Choosing Leather

Despite that your typical leather product is made with ultra-cheap leather, there are actually a ton of superb leathers out there.

Different kinds of leather can have very different characteristics.

Here are few key things to differentiate when choosing your next piece.

Shinki Shell Cordovan

Shell Cordovan from Shinki-Hikaku

La Bretagna Art. Deco

Milled vegetable tanned leather

1. Tannage

Tanning is the process of turning animal hides into leather.

There are two basic types. Vegetable and chrome.

Vegetable tanned leathers have a natural look and feel and will typically develop a lot of character as they age (i.e. patina). Expect to see colors become darker and textures become smoother over time.

Chrome tanned leathers are generally softer, allow colors that are more vibrant, and are more resistant to water and scratches.

It’s also possible to combine tanning methods. Many well-known French and German tanneries, among others, employ combination tanning to get desirable characteristics from each.

 

2. Texture

Texture comes about in basically two ways. One is by milling (tumbling) the leather, which gives it rich texture. Milled leather’s grain isn’t uniform. It will look different on different portions of the hide.

More uniform texture can be achieved by embossing (or printing) a pattern onto the leather. Tanneries have various plates they can use to print different grains. Typically a plate that emulates natural grain is used, but there are many abstract ones as well. Some of the best known of these are Saffiano and Epsom.

Milling makes the leather softer, while embossing makes the leather firmer.

Saffiano

Saffiano from French tannery, Alran

Badalassi Carlo Wax

Italian pull-up leather

3. Finish

Finishes range from none at all to heavy finishes that make the leather almost plastic-like. Tanneries that begin with high quality hides (i.e. few blemishes) have the luxury of using lighter finishes, and therefore producing a more natural and luxurious product.

Aniline leather, which just employs water-based dye, preserves the natural beauty of the skin. The very best hides are typically selected and the resulting leather is among the most desirable. It will, however, soil more easily since it isn’t given a protective finish.

Semi-aniline leather, in contrast, can be dyed and or finished with the aid of pigments provided the natural surface of the skin is still visible. The best examples are an excellent compromise as they retain much of their natural look and feel, but are more resistant and easier to care for.

Pigmented leather is the most resistant, but least natural feeling. The natural surface of the skin isn’t visible. Pigmented leather typically resists short-term wear very well, but will not handle damage or long-term wear as well as a good quality aniline or semi-aniline leather.

There are several variations of these types of finishes. Pull-up leather is one of the most popular in recent years, which is an aniline leather that is given a waxy finish.

4. Animal

Animal hides are byproduct of the meat industry. Therefore, the most common leathers come from cattle, pigs, sheep, and goats.

Cowhide is arguably the most important and versatile of the bunch. Calfskin, while not as versatile as cowhide, is the chief leather used in fine footwear and many other luxury goods. Goatskin is also both durable and attractive and can be used to make many kinds of items.

On the other hand, pigskin is too porous, and sheepskin is too fragile.

Products made from cowhide, calfskin or goatskin can be remarkably resilient and last for many years. And you don’t have to look any further for beautiful and durable leather. That said, there is no shortage of other wonderful leathers. Some of the most sought after include: shell cordovan, alligator & crocodile, and ostrich.

Remy Carriat Lagun

Milled cowhide from French tannery, Remy Carriat

Leder Ogawa Cordovan

Aniline Shell Cordovan from Leder Ogawa

5. Origin

The production of the highest regarded leather is concentrated in just a handful of countries. Italy and France top the list with rich tanning traditions. Japan, Germany, and the UK also have several tanneries each that produce some of the world’s finest leather. There are, of course, many notable examples located outside these countries, such as Horween in the US, and Tanneries Masure in Belgium.

Wrap-up

So, what’s the best leather for you?

For leather that looks, feels, and smells great that will develop a lot of character as it ages, look to vegetable tanned cowhide and shell cordovan. Many of the nicest examples are produced in Italy and Japan. Italian tanneries in the Santa Croce region, produce a multitude of beautiful veg tans, while Japan produces some of the finest traditionally pit-tanned cowhide and shell cordovan.

Looking for something a more rugged aesthetic? A pull-up leather might fit the bill. Excellent options can be found from Italian or American tanneries.

For a refined and luxurious option that is more resistant to wear, look to France and Germany for elite quality. French and German calfskin, as well as chèvre (French goatskin) are all excellent options.

Whatever leather you end up with, you’re in for a treat opting for a product made of proper leather and will likely have something to treasure for years to come.

