Although most people aren’t interested in the technical details of tanning leather, understanding the basic differences between the two most popular tanning techniques is a great idea.
All-natural leather items you come across will either be made by vegetable tanning or chrome tanning and you will definitely want to clearly tell the difference. I did the research for you and here’s all I found.
The main difference between vegetable tanning and chrome tanning is that vegetable tanning is done using plant extracts such as tree backs, fruits and chrome tanning is done using chemicals like chromium sulfate, acid dyes, salt, and other chemicals.
While the difference between vegetable and chrome tanning is primarily based on the tanning ingredients used, there are other differences you will also like to know about.
And more importantly, the tanning ingredients used is not a sure clear way for a layperson to tell the difference between vegetable tanned and chrome tanning. So in this article I will share basic identifiable features and qualities that will help you differentiate between chrome tanning and vegetable tanning.
|Vegetable Tanning||Chrome Tanning|
|Origin||Over Thousand Years
|How Long It
Takes to Tan
|3 – 6 Months||1 Day|
|about 10%||about 90%|
|Color||Results usually in russet
browns and black
|Results in wide
variety of Colors
Strong and Firmer
Supple and Soft
|Not Water Resistant
and Requires finishes
|Smell||Results in leather with
nice leathery musty
|How it Ages||Ages with nice patina||Flat looking|
|Results in leather
that Reacts well
|Results in leather
that reacts poorly
to metals due
to chemical content
History of Vegetable Tanning
Vegetable tanning dates back to prehistoric men and women also known as the early men. Right from the moment, they started to stand upright and travel long distances, the need for materials they could use to protect their bodies and help them travel arose.
The hides and skins they got from the animals they slaughtered for food was the only material that could fulfill their need.
But the problem was that the hides and skins they could use weren’t flexible and decayed because some form of bacteria ate into the skin fibers.
Eventually, they discovered solutions to prevent the skins from decomposing and also make them flexible enough for easy use.
The process of treating hides and skins to prevent decay is tanning.
They discovered the use of materials like alum, plant extracts, oils, smoke and animal brain tissues, and a few other materials did the trick.
By the time of Ancient Greece and Rome, the use of plant extracts and alum remained prevalently used while the use of the other materials became marginal.
Later it was also realized that alum, when used, could be easily washed out of the leather so the use of plant extracts for tanning became more and more predominated.
The plant extracts expanded from tree backs to fruits, roots, leaves, almost anything natural hence the name vegetable tanning.
Now for the next two thousand years, vegetable tanning was important in almost every aspect of society.
By the end of the 19th century, a chemical process for tanning started to take over. The chemical process was faster and was nicely suited for garments and shoe uppers.
There was a further decline in vegetable tanning with the reduction in the amount of travel by horses and the changeover from leather-soled shoes to rubber and plastics soled materials.
Fast forward to the 21st century, vegetable tanning started to pick up quite a bit once again because of some consumers’ taste and demand for the unique qualities of vegetable-tanned leather.
They longed for the patina that grows beautifully on leather over time, its longevity, versatility, and the adaptability of vegetable-tanned leather’s.
While the use of vegetable tanning today has greatly reduced, the traditional sense of its practice still remains.
Hide and skins are for a period of months, steeped in a solution of plant extracts to create beautiful, nice smelling, high-quality leather which is still used today for various leatherwork projects.
The transformation from raw hides and skins into a long-lasting material by vegetable tanning is by far a process that happens slowly in a very environmentally friendly way.
Today, you will find the raw materials used for vegetable tanning are available in liquid or powder form, obtained from different parts of plants such as fruits, woods, fruit pods, barks, and leaves. The very common vegetable tannins are obtained from:
- Chinese gallnut
- Valonia Oak
- Turkish gallnut
- Chestnut wood
- Quebracho wood
- Tara pods
Pros and Cons of Vegetable Tanning
- More durable than other leathers
- Environmentally friendly
- Its tanning agents is safe for humans
- Develops a patina over time
- Vegetable-tanned leather is recyclable
- Nice signature leathery smell
- Production time can take 2 to 6 months to complete
- It can be done only by experienced tanners
- Requires a lot of water usage
History Of Chrome Tanning
Up until the 19th century, there wasn’t much development in the treatment of leather. The only form of tanning common at this time was the alum and vegetable tanning.
In the late 1850s, chrome tanning was invented by the German technologist Friedrich Knapp and Hylton Cavalin from Sweden. However, Augustus Schultz an American chemist was the first to get a patent for the chrome tanning process.
Chrome tanning is super fast compared to vegetable tanning and for decades, chrome tanning became the most common and dominant form of tanning.
The Invention of chrome tanning met with the discovery of the process for introducing oils into leather called fatliquoring and the development of synthetic dyes.
These changes in the chemistry of leather production further catalyzed chrome tanning to become the most preferred tanning method.
This tanning process leaves the leather with a light blue tinge with a strong chemical smell on the leather. The leather after tanning is usually only dyed leaving the chemical smell to linger even through to the final product.
Chrome-tanned leather weighs less compare to vegetable-tanned leather. This is because it has less tanning material remains in it. The chromium salts tannins make up about 1 – 4% while vegetable-tanned leather has a tannin content of about 20%.
Today, chrome tanning with chromium salts accounts for 90% of global leather production.
This tanning method is most commonly used, especially in the fashion industry.
Pros and Cons of Chrome Tanning
- It is very fast to produce usually a few hours to a day
- Soft and supple to the touch
- Its color doesn’t fade
- It has a high degree of thermal resistance
- It can cause allergies reactions because of the toxic chemicals used
- The process is not environmentally friendly
- Chrome tanned leather lacks the craftsmanship that goes into traditional tanning
- It has a shorter lifespan due to the harsh chemicals used.
- It does not develop a patina
It is common to find people unsure about the type of leather purchase only to be surprised with unexpected changes in the leather. Using the information above, you should be able to do just fine when choosing leather.
How to care for Vegetable-tanned leather? To care for vegetable tanned leather:
- Keep the leather from heat sources like a blow dryer
- Use conditioners specifically made for vegetable tanned leather
- Don’t get it wet especially when it’s new but after a while of usage, it will develop patina
- Wax from time to time to keep it in good condition
List of Vegetable-Tanned Leather Tanneries around the world
- Rocado Shell Cordovan – Tuscana Italy cordovan.co
- Hermann Oak – MO United States – hermannoakleather.com
- Rawlings Tennessee Tanning Co. TN United States tntanning company.com
- S.B. Foot Tanning Co. – MN United States – sbfoot.com
- Sepici Leather- Izmir Turkey – sepici.com.tr
- Tasman – ME United States – tasmanusa.com
- OA Leather Supply
- Auburn – KY United States – auburnleather.com
- Horween – IL United States – horween.com
- Lucy Saffiano – United States
- Marbella – Spain
- Wickett & Craig PA United States -wickett-craig.com