When making a rustic style project, I often go with oiled leather. Its durability, rough look, and price point make it an attractive choice for various goods.
Oiled leather is a chromed tanned leather that is taken and stuffed with a variety of oils and waxes. This process softens the leather while also giving it its wear-resistance properties. Used for boots, bags, belts, and more, this cost-effective leather typically runs between $3–$10 per sq. ft.
So when should one consider using oiled leather? Let’s uncover their characteristics and how its best used.
History of Oiled Leather
Leather tanning has origins in 400 BCE with basic drying and curing techniques used by the Egyptians and Hebrews. However, it wasn’t until industrial tanning was introduced that we began to see oil finishes applied to chrome tanned leather.
After the tanning process is complete fatty oils are stuffed back into the leather repeatedly until the natural moisture is replaced. Historically this process was done using fish oil, with more modern methods using synthetic oils and greases.
Characteristics of Oiled Leather
Oiled leather, much as the name implies, has an oily texture. Touching an oiled hide will feel greasy, slick, and/or waxy.
One of the key characteristics of oil leather is its flexibility. One could take a piece of said leather and bend it repeatedly with little to no creasing nor damage to the leather. Its ability to remain flexible even as thickness increases lends itself to more demanding goods.
The oil injection process of stuffing, drying, and stretching the leather, makes oiled leather very soft, stretchy, and porous. These characteristics, combined with the leather’s oily nature, create a smoother feeling.
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Oiled leather’s flexible nature makes it ideal for hand sewing. As opposed to other stretchy leathers such as goat and pig, oiled leather comes in heavier weights which helps prevent stitching holes from tearing. Lastly, when hammering stitches, oiled leather closes well, limiting the visibility of chisel holes.
Durability is the highlight when discussing oiled leathers. They possess the same resistances as chrome tanned leather with added protections due to the oils it is stuffed with. Oil leathers take much more exposure to the elements compared to other leathers before they begin to dry out, crack, or peel.
Oiled leather is a chromed tanned leather that is taken and stuffed with a variety of oils and waxes.
Ease of Maintenance
The added oils stuffed into this leather keeps it hydrated longer than other leathers. Additionally, the oils create a protective barrier. However, when oiled leathers require rehydrating, one must use additional conditioners as these leathers will soak up more than others. These qualities make it easy to maintain with the caveat of needing additional care when rehydrating.
While oiled leathers may start as vibrant and variant colors, they ultimately become muted and dulled through the process of adding the oil. As a result, most oiled leathers are earth tones. Another defining characteristic is the inconsistencies throughout the leather. The oils sink in differently across the hide leading to different tones throughout a single hide.
Oiled leather is not waterproof; it’s water resistant. This leather can be exposed to less than ideal conditions; however, like all leathers, one should be aware of the potential damage from prolonged exposure.
Its industrious nature provides a lower average price point compared to other tanning methods. Oiled leathers typically cost between $3–$10 per sq. ft.
Pros and Cons of Oiled Leather
Pros of Oiled Leather
Oiled leather offers soft, supple, and wear-resistant leather at a budget-friendly price. It makes a good introductory leather or practice leather for those looking to make bags, backpacks, or other large goods.
Cons of Oiled Leather
Unfortunately, the biggest flaw when considering oiled leather is its unethical production. Chromium metal dust created in the tanning process is known to increase the chances of lung cancer if inhaled.
Kazi Madina Maraz of the Institute of Radiation and Polymer Technology in Bangladesh further informs us of this issue, detailing how chromium tanning waste makes its way into the groundwater, crops, and livestock. Improvements have been made to reduce the usage and waste of chromium metals; however, it is important to acknowledge the damage industrial tanning can produce.
Production of the leather aside, oiled leathers being stretchy make them more difficult to cut if one’s knife is dull. When gluing, the oils resist the adhesive making it more difficult to create a strong bond.
Oiled leathers don’t offer many colors or tones, and the hides you can buy will be inconsistent throughout. These types of leather also tend to bleed heavily. One must take proper care in storing it away from others, and freshly made goods may be wiped down to avoid the oils from tainting other surfaces.
Production Statistics of Oiled Leather
- Volume per year – Nearly 25,000 Million sq. ft of leather is produced worldwide each year. 85% of which is chromium leather, 21,250 million sq. ft.