How to buy a leather wallet that lasts

Getting a good quality leather wallet isn’t as simple as spending more.

Most mainstream options, regardless of price, use cheap materials and construction and degrade rapidly.

How do you distinguish the good from the bad? Here’s what to look for.

1. All leather construction.

If you peep down the pockets of just about any random leather wallet, you’ll see the number one reason why they don’t last–synthetic fabric. Most “leather” wallets in actuality are cloth wallets covered with cheap leather.

2. Excellent quality leather

This can be quite difficult to determine, but luckily there are some clues to light the way.

Makers that use the good stuff won’t hide it. Information about where the leather comes from, what type of tannage, and finish are all good signs. Absence of this information often indicates low or middling quality.

The finest leather generally comes from Italy, France, the UK, the US, Germany, and Japan. Buying leather produced in one of these countries increase the odds that you’re getting top tier quality.*

3. Burnished or painted edges

Burnished or painted edges are not only essential to protect the edges from fraying and premature wear, but elevate the looks of the product considerably.

Most products are finished poorly, if at all, as a proper edge takes careful planning, skill, and a lot of time to execute properly.

Quality features tend to go together. It doesn’t make sense to skimp on leather if you’re going to construct a wallet well, and in turn, excellent leather doesn’t really belong in a poorly made product. 

Where to buy

There are many very talented makers out there producing fantastic wallets with top of the line materials and construction. They have taken the time to develop skill and offer a quality and value than just cannot be matched by bigger companies. Buy from one of them, and you’ll have a wallet that not only will last, but look great, for years. I’d suggest finding a maker through social media that jibes well with you.

*Below I’ve listed the countries that produce the highest regarded leather, as well as some of the better known tanneries and products to come out of each.

Italy

Italy is chock-full of tanneries, but perhaps it’s best known for its vegetable tanned leather. And there’s no better example of this than those tanneries that are part of the Consorzio Vera Pelle (Italian Vegetable Tanned Leather Consortium). Some of the member tanneries include: Badalassi Carlo (makers of Pueblo and Minerva Box), Conceria Walpier (makers of Buttero), La Bretagna, La Perla Azzurra (makers of Dakota), and Tempesti.

France

Thanks to an extensive luxury leather goods industry, French tanneries offer an elite selection of leathers. The most well-known ones, in contrast to Italy, are chrome tanned, with exemplary examples of calf and goatskin leathers.

Tanneries Haas, Degermann, Du Puy, and D’Annonay are well-known for their calf leathers, including printed calf (e.g. “Epsom”). Remy Carriat is a wonderful example of taurillon leather.

Tanneries Alran, Relma, and Jullien are best known for their goatskin (chèvre).

Germany

German tanneries are fewer in number, but the quality of the products are at least as well regarded as their French counterparts. The most well-known are Weinheimer and Perlinger which focus on calfskin.

United Kingdom

The UK is better known for its bridle leather. J&FJ Baker is perhaps the highest regarded of the bunch with a 1 year+ traditional oak bark tanning. Clayton and J.E. Sedgwick are other highly regarded producers of bridle and other leathers.

Japan

Japan has a very healthy tanning industry. Their best known leathers are all traditional pit-tanned leathers. Shinki-Hikaku is probably the best known thanks to their beautiful cordovan. Shonan and Tochigi, hailing from the same region are prized for their veg tans.

United States

The tanning industry isn’t what it once was. Few well regarded tanneries are still operating. The best known by far, of course, is Horween. They are best known for their shell cordovan and Chromexcel® leathers. Other tanneries are Hermann Oak and Wickett & Craig.

The Making of a Minimalist Wallet

Here’s how I make our minimalist wallet.

Here are the hand tools I’ll be using to make the wallet.

First, I cut out all the pieces.

I’m using two of my favorite leathers, Pueblo from Badalassi Carlo and Buttero from Conceria Walpier. They’re two of the most famous leathers in the leathercraft world. A lot of the world’s best leather comes from a cluster of tanneries in Tuscany, these two included.

I’m using the ‘nazionale’ color for Pueblo and orange for Buttero. Blue and orange is quite easy on the eyes.

I use a die for the 2 ‘T-slots’ to save some time. The other pieces are hand cut. Quality-wise it doesn’t matter much how the pieces are cut initially.

Next I remove some material from the slots, which reduces a little unneeded bulk and helps so that the slots’ shape don’t show through.

