Often when working on a project, I am drawn to vibrant colors of pre-dyed chrome tanned leather. Lately, I wanted to try dying my own leather, which led me to veg tan leather.
Veg tan leather is one of the oldest types of tanned leather, accounting for about 10% of the leather produced. It is favored for its strength and versatility and works well for tooling and making durable goods. It is available in thicknesses from 1oz–16oz and costs about $4–$20 per square foot.
With such versatile leather, let’s look closer at the quality of veg tan leather and when we can use it.
What Is Veg Tan Leather?
Veg tan leather, or veg tan leather, specifically refers to the process in which the leather was tanned rather than a specific animal source for the leather. So vegetable tanned leather can be leather harvested from any animal, including:
The process of tanning the leather uses a bath composed of organic materials that are high in tannins. Tree bark, leaves, and other organic matter are predominantly used. The result is a very versatile leather that can be shaped, molded, tooled, and used in any number of applications, from clothing to boots, upholstery, and even saddles.
What We’ll Explore
- Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
- History of Veg Tan Leather
- Veg Tan Leather Characteristics Quick Reference Table
- In-depth Characteristics of Veg Tan Leather
- Pros of Veg Tan Leather
- Cons of Veg Tan Leather
- How Veg Tan Leather is Made
- Production Stats for Veg Tan Leather
- Cost of Veg Tan Leather
- When You Might Leathercraft with Veg Tan Leather
- Tips for Leathercrafting With Veg Tan Leather
- Examples of Goods Made from Veg Tan Leather
- My Personal Research on Veg Tan Leather
- Veg Tan Leather Care & Maintenance
- Helpful Insights on Veg Tan Leather
- Key Takeaways
Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions
One of the biggest misconceptions about veg tan leather is that it only comes in a natural finish without any color. More often than not, vegetable tanned leather can be purchased in natural color or finish, so the dying process can be left to the artist or craftsman.
But in reality, vegetable tanned leather can be purchased pre-dyed in various colors, just like chrome dyed leather. However, many craftsmen prefer the natural look or the unlimited options for dye.
Here is a brief look at veg tan leather:
History of Veg Tan Leather
The vegetable tanning process is one of the oldest leather tanning processes. The process dates back thousands of years and was used by the Egyptians and Romans. They found that by using organic material high in tannins could preserve the hide in a way that would withstand the elements and not decay.
This method of tanning leather continued to be the predominant tanning method for thousands of years. It was not until the 1800s that chrome tanning was developed.
The chrome tanning method became more popular because it could cut down the tanning process from months to days, thus reducing cost and labor. Although veg tan leather only counts for a tenth of leather production today, it is still a favorite among artisans and high-end leather goods manufacturers.
Veg Tan Leather Characteristics Quick Reference Table
|Natural or Synthetic||Natural|
|Available Thickness (oz/mm)||1oz (.4mm) to 16oz (6.6mm)|
|Largest Workable Size||Large cowhides typically come in at 60 square feet, whereas horsehide sides come in at a maximum of 18 square feet.|
|Ease of Maintenance (1-10)||5|
|How Long it Lasts (Daily Use)||With care, it can last decades.|
|Available Colors||Any. But usually, it is associated with a natural tan finish.|
|Cost per Square Foot ($)||$4–$20, depending on the animal and origin.|
|Ease of Crafting (1-10)||7|
|Rarity (Common or Exotic)||Common|
|Annual Production Volume||180,000,000 square feet annually produced|
|Biggest Exporting Country||Italy, India, and Brazil|
|Biggest Importing Country||India, U.S., and China|
In-depth Characteristics of Veg Tan Leather
Natural or Synthetic
Veg tan leather is natural. Since the tanning process uses water and organic matter high in tannins, it is also considered a much more natural way of tanning the leather.
As a whole, vegetable tanned leather is noted for being smooth. Many people like veg tan leather due to its soft and natural surface, including blemishes.
Veg tan leather is available in a variety of thicknesses. Since the thickness can vary slightly across a hide, it is often sold in a range, including:
- 1–2 oz
This ranges from 1oz to 6oz, with 6oz leather often being used for saddle making and 1oz often being used for items such as:
- Bag linings
Largest Workable Size
Since veg tan leather can refer to any source animal, the two largest animals are cow and horse. Horsehides are usually sold by the side (half a hide) and can be around 18 square feet. Cowhide, on the other hand, can be purchased as a whole hide. These can come in any range of sizes but can be found up to 60 square feet.
One of the leading characteristics of vegetable tanned leather is its lack of flexibility and its ability to retain a molded shape. It is often viewed as being a rather stiff and rigid leather. This largely depends on the leather’s weight — as 1–3 oz leather can be relatively soft and pliable, whereas 16 oz leather is exceptionally stiff.
But its rigidity is why it is often prized. Leather craftsmen can soak the hides in water and wet mold them to a desired shape. The leather will harden when dried and retain that shape indefinitely.
Veg tan leather is often viewed as not having a soft hand. Many goods, such as boots, jackets, wallets, and accessories, start stiff and smooth. With time and use, they break in, becoming softer and more pliable, which is largely dependent on the hide. Since veg tan only refers to the process in which the hide is tanned — vegetable tanned sheepskin will be somewhat softer than cowhide, and horsehide will be the stiffest.
