When we talk about tanning leather, we don’t mean leaving it out on the beach to get browned in the sun. Tanning is the process of turning an animal hide or skin into durable, usable leather. Once the animal skin has been stripped of its fur and degreased, the water needs to be processed out of it, or it will start to rot. Draw the water out too fast, though, and you wind up with a dry, brittle skin that’s basically useless for making stuff.
Enter tanning: the ancient process stops the decomposition of organic material – in other words, it stops skin from rotting. (And when we say it’s an ancient process, we’re talking “centuries old” ancient. There’s evidence that neolithic civilizations in Pakistan were tanning leather over 5000 years ago!). How a skin is tanned determines the quality, durability, and look of the material that makes up all the best boots.
In the world of boots you’re usually looking at one of three methods of tanning leather:
- Vegetable tanning, which is how humans have been doing it for centuries, and
- Chrome tanning, which is a relatively modern process, and
- Combination tanning, which combines elements of both methods.
Which is the best tanning method for your leather boots? Let’s take a look.
What Is Vegetable Tanned Leather?
The vegetable tanning process, also known as veg tanning, uses vegetable matter like roots, leaves, twigs and bark which are high in a compound called tannin (not coincidentally where the process gets its name). Vegetable tannin dehydrates the hides by replacing the water molecules and bonding with the collagen. Hides are stretched out on wooden frames and soaked in vats of increasingly concentrated tannin compounds, eventually resulting in a tough, durable leather.
Benefits of Vegetable Tanned Leather
The good news is that higher price is worth it — a veg tanned leather product can last for years, even decades of heavy wear. And while this kind of leather is stiffer than chrome tanned leather, meaning it’s less popular among the general public for shoes, it ages beautifully, acquires a unique patina, and over time it molds to the foot, and softens up without cracking.
Guys look for vegetable tan as a signal for quality. But, that’s not to say there aren’t high-quality chrome tanned leather products.
that higher price is worth it — veg-tanned leather can last for years, even decades of heavy wear.
Downsides of Vegetable Tanned Leather
Here’s the downside: vegetable tanned leather takes time to produce, usually somewhere between 30 and 60 days. Some tanneries take up to a year, like the horsehide-focused Shinki Hikaku tannery in Japan. In addition to the time commitment, vegetable tanning requires the careful attention of a skilled craftsman. Both these factors mean that veg tanned leather leather comes with a heftier price tag.
The good news is that higher price is worth it — veg-tanned leather can last for years, even decades of heavy wear. And while this kind of leather is stiffer than chrome tanned leather, meaning it’s less popular among the general public for shoes, and over time it molds to the foot and softens up without cracking.
Leather after chrome tanning. Photo courtesy of Horween Leather Company.
What Is Chrome Tanned Leather?
Chrome tanning is veg tanning’s younger, faster cousin, replacing all the organic tannins with a man-made compound called chromium III sulfites. It was first invented in the mid-19th century, and now at least 90% of all the world’s leather is chrome tanned.
Chrome III vs Chrome VI
The chemistry behind chrome tanning is somewhat complex, the super simple breakdown is Chrome III is good, while Chrome VI is bad.
Chrome III, or Chromium III, is an essential nutrient. You can actually buy it as a nutritional supplement.
Chromium VI is harmful and produced when companies cut costs which lead to Chromium III turning into Chromium VI.
Leather Working Group Gold Rating
Chrome leather can be as, if not more environmentally friendly than veg tanned leather. To ensure that tanneries are doing everything possible to make sure no Chromium VI is produced the LWG (Leather Working Group) works with large tanneries to reduce harm to the environment and people.
Benefits of Chrome Tanned Leather
I’ve been guilty of spreading the myth that chrome tanned leather equals good, but veg tanned leather is better. But that’s not the case, in the battle of vegetable tanning vs chrome tanning, it’s not as clear cut as I once thought.
Speed, for one. The process takes only a day or so, and results in a greyish-blueish, semifinished leather that is stretchier than its organically processed counterpart, in addition to being much easier to produce. The leather is then waxed, oiled, shaved, lubricated, or dyed to produce the finished product. Chrome-tanned leather is easy to dye and holds color well over the lifetime of the piece.
