I get asked the question: ‘which is better, vegetable tanned leather or chrome tanned leather?’ rather frequently.
So here in this blog, I want to share my opinions and experiences after many years of using both.
Many blog posts and online articles on this subject are created by leather goods businesses that only use vegetable tanned leather, or environmental organisations that want to stop the use of chrome tanned leather.
Both sides have very valid arguments indeed! But there is an obvious bias.
What I will offer you here is an unbiased and balanced view of each type of tanning option.
As a craftsman who makes use of both types of leather in my work, this blog will be focusing on the physical differences, so you can better decide whether you want to work with one type of tannage over the other, or both.
What is chrome tanned leather?
Chrome tanning is a method whereby chromium sulphate is used to preserve animal skins and prevent rot. This process gives a soft and very strong leather with many benefits and some drawbacks.
Chrome tanned leather gets a bad wrap, mostly deserved due to the environmental impact that chrome tanning can have. This is a huge issue for small to medium sized tanneries in developing countries where the impact is highest.
For large tanneries in Europe and the States with more strict regulations, this is less of an issue, especially as technology is now improving to reduce damage to the environment. But it’s not perfect by any means, at least not yet.
Each of us has to make a decision about the materials, leather, glue, dyes, stains and edge finishes that we use and its impact on the environment and even our health.
This is something I will not attempt to influence you on as you have your own values and beliefs.
What is chrome tanned leather good for?
So let’s talk about the benefits of chrome tanned leather, why would you choose this tanning method over a more natural option?
Starting with water resistance. If your leather item is likely to get wet, for example shoes, bags, luggage and leather jackets, then consider chrome tanned leather as an option over vegetable tanned.
Due to the improved water resistance, you also get better stain resistance. Water spots seen on a veg tan product (especially lighter colours) can be evident soon after drying. Not so much the case with chrome tanned.
Heat resistance and heat damage is less of an issue with chromed hides too.
When hot creasing you will notice there is less chance of damaging or darkening chrome tan with heat.
And with high heat and a concave creaser, you will be able to create a nice arch shape between the crease line and the edge. This gives a pleasing look that is difficult to achieve with veg tan leather.
Chrome tanned leather also requires less maintenance overall. You rarely need to condition it unless it’s something that gets repeatedly wet and dry, or flexes excessively on a regular basis (i.e shoes).
A higher tensile strength is seen with chrome tanned leather too, contrary to popular opinion. It will definitely stretch further than veg tan, but it will take more tension before breaking point is reached.
But there aren’t many cases where we as leatherworkers can really explore this benefit, as anything under high tension will be reinforced anyway as we don’t want any stretching (straps, belts etc).
Softness is probably the first thing you notice about chrome tanned leather. That is obvious the first time you touch it.
Chrome tanned leathers and skins are soft from the day of purchase, whereas vegetable tanned leather generally softens with age and use.
However, different chrome tanned methods and finishing processes can create a firmness similar to that of vegetable tanning, to the point that some will even take a slight burnish on the edge. Compressed and glazed skins usually have this character.
Generally however, the softest skins are chrome tanned, so if you want a soft feel to your bags, wallets, luggage or anything you want to make, then this really is the best choice.
Some vegetable tanned leathers that go through an agitating machine can end up incredibly soft, however they won’t really be as hard wearing as it’s chromed counterpart.
Vibrant colour options may be another reason to go for chrome tanned skins. If you like bright colours free of colour variation, especially on fashion forward items and accessories, then chrome tanned leather may be your best choice again. It’s going to create less of a natural look to it, but many customers prefer that anyway. Choosing a more traditional colour and a heavier grain will bring back a more natural look if desired.
Unless you darken it on purpose, or it gets dirty, chrome tanned leather is much less likely to darken or deepen with age like vegetable tanned leather can.
This is down to personal taste, like many of these ‘benefits’, so this can either be a pro or a con.
An example is the natural vachetta leather found on many Louis Vuitton handbags.
Some buyers absolutely love the rich patina that develops over time and actively encourage it to form. On the flip side, many LV customers go for the pigmented dark brown option in order to avoid having a different looking bag in a year's time. Something to consider.
Weight is another consideration when deciding on whether chrome tanned leather is right for you.
Chrome tanned leather is less dense than vegetable tanned leather. So for a given thickness and area, chrome leathers will be lighter.
This is just one of the reasons that I prefer to use both chrome and vegetable tanned skins at the same time on many of my bags.
For large areas such as the panels, gussets and the base, chrome tan really cuts down on the overall weight and fatigue the user experiences after carrying it. For other parts such as handles, zipper reinforcement and accessories, I prefer vegetable tanned leather for reasons I will get into a bit later.
Due to the lower density, chrome tanned leather will also insulate against the heat and the cold better. The fibre structure is generally looser with more air trapped inside. This makes chrome tanning the popular choice for clothing, shoes and accessories such as gloves.
