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Chrome VS Vegetable Tanned Leather

Updated on February 21, 2015

Introducing leathers - Which is better?

Once hides are produced they need to be tanned. There are many different types of way you can tan hides - and many people are unaware of the differences, advantages and disadvantages of the diverse ways of tanning.

In this lens we will focus on the main types of tanning vera pelle (real leather). These are chrome and vegetable tanning! These types of tanning are the most common in the world.

We will give you detailed explanations of what is involved in each process, followed by the advantages and disadvantages of each! If you have any further questions regarding leather and how it's tanned, do not hesitate to get in touch by commenting on this lens!

Remember: Whilst one tanning process may or may not be better than the other, it all depends on the type of leather used! There is little point in tanning a really bad hide a really good way as it will not last very long. The art of tanning is essentially wasted on a bad quality piece of leather! So before thinking about how your leather should be tanned, remember to purchase good leather first! Think Tuscany leather and avoid split or bonded leather. Also note that all recipes used and ways of tanning differ from tannery to tannery.

We truly believe Italian leather is the finest in the world! This is because all of the cows roam in controlled pastures. This means they have less scars, and less damaged and are prone to less insect bites. Full grain leather (the top section of the hide) in the best, most genuine type of leather available. To find out more about why Italian leather is so special, visit this lens dedicated to talking all about it, and do not forget to visit our luxury Italian leather goods website!

Introducing chrome and vegetable tanning

What's the difference?

Chrome tanning

80-90% of vera pelle leathers in the world are tanned by chrome (also known as mineral) tanning. Chrome tanning uses a solution of chemicals, acids and salts (including chromium sulphate) to dye the hide. It's a very quick process, taking about a day to produce a piece of tanned leather. First the hide is 'pickled' by being left in the acid salt mixture, before being placed into the chromium sulphate. All hides then come out looking light blue (known as 'wet blue') and then have a finishing colour applied.

Vegetable tanning

Vegetable tanning is the most traditional way of tanning hides. Using Italian artisans, most of the process is done by hand. Unlike chrome tanning, vegetable tanning can take up to 40 days to produce a piece of dyed leather. Vegetable tanning uses natural ingredients such as the bark of chestnut trees to tan the leather. This means the finished product colour is usually warm, rich tones of natural browns. Vegetable tanning is usually done by tanneries that have a rich heritage of tanning hides.

How much do you know about leather tanning?

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Advantages and Disadvantages of Vegetable tanning

Advantages:

- Only natural ingredients are used when dying the hides.

-Vegetable tanning is environmentally friendly; meaning any leather products that have been vegetable tanned can be recycled.

-Vegetable tanning is an age old tradition, so most tanneries have very skilled craftsmen producing and dying the leather.

-Due to the natural tannins used, vegetable tanned products actually improve with age and develop a patina.

-Each leather product that is dyed using vegetable tanning is completely unique.

-The colours that vegetable tanning produces are rich and warm tones that look completely natural.

Disadvantages:

-The process of vegetable tanning takes a long time, and can take up to 60 days.

-Vegetable tanning doesn't react well with water and can stain easily.

-Products that have been vegetable tanned are more expensive.

-The colours you can produce from vegetable tanning are limited.

-Direct heat can cause vegetable tanned products to shrink or crack.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Chrome tanning

Advantages:

-Quick and easy to produce, usually only taking up to a day.

-Stain resistant and water can roll off the surface easily.

-Soft and supple to the touch.

-Colour remains the same throughout the products life.

-It’s cheaper to buy than vegetable tanned leather, which means it is also easier to find.

-It has a high degree of thermal resistance.

Disadvantages:

-Chrome tanning is very bad for the environment.

-It’s produced with little skill and very often mass produced.

-It doesn’t wear very well or last long and can crack after a few months of use.

-Chrome tanning often smells of chemicals.

-It doesn’t appear (neither is it) very natural.

How to tell the difference

Do you want to buy a vegetable or chrome tanned leather product but aren't sure how to tell the difference? Or do you have a ladies leather handbag and want to know how it's been tanned? There are a couple of things you can do to test the type of leather it is.

Firstly; if you are shopping for a leather product you can smell the product. If the product smells chemically then it's probably been chrome tanned. Vegetable tanned leather smells sweeter and not at all like chemicals.

Secondly; you can scratch the leather product (but do not do this in shops!), if the scratches can be easily buffed out with minimum effort then it is probably vegetable tanned leather.

Thirdly; the burn test! You can burn the vera pelle leather product to find out what type of leather it is. Simply hold a lighter up against the product; if it has no effect on the leather then it is vegetable tanned! If it produces any ash at all it will be grey, chrome tanned will be a distinctive green. Note: never do this in a shop or with a much loved piece! Only do this test if you know of the quality leather or you do not care that much about the product you are testing.

Our verdict - Vegetable tanned - Vegetable tanned leather - Negatives to positives!

We can see the advantages of both ways of tanning; however vegetable tanning is far superior! Although we have given each ways of tanning the same amount of advantages and disadvantages each, really we can see positives in vegetable tanning's negatives, and negatives in chrome tanning's positives!

  1. The process of vegetable tanning takes a long time, and can take up to 60 days.

    Vegetable tanning does take a long time; however this is because how much more skill goes in to making a vegetable tanned piece. Vegetable tanning usually uses traditional craftsmen techniques that are mostly done by hand. With vegetable tanned products, you can really see the skill that has gone in to producing them.

