Updated: Dec 21, 2020
There's a lot of information on the internet about these exotic skins, yet none of it comes from a craftsman's perspective.
So let me share my techniques with you.
The aim of this blog post is to help you understand how to work with alligator and crocodile skins from the perspective of a leather craftsperson, rather than the mostly generic information from tanneries, suppliers, or fashion bloggers for that matter.
Who is this blog post for?
This article is for someone who hand stitches and makes their own leather goods, primarily using hand tools.
Is alligator and crocodile a skin or a leather?
Technically, these are referred to as ‘skins’, similar to most exotics such as lizard, snake, ostrich and caiman. The term ‘skin’ will also be used to describe the smaller animal species such as pig, goat, lamb, sheep, calf etc.
This being said, these are all ‘leathers’ after going through a tanning process.
So really, the choice is yours. If it concerns you, I guess you’ll sound a little more ‘in the know’ amongst your fellow craftsmen if you say ‘crocodile skin bag’ vs ‘crocodile leather bag’.
Why is alligator and crocodile leather so expensive?
It’s mainly due to the reptilian species being difficult to farm, unlike their land dwelling, grass munching docile counterparts - the cow.
Alligators and crocodiles are a little less ‘yes boss’ and a little more ‘I’m going to rip your arm off and eat it’. So measures have to be taken to ensure safety for staff and the other reptiles. It isn't a cheap or easy process.
This means it's technically more challenging to breed them and rear them whilst also preventing them from fighting and scarring each other's skins (which would reduce the sale price and their grade).
There is also a number of extra production processes which alligator and crocodile skins have to go through. Certainly no cowhide has ever had to be ‘descaled’.
Wild alligators and crocodiles (commonly the largest skins are wild) are harvested too. Typically the best grades in large sizes will be some of the most expensive skins around.
What is the difference between alligator and crocodile leather?
There is a lot of information available on this topic, but as craftsmen, you are going to notice a few differences.
The tiles (the rectangle plates which make up the majority of the surface) will have a small dot on a crocodile near the edge, known as an ISO Pore, or an Integumentary Sense Organ.
Another distinguishing factor is the more prominent umbilical scar seen on the alligator. Crocodiles do have this scar, but it is very subtle.
When it comes to cutting or skiving crocodile leather, you will often notice some of the tiles, especially near the flank, have a bony piece inside them. You won't see it, but you'll know when you hit it.
This is a calcium deposit which helps reinforce the reptile's armour.
It will also ruin any edge you had on your ‘super steel’ blade, while laughing at your skiving attempts.
Larger and older crocodiles have more pronounced calcium deposits.
Interestingly enough, one of the processes used before tanning is called ‘pickling’, which is a weak acid bath that eats away at the calcium deposits in the skin, but doesn’t harm the collagen fibres of the skin itself.
Of course, it’s difficult to dissolve all deposits in the skin which is why some remain. Higher end tanneries will know how to best perform this process. You get what you pay for.
Alligator skins however, do not have as many of these calcium deposits, so this makes the alligator the easiest to work with as a craftsman.
Cutting and skiving either by hand or machine poses little issue in this regard, especially smaller and younger alligators.
The smaller caiman can be a pain to work with due to having the most calcium deposits.
It is much less desirable as a finished product, and not well suited to fine leathercraft like it’s larger reptilian cousins.
I personally wouldn’t recommend it outside a western style of leatherwork, where it can be used for inlay or boot making quite effectively.
How can you tell if the alligator or crocodile leather is real?
Well, as a craftsman, you are going to be buying whole skins rather than a finished bag or wallet.
So, if your full alligator skin measures 50-55 square feet and is shaped like a cow, chances are you’ve come across some crocodile embossed or ‘print’ leather.
You will note these prints having a repeated pattern across the cow or calf hide (crocodile/alligator prints can be done on virtually any leather with a smooth surface).
So fear not, only leather goods consumers need to worry about fake skins, not the craftsman. To fake a crocodile skin with cheaper cowhide, including the shape and feel of a genuine exotic skin, would be so time consuming and laborious, it wouldn't be worth it to fake.
What part of the alligator or crocodile is used for leather goods?
Almost any part of the skin is usable, although some parts are considered ‘finer’ than others.
The crown jewel is the belly section on the underside of the reptile.
This is where the alligator is measured along its widest part, usually in CM (even in the US).
So, when you see a skin for sale measuring ‘47cm’, it’s telling you the width of the belly at the widest point, not the length. This hints at the potential yield you will get (i.e. a bag panel or long wallet exterior).
What size of alligator or crocodile skin do I need?
The size of skin varies depending on the age of the animal, so it’s important to note older alligators and crocodiles are more likely to have scars.
Much like a young child is less likely to have scars than a 70 year old man, the longer the animal lived, the greater the risk of scars from fighting, disease, infection or accidents.
This means a near perfect 'grade I' skin becomes increasingly rare and more sought after in the largest sizes.
On the other end of the spectrum, a grade IV (4) will have defects on the majority of the skin. This will be the cheapest. Especially if it’s a small skin.
However, this doesn’t mean a grade IV skin is useless, far from it. For watch straps, keyrings, inlay or leather marquetry, these skins still provide some use. Small projects don’t need large flawless areas like a bag would for example.
