ICS Magazine

Understanding Leather

April 11, 2006


Cleaning leather is a low-cost, high-profit endeavor. The key to your success will be in understanding leather, understanding your customer, and proper promotion. As in any field, the more confident you are in your knowledge and ability, the more successful you will be.

Where does leather come from? How is it made? What's the difference between the types of leather? Why does each require a different cleaning method? Hopefully, the answers to these questions will provide you with some of the tools to grow your own business.

Ninety-nine percent of all leather you will work on once belonged to a bovine animal. What may surprise you is that most people do not know this basic fact. It may seem trivial, but if it provides you with more knowledge and expertise, you can turn it into more business and financial profit.

Leather is the skin (small) or hide (large) from any animal that is preserved at a tannery for further use. For furniture, the hides of cows and steer are used. These hides are used because they are large and plentiful. A key point to remember here, and one that may reassure some consumers, is that hides are a byproduct of the meat industry. The animals are raised and slaughtered for their meat. The hides are not consumable, so they are sent to tanneries to be prepared for use in other industries.

Again, almost all leather comes from cows and steer. More important, was it male or female, and where did it live? Steer are raised for their meat and live shorter lives. Their hides are generally less scarred and worn. Cows are raised for breeding and milk. These hides have more stretch marks and other visible signs of age. Bovine from colder, mountainous regions yield thicker, more durable hides. Open range bovine yield hides with fewer scars. Wetter regions yield hides with more bug bites. Hides with fewer scars, brands, stretch marks and other defects are worth more money, as they are more acceptable for the purposes of upholstery.

Hides are removed from the animal and preserved in salt or refrigeration at the slaughterhouse. This slows the decay process that ruins the legendary hide strength. The hides are then sent to tanneries in Europe, South America and Asia. Very few hides are tanned in the United States because, although we have the highest meat consumption rate in the world, we also have the fewest tanneries.

Once the hide reaches the tannery, all the hair must be removed. Remember, cows and steer are covered with hair, so inspection of the hide is virtually impossible until the hair is removed. The hides are first washed and dipped in an alkaline bath. The bath re-hydrates the hide while lime dissolves the hair. The back or inside of the hide is then scraped to remove excess fat and meat. Finally, the hides are tanned in chromium salts (the dominant tanning solution, though alum or vegetable tanning is still popular). Chromium absorbs into the collagen protein fibers that constitute leather and preserves the hide. I am sure all the carpet cleaners are familiar with fibers.

The hides are now leather in a state called Wet Blue. All flaws can be identified and the hides graded for ultimate use. The largest hides with least imperfections are saved for furniture. The rest are used in other industries. Only 10 percent of the hides a tannery processes will qualify for furniture upholstery.

From the Wet Blue state, all leather is bated, fatliquered and dyed. Bating uses enzymes to soften leather. Fatliquering adds fats and oils to provide pliability, hand and odor. Dying gives the leather color.

At this stage in the process, all leathers are essentially the same. The finishing process actually determines the leather type. The hides that are large, fairly defect free and have uniform dye absorption are dried, messaged, stretched and milled to become Type A, or aniline leather. These leathers receive all their color from dye and have no protective finish. Occasionally, waxes or oils are added for a "pull effect." Anilines are extremely soft, scratch easily, and fade quickly in direct sunlight. Consumers love these leathers for their aesthetic qualities; however, proper protection and care is essential.

Type P, or pigmented, leather is named for the process of applying a pigment or paint to hides where there has been uneven dye absorption or where removal of defects has been necessary. A clear finish is applied to seal color and create a consistent finish that is scratch, stain and fade resistant. The leather is not as soft to the touch as anilines, but is much more resistant to everyday life. However, like anilines, proper cleaning and protection is essential to prevent stains and cracking.

The last type of leather is nubuck, or Type N. Nubuck starts out as aniline and is sanded to create a velvety nap. It does not have a finish and is incredibly soft and sensitive. Consumers are enticed by the rugged look and soft feel of the leather, but are often disappointed that the leather darkens where touched from hand and body oils and stains easily. Cleaning and protection of nubuck must be constant and vigilant.

There you have it, three types of leather: A, P and N. All leather begins as Type A, aniline. If it is painted with a pigment, it becomes Type P, pigmented. If the leather is sanded, it becomes Type N, nubuck. Simple!

The next step is to look at the different methods for cleaning and maintaining each type and find the proper training and certification programs to learn them correctly. You may want to check out the IICRC Leather Cleaning Technician course. It addresses leather identification and cleaning techniques for professional on-location cleaners, restoration and inspection service providers, as well as other related industries. Emphasis is placed on theory, practical application, proper identification of leather types, soiling conditions and proper professional solutions to the cleaning challenges faced by the individuals performing the work in the field. This knowledge will provide the consumer with an invaluable service and help you build your own business. Go to www.iicrc.org for more information.