What is full-grain leather? What does currying and stuffing mean? Neil Clarkson investigates the ancient art of leather-making, and explains how to tell the good stuff from the bad when choosing tack.
It’s a delicious smell like no other, wafting up to greet as you stand at the racks of saddles and other leather gear at your local saddlery.
The scent almost implores you to spend money.
But you’re working yourself into a lather over leather, eyeing the enormous difference in prices.
One bridle is just a tenth of the price of the dearest and would fit your horse just fine. Some saddles, you notice, can cost a dozen times as much as the cheapest.
So you opt for the cheapest.
But doubts creep in as you approach the counter.
What if it breaks during a ride, or lasts only a few months? Back you go and select the most expensive example. Quality, you think – at a price.
But those nagging doubts return as you stand at the counter. Is it really worth 10 times as much as the cheapest example?
Several factors affect the price of tack. The wage component is an obvious one. In some countries pay rates are a fraction of those in the likes of Britain, Europe, the United States, and New Zealand. However, top craftsmen, no matter where in the world they work, will always command a local premium.
But there’s one thing you can be sure of as you eye the price tags. The best leather craftsman in the world will not be able to make a quality piece of tack from a rubbishy piece of hide.
It all begins with the cow and there is no escaping the fact that top quality leather costs plenty.
There are ways to assess the quality of leather, but it’s not always easy. Some of the processes and techniques used by leather manufacturers are designed to make lower quality leather look as classy as possible. And why not?
For many applications, leather simply has to look good. Not so with tack. Appearances aside, it fulfils a vital function and failure could result in serious injury.
Four key factors affect the quality of leather tack:
- The standard of the living, breathing cattlebeast.
- The way in which the cowhide is processed.
- The parts of hide used in construction.
- The quality of the craftsmanship.
Leather on the hoof
Not all cattle are created equal. A beast fed up and raised for a trip to the abattoir as quickly as possible is unlikely to produce the best leather. The older an animal gets the denser its hide will become, and this density is important in producing great leather.
But age isn’t everything.
An overweight animal is similarly unlikely to make great leather. The animal will yield a thick hide, but it will be loaded with fat. This will come out during processing, to be replaced by additives, but the final product is likely to be too porous to make the top grade and will have a spongy feel. This will affect its ultimate strength and the leather may be more prone to stretching and tearing.
Many leather manufacturers around the world prefer older animals that have been grass-fed. Those raised on feedlots – grain-fed for maximum growth and early slaughter – are unlikely to produce the same quality.
Love that butt
Cowhide from the same animal will not be of uniform quality.
The hide is thickest along the length of the animal’s back, getting thinner towards the belly. This hide over the back is called butt leather, and, at its best, will be thick, uniform, and strong – perfect for key components in tack. Expect to find butt leather in the important, high-wear parts of saddles and in the likes of stirrup leathers, where uniformity of thickness and strength are vital.
Once you get to the belly portion of a hide, the leather will be much thinner and prone to wrinkling. It won’t be nearly as strong as butt leather, and will be quite easy to stretch.
There are other variations across a hide, too. Neck leather, for example, will be thinner than butt leather. Shoulder leather is often as strong and thick as butt leather, but tends to be wrinkly and less attractive. A saddle-maker may use shoulder leather for its strength, but place it in areas where it’s not normally seen. Even belly leather can find its way into a saddle, but only for less crucial components.
Quality tack manufacturers will always ensure that the best pieces of hide are used in the right places. The seat of a saddle may not even be cattle leather at all. Some makers use pig leather, which is thinner and more elastic, making it a better option for stretching over the seat. It can be treated in such a way to look identical to the other leather components.
Let’s get tanning
A premium hide is never going to make great leather unless it is processed properly.
Mankind has been tanning leather for at least 2500 years. It began with the Sumerians as a filthy and foul-smelling trade, relegated to the fringes of town.
Today, there are two main techniques: chrome and vegetable tanning.
Tanning leather is a bit like grandma’s secret tomato-sauce recipe. We can guess the key ingredients easily, but it’s those secret extras that make it so special.
Many tanneries have their own special additives and techniques they believe give their finished product an edge in quality.
