What Is the Best Leather for Leather Working? Types & Sizes

A piece of dark brown leather being cut with scissors.

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of finishing your very first leather working project. There’s a lot of pride and satisfaction that comes from making a useful, yet beautiful, object with your own two hands.

However, in order to reach that glorious moment, you need to start with the right type of leather for the specific project you’re planning.

For instance, making a wallet or sandals will require a different leather than that needed for creating a bridle or saddle. 

What is the best leather for leather working? The choice of leather depends on the item being made. Vegetable leather is stiff, sturdy, and best suited for items like satchels and wallets that don’t require much flexibility. The suppleness and pliability of chrome leather is ideal for garments and upholstery.

If you have any interest at all in creating leather items, it’s worthwhile to learn a bit about the different sizes, weights, and grades of leather.

It can be a bit overwhelming when you first explore all the options available, but have no fear. Once you become familiar with the terminology, you’ll be a pro in no time. 

Determining the Size of Leather Needed

Determining the size, form, thickness, and other details of the leather actually required for your project will help you make the most cost-effective choice.

After all, it doesn’t make much sense to spend a small fortune on a huge piece of leather if you’re only planning on making one or two small items.

Learning about leather sizing may be the best place to start.

Leather comes in a wide range of sizes and is usually measured in square feet, not yards.

Just so you know, leather that is sold by the yard is more than likely not genuine leather. Don’t be tricked into buying faux leather!

Obviously, you’ll need enough leather to complete your project, but it’s typically recommended that you purchase 20% more than what you think you’ll need to account for any mistakes or unexpected usage.  

Because leather is usually sold by the square foot or unit, the choices can sometimes feel limited.

What Is a Leather Unit?

A unit refers to the part of the hide that the leather came from, such as the shoulder, bend, side, or belly.

When it’s sold this way, you have to buy the whole part. It isn’t like buying fabric for clothing where it can be measured and cut. You must buy the whole piece.

If you’re buying by the hide or unit, your choices will most likely include the following sizes:

Average Hide Sizes in Square Feet

Full cowhide 55 
Center cut hide 40-45 
Cowhide side 25 
Calfskin 25 
Suede 18 
Lambskin or goatskin   9 

You’ll be happy to know that there are alternatives. For smaller leatherworking projects, many crafters opt to buy smaller, less expensive pieces known as scrap leather.

Don’t let the name fool you. These are perfectly usable pieces. A piece of scrap leather may be around 5 square feet and cost anywhere from $25 to $50.

The price is often dependent upon which part of the hide the scrap came from. For example, pieces taken from the belly usually cost less money. 

Of course, the tanning method used on the leather will also affect the price. Most commercially tanned hides are produced using either the vegetable tanning process or the chrome method.

For a leatherworking project that needs to be form-fitted, stiff, and heavy, such as a holster, you would use vegetable tanned leather.

Chrome tanned leather is better used with projects such as crafting clothing because it’s thinner and more pliable than the vegetable tanned products.

Price is not the only thing that is affected by the method used to tan the product.

Tanning Methods Affect the Weight and Grade

Embarking on a clothing project requires leather that’s nice and supple while a book or journal cover requires an entirely different weight and grade of leather.

It’s important to understand the differences between the tanning process because they each result in a very different end product.

Originally, vegetable tanning was the only process that tanneries used. Then, chrome tanning came along and revolutionized the process because it offered a much faster system. 

Both methods offer unique qualities and are equally appreciated among leather workers.

Vegetable tanning:

  • Produces a firm, stiff, sturdy product.
  • Allows for intricate carvings.
  • Is not very flexible or stretchable.

Chrome tanning:

  • Yields a soft, pliable leather.
  • Is thinner, more flexible and less expensive.
  • Is ideal for upholstery and garments.

Leather Weight

Confusing as it may be, the weight of leather actually refers to the thickness of the piece and is measured in ounces.

To give you a rough idea:

  • If your leather project happens to be a belt, you would choose a piece of leather that’s over 3 ounces.
  • For a camera case, you would use thicker leather that’s around 6 to 7 ounces. 

Use the following chart to give you a general idea of how many ounces you’ll need for your next project. 

Leatherworking Project Tanning Method Ounces
Holsters or duffle bags Vegetable 10  
Satchels or strong belts with carvings Vegetable 8 to 9 
Handbags or camera cases Vegetable 6 to 7
Wallets, masks, journal or notebook covers Combination 4 to 5 
Upholstery or Clothing Chrome 1 to 3

Leather Grade

Both tanning methods affect the grade of leather as well. You’ll find that leather weight and grade are typically interdependent.

The less alterations to the original hide, the higher the grade and the thicker the piece tends to be. So, most of the time, the grade is higher when the weight of the leather piece is heavier.

Variations of Vegetable and Chrome Tanning 

Nowadays, the two types of tanning can be combined to produce leather.

Latigo, for instance, is a type of tanned leather that’s the result of both types of tanning methods.

It’s so soft and supple that tooling or carving into latigo leather is very tricky. It’s best used for making a simple leash or belt.

Overall, there are around five different variations of the two main types of tanned leather: latigo, bridle, cordovan, suede, and upholstery.

Deciding which one to use won’t be too difficult as they’re all very different and not interchangeable.

If this is your first time working on a project, I’d advise steering clear of the more expensive types until you get a little experience under your handmade belt.

Because bridle leather is treated with extra oils, it has a luxurious finish and costs much more than other leathers.

The same is true of cordovan, which is made from the rump of a horse (I know, cringe).

Most people know that suede is more expensive than other leathers. It’s soft and has almost a furry feel to it.

Carving such a delicate piece of leather makes no sense, but suede works well with pyrography, which involves burning designs into the leather.

The Original Part of the Hide Matters

I’ve already mentioned that the part of the hide that the leather comes from impacts price, but there’s more to the leather’s origins than just cost issues.

Different parts of the hide are not identical in quality, and thus, will be used for different applications.

Most stores will include information on the part of the hide in their product descriptions, so keep your eyes out for this when shopping. It’s usually listed after the type of tanning is stated.

If working on a belt for your leatherworking project that includes carving or tooling of any kind, you’ll most likely want a hide that originated from the shoulder.

That part will be thicker and allow for more detailed work. Take note of how the part of the hide corresponds with the thickness.

Another part of the hide that’s thicker is the side. Although not as thick as shoulders, sides are used in leatherworking projects that require strength as well as for carving or different types of tooling.

On the other hand, if the hide came from the belly, you won’t be able to carve the piece. It will cost a lot less to purchase, but it can be very useful just the same.

Leather from the belly is often used for small projects, and beginners can practice on it without worrying too much about mistakes because it didn’t cost much in the first place.

If you are just starting out on your leather working journey, you might want to consider purchasing scrap leather that originated from the belly.

Many crafting or hobby stores have these pieces, and they’re quite inexpensive.

You can also find these cheaper pieces in bulk, which will give you a lot of material to work with while learning more about interacting with leather.

Amazon is also worth checking as they carry both vegetable tanned scraps and softer chrome tanned pieces.

Don’t expect to create a masterpiece at first. Just enjoy the learning process and the start of a gratifying hobby.