Next, I crease and burnish the card pockets. Creasing is is decorative, and burnishing is a process of using friction to create a smooth, glassy edge that protects it from fraying. Only vegetable tanned leather will burnish properly.

Next, the smaller T-slot is glued to the top of the of body.

Few card holders utilize the design I’m employing. It does takes more work to glue and sew the extra material at the top, but it offers several advantages. 1. The middle pocket will be lined with leather 2. The top of the wallet is stronger 3. The edges are all one thickness, making it very sleek and streamlined.

The next T-slot can be immediately glued on.

Next, this pocket is prepared for stitching.

The pocket is sewn on and the stitching is flatten with flat-faced pliers.

The next card pocket is then glued on.

The top of the body is trimmed flush. Most handmade goods skip trimming which lead to poor finishing (if done at all) and crooked stitching lines.

Everything needs to be perfectly even for proper edge finishing and straight lines of stitching to take place.

Next, the stitching holes are made.

The tops are saddle stitched and the top is creased and burnished.

The two halves are now ready to be glued together. First I rough up the interior edges for better adhesion. Then the halves are carefully aligned.

As you can see, the top is lined up just right, but the other edges aren’t even. The wallet is made oversize for this reason. I now will take about 2 mm off the side and bottom and take the whole wallet to its final size.

The wallet has been trimmed and the stitching holes made. The dimensions have been carefully thought out so all the stitches are the same size and the card slots are not pierced.

Wallet is saddle stitched. Almost done here. Saddle stitching takes a lot of time, but other forms of sewing cannot compare in aesthetic or strength.

Sewing has been finished. Next the edges will be rounded, creased, and burnished.

Done

The Making of a Minimalist Bifold

Here’s how we make our minimalist bifold.

We use traditional techniques with leather from some of the highest regarded tanneries in the world to produce an item that is built to last for many years and age beautifully.

Below, I’m using Pueblo from the Badalassi Carlo tannery in Italy. It’s a vegetable tanned leather that has a slightly roughed up surface that gives it its distinctive, vintage look. These fibers will compact over time, giving it a great looking sheen.

These are the hand tools I’ll be using in making the wallet.


Leather is selected and pieces are cut. The exterior is the ortensia color, a stunning blue-green, and the interior is the cognac color.

The “T-slot” is thinned down with a French edger to reduce bulk.

Pockets are creased.

Edges are beveled and burnished.

Bevelling removes a thin strip of leather, rounding the edge.

Burnishing is a process of using friction to compact the fibers. It’s only possible to burnish vegetable tanned leather. Pueblo burnishes beautifully, becoming quite glassy.

I use water, CMC, and mill wax in the edge finishing. Varying grits of sandpaper are also essential in achieving a super smooth edge.

Pockets are glued to panels.

T-slot is sewn to panel.

Pocket is glued beneath T-slot, and left side is trimmed. Trimming provides a perfectly smooth edge, which will greatly aid in edge finishing.

Pocket is sewn on. The edge is then creased, beveled, and burnished as before.

Lining is glued to body.

Panels are glued on to body, and the wallet is trimmed to size.

Stitching holes are made.

Wallet is saddle stitched. Saddle stitching is a method of using two needles to achieve a very strong stitch that won’t unravel if a thread is cut.

Outer edges are creased, beveled, and burnished.

The wallet is finished.

Thanks for taking a look at our build process!

Leather Showcase

Below are some of our products showcasing the various leathers we use. All are full grain, vegetable tanned cowhide from Italy. These are among the most renowned leathers in the world.

Badalassi Carlo

1. Pueblo

Pueblo’s beautiful vintage look is in part given by the slight roughing up of the surface. As it ages, the fibers compact giving it a beautiful sheen. Pueblo is one of the most popular leathers in the world for making high-end bespoke goods.

Tobacco Pueblo with white thread

Cognac Pueblo with ochre thread

Denim Pueblo exterior with off-white thread

Olive Pueblo with olive thread

 

Ortensia Pueblo with dark brown thread

Gray Pueblo with gray thread

Navy Pueblo with off-white thread

Yellow Pueblo with golden yellow thread

Black Pueblo with black thread

2. Wax

Wax is an otherwise traditional Italian leather, that is covered with wax, giving it a beautiful web of color variation. It is a pull-up leather that changes color as pressure is applied. 

Cognac wax with dark brown thread

Conceria Walpier

Buttero

Buttero is a quintessential Italian leather. It is hugely popular among the very best craftsmen in the world. It is a firm veg tan that looks, feels, and smells wonderful.

