After working with leather for many years, I’ve grown to appreciate many high-quality leathers. While I’ve often explored the tanner source of these leathers, I had never considered the work. Recently I decided to look at the impact the seasoned leather tanners make in their industry.
A leather tanner is a worker that facilitates the process of turning animal hides into leather. Working as a tanner requires specialized training, teaching them the many steps of the process. Tanners will clean, scrape, transport, tan, stretch, dye, and finish hides that pass through the facility.
The leather manufacturing process requires many talented tanners. Let’s look at some of their key duties that help create the material many love.
What Is a Leather Tanner?
A leather tanner is a worker that specializes in tanning leather hides. These workers are the cornerstone of any tannery, as they take the raw hides that arrive at the tannery and transform them into the preserved material known as leather. They may tackle various tasks, including:
Each tannery will have its own way of treating the leather, meaning the tanners will see various amounts of hands-on work. For example, when shell cordovan is made, the tanners hand-dye the leather rather than using a spray or more conventional methods.
What We’ll Explore
- Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
- History of Leather Tanner
- Leather Tanner Overview Table
- What Is Leather Tanning?
- Why Does Leather Need Tanned?
- What Does a Leather Tanner Do?
- How To Become a Leather Tanner
- Skill Level of a Leather Tanner
- Is a Leather Tanner a Good Occupation
- Pros of Being a Leather Tanner
- Cons of Being a Leather Tanner
- My Personal Research Into Leather Tanner
- Helpful Leather Tanner Insights
- Key Takeaways
Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions
Many recognize leather tanning as a demanding job. However, with most tanneries being located outside of the U.S., there are misconceptions regarding the safety of the work. While most tanneries have moved away from direct contact with chemicals, there is still plenty of risk.
Despite precautions to protect leather tanners, their exposure to carcinogens is a continuing concern. Many leather tanners are heritage workers who spend decades in the industry, further increasing their risk of health concerns. Leather tanning is not just a demanding job but also a dangerous one.
History of Leather Tanners
Throughout the Stone Age, using animal hides was a necessity, but they would often rot. The earliest tanners rubbed fatty oils onto their hides to preserve them. For a more traditional look at tanning, it is said to have begun in Pakistan between 7000–3300 BCE. Tanners worked on the outskirts of towns using urine and feces to preserve the leather. With no machinery, each step had to be performed by hand.
As advancements in the industry occurred, tanners traded many hands-on tasks for knowledge of machinery. They could use large rotating vats, spray on dyes, and split the leather with present-day machines. While each tannery follows different procedures, and many tasks are still performed by hand, their skill level has only improved over time.
In this video by Insider Business, we closely examine the world’s oldest tannery. Detailing the dangerous steps the leather tanners go through to produce leather.
Leather Tanner Overview Table
|Animal hides arrive at a tannery salted. Tanners will thoroughly wash the hides to remove the salt, and dirt, and debris.
|Many animal hides will have excess fat that must be removed before tanning. Tanners use sharp knives to cut away the fat.
|Tanners will take prepared hides to large vats, where they will mix in the tanning chemicals to preserve the leather.
|While the leather is drying, a tanner will stretch it as it dries by using a frame to pull it in all directions.
|Both the dyeing and finishing process require tanners to spray or apply by hand the various dyes, oils, and waxes required for the leather.
What Is Leather Tanning?
Leather tanning is the process of turning raw animal hides into leather through preservation. The term “tanning” refers to the tannin, which prevents the animal hides from rotting. By saturating the leather with tannins, the hide will be coated, protecting it from bacteria and mold. In addition, the tanning process softens the leather, makes it more water resistant, and prepares it to accept dyes.
Why Does Leather Need Tanned?
Animal hides must be tanned after harvesting to prevent the skin from rotting and deteriorating. By going through the tanning process, the hides become protected from bacteria and fungi, preventing it from becoming damaged over time.
In addition, by tanning the leather, it becomes more durable, water-resistant, and mold resistant. The tanning process prolongs the life of the leather, making the material one of the longest-lasting fabrics available.
These workers are the cornerstone of any tannery, as they take the raw hides that arrive at the tannery and transform them into the preserved material known as leather.
What Does a Leather Tanner Do?
A leather tanner takes newly arrived raw hides and cleans them thoroughly, removing dirt, salt, and any other debris. They also scrape the hides to remove all the excess fat. Tanners transport the hides to their tanning vats, adding the chemicals required. They will then dry and stretch out the leather.
Tanners will also add both the dye and finish to the leather. This may include transporting the leather to another vat or applying them by hand. The role of a leather tanner may differ depending on the tannery. Tasks may be split to specialize their workers further, and some older tanneries may have a more hands-on approach.
How To Become a Leather Tanner?
Becoming a leather tanner has little formal education but rather focuses on experience through a potential apprenticeship. This will help provide the know-how on the various processes used when tanning leather.
