Leather Tanning: Unveiling the Craft Behind Your Favorite Leather Goods

November 04, 2023 4 min read

Leather Tannery

Imagine you've just purchased a beautiful red leather jackets for men. It's smooth to the touch, emits that unique and alluring leather scent, and fits you perfectly. Have you ever paused to think about the journey that piece of leather took before becoming your cherished wardrobe staple? Well, it all starts with the magic of "leather tanning".

What is Leather Tanning?

Leather tanning is the process of converting the raw hides and skins of animals into leather, making them more durable and less susceptible to decomposition. Now, if you're wondering why this is essential, imagine leaving a piece of meat outside.

leather tannery

Within days, it would start to rot. Similarly, untreated animal hides would deteriorate. Tanning ensures that this doesn't happen, transforming the hide into a material that can last years, even centuries.

How Does the Leather Tanning Process Work?

The art of leather tanning is a fascinating blend of tradition, science, and craftsmanship. When you see a piece of leather, whether it's in a luxurious jackets or a rugged boot, it has undergone a meticulous process to transform it from a raw hide into a durable, elegant material. Let's embark on this journey and unravel the step-by-step process of leather tanning.

Phase 1:

  1. Sourcing and Preparing the Hide:

Before tanning can commence, hides need to be sourced, typically from cattle, sheep, goats, or pigs. Once sourced, they're prepped:

  • Curing: Hides are preserved using salt to prevent decomposition. This step ensures that the hides can be stored or transported without rotting.
  • Soaking / Washing: After arriving at the tannery, hides are soaked in water. This rehydrates them, removes the salt, and restores their original texture.
  • Liming: To remove hair and unwanted proteins, hides are treated with a mixture of lime and water. This swells the hides, making them more amenable to tanning agents.

Phase 2:

  1. Tanning Process:

The actual tanning is the heart of the process. Here, hides are soaked in a tanning solution to stabilize their proteins, ensuring they don't decompose.

  • Vegetable Tanning: An age-old method, it utilizes tannins from plant sources like oak or hemlock bark. The hides are soaked in these tannins, resulting in a firm, brownish leather. The entire process can take weeks to complete.
  • Chrome Tanning: A modern, quicker method using chromium salts. Hides are bathed in a chromium salt solution, then in a basifying agent, which causes the chrome to fix to the leather's fibers. The outcome is a softer, more malleable leather with a pale blue color (known as "wet blue").
Tanning Method Primary Agent Used Geographic Popularity Estimated % of Global Use
Vegetable Tanning Plant tannins (e.g., oak, hemlock bark) Europe, North America 10%
Chrome Tanning Chromium salts Global, especially Asia and South America 80%
Aldehyde Tanning Aldehyde chemicals Global 3%
Brain Tanning Animal brains Indigenous communities worldwide <1%
Synthetic Tanning Synthetic polymeric agents Developing tanning industries 4%
Oil Tanning Fish oil or other oils Certain parts of Asia and North America 2%
Chamois Tanning Oils and fatliquors Europe, North America <1%

Phase 3:

  1. Post-Tanning Treatments:

Once the leather is tanned, it still requires further treatments to achieve its final look and feel.

  • Neutralizing: To balance the pH of the leather after the tanning process, especially crucial after chrome tanning.
  • Retanning: Sometimes, leather undergoes a secondary tanning process, using either vegetable or synthetic tannins, to achieve specific properties.
  • Dyeing: To give leather its final color, it's immersed in dyes. This can be done in rotating drums for even color distribution.
  • Fatliquoring: Essential for softness and flexibility, this step involves lubricating the leather fibers with oils and fats.
  1. Drying and Finishing:

Finally, the leather needs to be dried and finished:

  • Setting and Drying: The leather is stretched out to remove wrinkles and dried using various methods – air drying, vacuum drying, or even toggling on frames.
  • Finishing: Depending on the desired outcome, leather might be buffed, polished, embossed, or given a protective topcoat.


Next time you admire a beautifully crafted leather bag, pair of shoes, or jacket, take a moment to appreciate the intricate process that went into creating it. Leather tanning is a centuries-old craft that combines science, skill, and artistry to transform raw hides into the luxurious leather goods we cherish. So, the next time you reach for your favorite leather item, remember the craftsmanship and expertise that went into making it.

Frequently Asked Questions

What chemical is leather tanning?

There's no single "chemical" for leather tanning. The choice depends on the tanning method. Vegetable tanning uses tannins from plants, chrome tanning uses chromium salts, and aldehyde tanning relies on aldehyde chemicals.

What is the best tanning method for leather?

The "best" method varies based on the intended use of the leather. For firm and sturdy items, vegetable tanning is preferred. For softer, more flexible leather items, chrome tanning is more suitable.

What are the methods of tanning leather?

Major methods include vegetable tanning, chrome tanning, and aldehyde tanning. There are also other less common methods like brain tanning and synthetic tanning.

Which bacteria is used in leather tanning?

Bacteria aren't directly used for tanning. However, they play a role in the beamhouse operations, helping in the decomposition of organic matter from the hides during the early stages of leather processing.

What are the disadvantages of tanning leather?

Some tanning methods, especially chrome tanning, can have environmental impacts due to the disposal of toxic wastewater. Additionally, overexposure to some tanning chemicals can pose health risks to workers.

What happens if leather is not tanned?

Untanned leather, or rawhide, will decompose. Tanning stabilizes the leather, ensuring durability and resistance to elements that cause decay.

In essence, leather tanning is a craft blending tradition and science. Next time you slide into those leather shoes or sling that leather bag over your shoulder, you'll have a newfound appreciation for the intricate journey it's been through.