As a general guide, I recommend these sizes for the most common leather goods:
(note: some items below will require more than one skin of a specific size i.e. bags/cases)
20-30cm: Bifold wallets, phone covers, watch straps, keyrings, bracelets, jewellery.
30-35cm: Coat wallets, clutches, small bags, belts (spliced).
35-40cm: Medium bags, tablet cases, compact laptop cases, folio cases.
40cm and above: Most large handbags, attaché cases, briefcases, duffel bags, luggage.
How do you condition alligator or crocodile leather?
The grain on reptilian skins can be very tight compared to the skins of land animals, so a conditioner with oils and waxes which can penetrate and lubricate the collagen fibres are the best.
Most traditional leather conditioners can be too heavy for reptile skins and they can darken the skin considerably.
A simple way to achieve this would be to purchase Reptan by Saphir. This product is one of the few designed precisely for this purpose.
Traditionally, preparations containing lanolin have been the mainstay of exotic skin conditioners.
Do you need to wax alligator or crocodile leather? Not really, most waxes tend to sit on the surface due to the dense grain and can crack off. So avoid high beeswax content or anything with coconut oil in it.
How do you saddle stitch alligator and crocodile leather?
Saddle stitching these large reptile skins can seem quite daunting to those who want to try using the king of exotics.
You needn't be intimidated however, but there are some points to note before grabbing your pricking iron!
Firstly, there is a large variation in density across the entire skin.
The ‘tiles’ are actually the skin that forms underneath a scale. It has been shaped by the scale which is removed prior to tanning. These tiles are where the grain is the most dense, and stitching is pretty easy over these parts.
The tricky part however, is the soft fibre structure between the tiles which has a much looser grain and therefore, stitches differently.
The first trick to stitching alligator or crocodile is to make sure the softer connecting skin does not run parallel to any of your seams when deciding where to cut out from your patterns.
Next, you are going to want to adjust your stitching tension so there is less tension when a stitch falls in a softer area of the skin, and more tension where the skin is firmer. In this way, we can achieve a consistent look to the seam.
Care has to be taken when you produce a tight stitch after a looser stitch, as the tension can carry back as far as 3 stitches (unless casting which typically affects only the previous stitch).
This is where practice and experience take over as you develop the craftsman’s touch. This is explained in greater detail in the courses highlighted in the pictures above.
How do you skive alligator and crocodile leather?
This is where working with alligator and crocodile can get tricky due to the surface variation.
The surface contains a lot of high and low spots across the skin, and if you aren’t careful, you will end up cutting through the low spots when skiving from the rear side, which leaves nothing between the tiles along the edges.
This is true for hand skiving with a paring knife or a bell skiving machine.
It’s really all about pressure. One technique I like to adopt is to press the skin down against the paring stone with enough pressure so the skin is flattened and the surface equalised. This, with practice, will leave a uniform thickness along the skive.
When done right, your skive will depict a reverse image of the surface.
For machines, adding extra tension to the feed roller will have the same compression effect and desired result.
Can you edge paint alligator and crocodile leather?
Absolutely you can, and it’s a convenient way to finish a cut edge project since most large reptile skins are chrome tanned and therefore difficult to burnish.
Again, you will need to adapt how you finish these skins compared to the more common leathers due to the random surface texture.
Although minor, your cut edge will have a constantly varying width compared to a similar project in cowhide.
Due to liquid surface tension, the wet edge paint tends to dry with a surface that isn’t flat. The thin areas if the edge will dry high and the thicker areas, low.
To get around this, you will need to use something flat like a piece of board or a block of wood to wrap your sandpaper around. This removes the high spots first, before applying subsequent layers of finish.
Each new layer is going to want to do this, so your last layer of paint after your final sanding should be thin. This will ensure a nice straight edge and a smooth finish.
A touch of distilled water mixed with a small amount of paint will work well here. Place a bead on the edge and pull it along with a round awl or bamboo skewer.
How else can you finish the edges of alligator and crocodile leather?
Edge paint is only one way of finishing the edges of your alligator and crocodile leather.
Since burnishing is going to be tricky, your other options are going to be edge binding, a turned edge, or even a French binding (the latter discussed in the video course ‘Techniques Of Hand Stitching’).
Edge binding is an edge finish which will give you the option of using a contrasting colour around the edges.
This contrast of colour can elevate your work and improve the silhouette to further highlight your design.
However, In my mind, one of the absolute pinnacles of fine leathercraft is seeing a crocodile product finished with turned edges.
The only thing rarer than the skin being worked with, is the techniques used to finish these edges!
How do you split alligator and crocodile leather?
It is possible to split down your alligator or crocodile leather (reduce the thickness of the whole piece, not just the edges) by running your skin through a bell knife skiving machine. You will need to use a large presser foot and a series of overlapping passes.
This technique however, should only be used by those with skiving machine experience and experience working with exotic skins.
I demonstrate this in the video course ‘Techniques Of The Bell Skiver’ using a 50mm presser foot and higher roller tension.
Outside of this, I would recommend having your skins professionally split on a band knife splitter machine.
Alternatively you can order a smaller skin (and therefore inherently thinner) for smaller leather goods and hand skive edges where needed.
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