Not so much a guide as the method I use when assessing a new belt purchase 😛
Just a note that I’m talking about vegetable tanned cattlehide in general, and it’s mostly my opinion, hahaha.
All too often I hear (or read) of people raving about their newly acquired leather items, mostly using phrases such as ‘the leather is awesome!’ or ‘the leather feels really nice!’, etc, which doesn’t actually convey any meaning at all, apart from their excitement 😛
So how might a hobbyist consumer go about examining their newly acquired belt leather?
The first step is to find out about the leather if possible, and the basics we may like to know include:
- Specifications of the hide (Place of origin, animal type, etc)
- Tannery and method of tannage
- Processing post-tan (Hand curried or drum-stuffed? Compressed or rolled? Type and method of dye? etc)
- Cut (Which portion of hide is the leather from?)
Then comes the examination, and some tests you could perform include:
Bend the leather to assess fibre density, flexibility and junction strength.
The less/finer the wrinkling the better – this is an indicator of good fibre density.
Even thick, raw leather should have a good intrinsic flexibility (i.e. not stiff).
Young, old or female cattle will not have as strong a leather as bull or steer…age and testosterone builds fibre density; but if the animal is too old, there will be too much fat deposition (detrimental to the strength of the leather post-tan).
When bent, the movement of the leather should be fluid – a ‘crunchy’ or cardboard like leather is bad, very bad.
Compress the leather between the thumb of one hand and the palm of the other.
Usually, the less compressible the better.
The leather should have a good weight in your hands.
It should have ‘body’, a certain density to it, rather than a hollow, spongy feel.
Stretch the leather by pulling the belt strap.
The less stretch the better; a good cattlehide belt should not stretch more than a couple of millimeters on pulling.
A leather with lots of stretch usually comes from the belly cut – the ‘budget’ portion!
Examine the grain carefully (I recommend using a magnifier) under natural sunlight.
Look for a balance of the natural characteristics of the leather and the natural defects.
A good, long, gentle tannage will result in a good preservation of natural characteristics.
Only hide from an older animal will have a rich grain.
A fine grade hide should have character but no unacceptable defects.
A scar here or there is fine by me – personal preference is key.
Leather which has been heavily and industrially processed will loose much of it’s character, and look and feel very artificial (North American ‘bridle’ is notorious for this…)
Aspects to note include pore structure, density, visibility and arrangement; appearance of each ‘unit’ of pore/s on the grain and their outlines; the shine of the leather at various angles; pull-up effects; variations in hue and colour; etc.
Feel the texture of the grain, is it to your liking?
Keep in mind that different tananges and processes will result in dramatically different ‘hands’ or textures, so try and keep comparisons within specific types, e.g. it would be silly to compare a bridle leather to a saddle/skirting leather – two very different things.
For raw types of leather (a.k.a. Saddle leather, skirting leather, unfinished leather, etc), make sure to re-examine the texture after you do the first oiling (however many layers you like.)
Assess by running your finger down the leather, ‘palpate’ in a circular motion, gentle and hard compression, rubbing the leather from side to side with your thumb, etc.
Aspects to note include smoothness; grit; ridging and cracking; suppleness/oiliness; etc.
Examine the finish on the edges and the corium (flesh) side.
Is the burnish smooth in both directions?
Is the backside of the leather finished to your liking?
Any extra coatings?
The finishes are a case of ‘do it well, or don’t do it at all’ – either have a slippery smooth burnish or a completely unfinished edge, something half-done is not acceptable (for me anyway.)
The other bits and pieces on the belt are important too, so we must also consider the hardware and construction carefully! But that’s for another day…
Until then – stay well 🙂