Generally, a hide will first be soaked in salt or brine. An alkaline lime treatment will then loosen the hair for easy removal. A machine will do most of the hair removal, but a worker may well remove the last of it with a blunt knife. This is known as scudding.
A hide will then be assessed.
The outer side is the called the grain side, the inner the flesh side. Tanners will naturally want a nice-looking finished product on the outside, so they will be searching for flaws. They may even use a buffer to remove any they find, but this will remove some of the top layer of skin.
Some saddlers will not use buffed skins, arguing that removing some or part of the top layer weakens the hide.
The term full-grain leather means none of the top layer has been buffed off.
Tack makers usually prefer leather made through vegetable tanning as opposed to chrome tanning.
Vegetable tanning takes a lot longer, but the end result is usually a heavier, stronger and more water-resistant leather. It wears well and tends to be better at holding its shape.
The process essentially involves soaking the skins in vats of tannins, usually extracted from plant materials. This bathing process can take months, with the mix of tannins getting progressively stronger.
The hides are then washed and dried, which produces a stiff and unnourished product. Tanners then employ a process called stuffing, in which oils and fats are worked into the skin to improve suppleness, provide water resistance and give the leather a long life.
These oils and fats can take months to completely penetrate, so the hides will be stacked away while this occurs. Finally, the hides are dressed and finished – a process called currying, in which finishing oils, fats and dyes are applied. Cheaper leather may have this colouring sprayed on, while quality leather may be finished by hand.
The tanner’s work is done. A natural product, naturally cured, is ready to be turned into tack.
Chrome tanning is a much faster process, taking days instead of months. The hide is soaked in chromium salts, producing a strong leather but one that is more prone to stretching than vegetable-tanned hide. It will not absorb oils and fats as well as vegetable-tanned hide, and tends to be less rigid. Its water resistance is poorer, but additional treatment can fix this.
Back to the shop
You’re back at the saddlery, having overcome the intoxicating leather smell. It’s time to assess some leather goods.
There is no international grading scale that is going to help you. Terms such as “Grade A” or “First Grade” don’t mean anything in particular. The nastiest piece of tack on the planet can be stamped “A Grade” if a manufacturer so chooses.
We now know what full-grain leather means, and we know what butt leather is, but you’re unlikely to see a saddle stamped “Made from finest butt leather”.
Price will naturally be a guide, but may tell only part of the story. You may just find a cheaper item made out of reasonable leather.
Firstly, assess the finish. The grain side should feel silky smooth to the hand. Rough areas tend to indicate poorer quality and will likely be first to show signs of wear during use.
Even the underside should feel reasonably smooth, as a quality leather manufacturer should have gently buffed it, as they would the edges. A coarse underside points to a lack of attention to detail. Again, inconsistencies in finish point to poorer quality.
Should you be after perfection? Remember, imperfections can be taken out during processing by use of a buffer, which can weaken the leather. Minor cosmetic imperfections are therefore acceptable, particularly in full-grain leather, provided they don’t penetrate too deeply.
The colour finish should be uniform. Bear in mind the item will have been given a final finishing colour by the tack manufacturer to tie together all the components, which in a good saddle might include a combination of pig and cow leather, and even calfskin.
Cheap leather can sometimes look as if the finish is painted on.
Quality leather should not feel spongy. Pull it and bend it. The fibres should show no signs of breaking or tearing.
A quality leather item should normally feel quite heavy, because of its high density. Lightweight leather is likely to be porous and of lesser quality.
Suppleness is important. It is a clear sign the leather has been well treated at the tannery. Any well-maintained piece of tack will become more supple with use, but an item that is stiff and dry from new clearly points to substandard treatment.
Suppleness needs to be assessed in relation to thickness. Western saddles, for example, are likely to be made out of considerably thicker leather than an English saddle. Thick leather should still be supple – it’s just that it offers more resistance.
Bend the leather one way and then the other. The colour should not be affected. Inspect the grain side carefully. In good leather, a few fine wrinkles may show from the bending, but there should be no evidence of tearing or damage.
Pull on load-bearing straps to assess the stretch. They should feel firm yet flexible. If you get anything more than a few millimetres of stretch by hand, you can bet they’ll be stretching far more once put into proper use.