Sewing veg tan leather can be a rather daunting process, but it is actually relatively easy to sew. Thinner and lighter-weight leather will sew much easier, either by hand with a punch or on a medium-weight sewing machine.
Thicker leather with a dense fiber structure, such as oak tanned leather used for shoe soles, is very durable and difficult to sew. This requires an extremely durable sewing machine or the aid of an awl.
One of the best things about vegetable tanned leather is its durability. The tanning process dates back thousands of years and was not replaced until the 1800s. Today, craftsmen like veg tan leather for its durability. With proper care, it will last for generations. One of the most frequent uses for veg tan leather is for the soles of shoes and boots. Even with the abrasion from asphalt, they can last for years.
The great thing about vegetable tanned leather is that it can last a lifetime and is often used for making heirloom quality products.
Ease of Maintenance
Vegetable tanned leather is a long-lasting and durable material. Although the finish can scratch and it is susceptible to abrasion, it can be cleaned with mild soaps, such as saddle soap. The leather can be conditioned with simple leather conditioners that will keep them lasting a long time.
The biggest enemy of veg tan leather is water, which can stiffen and darken it. Often, when working with vegetable tanned leather, it is important to use a sealer on the leather to keep the water from penetrating it.
Lifespan with Daily Use
The great thing about vegetable tanned leather is that it can last a lifetime, and is often used for making heirloom quality products. Even with neglect, it is not unheard of for vegetable tanned leather to last 20–25 years. It is important to condition the leather in order to keep it lasting a long time.
Veg tan leather can be purchased both dyed and in a natural color. It will often be purchased in its natural form, a white or tan flesh color. This natural color can be used as is and will absorb oil from use, darkening the leather and giving it its notable patina.
Likewise, veg tan leather can be purchased pre-dyed. These colors are usually more earth tones, but other colors are available. Predominantly, you will find more options in pre-dyed leathers when looking at chrome dyed leather rather than vegetable tanned leather. Common veg tan leather colors include:
Veg tan leather is durable, but one of its inherent characteristics is absorbing water. This is especially useful when a craftsman is tooling the leather, as the craftsman will wet the leather to soften it, making it easier to tool.
To make the leather more water-resistant, it is often dyed and sealed. A popular sealer is resolene, which prevents water from saturating the leather.
Interestingly, veg tan horsehide is favored for motorcycle jackets and boots, because it has a dense fiber structure, making it more water-resistant than most leathers.
The cost of vegetable tanned leather can vary greatly. Since the process of tanning the leather is so time-consuming — taking months – the price reflects that. The biggest contributing factor to cost is the tannery itself. Leather tanned in Brazil or India will be much cheaper than veg tan leather from Japan, the U.S., or Italy. The result is a price that can range from $4–$20 per square foot.
Ease of Crafting
Vegetable tanned leather is an excellent option for crafters. The leather can be used to make everything from belts to bags and wallets – all the favorites for beginner crafters and advanced craftsmen. The options are endless, as it can be used for tooling, it is easy to sew, and you can be creative by dying it any color you want.
Rarity (Common or Exotic)
Veg tan leather is extremely common. Although it only accounts for about 10% of the leather produced, it is favored by leather crafters and can be found in nearly every leather store. It will more often be found in hand-made leather goods rather than mass-produced products.
Pros of Veg Tan Leather
Veg tan leather is a very strong and durable leather. It can be found in nearly any craft store or leather store, making it easily accessible for crafters. Vegetable tanned leather can also be used for a wide variety of projects, including:
- Horse tack
Since vegetable tanned leather has no harsh salts used in chrome tanned leather, it is a safe choice for products that come in contact with metal, as it won’t cause the metal to corrode.
Cons of Veg Tan Leather
The disadvantages of veg tan leather include:
- Stiffness – Stiffer than chrome tanned leather. This makes it a less popular choice for upholstery and fashion projects
- Weight – harder to work with heavier weights
- Stains – If not conditioned and sealed, it can easily be susceptible to staining
How Veg Tan Leather is Made
Although the process may vary from tannery to tannery, it generally is very similar. The animal hide is often salted to preserve the hide and its fat. The hair is removed, and a bath is prepared. The bath uses organic matter, like tree bark high in tannins. When the animal hide has been cleaned and is ready, it is placed into the bath.
This process removes water from the hide and replaces them with tannins, which link the collagen in the hide together. The tannins used from different tanneries even leave a sort of an identifiable “fingerprint,” as explored here by Romer, Underwood, Senekal, et al. from the University of Cambridge and the University of the Free State researching Tannin Fingerprinting in Vegetable Tanned leather.
The hide can sit in the bath for as short as a month or as long as a year. When the hide has finished soaking in the bath, it is now preserved and considered leather. It is then hung until it is dry.
Production Statistics of Veg Tan Leather
- Volume per year: 180,000,000 square feet
- Key country or countries where it is produced: Italy, India, Brazil, and Japan
- Biggest exporting country: Italy, India, Brazil
- Biggest importing country: India, U.S., and China
Cost of Veg Tan Leather
- Square foot: $4–$20 depending on the origin and type of animal hide used.
