- Leather Types
- Leather finish Methods
- Leather Finishes
- Other Tannages
- Different grain types
- Other leather information
- Leather Care Information
Vegetable Tannage: "A generic term to cover the process of making leather by the use of tannins obtained from barks, woods or other parts of plants and trees, as distinguished from “mineral tannages". [i]
[i] Leather Industries of America Research Laboratory Dictionary of Leather Terminology, University of Cincinnati, Eight edition 1991 Page 14
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Period terms of finished leather. These were taken from Campbell Morfit's book on tanning published in 1852.
Oil-Leather: two kinds of oiled leather are manufactured, the one black, intended for the harness-makers; and the other uncolored, for the use of shoemakers (this is often refered as white leather since coloring or finish was applied). This kind of leather is exceedingly durable, and curriers always select, for the preparation of it, the most entire and well-tanned skins they can find. These sold in whole skins (hides) but for harness makers needs of a very strong skins, square oiled hides or croupons are prepared especially for them, or skins the head and belly pieces of which have been cut off. This makes the hide a croupon which was one meter forty-six in length, and one meter and some centimeters in breadth. This would have been done before the dyeing and finishing due to the note that the cut off pieces were uncolored and would have been a separate article. This type would have had the least stretch of any of the leathers but would have been fairly small pieces. This may have been used for girth straps and anything similar where stretching would be a problem.)
Running Leather: This one comes from the French and means leather for shoe uppers. This was waxed leather.
Stretched Leather: The skins of cows and of young oxen made into crop-leather are the only ones which are fit for stretchers, and when thus prepared do not require the application of oil or tallow. Leather, prepared in this way, is not blackened. It is used by saddlers and harness-makers, and by shoemakers for the soles of pumps, and the upper soles of large shoes. (This type of leather may be what we think of as rein leather. The leather is well stretched and pressed to keep it from drawing up during the finial drying process. This type of leather was curried, more than likely a cod oil and neats-foot mix.) Stretched Leather was made from the same tannage as sole leather but the difference is in the currying. Sole leather was beaten and flattened to make it wear longer. Sole leather tannage was tanned longer than regular vegetable leather which would make the leather heavier and denser.
Sleeked Leather: which is intended chiefly for saddlers and harness-makers’ use, should be made of strong hides; thick cow-skins and ox-hides being generally preferred for the purpose. (This is black dyed leather that is finished by polishing with a lump of glass. This is not patent leather but would have a high shine. This is the leather used for the manufacture of cartridge boxes and the like. What would a saddler or harness-makers use this type of leather for?
Tallowed skins or grained leather: cow-skins are those the grain of which has been brought out, instead of being smoothed down and polished, as in sleeked leather. These skins are softer and more flexible than the latter, and are less liable to be penetrated by moisture; trunk-makers, saddlers, harness-makers make use of them for application of leather which require these qualities, and the largest of them for carriage-tops. (This may be what we think of as harness or bridle leather today.)
Thong Leather: This was found in ordnance records and after looking for what type of leather this could be it seems that it was more than likely the Oil-leather listed above since it is listed as being used on saddle as stirrup straps. This is also listed in other places as leather for strapping
White Leather: is the type used by shoe makers. This leather is called white since nothing had been done to the leather, i.e. only currying and no dyeing and finishing. This is listed with one note: not all shoe makers used this type of leather. There are examples of original shoe showing finishing of the leather was done prior to the manufacturing of the shoe itself.
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Copperas- One type of the iron mordants used in dyeing leather black. This is the type of iron most preferred tanners and was commercially available in a product called Patent Liquid Grain.
Enameled Leather- This type of leather is often referred to as “tarred” but tanneries refer to it as enameled. Enameled leather could be had in various colors, not just black. This type of finish was applied to the grain surface after it had been buffed down. A cheaper grade of this material was made from split leather. The type of finish is very close to patent leather.
Jacked- A glazed finish applied by rubbing the leather either by hand or by machine.
Patent Leather- leather having a very high shine with the finish applied to the flesh side. The way to tell this leather from enameled leather is that the grain surface will still be found on the back of the leather. This finish differs from modern patent leather, by having a deep transparent shine. Modern patent has a surface shine only. Patent Leather could be found in a number of colors. White, Red, Blue, Yellow, Black, and Leather color.