Unfortunately, it’s possible to be fooled by poor quality leather. While there are plenty of tanneries in the business of making quality leather, there are others in the business of making cheap leather look like the good stuff.
Porous, low-grade leather can, for example, be squeezed through heavyweight rollers to make it appear denser than it really is. This is where the canny buyer needs to widen their detective work.
What do the fittings look like? A quality manufacturer who invests in good leather is hardly likely to skimp on the clips and buckles. Are the fittings stainless steel or brass? Or are they nickel-plated and cheap looking? Is the stitching tight and uniform?
Look along any exposed edges of leather. If there’s a blue or green tinge, it’s probably chrome-treated leather. It’s likely to be strong, but more prone to stretching.
What does the labeling say? A manufacturer using good leather will normally advertise the fact. Ignore “first grade” or “A grade” notations, but does it say the leather is English? American? New Zealand or Australian?
Less developed nations may not have the same levels of quality control in leather production, and their local tack manufacturers may be less fussy in their leather selection.
You have two further safeguards. Shop from a retailer you feel will back the products it sells, and if you want good quality, buy a reputable brand.
Reputable manufacturers will have stringent quality-control measures and be fussy about the leather they source from tanneries. Their aim will be to build tack of a consistently high quality, so one saddle or bridle should be as good as the next.
The other option is to use a bespoke saddler. They know that a reputation is hard to earn and easy to lose, so the quality should be good.
Well-maintained quality leather goods will provide many years of faithful service, provided they are cleaned and maintained properly.
Poor quality items will be showing their true colours within a few months. Cracking, stretching, and tearing will all become apparent. A manufacturer may be able to hide weaknesses and imperfections when new, but it’s only a matter of time before they are revealed under use.
There are no shortcuts to quality.
Caring for leather
Leather isn’t exactly a living, breathing thing, but it’s a natural product packed with natural compounds that will reward good care with long service.
Up to 10 per cent of the weight of any new item of tack will be the oils and fats used to penetrate and preserve the leather. It’s therefore easy to understand how neglecting to nourish your tack can dramatically shorten its useful life.
No amount of cleaning and oiling will restore cracked and neglected old tack to pristine order, so never let it get that way in the first place.
Cracks and deterioration signal that the tanning agents have broken down or leached from the leather, and have thus been unable to protect the essential fibres that give the leather its strength.
Tack leads a pretty tough life. It has to put up with sun, rain and salty sweat, not to mention the general wear and tear of riding. The salt in sweat can rot leather and, when damp, dirt and grime will stick with a vengeance.
There are several different finishes to be found on leather, so always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning and nourishment. Some cleaning and conditioning agents can darken leather, so read the label carefully and, if worried, test a small out-of-sight area first.
In a perfect world, you would have the time to clean your gear after every use. In reality, you’ll be doing well to do it once a month – preferably more often if it’s regularly exposed to dirt or sweat.
Moderation is always the key. Use only the gentlest of products and use a minimum of water.
A gentle wipe with a soft, slightly damp rag will remove any grit that might scratch the leather surface.
Use a specialist saddle soap for cleaning. Soaps by their nature are alkaline, and leather is at its best in a neutral or slightly acid environment. Soaps therefore need to be very mild and contain a high level of oils and fats to nourish the leather.
Any alkaline residues will gradually break down the fats and oils in the leather.
Finish with a conditioning agent and work it gently into the leather. These are proprietary mixes likely to contain a combination of animal fat and vegetable oil. They may contain anything from lanolin, fish oil, and neatsfoot oil to any one of a number of vegetable-based oils.
In humid areas, consider using a conditioner with a mould inhibitor.
Avoid any petroleum-based products as these will break down the oils and fats.
Remember, moderation is the key. Don’t work so much conditioner into your tack that it ends up soggy and excess oil oozes from the leather on to your hands and clothes. You want the leather to end up soft and supple, not damp and limp.
Always let your tack dry naturally, out of the sun.
Clean and condition any tack before long-term storage, and keep it away from the sun and excessive heat. Cover it to prevent dust accumulating, but never seal the gear in a bag which cannot breathe. Before using the gear, apply conditioner again.
Products that promise a quick, easy shine will rarely be as good as using the right products and the required amount of elbow grease.
First published on Horsetalk in 2009.