- Key countries where oiled leather is produced – Key manufacturers are China, Russia, Brazil, India, and Italy. These countries combined make over half of all leather produced worldwide.
- Biggest exporting country – Despite not being the largest producer of leather, Italy is the largest exporter in terms of capital.
- Biggest importing country – Italy’s high demand for leather high fashion goods also makes it the largest importer.
Leather Production In 2020
|Country||Annual Production sq. ft|
How Oiled Leather is Made
Oiled leather is a finishing process, not a tanning one. According to the International Journal of Advanced Research in Education & Technology, chrome tanning began in the 19th century with the introduction of chemical tanning agents, chromium, and alum.
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This chrome tanned leather is then taken and dried. Once dried, the color, oils, and greases are added to the leather. It can then be stretched and once again dried. The leather is then slowly reconditioned to allow a more uniform moisture content and stretched for a final time before an additional coat of wax is added.
Cost of Oiled Leather
- Square Foot – Oiled leathers cost around $3–$10 per sq. ft.
- Half Hide – Half or smaller hides will cost anywhere between $60–$200
- Full Hide – These hides are typically only sold as sides and smaller pieces. However, one could order two halves for $120–$400.
Popular Uses for Oiled Leather
- Oiled Leather Boots
- Oiled Leather Sandals
- Oiled Leather Belts
- Oiled Leather Backpacks
- Oiled Leather Tote Bags
Tips for Working With Oiled Leather
- Keep a sharp blade to reduce stretching the leather when cutting
- When gluing, scratch/rough up the leather thoroughly
- Keep oiled leather separate from other project pieces as they may bleed
Examples of Items Made From Oiled Leather
Oiled leathers work best for leather goods that see a lot of wear from their everyday use. Boots, belts, bags, and backpacks constantly exposed to sun, dirt, grime, and the occasional water are prime examples. However, oiled leather can be used for other goods such as wallets, keychains, valet trays, and other places where one may want a soft hand with durability.
Oiled leather offers soft, supple, and wear-resistant leather at a budget-friendly price.
Research on the Effects of Long-term Water Exposure
In an effort to see the benefits of oiled leather, I soaked three different 4”x4” leather squares in water for 30 minutes. Natural vegetable tanned leather, chrome tanned leather, and oiled leather. After soaking them in water and allowing them to dry, each leather reacted differently. The vegetable-tanned leather both darkened and became much harder, losing its flexibility.
The chrome tanned leather largely remained the same color; however, creases became present, and peeling occurred in small areas. The oiled leather darkened unevenly but surprisingly kept all of its characteristics. It stayed flexible and soft and showed no additional creasing or damage when bending it back and forth.
Oiled Leather Care and Maintenance
How to Clean Oiled Leather
The surface of oiled leather attracts unwanted debris. As a result, one would want to use a horsehair brush to clean and lightly buff the leather.
How to Condition Oiled Leather
Conditioning oiled leathers may take additional work compared to others. While the process remains the same, light rub in a conditioner of your choice using a rag or your fingertip, oiled leathers absorb much more. As a result, patience is key as the leather may require multiple coats of conditioner.
How to Store Oiled Leather
Oiled leather tends to bleed onto other materials. It is best stored isolated to prevent unwanted runoff onto other leather items or fabrics.
What is the difference between leather and oiled leather?
While they share many similar characteristics, oiled leathers will be more wear-resistant, softer, and oily.
Is oiled leather good?
Oiled leather is great for beginners looking to make bags and other large goods and for anyone looking for a more durable, wear-resistant leather.
Is oiled leather better than regular leather?
Oiled leather, such as boots and bags, can be preferable in some cases. It outperforms other leathers in daily wear, making it ideal for goods that will be placed in non-ideal conditions.
Is oiled leather the same as nubuck?
Oiled leather is not the same as nubuck leather. While both may be soft, nubuck leather is sanded to create a suede-like effect, while oiled leather keeps its surface intact and is merely coated.
Can you wax oiled leather?
Yes, you can wax oiled leather. However, it may be more difficult due to the coating already present on the leather.
When considering the leather choice for a project, look at how and where it will be used. If you find the need for durability, flexibility, and a more water-resistance surface, oiled leather is a great choice.
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