a side with the hair intact. These are most commonly used in decorative pieces like chaps or inlays. Believe it or not, these hides are more costly because the tanning process is more extensive in order to preserve the hair.
Popular Uses for Leather Hides
Leather Hides for Upholstery
Leather furniture is popular because of its durability and longevity. Cow leather is by far the most commonly used type of hide for upholstery both interior and exterior. Sheep and goat skins are used in all-weather conditions for things like bike seats, saddlebags, and saddles.
Leather Hides for Clothing & Accessories
Because of their all-around versatility, cow hides are used extensively in leather clothing. They are used in things like shoes from big names like Nike and Adidas to handbags and clothing from companies like Coach and Gucci. I have even seen the leather used in Spalding basketballs at a local store for 99 cents a foot!
Leather Hide Rugs
Wouldn’t it be nice to cozy up by the fire on a nice bear-skin rug? Leather hide rugs are sold in full hides and typically have the hair or scales still remaining. Some popular rugs include hides from cows, bison, bear, ostrich and alligator.
Leather Hide Suppliers
Springfield Leather Company, springfieldleather.com
In business since 1999, Springfield Leather Company has always had the small-time crafter in mind. One of the very few places to sell leather by the square foot, SLC has no minimum purchase amount and has everything from Hermann Oak Veg Tan sides to tools and templates for your project needs.
Weaver Leather Supply, weaverleathersupply.com
Starting as a shoe repair company, Weaver Leather began selling leathers, tools, and supplies in 1983. In addition to selling full sides, Weaver sells pre-cut panels of leather, tools and dyes. Weaver also has a great selection of videos and guides to help you with your project.
Maverick Leather Company, maverickleathercompany.com
Since 2006, Maverick Leather Company in Oregon has supplied leathercrafters with Horween, Hermann Oak, Wrangler and other leathers. Maverick also has a nice selection of horse leather if you are curious. In addition to the leathers, they supply dyes, tools, and stamps.
Leather is a wonderful medium used to craft all types of things.
How to Store Leather Hides
When storing leather it is important to follow these golden rules because leather is an organic material and while it is durable when it is exposed to certain things, leather can be ruined.
- AVOID MOISTURE! This is important because moisture can and will ruin your leather very quickly. Avoid storing it on bare cement or even cement floors with carpet because cement acts as a moisture attractor.
- Store your leather in an environment that is lowlight and out of direct sunlight. Excessive light can dull the leather’s appearance.
- Store your leather in places with relative humidity between 50-55 percent. A hall closet or office at room temperature is typically in this range.
- Never fold leather. It is best to roll leather hides and even better to roll hides around a cardboard tube to prevent creases.
- Just like your laundry, always separate leather by color or types. Don’t put veg tanned with oil tanned leathers or dyed leather with chromed tanned.
If you follow these rules, chances are that your leather will be fine. Just like anything else of value though, it is important to use common sense when storing your leathers.
Leather is a wonderful medium used to craft all types of things. Just like cars there are many different types each with their own wonderful qualities. Although cow hides are the most popular type of leather hide, hides from goats, pigs, sheep, horse, alligator, and others can be used to make amazing work. When sourcing your leather it is important to remember that it is always best to obtain top-grain leather for a high-quality piece but the other layers of a hide also have their uses.
Sourcing leather is as easy as a quick Google search and although we have listed a few here, there are many available. And finally, when storing your leather always follow the five golden rules to prevent damages.