Thursday Tutorial: Picking Out a Hide

Hello there! With Valentine’s coming up next week I usually like to do a tutorial post the week before, or at least I did last year. Nothing says I love you quite like a handmade gift… possibly out of leather. 😉

But seriously, a fellow leather worker I follow on Facebook recently was posting about the first piece she ever purchased and it made me think about the first piece I also purchased and both of us were thinking… I wish I’d knew what I was doing, what I was looking for, why those pieces were NOT good pieces of leather.

Just like purchasing anything else, good and bad is subjective, and especially in this case as a bad type of leather in one case could be good in another (and even the poorest piece can usually be used for a pet toy). Unlike fruit or clothing or… wait, no, I’m not going to name a ton of things. Let’s just see where this goes.

A good or bad piece of leather starts with what your plans are for your project. If you want to make a purse, you are going to want very different leather than if you are making armor, and even two different types of purses or different parts of armor… it can get pretty confusing and that’s how I’ve got 10 rolls in the basement of basically the same thing.

My proficiency is in picking out vegetable tanned cow hides used for tooling, so that’s what I’m going to write about here. I might expand at a future date into other types, but for now… this is what I know, this is what I’m gonna write about. I will briefly mention there are chrome-tanned hides and brain-tanned and some other types of lesser known tanning methods (and rawhide, which is something else entirely) and other animals but you won’t find how to pick a good piece of those here. (There is some information on Tandy’s site though)

So. What are you planning to tool? Are you making a key fob, a wallet, aforementioned body armor…? The first thing you want is the appropriate weight/thickness of hide. That’s the easy part. Now you get to go digging…

Leather shops generally have a pile of hides sorted by size and weight/thickness and that’s about it. Of course, maybe you’re ordering your leather online… in which case, I don’t have much more to say to you, except make sure you’ve got someone established and reputable and give them notes about what your planned project is and hopefully they send you something good!

The hides sorted by size may be sorted by terms like “Side” “Shoulder” “Double Shoulder” “Bend” or “Double Bend” (or even “Belly” or “Butt”)… this refers to the area of the animal the tanned piece comes from. Depending on your project, you might have a preference, but I generally stick with shoulders. (More terminology for different sizes/cuts and slightly different info than the Tandy site can be found here)

So dig through those piles. Look for holes, wrinkles, weak spots, odd marks. Really inspect each piece (or immediately discard it if it won’t work for you). Now, flip it over and check the back. The back (called the flesh side) can be almost as important as the front (called the grain side). The first time I purchased leather I didn’t bother to flip it over. I didn’t think anything about the back, as I was looking for a beautiful front to tool.

I regretted that when I decided to make masks!

Speaking of making masks, I can sometimes ignore odd marks and blemishes that would otherwise mean a discarded piece when I go looking for mask leather. Since I usually paint the leather instead of dyeing it, the appearance matters less than the structure.

This is what I mean that good and bad is very subjective and depends on your project. A bad back can also sometimes be ignored if you are just going to line the leather or trim it down.

So… think about your project. Leather is about as natural and subjective as any type of material I work with. (…though don’t get me started on gemstones) Thanks for reading! If you’ve got questions, you can try asking me on Facebook as always. Take care, and maybe I’ll see you on Saturday– at 13GEARS!

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