  2. Products that have been vegetable tanned are more expensive.

    Vegetable tanned products are more expensive; however this is simply because they are better! As they require much more skill to dye the hides, this means they are of better quality! Vegetable tanned pieces generally last longer, and look much more natural.

Our Verdict - Chrome tanned - Chrome tanned leather - Positives to negatives!

  1. Quick and easy to produce, usually only taking up to a day.

    Less skill involved in producing chrome tanned leather means the time it takes to produce a leather piece can take as little as a day. With more and more leather being chrome tanned, vegetable tanneries can be put out of business.

  2. Soft and supple to the touch.

    Chrome tanned leather is suppler to begin with, however it wears badly and therefore breaks easier than vegetable tanned leather. Vegetable tanned leather actually improves with age and wears very well, becoming suppler with use.

  3. It's cheaper to buy than vegetable tanned leather, which means it is also easier to find.

    Yes chrome tanned leather is cheaper, but that is due to how little skill goes into tanning the leather. Chrome tanned leather is easier to come across, but surely it is better to have a unique item that improves with age?

  4. Colour remains the same throughout the products life.

    The colour of chrome tanned pieces may stay the same, but this only reaffirms the unnaturalness of the product. Developing little if any patina, chrome tanned products do not alter or improve with age.

    The only real advantage we have found with chrome tanning is that it is more stain, water and heat resistant. However, if you are cautious with your vegetable tanned leather product and buy good quality Tuscany leather, we guarantee it will last a lifetime!

So, What do you think?

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    • profile image

      Jim 

      2 years ago

      Vegetable tanned leather is not more expensive. Vegetable tanned leather can be cheaper that chrome leather. It all depends on the finishing and the thickness. Cheap chrome leather is cheap. Vegetable leather is easier to produce and the equipment required to make it is cheaper. You need to see a real tannery so you guys learn something about leather.

    • MaxwellScott LM profile imageAUTHOR

      MaxwellScott LM 

      3 years ago

      Thank you for all your comments.

      1. This is just a top level understanding of the processes and advantages / disadvantages (it has been simplified for general understanding)

      2. No one assumes all "Italian Leather" originates from Italian Breed Cows. Italian leather just mean "tanned" in Italy.

      3. This article was written singularly about the bag and accessory market. This does not refer to any other industry. Apologies if this was not apparent.

    • profile image

      3 years ago

      This article is slightly misinformed and makes wide generalizations that are overly simplistic. To assume that all 'Italian' leather originates in Italy with "controlled pastures" is naïve: much of Italian leather comes from cows raised in other countries such asBrazil, etc. and is retanned in Italy. As this Guardian article points out: "...if all the accessories and shoes (of the latter, we produce around 11bn pairs a year globally, using 65% of all leather) claiming Italian heritage really were from Italian cattle, they would overrun the country."

      http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/mar/03...

    • profile image

      leatherguy 

      3 years ago

      There are a few good information in this article, however there are much more mistakes and wrong information. You are clearly trying to promote veg tanned leathers made in Italy. Its impossible to properly compare two different tannages without specifing leather end use, As an example, veg tanning is completely unsuitable for production of waterproof or automotive leathers and You call it superior. I will not highlight wrong information in this article as I would have to spend long time to do it properly. Please before You write next article about leather, get some knowledge from proper sources like leather books, journals or magazines. And veg tanned leather is much weaker in terms of tear strength than chrome tanned leather comparing the same thicknesses of leather. Both of the tannages have their pros and cons and depending on the leather end use, one is more suitable than another.

    • profile image

      austinasprec@yahoo.com 

      3 years ago

      I recently found my great grandfather's satchel. It was so old, dried out, pale and quite brittle. I applied olive oil and it now looks so beautiful and supply. Unfortunately i noticed that it now stains my shirts as it rubs on them. I'm not sure if it's a result of too much oil or because of the quality of the die or stain that was originally on the satchel.

      What should i do apart from trying to absorb any excess olive oil from the bag?

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      5 years ago

      It's been said that vegetable tanned leather will darken when exposed to the sun. What effect does excessive sun exposure have on chrome tanned leather?

    • MaxwellScott LM profile imageAUTHOR

      MaxwellScott LM 

      5 years ago

      @anonymous: Many thanks for your comment! There is no difference in strength between vegetable tanned leather & chrome to my knowledge, however the chrome tanned leather uses harsh chemicals. Why would you re-tan a piece of leather? To my knowledge you cannot switch.

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      5 years ago

      What is the difference in function btwn these two? For example, is one stronger than the other in a pull test? If a toy or product was produced with chrome tanned leather, and switches to vegetable tanned leather, how might that imact the final product's overall strength and function?

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      5 years ago

      interesting and useful iwould to know about the chemistry of vegetable tanning

    • profile image

      anonymous 

      5 years ago

      very useful.I would also like to know about the chemistry behind veg tanning.

    • tonybonura profile image

      Tony Bonura 

      5 years ago from Tickfaw, Louisiana

      Very interesting, however, I would like to know more about the specific materials that are used. I am thinking about raising rabbits, and may want to tan the skins after I harvest the meat.

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