Dark brown Buttero with off-white thread

Whiskey Buttero with beige thread

Burgundy Buttero with off-white thread

Orange Buttero with orange thread (exterior is denim Pueblo)

Natural Buttero with beige thread (exterior is dark red Art Deco)

Conceria La Bretagna

1. Art Deco

Art Deco is a milled leather making it soft, and the grain prominent. This leather has a beautiful luxurious feel, with a slightly glossy finish.

Dark Red Art Deco with dark brown thread

field-notes-cover-bretagna-dark-red

Conceria Capital

1. Art

Art is a medium firm leather with a slightly waxy feel. Its waxiness repels water well. It develops a beautiful sheen after some use.

Yellow Art with off-white thread

field-notes-cover-art-yellow-closed

Navy Art with navy thread

slim-bifold-5-pocket-interior-art-navy

 

How to Make a Minimalist Wallet

Here’s how we make our minimalist wallet.

I’m using one of my favorite leathers, ‘Wax’ from the Badalassi Carlo Tannery in Italy. It is a full vegetable tanned leather with pull-up effect.

Pictured below are most of the tools you need. You’ll also need a stitching pony, a ruler, a cutting mat, a polyethylene board, a glue spreader, and a bone folder.

As far as consumables go, you’ll need some thin leather something around 0.8mm-1.1mm (2-3oz) will do the trick. Ours is 0.8mm (2oz) thick. Also needed is glue, thread, water, a finishing agent, and some finishing wax.

Step 1: Cut out the pieces

badalassi-carlo-wax

Step 2: Glue smaller T-slot onto back of small panel. The panel will face the inside of the wallet, making the wallet semi-lined. We use a water based contact adhesive.

Steps 3: Use a creaser to add a decorative line to the top of the T-slot, card pocket, and the back piece.

Step 4: Apply water to the top of the pockets, one by one. Use a canvas cloth to burnish. Use light pressure and be patient; it takes some time. Once your edge starts to look fairly shiny and smooth, you can then apply a finishing agent (we use Tokonole) and continue burnishing. Finally impregnate your canvas with some finishing wax (we use Columbus) and continue to burnish to a smooth, shiny finish.

Steps 5: Glue  finished T-slot under the 1st piece. Glue thinly on bottom of T-slot, too. Mark your stitching line with a wing divider.

Step 6: Punch stitching holes.

Step 7: Saddle stitch T-slot onto panel.

Step 8: Tap down stitches with a cobbler’s hammer.

Step 9: Glue as shown below. There’s a thick band of glue because we’ll be trimming it.

Step 10: Attach the two pieces and tap down with a cobbler’s hammer to promote adhesion.

Step 11: Trim the whole piece to size. Our wallet measures 10.5cmx7.8cm. We used a custom die to save some time, but using a knife accomplishes the same thing.

Step 12: Mark stitching line on top of wallet and punch.

Step 13: Saddle stitch top.

Step 14&15: Add decorative crease to the top of the wallet, and burnish as described before.

Step 16: Prepare front to be glued, by roughing up the edges with sandpaper as shown.

Step 17: Glue front and back. Did you make sure you finished the top edges? Line up the tops to be flush and leave room on the sides and bottom to trim.

Step 18: Trim around the correctly-sized front to make the whole piece flush. Keep your knife blade perpendicular to the surface, especially when cutting the corners.

Step 19: Mark or finish making your stitching line.

Step 20: Punch the holes. Start with where the card slots are and line up stitching chisels correctly so that you don’t pierce the edge of your card slots. Do this for both sides, and continue around the wallet until you’re done.

Step 21: Saddle stitch. Here’s ours halfway done.

Step 22: Bevel and crease the edges.

Step 23: Lightly sand the edges. Start out with something like 280, and work your way up to around 1200.

Step 24: Use burnishing method described in the earlier steps.

Step 25: Move a bone folder around the inside of the wallet to remove any glue from doing anything unwanted.

Step 26: Admire the awesome wallet you just made!

Front:

Back:

Top:

 

 

 

The Making of a Modern Bifold

Made a new product today, the modern bifold. 

I wanted to make a slim wallet with 6 card slots and room for bills.

I used floating card pockets of which bills can be placed in back of, keeping the wallet nice and trim.

Build

I’m using some really nice soft Italian veg tan from the Badalassi Carlo tannery.