- ½ Hide: $90–$110
- Full Hide: $150–$200
When You Might Leathercraft With Veg Tan Leather
- If you are interested in tooling
- When you want to make a durable heirloom quality piece
- When you want to dye or paint the leather yourself
Tips for Leathercrafting With Veg Tan Leather
- Always use a sharp blade when cutting or skiving the leather.
- Use water when molding or manipulating the leather, or else it could tear.
- Always look at the back side of the hide when buying. If the leather is overly rough in texture, it will be hard to skive and cut — often the result of a poor tan.
Some Examples of Items Made From Veg Tan Leather
- Soles for boots and shoes
- Watch straps
- Passport covers
- Tack (for horses and other working animals)
- Leather art
My Personal Research on Veg Tan Leather
Recently, I was making a wallet out of 3–4oz veg tan. After sewing the leather, I wanted to see if soaking the wallet in water would help it stiffen up and retain its folded shape better.
In an effort to keep the changes to the leather subtle, I submerged the wallet in a bowl of water just long enough to let the water lightly saturate the leather. I didn’t want the leather to become fully saturated like I would if wet molding.
After letting the wallet dry at room temperature, I noticed that the wallet retained the folded shape better. Even better, the leather was still soft and only stiffened up slightly. Since the wallet was completely submerged in water, there were no issues with the water staining the leather. Instead, the leather just took on a slightly darker shade than before it had been wet. It changed from a whitish color to more of a tan.
Overall, the effects were desirable. If I were making a bag that required it to be stiffer and less pliable, I would use this method in the future. Depending on how stiff I want the final product to be, I might consider using hot water and drying it with mild heat. This would result in a much stiffer final product retaining its shape.
Veg Tan Leather Care and Maintenance
How to Clean Veg Tan Leather
Veg tan leather can be cared for like most leathers. Start by brushing off any dirt with a clean, soft bristle brush or lint-free rag. After the loose dirt is removed, the leather can be cleaned with mild soap — such as saddle soap or one specifically made for leather.
How to Condition Veg Tan Leather
Generally, if trying to maintain the original look and feel of the leather, use a leather conditioner after cleaning the leather. A conditioner specifically made for leather, such as a leather cream, will replenish the moisture in the leather without darkening the finish or changing the color.
Some people treat veg tan leather with oil, such as mink or neatsfeet oil. These can be used and will work well at keeping the leather soft, pliable, and even more water resistant. It should be noted that using oil to condition the leather will result in a darker finish. So when in doubt, use a leather cream instead.
How to Store Veg Tan Leather
Like most leather, veg tan leather should be stored in a cool and dry environment. Excess moisture can lead to mold, and if stored in a hot or sunny location, the leather can dry out and become susceptible to dry rot. It’s not a bad idea to condition the leather before storing it for long periods.
Helpful Insights on Veg Tan Leather
Is veg tan leather real leather?
Yes. Veg tan leather is real leather. Vegetable tanned leather refers to the process by which the leather is tanned. The veg tan processing method can be used on leather from many sources, such as bovine, pig, goat, and others.
Is veg tan leather good?
Although the quality can vary from tannery to tannery, by and large, veg tan leather is a great leather for leather craftsmen. With various weights available, veg tan leather can be used for nearly any project and last for decades or longer with proper care and maintenance.
Why is it called veg tan leather?
It is called veg tan leather because of its tanning process. Rather than harsh chrome salts, the leather is tanned using organic materials high in tannins to preserve the hide.
How is vegetable tanned leather made?
After the animal hide has had its hair removed, it is stretched and submersed in a bath that contains organic material usually derived from bark, leaves, or other organics high in tannins. The hide is left in the bath for an average of six weeks until the hide has been preserved.
Is veg tan leather vegan?
No. Like any animal product, it is not vegan. People often confuse the two because vegetable tanned leather is often referred to as “veg tan” or simply “veg.” But veg tan leather is made from real leather, unlike vegan leather, which is made from plastic.
Is vegetable tanned leather sustainable?
There is a lot of debate about whether vegetable tanned leather is sustainable and its environmental impact. Undoubtedly, it has the potential to be sustainable with responsible forestry and ranching. So much of this answer concerns where the animal hides are sourced and where they are tanned.
Is veg tan leather toxic?
Unlike chrome tanned leather, which uses harsh chrome salts, and has chromium byproducts, veg tan leather is non-toxic. Although, depending on where it is tanned, it may have been salted or coated with lime before tanning, so it is best not to eat it.
- Veg tan leather is a great leather for leather craftsmen and comes in various weights that make it ideal for those just getting started and bespoke artisans as well.
- Vegetable tanning leather is one of the oldest ways of tanning leather, which dates back to the Egyptians.
- Before the late 1800s, vegetable tanning was the predominant way of tanning leather.
Veg tan leather is an excellent leather that proves to be useful in any number of applications. Although it is not produced in the volume it once was, it is still readily available and, with care, can last a lifetime. Undoubtedly, it will continue to be one of my go-to leathers in the workshop.
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