What Is the Difference Between Vegetable and Chrome Tanning?

Four pieces of recently tanned leather.

Before leather products can be used to create useful items, they must first undergo a process known as tanning to eliminate moisture and preserve the material.

Although tanning can be done in a number of ways, all tanning begins with degreasing the hide and removing all traces of hair.

In commercial production, tanning almost always involves either the vegetable or chrome method.

The two processes are similar in that they both effectively preserve the hide and render a usable leather, but the end results differ significantly.

What is the difference between vegetable and chrome tanning? The main differences are the processing methods and times, cost, and the end product’s thickness, durability, and flexibility. Vegetable tanning uses natural tannins, can take many months, and yields a stiff, thick leather. Chrome tanning uses a chemical solution, can be completed in one day, and produces a soft, thin, pliable leather.

Vegetable and chrome tanning produce drastically different leather.

Whether you are purchasing a premade item or are planning to craft your own creation from scratch, the tanning technique used to transform the hide into a workable piece of leather has a great impact on the final product.

Understanding the difference in the methods and the ways in which the final products are best used will enable you to make optimum choices when purchasing and working with leather.

Pros and Cons of Chrome Tanning 

The majority of today’s leather products begin with chrome tanning. In fact, upwards of 80% of leather products on the market were processed using chrome tanning.

Some people believe that chrome tanning is the superior process for producing leather; others disagree.

What most people don’t understand is how the process affects the final product.

Things like quality, durability, cost, and the variety of ways in which the resulting leather can be used are all dependent on the tanning method.

The Process

Chrome tanning was invented in 1858 and quickly became the preferred method for rendering hides due to the speed and low cost of the process.

This new production system allowed the prices to drop and for more leather goods to be manufactured in a shorter period of time. Suddenly, more consumers were able to afford fine leather products.

Chrome tanning removes water molecules and preserves the hide by using chromium salts (mainly chromium sulfate) and other chemicals.

This technique usually involves setting hides inside large drums filled with a mixture of chemicals.

These chemicals work to quickly change the composition of the hide, making it soft and flexible enough to be used in a wide variety of applications.

It’s interesting to note that before being tanned, hides destined for chrome tanning are run through a splitting machine to slice them into thinner pieces.

That’s why chrome tanned products are thinner than those produced by vegetable tanning.

The bottoms of the split hides frequently are made into suede.

Advantages

From a business perspective, chrome tanning makes better sense because it’s fast and costs less to produce than its counterpart, vegetable tanning.

Chrome tanning also allows leather manufacturers to dye the hide with vibrant colors, which is not possible with vegetable tanned pieces. 

The colors tend to hold up exceptionally well over time.

The end product is soft, supple, thin, and quite flexible, which means that it’s perfect for all types of garments, upholstery, and decorative work.

Chrome-tanned leather has better water, stain, and heat resistance than vegetable-tanned leather.

Drawbacks

While the leather produced by chrome tanning is safe to use, the chemicals used in creating it are not.

If not properly managed, the toxic wastewater, which contains heavy metals such as chromium, winds up being a heavy pollutant as it seeps into the soil and underground water systems.

These chemicals have been known to affect the eyes, lungs, liver, kidney, skin, and lymph nodes of those who come in contact with them.

Another drawback is that the leather is not as durable as the kind produced through vegetable tanning and will often crack or become brittle in places over time.

Applying a wax or waterproof spray designed for leather may delay the deterioration, but the leather will still not hold up as well as vegetable leather does. 

Additionally, chrome leather is too thin to permit tooling or stamping work, so decorating options are rather limited.

Why Choose Chrome-Tanned Leather?

If you need leather for making any kind of clothing or upholstery item, chrome leather is definitely the way to go.

Chrome tanning leaves the leather very supple, easy to cut and bend, and even somewhat stretchable.

If you prefer bright, vibrant colors, chrome leather is your only option, as it readily accepts and holds dye.

Chrome leather doesn’t require time and heavy use before becoming flexible. It’s easy to manipulate the day you purchase it, making it ideal for many small craft projects.

