How is Leather Made? The Step-by-Step Process

Leather is an interesting product because it has been used by humans for literally thousands of years. And even more interestingly, some of the steps used to make leather today are literally unchanged since those ancient times. But exactly is leather made? It’s a worthwhile question and can give you insight into the production of this commonly used product. Here is a brief explanation of the process!


1 ) Obtaining the Raw Materials

Leather is essentially a carefully prepared animal hide, meaning to comes from the skin of living creatures. Most leather comes from cows, though technically almost any creature with skin can have it made into leather.

In modern times, the majority of hide used to make leather comes from the meat production industry. It’s an efficient use of resources, and conserves resources since those animals were going to be utilized either way. Once the hide has been obtained, it is prepared for use.


How is Leather Made? The Step-by-Step Process


2 ) Preparing the Hide

The hides are first packaged in order to preserve them in a process called curing. There are various kinds of curing processes, but the most common involves packing them in rock salt, which dries them out and removes any remaining animal fluids. This process can last up to 30 days. What’s interesting is that this basic technique has remained unchanged basically since the first humans made leather.

Other curing methods include chilling, freezing, or using biocides, which are chemicals designed to kill bacteria and other microorganisms that might be clinging to the hide. After this, hides are removed and treated to remove hair and any remaining flesh. Sometimes they are rehydrated to soften them back up a bit, as well as wash away excess salt and grime. Finally, the hide is sliced in two by a machine. The top portion will go on to make what is called full-grain leathers, while the bottom is for split-grain or lower-quality leathers.

3 ) Tanning

After the initial prep, the hide is taken for tanning. This process serves not only to soften and toughen the leather, but also treats it to resist decomposition. It is a natural substance, after all! Hides are placed into drums that are filled with either a chromium salt mix or a vegetable tanning agent. These two solutions produce quite different results.

The salt mix makes the leather more stretchable and is most often used if the leather is destined to be made into clothes. The vegetable agent makes the leather flexible and typically will go on to be used for luggage or furniture. The tanning process usually takes around 8 hours and involves rotating the hide in the drum. After this, it undergoes a process called sammying, which removes the moisture from the hide through pressure.


How is Leather Made? The Step-by-Step Process


4 ) Re-Tanning

That’s right, it’s the second round of tanning! This is done to help specialize the leather for its intended purpose, as mentioned above. Once again, either the salt or vegetable mix is used, which will refine the leather. After this second round of tanning, as well as another round of moisture removal, the hide is dried.

This can be done with a few methods: air drying, vacuum drying, or oven drying. It depends on the leather being made. After all that drying, the hides are made extra soft and supple by a machine designed to work the hide over.

5 ) Dyeing

That beautiful leather coloration comes from this step in the process. This step is key to giving leather it’s vibrant look, and in modern times this process is made especially effective thanks to computer technology. A program is actually used to formulate each dye, to ensure it will be maximally effective and give the leather its proper look.

The process of dyeing usually takes around 8 hours, and oftentimes a sample is cut before the process is complete to ensure the leather is getting fully dyed. Once it’s been saturated, the leather is rinsed down to remove excess dye and impurities, then dried.


How is Leather Made? The Step-by-Step Process


6 ) Finishing

This step can be considered optional if one wants what is sometimes called a “naked leather”. But finishing can add a lot to the leather, so it is often done. This involves several different kinds of steps depending on the kind of finish desired. One thing used to finish is a machine called a “staker”, which stretches the leather to really draw out the pours and give it a fine structure. Oils can be added in this step to lubricate it.

Then, a finishing spray can be used to really give it a shine. There are several types of sprays that can add patterns or glossy finishes. However, for full-grain leather, the intent is to keep the natural imperfections, since this is the highest quality leather and doesn’t want to be touched up too much. Instead, this type of grain is ironed, which uses varying temperatures and pressures to really bring out the natural look of the leather.

7 ) Quality Check

Finally, the leather will undergo a quality check to ensure everything has been done satisfactorily. This includes testing the dimensional stability, to ensure it’s strong. It is also given abrasion tests to see if it resists basic wear. And of course, the color is examined to make sure it is evenly done and up to quality standards. If they pass the tests, the leather is stamped and ready for use. They are often rolled and put on tubes to keep their shape while they wait to be processed into usable products.


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Bottom Line

Leather creation is a process with a long and storied history, having been practiced by humanity for ages. In ancient times it made a lot of sense, since it was a way to utilize as much of the animals hunted as possible. And that same mentality is present in modern leather production. It is an involved process, but leather as a material stands the test of time, and looks good, too!


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