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June 08, 2022 4 min read

by Monique Youzwa

Monique has been a full-time freelance writer for over 5 years, plus has a few fiction credits under her belt and is currently working on a novel. When not writing, she spends her time reading, playing video games, hiking, and camping with her husband and daughter.


There are several types of leather to choose from, including cow, goat, and sheep, as well as a few exotic options. These leathers are split into different grains, such as full-grain, top-grain, genuine, or bonded. Though these are the well-known options to choose from, there are also different forms of leather to consider, which can alter the appearance and characteristics of the pieces you buy. Let’s take a look at the different leather forms available and what each has to offer.

Chrome-Tanned Leather

Chrome-tanning was invented in the mid-1800s but it is still one of the most popular tanning methods used today. This process involves the use of a special chemical called chromium sulfate combined with mineral salts and acids to tan the leather. It is a relatively quick process, especially when compared to other tanning methods, allowing manufacturers to tan an item in about 24 hours.

There are several benefits to chrome tanning. It increases durability while adding stain, water, and heat resistance. This type of tanning also adds richness to the material, including specific color characteristics that are unique to each tannery and won’t alter over time. The finished item is also thinner, softer, and more pliable than other types of tanning methods for a garment that hangs comfortably and naturally.

Vegetable-Tanned Leather

Vegetable tanning is one of the oldest methods of leather tanning there is, though it isn’t as common today and is actually considered a specialty practice. The process involves using tannins and other compounds that are found in vegetables, as well as fruits and trees. This makes it one of the safest and most eco-friendly methods of leather tanning due to the natural ingredients used.

Those natural ingredients also have other benefits that make vegetable tanning a great option. The leather maintains its biodegradability, plus it feels more organic and earthy, the way a hide is supposed to feel. The finished leather is also thick and durable, with a glossy shine that attracts the eye. The only downside is that this method is time-consuming, taking at least a month to complete, which is why it isn’t as common a choice when it comes to leather tanning.

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Aldehyde-Tanned Leather

Aldehyde tanning, also known as synthetic tanning, is a unique method that doesn’t involve chromium or natural compounds but instead uses synthetic tanning agents. Though formaldehyde has been used for this process in the past, the toxicity of this chemical made it a poor choice. Advancements in this method now include glutaraldehyde or oxazolidine compounds, which are safer alternatives that offer similar results.

The compounds used for this method offer a unique cream or white coloring in the finished leather, which is why it’s referred to as wet-white leather. Some tanners also add emulsified oils to the process, which adds a softness to the leather, plus they allow them to be washed without damage. Aldehyde-tanned leather is often used for chamois, which are absorbent and generally used for cleaning and polishing, as well as baby shoes and in automobiles.

The downside to this tanning method is that the leather is more sensitive to a combination of moisture and heat, which could harden and then shrink the leather, so it must be properly protected and maintained.

Smoke-Tanned Leather

Smoke tanning is another option, though it isn’t used by most leather manufacturers. Instead, those doing their tanning for personal use or selling furs may try this method. It doesn’t involve any chemicals or oils since it uses only smoke to eliminate the moisture from the leather while waterproofing the surface.

The smoke also adds darkness to the leather, which gives it a fantastic appearance without looking dirty. Smoke tanning also makes the leather washable when needed. It is a long process, though, requiring almost hardened hardwood. You also need to be extra careful to keep the flames far from the leather to avoid damage.

Different forms of leather

Final Thoughts

With so many different forms of leather available, it can be hard to know which one is best. Luckily, there are some distinctive differences between them. Chrome tanning is the quickest method, offering consistent and versatile results, though the chemicals aren’t eco-friendly. Vegetable-tanned leather uses only natural ingredients that offer a unique finish and a wide range of uses but it is a much longer process.

Aldehyde chrome-free tanning has a distinctive look and is more stable when it comes to moisture, though it can be damaged under too much heat. Smoke tanning is the safest method and can be done by anyone, though it takes a great deal of time and effort to complete the process.

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