First, the pieces are cut.

bifold-pieces-cut

A decorative crease is added to the top of each pocket. Some water, a Japanese finishing agent, and wax are used to burnish the top of the pockets to a smooth glassy texture.

bifold-pockets-burnished

All 4 of the V-slots are glued on and sewn, creating the first 4 pockets of the wallet.

v-slot-pockets

The last pocket is glued on, the pocket assembly is trimmed to size, and the top and inside-facing portion of the pocket assembly is sewn.

pocket-assembly

 

A crease is added next to the stitching and those edges are burnished.

pocket-assembly-finishing

The main body pieces are glued together, trimmed, sewn on the top, and burnished.

bifold-body

Pockets are glued on, wallet is trimmed to size, and holes are made for sewing.

bifold-assembled

Wallet is sewn. Then an edge beveller is used to round the edges, followed by adding a crease all around the inside and outside of the wallet. Finally the outer edges of wallet are burnished. The wallet is complete!

modern-bifold

Here are some extra shots of the completed wallet:

 

 

Leather Buying Guide

Leather buying guide

Do you know the difference between vegetable tanned and chrome tanned leather? Top grain and full grain? Do you know what genuine leather really means? Read our guide before choosing your next leather product.

The takeaway:

Buy full grain leather, but know this is no guarantee of quality. Leather with branding marks, holes or excessive scarring or insect bites are signs of poor quality leather. If the flesh side looks “hairy”, that’s another sign of poor quality. Choosing vegetable tanned over chrome tanned leather increases the odds that you are getting the good stuff. As does buying leather produced in Italy, France, Japan, the UK, or the USA.

The details:

    1. If you thought “genuine leather” meant real leather, then you’d be right. There’s one big caveat, though. The threshold to be considered “genuine leather” is quite low, so most products marketed this way are using a very low-quality piece of leather known as a finished “split”. A more well known kind of split is suede, of which there are varying levels of quality. A finished split is essentially a very thin and low-quality piece of suede, finished so it looks like a grained leather. The “genuine leather” does not imply this, despite what you may have read, it’s just frequently true due to the prevalence of cheap goods. Excellent quality goods can also be marked as “genuine leather,” but they’ll probably elaborate on what kind of leather that is. 
    2. Top grain and corrected grain leathers are extremely common in mid-range to upper mid-range in things like bags and shoes. These kind of leathers start as hides that do not meet the tannery’s standard to be made into full grain leather. The top (grain) is sanded down is first sanded down. Corrected grain is then stamped with an artificial grain or other pattern. Although better than a finished split, the quality can’t compare to full grain leather from an equivalent tannery.
    3. All other things equal, full grain is the best (and most expensive) leather, although simply being full grain is no assurance of quality. Companies are aware of the fact that more and more people know what full grain means, and are taking advantage of the fact by simply adding cheap full grain leather to their products. It hardly costs them any more money and dupes plenty of people into buying what is still a cheap disposable product. Reputable tanneries will only select approximately 5% of hides to be made into full grain leather. There are a lot of tanneries out there that have much lower requirements. 
    4. I suggest full grain leather be your starting point in selecting a quality leather product, but not your ending point. There are many full grain products out there ready to disappoint.
    5. The next most important consideration is choosing a product made with leather from a reputable tannery. Easier said than done. There are thousands of tanneries. There are a few clues that will increase your odds of success. First, reputable tanneries choose only the very best hides to be made into full grain leather. You won’t see much in the way of branding marks, scars, insect bites or holes. You will, however, commonly see creases from the animal’s neck, as many top-shelf leathers use the shoulders of the animal. This is not considered a defect (unless the crease splits). Other than that, you should see a fairly uniform, although not flawless, surface. Qualifying leather by country of origin does increase your odds of getting good quality.
    6. Leather can be produced from either (or both) tanning method–chrome or vegetable. Chrome tanned accounts for well over 90% of all the leather produced worldwide. It is much faster and cheaper to produce than vegetable tanned leather, which uses organic material, instead of chromium salts.
    7. Veg tan is touted as better for the environment, and that’s probably true, but a reputable tannery should have responsible practices in respect to chrome tanning, too. Whatever you decide on, please don’t buy cheap chrome tanned leather–the conditions in which it is produced is truly terrible.
    8. Veg tan is generally firmer in temper and is required to make some leather goods. In most cases, though, either will do the job.
    9. For me, there’s no comparison, veg tan looks, feels, and smells like leather should. It has a luxuriousness chrome tanned leather just can’t match.