Basic Leather Terminology

So, you’re interested in buying leather. The leather world isn’t hard to get into to, but there ’s a certain manner of speaking that might throw you for a loop. Here’s a quick cheat sheet of terms to get you started. It will also help you understand some of our instructions a bit better.

 Excuse the mess, this list is still growing! We’re getting some awesome visual aids together to accompany these definitions, so be sure to check back in on this list in the future! 


Hide – a leather hide is the whole of an animal’s skin. So, if we’re talking about a cow hide, it’s the full amount of leather that could come from one cow. This hide is then commonly cut into pieces that are characterized by the part of the cow. Be sure to view the chart below for visual help.

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Side – a side of leather refers to one side of the hide; half of a vertically cut hide. 

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Neck – not commonly sold alone, the neck is the skin from a cow’s neck. 

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Shoulder – one half of the topmost quarter of a hide. So named because it is the skin from a cow’s shoulders. Includes the neck, part of the belly and, of course, the shoulder. If you purchase one side, you will get one shoulder. 

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Also sold as a double shoulder, as seen below. 

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Belly – also included in a side, the belly is the outermost portion of a side identifiable by its irregular edge. Belly leather is where you will notice wrinkles and less consistent leather. The inconsistent parts are often called flanky, they will be porous, stretchy and not great to work with. Bellies are cheaper than other cuts of leather and are a great way to try out a piece of leather you’re unsure about. It will certainly have some pieces that are not usable, but make great test piece for dyes, paints and tooling. With all of its potential for fault, bellies still have plenty of usable leather. You can easily get great small projects and even a belt or two out of a belly. The leather is the same grade as the rest of the hide, it just has more waste than you would get from other cuts.

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Back/Bend/Butt – this the prime real estate of a side. There is a bit of inconsistency about what these pieces are called, however, each name has its meaning. 

The back, sometimes referred to as the bend, is comprised of the all parts of a side, not including the belly.    

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The lower 60% (toward the back of the cow) or so of this piece is often called the bend or the butt.

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 Culatta – the bend of the hide + corresponding belly. 

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Tanning – there is a lot that goes into getting leather from simple skin to finished product. That process includes splitting, skiving, cutting and more! Tanning is the process that turns skin into leather the way that we know it. It gives it its color, its feel and overall look. There are myriad methods of leather tanning, but are most simply classified as vegetable tanned or chrome tanned. In short, vegetable tanned leather is great for tooling and has a more natural look, usually tan/light brown. Chrome tanned leather is much more varied than vegetable tanned leather. Most leathers on the market are chrome tanned in every color, pattern and print imaginable.  

Hand – A word that describes the feel (i.e. softness or stiffness) of leather. 

Grain – A word used to describe the natural texture of the leather like pores, winkles and markings. This term can also be used in conjunction with embossing, in which the original grain layer has been removed: embossed grain.  

Drawn Grain – Leather with a shrunken, shriveled or wrinkled grain. 

Full Grain – The outside of original skin or hide that has had the hair removed, but has not been corrected or altered beyond hair removal. Full grain leather retains all of the original texture and markings of the hide. It is the highest quality leather and, often, the most expensive leather you can buy. 

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Weightthe thickness of a piece of leather. Weight is measured in ounces that can be converted to inches and millimeters. Example: 1 ounce is equal to .016 (1/64th) inches or .40 millimeters. Leather is a natural product, so it will never be totally uniform. Leather weight is generally expressed as a range because of that. Ounces are a simple way to share that information without having to be too specific about the numbers. You will commonly see specific projects being suggested based on a leather’s weight.

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Splitting – skin is thick! A lot thicker than you might think. The leather that you favorite jacket or seat is a lot thinner than how it comes off the cow (or other animal). Splitting leather is the process of decreasing the thickness or weight of the leather. 

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 Skiving – similar to splitting, skiving is reducing the weight of the leather. The difference between the two lies in the method and scale of this thinning. Generally speaking, when someone is talking about skiving they are doing it by hand, while splitting is mostly done with a machine. Skiving is also generally done on a smaller scale – you’ll skive a project but you’ll split a full hide or side. Projects are often skived to shape leather or even out a piece. Generally speaking, the two are interchangeable, but each comes with its own connotation. 

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Grading – a scale for assessing the quality of a piece of leather. As we’ve mentioned, leather is a natural product and some animals yield more favorable skins. Grading is a simple way to quickly identify the value of a piece of leather. Though is it not standardized, the basic idea is that higher grades are given to the best leather in a tannery at a given time. You’ll see things at SLC graded using a letter system similar to ones used in American schools. There are those who use a scale that includes AAA, AA and so on, in addition to those who use a number system. Grading can be complicated to understand because everyone’s system is different, but one thing remains true throughout: no piece of leather is perfect, so top marks doesn’t mean a piece of leather is without a few imperfections, especially keeping in mind that grading is relative to the rest of the leather that is around at the time of grading. 

Tooling – you’ll hear this term come up a lot when discussing vegetable tanned leather. Tooling is the art of creating patterns in leather using stamps and other tools. The idea is to push designs into the leather much like wood carving. Tooling leather takes a bit of practice, but includes lots of aids like stamps and patterns. 

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Tooling Stamps – tooling stamps work much like regular rubber stamps, only instead of using ink to lay your design on top on the material, you use a mallet to impress your pattern into the material. Stamps make design simpler to execute and take a lot of the guess work and chance out of a design.

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Pull-up – Describes the behavior
of leather that has been treated with oils, waxes and dyes in such a way that
when the leather is pulled or stretched the finish becomes lighter in the
stretched areas. 

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