Second, chrome tanning uses less water than vegetable tanning.
Chrome-tanned leather is easy to dye, and holds color well over the lifetime of the piece.
Downside of Chrome Tanned Leather
So overall, it’s a quick, cheap, easily automated process that results in a thin, colorfast and supple leather – so what’s the downside? Well, for one, chrome tanned leather can have a shorter lifespan. The chrome tanning process is quick because the chemicals involved literally dissolve out parts of the hide, which can make the final product thinner. It also means cracking and wearing out can happen more quickly than veg tanned leather.
There’s also chrome tanning’s environmental impact to consider. What do you do with the (distinctively, disturbingly blue) vats of chromium water when you’re done with them? Many tanneries just dump them into local water sources, leading to contamination of drinking water and a whole host of health problems for the people who live nearby.
Take, for example, Kanpur, India. It’s considered by many to be the leather capital of the world — it’s home to over 250 tanneries — and respiratory problems, renal failures, dermal issues, and birth defects have been closely linked to pollution from the tanneries.
To be clear, not every tanner that uses chromium is an extreme polluter. Chicago’s Horween, for example, is subject to much more stringent regulations than Kanpur.
We’re certainly not saying that all chrome tanned leather is bad quality or irresponsibly produced. Many of the world’s greatest leathers are chrome tanned.
And we’re certainly not saying that all chrome tanned leather is bad quality or irresponsibly produced. Many of the world’s greatest leathers are chrome tanned. Because (as a rule) it’s cheaper and more comfortable than veg-tanned stuff, it’s vastly more popular than veg tanned, so there’s huge demand for leather artisans to make the best chrome tanned leather they can.
Oil tanned leather is one significant example of innovation in chrome tannage.
What Is Oil Tanned Leather?
Red Wing might be America’s most beloved heritage boot brand and they make all their own leather at their own tannery, S.B. Foot. It’s described as “oil tanned,” which means the leather is chrome tanned but it’s infused with a significant amount of oil, making for particularly weather resistant leather that needs little conditioning. Thursday Boot Company has also released their own oil tanned line, called “Rugged & Resilient,” and plenty of other companies trade in the stuff, like Dayton, Danner, and Thorogood.
Viberg and Alden, boots often compared because they both use high quality Chromexcel.
Combination Tanned Leather
If you’re wondering, “Isn’t there a way to get the best of veg and chrome?” then you might want to think about combination tanned leather, which uses elements of both processes. Far and away the most popular veg-chrome hybrid is Chromexcel®, a leather devised by Chicago’s Horween Leather Company that’s used in boots as inexpensive as Thursday Boots ($199) and as pricy as Viberg’s Service Boot ($700). It accounts for the majority of the leather Horween produces, and is renowned for the depth of color produced by the variety of oils and waxes “hot stuffed” into the leather.
But there are plenty of different ways to go about combination tanning. CF Stead’s kudu and the leather on Oliver Cabell’s SB1 is mostly veg tanned and only finished with a couple of hours with chrome tanning agents to help lock in the waxes and color; Rhodes, meanwhile, uses calfskin that’s first chrome tanned and then further semi-veg tanned; Chromexcel itself undergoes a chrome salt “bath” before vegetable “retannage.”
So it’s hard to paint all veg-chrome tanned leather with the same brush. While it’s tempting to say you’re getting the best of both worlds with combination tanning it’s worth remembering that Horween doesn’t rank too highly on independent measures of environmental friendliness — chrome tanning can still be tricky in any amount.
Vegetable Tanning vs Chrome Tanning
Vegetable tanned leather boots aren’t better than their chrome tanned leather counter parts. There’s a high-quality leather product out there made of either. Vegetable tanning signals quality and has a heritage appeal. The final product is stiffer and more brittle, but can be more durable when in the hands of a skilled craftsman vegetable tanned leather products shine.
Chrome tanning offers more colors, softer leather, and uses less water. While mass produced chrome tanned leather is terrible for the environment organizations like the Leather Working Group have strict guildlines tanneries must follow.