Chrome Tanning

Pros Cons
Costs less.  Cracks, breaks, becomes brittle.
Quickly produced. Very cheap kinds may smell bad.
More products available.  Looks unnatural.
Stain resistant. Becomes dull and withered.
Much softer in comparison. Mass produced.
Vibrant colors available. Harms the environment.
More colors available.

The Pros and Cons of Vegetable Tanning

For many years up until chrome tanning began to take over, leather makers relied solely on vegetable tanning.

Incredibly, evidence of vegetable tanning can be found in objects dating back to ancient Egypt.

Vegetable tanning involves the use of tannin, a naturally occurring compound found in bark, twigs, roots, and leaves.

Because the tannins are derived from plant sources, the process is known as vegetable tanning.

Commonly used terms related to this natural tanning process include:

  • Organic tanning.
  • Bio leather.
  • Natural leather.
  • FOC (free of chrome) leather.

The Process

Vegetable tanning uses tannin instead of chemicals to rid the hide of water and to stabilize and preserve the hide’s collagen, its main structural protein.

The hides are typically stretched on wood frames then soaked in a series of tubs, drums, or pits, each containing an increasingly higher concentration of tannic acid.

By the end of the process, the hides have been converted into a sturdy, durable, well-preserved leather.

Advantages

Leather produced through vegetable tanning provides consumers with products that last much longer and don’t tend to crack or break apart.

Instead, the vegetable-tanned leather products tend to mold to the users needs, becoming better and better over time.

For example, a vegetable-tanned boot might at first seem stiff and almost uncomfortable, but over time it will soften slightly and become more comfortable and flexible.

When cared for properly and conditioned regularly (at least once or twice a year), cracking, flaking, and deteriorating should not occur for many years.

Drawbacks

One major drawback is that it takes longer to process the hides this way.

Depending on the exact methods used, the process from start to finish can take as long as 12 to 30 months, though more modern methods can get the job done in just a few months.

This, of course, leads to a huge difference in price. 

Naturally tanned leathers are thicker than chrome-tanned leather and, as a result, are not suitable for making upholstery, clothing, gloves, or other products that require a thin, pliable leather with the ability to stretch slightly.

Another disadvantage is that they are not water or heat resistant and will stain easily.

Also, vegetable tanning produces muted earth tones, not vibrant colors.

Why Choose Vegetable-Tanned Leather?

Vegetable-tanned products are stiff, thick, and durable, making them ideal for crafting items such as saddles, belts, satchels, wallets, and holsters.

Vegetable tanning lends the leather a natural look, smell, color, and feel, characteristics that are important to many people.

Items like shoes, boots, bridles, and chaps tend to become a bit more flexible with time, meaning that the more you use them, the better they tend to become.

Additionally, vegetable-tanned leather is thick enough to allow for tooling, stamping, and other patterning techniques.

The fact that this type of leather can be uniquely decorated with a variety of designs makes it very popular among hobby crafters who enjoy working with leather.

The decision to purchase a leather product that’s born of vegetable tanning will probably come down to price and quality, but there are a lot of different reasons to consider vegetable-tanned leather.

Vegetable Tanning

Pros Cons
Products tend to be unique and original. Costs more to produce.
Becomes more flexible over time. Takes a longer time to produce.
Boasts earthy, natural colors. Expensive overall.
Smells natural. Colors aren’t as varied or vibrant.
Able to be recycled. Appears tough and stiff at first.
Longer product life.
Natural ingredients.

Final Thoughts

In a society that is so fond buying online, the opportunity to touch and handle leather before purchase doesn’t present itself nearly as often as it once did.

That’s why it’s so important to understand the advantages and disadvantages of the two tanning methods.

You might enjoy this short video that further explains the differences in the leathers produced by the two tanning methods.

Once you’re informed, you’ll have a general idea of what to expect from each type of leather, even if you’re purchasing online.

You won’t make careless mistakes like purchasing vegetable leather to make a soft vest or buying chrome leather to try to make a holster, for instance.

The bottom line is that educating yourself on the effects of the tanning process on leather products gives you a better chance of making the right purchase whether online or in store.