Top Marks – Grading Veg Tan

Join Kevin for an in-depth discussion about vegetable tanned leather. He discusses vegetable tan quality and vegetable tan grading, plus a bit about the Springfield Leather way of classifying leather – it’s a great way to know what to expect! 

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Many newcomers and even some more experienced people in the leather world are confused when it comes to the grading and quality of leather.  I thought I’d try to make a small effort to clear it up a bit….

When considering actual “quality” of leather, “A grade, B grade, C grade, D grade, (and lower) are all the same when it comes to tooling and carving

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You see, when the tanner gets the hides in, they’re a bit nasty. They’re covered with salt, and hair and other things, and this prevents him from knowing what sort of hides he has. So, until the hides go through the dehairing and tanning process, he won’t know its quality.  Once the hides come out of the tanning pits, then they have to be dried, ironed, split, rolled, and go through a host of other processes. In the case of Hermann Oak, since all the hides are tanned together in the same pits, the leathers that come out are all the same quality of tan.  (By the way, Hermann Oak is the only one using the old pressed-yard tanning method, so tanning quality will likely vary more from other sources.)  

Trimming

After the skins go through myriad steps to become leather, they move on to the final stage: trimming and grading.  At this point, all the sides are full weight, and pretty rough looking around the edges.   Most veg tanners only use one or two people to do the grading and trimming of sides, so as to maintain maximum uniformity.  We’ll talk about trimming first:   Trimming is the act of cutting away all the little undesirable tatters and ugly areas around the outer edges of the side.  The person that does this either saves the tanner lots of money, or costs them lots of money.  He has to try to achieve a very delicate balance here…. He’s charged with making the side look good when it’s “set out”, while at the same time not removing any more valuable footage than absolutely necessary.

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Keep in mind that tanners make money on volume of square feet processed.  So, if the trimmer removes ½ a sq ft from 700 sides in a day, the tanner loses 350 sq ft per day.  Let’s just say that his average cost for all leather in the tannery averages out to $4 per ft.  Multiply that $4 by 26 production days in a month, and you get a very large number!   So the more skilled the trimmer is, the more money the tanner makes!  The less skilled the trimmer is, the more money the tanner loses!  

Grading Criteria

Usually the trimmer and the grader are the same person.  So, when the trimming is done, he begins the grading process. 

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The person doing the grading looks for cuts, open scratches, open scars, healed scars and brands, surface grain damage, soft spots on the back of the hide, stains, scud (leftover hair), machine damage, the depths of the “pockets” (armpit areas) and other various irregularities. 

The bottom line is that the grader is primarily concerned with cosmetic issues. The grader obviously cannot see into the leather.  He also is not going to wet a spot on the side, make a few cuts with a swivel knife, then bevel a little to see how it cuts or tools. Those things are not able to be detected by the tanner, or by us. One problem that can occur in the tanning process is when the tanning liquor does not fully penetrate an area of a skin.  This is extremely rare, but can and will happen over time. As a vendor, all I can do is work with you on getting a piece of leather that doesn’t have a defect, of course, we won’t know until you try it out! Working together in these instances is all that we can do. 

Grading Systems

Some tanners use A, B, C, D, x, xx, xxx to denote grades. Others use a number system. At SLC, we use a grading system that places “A”  at the top of the quality scale as letter grading generally matches up to tannery grading systems like Hermann Oak. Lower grade sides will have more of those cosmetic issues we mentioned and higher grades will have less, but the leather itself is all the same quality. 

The tanner will get maybe 5-10 “A” grade hides out of 100. Maybe 20 or so “B” grades.  The rest will be “C”s, and “D”s.  

Something that most crafters are not aware of, is that to a tanner, an “A” grade side is simply the best grade of leather that is in the tannery at the moment.  That’s why you can still find an occasional defect on an “A” grade side.  So, if you order 50 sides of “A” grade from a tanner, you’ll get the best 50 that he has, even though some could have been “B”s in another run. 

Buying by the Grade

For what it’s worth, we sell more lower grade Hermann Oak veg sides than all other grades combined.  One reason is that most people realize that not only is it less expensive, but also they can cut around most cosmetic issues, or use them in a place where they won’t be seen or affect the integrity of their project.  An example would be a knife sheath.  You could put a piece with a scar on it on the inside of the sheath, and it would not be visible, or affect the quality of the sheath.  On the other hand, if you need large areas that are very clean, then “B” grade sides would obviously be a better option.  But here’s something to think about:

If you have a large D grade side that has a nasty brand as large as a man’s hand in the center of the butt area, and a hole large enough to push a volley ball thru around the shoulder, it would naturally be a lower grade side.  But if there were no other defects, what do you think would be the grade of all the rest of the leather in that side?  You guessed it…. “A” grade!

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That’s also why, if for example, a customer ordered “D” grade leather from us but all we have in stock is “B” grade leather, we’ll send that customer “B” grade leather! The danger of course comes when the customer thinks that all “D” grade leather is as good as the “B” that he actually received. Normally we’d tell the customer about the swap, but sometimes things like that go unnoticed. Knowing the difference for yourself is always helpful.

All in all, considering what cowhides have to go through to become leather, I think we’re pretty fortunate that we even have leather!  And now you know how quality of leather and grading of leather go together!

The bottom line: buy your leather from someone with experience that you trust and have a good feeling for, and be as reasonable with them as you want them to be with you.        

– Kevin