Leather Tanning Methods

When you say the word "leather", most people imagine leather jackets, purses or beautiful seats in interior of a luxurious fresh smelling car. Did you know that there are different styles of processing the leather for its different purposes? In this article I would like to give you some examples of different styles of tanning and I hope you will understand it much better.

Leather Tanning Process

Leather tanning is the first step in the leather making process, after the hides are cleaned from all the blood, dirt, salt and hair. To use a hide or skin for a leather product, it needs to be processed. This is called the tanning process. Tanning changes the chemistry inside the leather fibres to make it more difficult for the enzymes from bacteria and fungi to break them down, so it makes the leather durable.

Vegetable Tanned Leather

Vegetable tanning is the oldest tanning method. Vegetable tanning uses tannins, which occur naturally in many plants, and it's extracted from wood, bark, roots, plants, nuts of trees and other sustainable vegetable sources in its process. It usually takes up to two months to tan the leather using this method, but the result is a beautiful leather with distinctive feel and aesthetic that ages beautifully. Vegetable tanning takes longer than chrome tanning, however, it has the benefit of using natural, sustainable and renewable raw materials.

Vegetable Tanned or veg-tan leather as it's common to say, is not very flexible, and it's mostly used for wallets, purses, footwear, belts, bags and other clothing accessories.

Chrome Tanned Leather

Chrome tanning uses soluble chromium salts, primarily chromium sulfate, to tan the leather. The tanning process takes as little as one day, so it's much faster than vegetable tanning that takes up to two months. The process uses trivalent chromium, which is a safe substance that also represents an essential part of our diet, with many people taking daily supplements that contain it. A wide range of colors can be made from chrome tanned leather. The chemicals used in chrome tanning do put a strain on the environment. An advantage of chrome tanned leather is that it tends to be more water-repellent than a veg tanned leather.

Chrome tanned leather is a stretchable leather which is excellent for use in handbags, shoes, boots, gloves and in the automotive industry.

Different styles of tanning

Leather is usually tanned in one of two ways. One is chrome tanning, and the other is vegetable tanning, but there are some more subcategories that you might be interested in.

Retanning is the process, in which the leather is given its required specific properties for each leather product. Softness, fullness, density, the break of the leather, the leather color, etc. Everything is adjusted or imparted in the retanning process.

Vegetable Chrome Retanned

Vegetable Chrome Retanned leather is vegetable tanned, and then retanned in chromium salts.

Chrome Veg Retanned

Chrome Veg Retanned leather is chrome tanned, and then retanned in the same way as the vegetable tanned leather.

Chrome Oil Tanned

Chrome Oil Tanned leather is chrome tanned, and then treated with oil that helps preserve the leather.

Myths about veg-tan leather

Vegetable Tanned Leather is more breathable:

It's all about the process. Leather isn’t a material that allows a lot of air to pass through, that’s why it’s one of the best materials for biker jackets and footwear.  On the other hand, many veg-tan leathers are finished “lightly” so, in theory, they would have more breathability when compared to some heavily finished chrome tanned leathers, however heavily waxed/oiled veg-tan leathers like those used in waterproofed goods wouldn’t breathe much at all.

Vegetable Tanned Leather is organic:

I don’t think you can call any commercially produced leather organic.  Leather tanning is a chemical process, and while the tanning part of the vegetable tanning process does come from natural sources like roots and leaves, they also use salt, lime, and all sorts of other chemicals in the dyeing and finishing process. The most natural leather possible is probably brain tanned leather, but this process is one of the oldest and not used as much anymore.

Only Vegetable Tanned Leather will get a patina:

Patina is a desirable layer of dirt and oil your leather item has acquired over time with use.  With time, this layer will develop on almost any leather.  It will develop much more quickly and much more noticeably on leathers with a minimal or no finish coat. If you want the full and rich patina look, go for lighter non-dyed leathers, because they will show the patina much better than those that are dyed in dark colors with finish coat.


Hello Steven! Vegetable tanning gives the leather strength, and chrome tanning gives it flexibility so yes, you are right, but it all depends on the tannery that makes it

Adrian January 20, 2022

Nice clear article. Explained things well. I do have one question though. What is the effect on the leather of the retaining process. Is veg chrome retained softer and “stretchier” than veg tanned?

Steven January 20, 2022

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published