You will also notice that the contents inside a chrome tanned bag will not get as cold in winter as contents in a pure vegetable tanned leather case. A lining also makes a big difference, but this may not even be a consideration unless you put your morning coffee on your bag on the way to work!
Is chrome tanned leather durable?
Generally speaking, chrome tanned leather is more durable than vegetable tanned leather.
There are exceptions depending on what you see as ‘durable’. If you made a belt out of pure chrome tanned leather without any non-stretch reinforcement, it would stretch like an old sock in no time. So for this purpose it isn’t particularly durable as a belt!
However, if we are talking scuff, impact and scratch resistance, then chrome is king. Its strength is in its softness which allows the leather to flex instead of mark.
You can test this by taking a scratch awl and marking veg tan leather with just enough pressure to see a line. Then take a piece of chrome tan and use the same pressure to mark a line too. You will unlikely see any mark on the chrome tanned leather.
How can you tell if leather is chrome tanned?
A simple test is to take a sturdy bowl and fill it with freshly boiled water. Make sure it is heat safe and you take all the necessary safety precautions first.
Cut a few strips of leather about 1cm wide and 8cm long, then drop them in.
Vegetable tanned leather will react very quickly by twisting up, shrinking, or both. Chrome tanned leather on the other hand may distort slightly, but will remain mostly unaffected. Leather that is combination tanned, meaning it is both chrome tanned and vegetable tanned, will generally react as pure chrome tanned leather does in this test.
Vegetable tanned leather.
Instead of chromium salts, vegetable tanned leather uses natural tannins found in the bark of various tree species to bind to the collagen fibres in the hide. This prevents the leather from rotting and preserves it for use.
What is vegetable tanned leather good for?
The darling of the craft industry, vegetable tanned leather is mostly chosen with our hearts due to the smell, the patina, the way it cuts, skives and stitches. The way it ages, how it softens over time, and how it moulds to the user like an old friend.
Easier on the environment and easier for the beginner to pick up on the craft. Vegetable tanned leather really is the training wheels before moving on to more challenging chrome tanned leathers and exotic skins.
Due to the stiffness of veg tan leather, it is much more obedient and less challenging to work with. It's easier to cut, skive and stitch.
If anyone ever asks me what to use when learning to stitch for the first time, I always say 3mm thick vegetable tanned leather without question. It stays still while you practice your technique, and it’s very forgiving with over or under tensioned stitches (unlike chrome). If something looks off in your stitches - it’s you! There are no other variables to blame. Great for first timers.
But far from being a beginners leather, vegetable tanned leather is virtually a religion in the artisanal leatherworking world. A connoisseur's choice you could say. For many it’s veg tan or no tan.
Personally, it’s my favourite tannage to work with as there’s something so satisfying about it’s natural beauty.
By contrast, almost all fake leather (now called 'vegan leather’) is pretending to be chrome tanned leather because its easier to fake.
Vegetable tanned hide is virtually impossible to copy using synthetic materials, as the richness and depth of colour cannot be mocked by plastics, and the imposter is noticed almost immediately, even by the untrained eye.
The added stiffness associated with most vegetable tanned leather means that it rarely requires stiffening interlinings to add structure to your favourite projects. Meaning it will hold your bag's shape rather than collapsing under its own weight.
Another benefit is the added stretch resistance. Especially if you cut your hide along the ‘butt’ from head to tail. This area is the prime cut for straps and solid leather belts.
You also get to dye vegetable tanned leather since it absorbs leather dye with ease. Staining and burnishing edges will also be possible due to its ability to absorb liquid.
You must however seal all vegetable tanned leather to reduce water damage should you splash it or spill liquids on it.
There are many options, but the traditional approach is to use waxes. This also gives you the option of a highly polished finish, something you usually only get on chrome tanned leathers with a ‘patent’ gloss finish.
Another wonderful trait that vegetable tanned leather displays is mouldability. Not just from wet moulding it into shape, but the way, say, a handle moulds to the user's hand over time due to pressure, warmth and moisture. This character is very unique to veg tan.
So in essence, a chrome tanned bag will look its best on day 1 after it has been made. It’s all downhill after that. Then again, with good quality chrome tanned leather from a highly regarded tannery, ‘downhill’ may translate ‘slightly used looking’ after 20 years of use.
And although you won’t be seeing a rich patina, after years of use, chrome tanned leather will show creasing and changes in shape depending on how it’s used. I personally regard this as a positive sign of character. Again, this is not seen in low quality chrome tan leather (especially ‘split’ chrome), which looks terrible with age.
If you like the look of aged leather, then definitely choose vegetable tanned hides for your products. Depending on your tastes, most purists believe that a vegetable tanned bag (sticking with the bag example) will look its worst on day 1 after it has been made. This is the blank sheet of paper before the story is written.
Do you want to learn how to select the highest quality leathers and skins? In the FREE leather selection guide (video) I will show you my methods when choosing the finest vegetable tanned and chrome tanned leathers.
Discover what to look for, 'indicators of quality'
Avoid cheap tannery tricks that try to fool you
How to test leather properly to make sure it meets your standard
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