Pyrolignate of iron- A type of the iron mordants used in dyeing leather black. This type of iron is listed in the Ordnance Manual but is not found in the tanning books from the time.
Sleeked- A glazed finish applied by hand.
Stained- A period finishing technique where a darker brown color is obtained by staining the leather with logwood. This type leather is found on canteen slings, and Musket slings. This was done to hemlock tanned leather and any leather that contained blemishes or discoloration that could not be sold as "fair" leather.
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Belt -Vegetable tanned leather used in making drive belts for machinery.
Bridle - vegetable tanned leather finished on the grain side “smooth side”.
Common Russet - This is a vegetable tanned leather that has undergone a very heavy oiling during the currying process, this was used for pump bags or bellows. This is not the russet leather used in military equipment. This leather would have been water resistance.
Fair - leather in its natural color. This type of leather was oak tanned.
Flesh - The rough side of the leather. Flesh, connects the skin proper very loosely to the underlying part of the body.
Glazed, or Varnished - This leather, known in the commerce as patent leather, is very largely used for dress boots and shoes, and for fancy mountings.
Grain - The smooth side of the leather. "The portion of the derma immediately in contact with the epidermis has been called the "grain membrane" because it forms the grain surface of finished leathers.
Oil finished- Natural colored leather finished with oil (the oil will darken color slightly)
Running Leather - this is the same as waxed and was used in the manufacture of shoes.
Russet - See stained leather at the bottom of page.
Split - Leather which is made by removing the grain. This type leather
is rough on both sides. This is the lower-valued leather, which is left
when a light weight grain leather was needed.
Stained - This is what is commonly known by reenactors as "russet" but in fact it was leather with minor blemishes that could not be sold as fair so it was stained. This was a logwood based stain which made the leather heavier and sold for more money. This was done to hemlock tanned leather in order to hide the distinctive color imparted by thebark.
Thong Leather - This leather was used as strap leather holding up
sturrups on saddles and rein leather.
Upper leather - Same as waxed leather. Also called the leather used
to make shoe uppers.
White leather - This leather sent to shoe makers to make shoes. This leather was not "white" but meant that it was unfinished. Due to the high oil content in waxed leather from the tannery water would not like too penetrate into the leather so finished the shoe after it was made.
Waxed- Leather finished on the rough side (flesh).
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Buff leather acquired its original name from a very obscure source. The very first buff leather came from the hide of the ancient Urus (or Aurochs), an early type of wild cattle that centuries ago roamed Europe, Asia and North Africa. Commonly known as the “Buffe” this now extinct bovine, was a large, stout animal that stood up to 6.5 feet tall at the shoulder and weighed 2200 pounds. The very first recorded military use of buff leather was in the early 1500's when English King Henry VIII imported a number of “buffe-hides,” which were tanned and manufactured into leather for military clothing. This “buff-leather” was very thick, durable yet supple and known to be so strong it would turn the edge of a sword and was impervious to the pistol ball of the period. However, its use was short lived. The last of the Urus/Aurochs breed died in the early 1600’s. It was only then that domestic cattle began to be routinely used for making military leather. However, according to period writings they were found to be inferior in quality to the Uros. 2. The innate confusion of buff leather was further perpetuated by the common practice of referring to any breed of wild oxen as a “buffalo”. Which of course may explain why our American bison was mis-labeled a “buffalo”.
Tanning buff leather was unique. Since a smooth surface is not the objective with buff leather, tanners started with only the poorest quality or damaged hides for finishing into buff’s rough facing. Tanners heavily limed or sanded the hide which stripped the smooth grain surface to a fine suede. They then employed alternating combinations of alum and salt tanning (a form of mineral tanning called Tawing). For white buff the tanning process ended there and whiteners were added to finish the leather. Buff that was to be ultimately dyed black was oak stained and then sealed with a protective cod oil surface tan which left the leather a yellowish-brown chamois color. Unfortunately, the oil tanning process requires a specific range of temperatures that must be performed in direct sunlight thus limiting its tanning to short periods in the spring and fall. Regardless of the final color buff tanning was tedious, labor intensive and expensive. Perhaps more important, it had a very limited market outside of military contracts. As a result, few tanners were willing to devote the necessary resources to its production and the few that did so, of course, charged high prices. Nevertheless, it was this unique process that produced buff’s distinctive fuzzy, rough out surface and also gives it the durability, look and feel that differentiates it from all other leathers.
