Leather University™

Learn How to Interpret Leather Quality

Picture of by Dan Concord

by Dan Concord

Author, speaker, teacher, and educator on leather working tools and techniques.

Learn How to Interpret Leather Quality on Your Own

Learn How to Interpret Leather Quality on Your Own

Hey everyone, welcome back. If you’re new here, we explore different areas of leathercraft, and we’re going to look at examples of leather quality defined.

Previously, we discussed the five key elements that determine leather quality. Now, let’s take a closer look at a practical example to help you understand the intricacies of this craft and see how something can be so different from what its name may be purely because of the subjectivity involved in determining the leather quality. By the end of this article, you’ll be equipped with the knowledge to decipher leather quality and make informed choices when buying leather for your projects. Let’s get started!

For this, we’ll consider two claimed qualities of leather. If someone says they’ll give you a B-grade split grain cow leather or an A-grade full grain deer leather, now most folks will be like, yeah, give me the A-grade full grain, thinking the B-grade split cow is inferior. So, we’re going to walk through why that A-grade full grain may not have the characteristics that you would want in a nice piece of leather, whereas maybe the B-grade split cow will actually be better for what you’re trying to do.

Key Notes

  • The quality of leather is influenced by the type of animal used. Different animals have variations in skin texture, thickness, and natural markings, which affect the appearance and feel of the leather.
  • The tanning process can differ significantly between tanneries. Professional tanneries with multi-step processes and quality control tend to produce higher-quality leather, while amateur tanning processes may lack consistency.
  • Tanneries often use subjective grading systems, leading to variations in the perceived quality of leather. A leather piece labeled as grade A in one tannery may not be comparable to a grade A from another.
Leather Quality Defined - International Leather Club
Leather Quality Defined

Animal It Comes From

Let’s start by examining the leather itself. The type of animal used for leather production is an important factor in determining the quality of the leather. Different animals have variations in their skin texture, thickness, and natural markings. Take cow and deer leather, for instance. The texture and natural grain patterns of each animal’s skin also affect the appearance and feel of the leather. So, it all starts with the animal. In this case, it’s the cow and the deer.

Defining Leather Quality by Animal - International Leather Club
Defining Leather Quality by Animal

Tannery Process

Next is the tannery process. As we know, tanning processes can vary significantly from tannery to tannery and even within the same tannery. That process may differ over time, so if you have a professional tannery with a multi-step process and good quality control, they will generally have a higher yield of leather with preferable and desirable characteristics. Where, say, someone else may be an amateur, brain tanning in their backyard.

Both are tanning processes, but one will yield a generally higher standard that is repeatable and consistent, and the other will potentially not be as consistent and vary by run. So, we already start to see that the difference is they’re both tanned maybe in the same way or perhaps using different processes, yet one is a full grain, and one is a split grain.

Defining Leather Quality by Process - International Leather Club
Defining Leather Quality by Process

Tannery Grade

The next thing to look at when determining leather quality is the tannery grade. Maybe you have someone, again, in their yard or a small tannery using a subjective grading system from their own tannery. From their yard tannery, they may have a leather that is a grade A — it’s amazing and the best they’ve got.

However, then we have the professional tannery that produces huge amounts yearly with a tight quality control process. Maybe they give that leather a grade B because, within their range, it’s actually a B. So, another element to look at is the subjectivity of the tanneries essentially grading their own leather. That’s where another variance can come into play when someone’s best grade B can be very different than another tanner’s grade B, even if the B is, in most cases, objectively, subjectively, and measurably, a better piece of leather.

Defining Leather Quality by Tannery Grade - International Leather Club
Defining Leather Quality by Tannery Grade

Leather Hide Cuts

Next, we look at the section of the hide where the leather is cut from. Depending on where and the hide the leather comes from, the characteristics of that particular piece can vary. Broadly speaking, the better characteristics and higher quality come from the center towards the back of the hide. This also matters because maybe the deer leather is cut from a belly, and the cow leather is cut from a bend.

The bend will generally have more desirable characteristics in that leather piece than the belly. Now we start to see that compounding effect, where we have the amateur tanner calling it a grade-A and cutting it from a good section, but it still may not be as desirable or have the characteristics that would be present in a professionally tanned lower-grade leather from a more generic part of the hide.

Defining Leather Quality by Hide Area - International Leather Club
Defining Leather Quality by Hide Area

Leather Layer Cut From

So, we can start to see the compounding effect of these elements that go into the quality. The next thing we look at is the layer that the leather is cut from. Again, that can vary based on how that leather is processed, how it is split, and where it comes from. Generally, full grain is deemed more desirable because it retains that top element of the leather with protective elements. It has a nice look and feel to it.

As we begin to split and cut that, we start to get into more of the fiber’s leather texture in those fibers. So this is your suedes, and splitting leather and coating it with plastics or impressing and stamping a surface to make it look or feel better. Then, we can even get into bonded leather, a whole new world where we mix the scraps up.

So, it depends on where the leather is cut from. Say we have full grain leather that comes from the most desirable area of a deer hide, and then we have a split cow leather that’s coming from a little less desirable area that’s not quite as great as the full grain, maybe it’s cut from a little lower.

Even then, if the leather is poorly tanned from a poor hide even though it’s full grain, so to speak, it will not look, feel, and perform as well as maybe a piece that has been professionally tanned and cut from a different part and even maybe split but still retains more desirable characteristics and a more consistent look and feel.

Defining Leather Quality by Leather Layer - International Leather Club
Defining Leather Quality by Leather Layer

Summary

So, that’s just a conceptual example showing those key elements that go into a piece of leather and the characteristics that it has at the end and then also how they can compound based on what is being done along the way and how it’s being characterized. There’s a lot of subjectivity in the grading, and there’s a lot of variation in the tannery process.

Now, if someone were to say, “Hey, I’ll give you an A-grade full grain deer leather or a B-grade split cow, which would you prefer?” The answer would probably be, let me look at it, because now you have the knowledge to assess a little more about what goes into it. In some cases, the A-grade full grain deer will be better than the B-grade split cow, and in some cases, the B-grade split will be better than the A-grade full-grain that’s been given a subjectively inaccurate grade.

Defining Leather Quality - International Leather Club
Defining Leather Quality

Conclusion

So that’s more of the leather world knowledge and how education can always get us far in terms of how we learn and apply it, and that’ll translate down into the leather that we get for our crafting and, ultimately, the items that we make, and hopefully, people enjoy. So, that was an example of leather quality, and if you have questions, let us know. I will include the PDF links in the description for you to download.

Wishing you all well, and until next time, keep crafting.

Leather Quality Defined - Examples PDF - International Leather Club

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Leather Hide and Cuts Guide - International Leather Club

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Natural Leather Hide Layers - Leather University - International Leather Club

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Picture of About Author Dan Concord

About Author Dan Concord

Dan Concord is a professional leather crafter with 15 years of design experience and expertise. He is founder of the successful Liberty Leather Goods studio, and also a published author, speaker, teacher, and educator on leather working tools and techniques. He lives in the USA.

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