Vegetable tanning vs Chrome tanning. Two methods of turning animal skin into leather. While these two methods have one goal which is to turn animals hide into leather they are different in some ways. For instance, the vegetable method uses purely organic material. On the other hand, the chrome method uses harsh chemicals to change the skin to leather. Likewise, there is a difference between the time it takes for leather to completely tan with each method.
What is Tanning?
Before we know what is the difference between vegetable tanning vs chrome tanning we must know what is tanning. And no, it is not the same as going to the beach and laying in the sun for hours. Tanning animal skin does not involve any sunlight or heat whatsoever. In fact, the process of tanning involves sealing the animal skin in a container, away from any heat or sunlight. So what exactly is tanning? In this section, we will not be talking about vegetable tanning and chrome tanning just yet. Just tanning in general.
Tanning is basically the process of turning animal skin into leather. After cleaning the skin and removing all its hair the tanning process follows. Tanning is important in creating leather. This is because without treatment the animal skin would both harden and putrefy. Moreover, like any other organic material, if animal skin is left untreated, it would decompose.
Likewise, during the tanning process, there will be a change at the microscopic level. The tanning solution will seep through every pore of the skin. It will be Coating every microscopic fiber with preservatives. This will not only prevent the skin from decomposing but it will also strengthen the leather.
In general, this is what goes through tanning. The difference between vegetable tanning and chrome tanning will be specific details in the process. The method is the same but the difference will mainly be on what tanning solution is used.
Vegetable tanning uses an organic tanning solution. It is one of the oldest tanning methods. This method is also eco-friendly. It is however slower than the chrome tanning method because it is an all-natural process. Today, only about 10% use this method of tanning leather.
This organic tanning solution is called a vegetable tanning. The process of making this tanning solution is similar to that of wine tannin. Both tannin solutions are made organically. For wine, it comes from the skin of the grape. While for vegetable tannin, it comes from tree barks. The making of vegetable tannin usually involves tree barks from trees such as oak, chestnut, or mimosa. However, you can always use whatever tree barks you want. Some folks who are making their own vegetable tanning are using other types of trees. Using plants to make vegetable tannin is also possible if tree barks are not readily available.
What Does The Vegetable Tannin Do?
The tannin modifies the molecular structures of the animal skin which turns it into the leather. This organic solution easily bonds with the proteins that make up the animal skin. Likewise, the vegetable tannin also draws out the remaining liquid from the animal skin. The vegetable tannin will displace any liquid left in the leather. The leather however will not dehydrate. As tannin seeps in, it will replace the liquid inside. This will keep the leather from drying out in the process.
Moreover, this process is not as easy as it sounds. It will take the skin longer to develop into the leather. This process will require multiple treatments that require complete patience, dedication, and skill. This is an important step because any remaining liquid and the leather will continue to rot. It will take months to fully extract and replace all the liquid molecules inside the leather. Some last a length of 6 months for the animal skin to complete the tanning process.
The finished product of this process is a lot beautiful compared to its chemical counterpart. It is however not as flexible nor is it easy to dye. An advantage when it comes to vegetable tanning is that it will last longer. It has a longer lifetime compared to chemical tanning because it does not break down the leather and thin it down. Another advantage is that an organically tanned leather will have a better patina. It ages stronger and beautiful too.
Chrome tanning is the opposite of vegetable tanning. While vegetable tanning is organic and tans the animal skin naturally, chrome tanning does not. It is the process of applying a harsh chemical solution (chromium (III) sulfite) to turn animal skin into leather. It is a man-made compound discovered in the 1980s. Ever since that day, making leather became quicker and much cheaper This is why about 90% is using this method today. Chrome tanning, however, is not environmentally friendly. This is because many tanneries just dump their chemical waste into local water sources. The water around the area will become polluted and contaminated leading to health and environmental risks for the people who live nearby.
The advantage when it comes to this process is that it typically lasts a day to a few days only. The process is quick because the chemical solution dissolves parts of the animal skin which makes it thinner and easier to tan. The process results in a greyish-blueish semifinished leather. Comparing it with the organic tanning process, the leather turns out to be a lot stretchier. The leather is also easier to dye as it holds color well as compared to its organic counterpart.
There are some disadvantages to chrome tanning. First, since it is a chemical solution, the leather will have a distinct chemical smell to it that will linger for quite a while. Another is that chrome-tanned leather has a shorter life span compared to vegetable tanning. This is because the chemical will make the final product thinner thus more prone to cracking and wearing.
Combining Vegetable Tanning and Chrome Tanning
Yes, it is possible to use both methods at the same time. The “veg-chrome” combination uses elements of both vegetable and chrome tanning methods. The final product may look like a vegetable-tanned leather going through a retaining process with chromium (III) sulfite. In some cases, the skin goes through a chrome salt bath before treating it with vegetable tannins. However, while you are getting the best of both worlds in this process it is worth remembering that chrome tanning is still dangerous to the environment.
Vegetable tanning vs chrome tanning? Which is better gaining much information above? They both have their advantages and disadvantages. One is cheaper while the other will cost more to make. One is quicker while the other may take a few months to complete. For companies who are looking to mass-produce leather products a clear method to use would be to go for chrome tanning. It will save cost and time to manufacture. However, if you want to make leather in a similar way as leather artisans do, then vegetable tanning will fit perfectly. However, we recommend going organic as it is good for the environment. It is also a great investment since it will make leather last longer and the patina better.