(For more information on buff leather please read the full article in the Company of Military Historians Journal Spring 2016, Vol. 68, No. 1)
For pictures of buff leather please follow this link
After the Mexican war when the amount buff ordered fell off dramatically and when the army wanted more in the later 1850's tanner were not interested. This is the reason that the army switched to waxed leather in 1858. In a letter from G. Bomford Bt Col. of April 17, 1828 states that: As this kind of leather (buff) is unsalable, except for the public service. This shows that tanner were not willing to stock buff leather due to lack of sales to any other individuals beyond the Ordnance Dept.
Buff leather according to the Ordnance Dept. should be of a firm consistency, and should not be Spongy.
Buff leather is found in three forms.
“Natural or buff”: this is when no whiteners have been added to change the color from the color given by the oils during the tanning process. That was the thought about natural buff but I found that it was stained in order to give its distinctive yellow. This was done in order to give a more pleasant color to the leather. This may be the reason that it was said that it was impossible to get buff all in the same color.
“Whitened buff”: buff leather with whiteners added in order to give a much lighter color. This color was not originally a pure white but tended to be in the range of a yellowish white or what we would call an antique white. Originally "whitened buff" was whitened with "Paris Whitening" this was a white chalk. [ I have add this term for clarity. The army referred "whitened buff" as buff. For more information on these two terms check out page 261 in Paul D. Johnson's book on "Civil War Cartridge Boxes of the Union Infantryman"]
“Blackened Buff”: This buff leather dyed black. This leather was also stained in order to give it a yellow color as can be seen on the back. I did see on buff belt that was a blackened buff belt to begin with but the blackening was removed and plates changed in order to make it look like an earlier belt but the yellow color gave it away as being later belt modified.
Chamois Leather: This is the only true oil tanned leather. This leather is its original form was made from the skin of a goat called chamois. Imitation chamois was made for other species of goats or sheep. This leather was known for its ability get and dry and wet again with no damage. it could also be washed with no damage either. It was used in quick silver production since it could pass through the pore in the leather itself.
Hungary Leather is leather tanned from alum, common salt, and suet; this a very quick tanning process that was used for shoe laces and horse equipment. This type of leather was very strong leather. This type of leather could be tanned in about two months versus the 6 to 8 months of vegetable leather.
Morocco Leather is often listed today as red leather but this is not true with the Morocco of the 1800's. The defining characteristic of this leather was that it was made from goat or kid skin. Imitation Morocco leather was sheep skin tanned in the same process. Morocco has a very unique grain surface (see picture at bottom of page), which is caused by the tanning process. The colors found in morocco leather are as follows, red, yellow, blue, bronze, purple, and black.
Russia Red Leather
Russia leather is a type of vegetable tanned leather, but has very distinctive oils used during the currying process. This oil has an aromatic scent, and because of this the leather has certain properties. These properties include insect resistance and mold and mildew resistance. This type of leather was used in book bindings and hat sweat bands. This type of leather was embossed with a pattern in the grain surface of the leather, such as a diamond pattern as well as others. The leather is known for its distinctive red color, but was also dyed black. This leather is no longer tanned.
Here is a picture showing the different types of grains
Follow this link for a leather thickness conversion chart. For thickness in irons is 1 iron = 1/48"
Logwood: was introduced into Europe by the Spaniards shortly after the discovery of America. It is undoubtedly to-day the most important of the natural dye-stuffs. Logwood is sometimes called Campeachy Wood having been originally exported from the Bay of Campeachy.
Here are links to other pages on how to care for you new and old leather gear. These pages are for vegetable tanned leather. As in all information it is strongly suggested that you try all products in small discreet places before doing anything to the whole item.
This link has information on how the soldiers of the time cared for the leather gear issued to them.
Care information on old (tanned in the mid-19th century). This link will give basic insight on how to care for your original leather.
The same basic information but tailored to leather tanned around 1900 and later.
Company of Military Historians
Please click on picture to take you the CMH website.
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