My Favorite Chrome Tanned Leather Boots: Thursday Boot Company’s Captain
- Versatile dress/work boot hybrid
- Wide variety of leathers
- Just $199
It’s tough to say if Thursday Boot Company’s captain boot is my favorite boot, I have worn this boot a lot, likely more than any boot I own. I wore them to Columbia on vacation and to Mexico, wher I visited Thursday’s factories and saw how they made boots.
We even made Chrome tanned leather I used to make my own boots while we were there. This was super eyeopening. It actually changed my opinion about Chrome tanned leather
It wins on four very important points — it’s the lowest price boot I own and like to wear; they are comfortable out of the box, no break in required; and made of relatively high-quality and durable materials; lastly, they are more versitle than a lot of heritage boots, you can dress these up more than most other bulky, chunky mens boots.
My Favorite Veg Tanned Leather Boots: Grant Stone’s Brass Boot
- More versatile than most moc toes
- High quality,
The Next boot is a Moc Toe style boot from Grant Stone, a lovely little company based out Southern Michigan that makes Alden quality boots at Red Wing price points.
Like Thursday, they use high-quality materials, but they go a bit further, using slightly most costly leathers and soles.
The Brass Boot is one of the most versitle Moc Toe boots I own, usually they are firmly casual boot due to the bulbous toe box and Christy sole that are common.
The Brass Boot is a work boot, but a fancy work boot. It’s a strange beast but I love mine.
[See my comparison of Red Wing vs. Thursday boots!]
My Favorite Oil Tanned Leather Boots: Red Wing Iron Ranger
- Full grain leather,
- Oil tanned leather
- Thicker leather and more bulbous toe than the Captain
- Hardy, outdoorsy
Even though Red Wing didn’t start producing their heritage line until 2007, the Iron Ranger is a classic men’s heritage boot. These were my second pair of boots and they among my favorite.
They basically took over the oil tanning industry in the US and produce about 6 million linear feet of mostly oil tanned leather every year as their SB Foot Tanning Co.
If you’re looking for a rugged, chunky, casual boot these are perfect. The only downside is a tough break-in, which is due to the thick leather and steel shank.
The leather is great. It’s low maintenance and doesn’t need much treatment and ages very nicely which suites the rugged appearance and outdoorsy aesthetic.
[SHOP THE RED WING IRON RANGER HERE!]
My Favorite Combination Tanned Leather Boot: Oak Street Bootmakers Trench Boot
- Made in America
- Sturdy construction
The last boot I’ll recommend is the Trench Boot from Oak Street Bootmakers. They are one of the most underrated and best boot companies I’ve reviewed because despite making 100% American made boots from US tanneries like Horween, they’re as popular as one would imagine.
Part of that could be the price, $420 bucks isn’t cheap.
So what’s best for your boots? Well, according to Jason Pecarich, owner of luxury heritage menswear boutique Division Road, that depends what you’re looking for.
“Chrome tannages yield flexible, supple and durable leathers which give out of the box comfort while remaining hearty for decades. Vegetable tanned leathers are more natural and full feeling and leave the grain more pronounced, patina more dramatically, and are easy to coax into shapes using heat and moisture, meaning they mold a little more to the foot. Neither is better than the other, they are just different and have different qualities in wearing and how they develop.”
So whichever leather you decide to go with is ultimately up to you.
Vegetable tanned leather vs chrome tanned leather, what's the best?
Neither is objectively better. Chrome tanned is softer, comes in more colors, and can be environmentally friendly if you buy it from a respected tannery. Vegetable tanned leather is durable, old-fashioned, and patinas well.
What is chrome tanned leather?
Chrome tanned leather is a modern way of making leather faster and less expensively using chromium III.
What is vegetable tanned leather?
Vegetable tanned leather is an old fashion way of making leather using vegetable tannins. A lot of people think it's higher quality because its stiff and ages well. It's often more expensive than chrome tannked leather
What is oil tanned leather?
Oil tanned leather is imbued with oils during the tanning process. Oil tanned leather is more rugged and outdoorsy than veg tanned and chrome tanned.
What is combination tanned leather?
Combination tanned leather is leather that's been veg tanned and chrome tanned. This leather is the best of both worlds, offering softer leather that also ages well.