How We Make Leather

 

People have been making and using leather since the dawn of civilization. In earlier times, leather figured prominently in developing technologies and mechanics. Since the creation of synthetic materials, leather is most often found in the aesthetic realms of fashion and bookbinding. Leather’s prized durability is a result of tanning, or the use of tannins, to alter the protein structure of a skin, which prevents it from being susceptible to bacteria and decay.
 
Richard E. Meyer & Sons proudly operates a complete tannery, using a traditional vegetable tannage. Not only is it environmentally safe, it also yields a distinctively supple leather, perfect for bookbinding, tooling, and gilding. The entire process takes about one month from raw hide to final trimming and measuring.
 

How We Make Leather

Step 1

As with parchment, the leather-making process begins with the careful removal of the hide from the flesh of the animal. Once at the tannery, skins are sorted by species and quality. Fresh hides are immediately put into process, beginning with a soak in our large tanning drums to clean and remove dirt and other materials.

Step 2

Next, we chemically remove the hair from the hides using a lime (calcium carbonate) bath, after which the flesh is removed from the inside of the skin with a mechanical fleshing machine. Then another lime bath and enzyme solution prepare the hides for tannage by removing unnecessary proteins and interfiber substances. This second bath is also known as bating.

Step 3

Next is a complete vegetable tannage, taking three to four days. At our tannery, this is done with chestnut and tara extract, pyrogallol tanning agents that are long-lasting and able to withstand harmful atmospheric pollutants. Skins are weighed and placed in a rotating drum with water and the appropriate measure of tanning agent. Continuous agitation ensures even distribution. Then we hang the skins over a wooden horse to drain and allow the tannage to fix. We then re-lubricate the skin fibers with natural oils in a process known as fatliquoring. Our fatliquor is a combination of animal, vegetable, and mineral oils, in which we soak the skins while agitating for proper absorption.

Step 4

After the tanning, we can now call the skins leather. First, the leathers are dried in a special enclosed room that's built for that purpose, with heaters and fans to accelerate drying. The hides are kept flat and apart using metal frames with clips, called toggles.

Step 5

After drying, leathers are hand staked — on the staker, naturally. This remarkable machine mechanically softens the leather by stretching it between a series of rollers and two claws. It is simultaneously distributing the fatliquor to fully lubricate the leather and ensure its pliability.

Step 6

During staking, we begin thinking about the end user - deciding which skins will fill which orders, as the next step is splitting, or leveling the skin to a uniform thickness. Occasionally, a customer requests a special thickness, but usually skins are leveled to between 1.75 and 2 ounces (.06-.08 mm) - yes, an ounce is a unit of length in this business. Our skins are shipped to a well-known facility in Gloversville, N.Y., for splitting. Thicker areas are sliced off from the flesh side to create a skin of even thickness. Then the skins are shipped back to us.

Step 7

Once the leveled, or split, skins come back to our facility, they are sorted by appropriate character and grain for each order. Some of the skins are taken aside for dying, which means they're headed back to the drum. For dying, skins are weighed and put into a warm water bath in a rotating drum with the appropriate measure of dye. We use aniline dyes, which are not the same thing as pigments. Unlike pigments, aniline dyes combine chemically with the leather and are therefore less likely to wash out. Additionally, our dyes are hydrocarbons, not heavy metals, so they are biodegradable and environmentally safe. We also use some vegetable dyes.

Step 8

Dyed skins are once again toggle-dried in the drying room, then re-staked and polished or burnished, which involves rubbing with a metal or glass tool to bring up the shine. Once the leathers have been measured for square footage, they are ready for purchase and use.