For those looking to become a leather tanner, becoming familiar with leather types and how they are made, is key. Any previous experience working with raw hides or DIY tanning will also help you succeed in the industry. Attention to detail, ability to perform manual labor and industry knowledge are needed to become a part of the tanning industry.
Skill Level of a Leather Tanner
While most tanners are not required to undergo formal education, they have rigorous training. During their training as an apprentice, they are taught the steps of leather tanning and how to operate the machines. As a result, leather tanners are highly skilled in their craft, undertaking many tasks requiring great attention to detail.
For tanneries that complete techniques by hand, the workers will have different skills, learning to scrape, dye, or finish leather using more traditional methods. Although tasks may be repetitive, the skill of leather tanners can be seen by the quality of leather produced, with veteran workers able to create luxurious hides with deep marbled undertones.
Is a Leather Tanner a Good Occupation?
Although producing leather may be someone’s dream, the job itself is less glamorous. The working conditions include long hours of repetitive manual labor and prolonged exposure to dangerous chemicals. As we’ve grown to understand more about the industry, it is not uncommon to find those with health issues due to their work.
In addition to the demanding working conditions, there is little monetary incentive. The average salary for a leather tanner is around $37,000. Although there is room for improvement, this is just above a family’s poverty line, according to the 2022 census.
Pros of Being a Leather Tanner
Working as a leather tanner may be demanding, but those who take the position often stick with it for decades. While some may remain due to heritage, there are a few key benefits that those who work in the industry may enjoy.
- Ability to work with your hands
- Learn how to operate various machinery
- No formal education required
- Good health insurance offered
- Safety is often a priority
Cons of Being a Leather Tanner
While being a leather tanner is a respectable career, there are some points to consider before entering the industry. Many are passionate about leather, but tanning leather may take more than that.
- Physically demanding
- Repetitive tasks
- Exposure to harmful chemicals
- Limited jobs available
- Relatively low wages
Subodh Kumar Rastogi, Amit Pandey, and Sachin Tripathi, with the Indian Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, looked at random leather tanners to assess their health. Their research found a higher percentage of morbidity in workers. They noted that this is most likely due to the chromium and chemical fumes being inhaled over decades of working as a leather tanner.
My Personal Research Into Leather Tanner
For my research, I looked for first-hand information regarding leather tanners. I explored processes and perspectives from global tanneries, looking at both new and veteran tanners and what the future may hold for leather tanners.
Entering the Industry
Many of the tanners I saw during my research entered the industry through their heritage. Throughout generations of their family, their occupations would be working at a tannery. Many of their fathers would often still be working at the tanneries when they begin, at ages as young as 13, often not completing their formal education or dropping out of high school to start working.
There is a lot of pride surrounding veteran leather tanners. Many also started young, as the craft was passed down to them, and then continued working as a tanner their entire lives. They’ve perfected their techniques and enjoy passing down the information when possible.
However, not all tanners want their kids to follow in their footsteps. They acknowledge the job’s difficulty, and often guide them towards other professions. It is not uncommon for those who have worked in the industry all their life to have developed chronic injuries from the job, including chemical contamination and strain from physical tasks.
Despite the leather industry continuing to grow, the number of tanners is dwindling. Many seasoned workers retire with less and fewer newcomers to fill these roles. While money is one of the barriers, it is more than often the physical nature of the job.
The daily tasks of a leather tanner are physically demanding, including lifting, scraping, and transporting. Another potential concern is the research that has come over time. The health concerns from working as a leather tanner have been further researched and well documented.
Working in the industry as a leather tanner had many unique perspectives. There was pride and a generational legacy that proved to be driving the industry forward. However, with a potential perspective shift by the public and veteran tanners, the industry may need to see changes. It is possible that the future of leather tanners will see much more incentives in exchange for their hard-working labor.
Helpful Leather Tanner Insights
What does a leather tanner do?
A leather tanner facilitates the process of turning raw animal hides into usable leather, preventing it from rotting through tanning. They wash, tan, stretch, and dye each hide by following both heritage know-how, and techniques specific to the tannery itself.
What is the job of a leather tanner?
While the specific jobs of a leather tanner will largely depend on the tannery itself, there are universal practices. Leather tanners must clean, scrape fresh hides, transport them throughout the facility, and follow steps to ensure the leather is properly preserved. Tanners may also dry, stretch, dye, and finish the leather.
What does leather tanner mean?
A leather tanner is someone who works to make leather. More specifically, the term “tan” refers to the tannins which is what are used to preserve the hides. Therefore by definition, a leather tanner is a worker who preserves raw hides, turning them into leather.
- Leather tanners are the lifeblood of the leather industry
- Workers are trained in highly skilled tasks to produce leather
- Tanners work in harsh conditions to create leather
It goes without saying that without the hard work that leather tanners perform every day, there would be no leather. These workers have trained to carry on a specialized task making one of the world’s oldest luxury materials. Their knowledge allows for continued innovation in the industry and refinement of age-old techniques.
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