What Is Vegetable Tanned Leather and is it Superior in Quality?

by Galen Leather March 31, 2019 3 Comments

What is Vegetable Tanned Leather and is it Superior in Quality?

Everything You Need to Know About Vegetable-Tanned Leather

What is Vegetable Tanned Leather?

Vegetable-tanned leather is made using a special process that harnesses the power of natural tannins. These are found in organic materials to add a unique look and feel to the animal hide. We love using this kind of leather in our range, including for our popular leather journals and leather gifts.

While the names may sound similar, vegetable-tanned leather is not to be confused with vegan leather, which is not a real leather product at all.

To better understand how vegetable-tanned leather differs from other types of leather products, it’s important to know how it’s created. So we're going to dig deep into the leather tanning process.

The Leather Tanning Process— A Simple Primer

Like any leather product, the process behind creating vegetable-tanned leather begins immediately after an animal is slaughtered. The “green” or new hide is salted to preserve it and then hung in a structure called a beam-house.

From there, the hide is moved to a liming pit where it is immersed in a natural chemical substance called lime to remove the hair from the hides through dissolution.

Hides are then placed in a vat containing tannin — in this case, natural tree bark or other organic materials. This soaking process helps to dehydrate the leather, contributing to softness and a nice hand feel.

The vegetable tanning process is a long and artisanal one, taking up to two months to complete, which is why leather is more commonly tanned with minerals like chromium.


Why Vegetable-Tanned Leather is Preferred

While chromium or chrome-tanned leather is cheaper to produce, and the colors stay constant for longer, vegetable-tanned leather has the longevity and beauty only an artisanally-crafted product can sustain.

vegetable tanned chrome tanned leather vs.

Source : Buckle Guy

Chrome-tanned leather often has its edges treated with acrylic varnish, causing it to crack, peel, and split after just a few years. In addition, the mineral chromium is a heavy metal and as such is quite toxic to the environment as well as to the people processing it.

The long, slow traditional techniques used to process the hides for vegetable-tanned leather means that vegetable-tanned leather goods continue to soften and develop a beautiful patina as they age.

For items made from vegetable tanned leather include saddles, holsters, belts, wallets, journal covers, bags, shoes, and purses, this means they will become even more comfortable the longer you use them. The edges of vegetable-tanned leathers are burnished or turned, meaning this leather is created to last for decades. Usually, this kind of leather is stiff in the beginning but gets more supple with time and use. 

Also, vegetable-tanned leather has that distinctive “leather” aroma, rather than the typical chemical odor of chromium-tanned goods. The fragrance is sweet, woody, and rich.

Also, the natural leather tanning process leaves the leather with unique variations in shade and color.

The original fibers of the animal’s hide can easily be seen, adding to its character. A piece of vegetable-tanned leather is truly a one-of-a-kind product.

Finally, owing to its artisanal nature, the vegetable tanning process produces some of the sturdiest, most durable leathers available. It’s a much less pliable product than chromium-tanned leather, so it’s used where stiffness can be an asset, such as saddlery, holsters, wallets, journals, travelers notebooks, and handbags. Due to the artisanal nature of the tanning process, Vegetable-tanned leather is more expensive than chrome leather. It’s usually used for high-end handmade leather goods.

However, it does get wonderfully soft and pliant over time, so many manufacturers create shoes, bags, belts, and other long-lived products using this material.

While this method of tanning does use quite a bit of water, it does not pollute the environment the way the chromium-based leather tanning process does. There is also less machinery, and so less electricity, involved with the vegetable tanning process.

Vegetable Tanneed - Chrome Tanned Leather Comparison

Chrome Tanning

Vegetable Tanning

% of leathers




Typically have a chemical smell

Aromatic woody smell


Softer than vegetable tanned leather

Can be a bit stiff when first tanned, but softness will increase with time 


Chemicals, Acids

Natural like tree bark



Environmentally Friendly


1-2 Days

40-60 Days


Mass Produced

Requires skilled craftsman





The look of the leather is not very natural

Will have a rich patina that gets better with  use


Vegetable Tanning Process

Source : Sepiciler

Undyed Vegetable Tanned Leather Aging

Leather Aging

Source : il Bisonte

When you get your brand new undyed vegetable-tanned leather good, it looks a natural color. The hide is effectively naked and so will age and darken with the sun just like your own skin. Aging will continue to darken your leather. Normal wear will darken the leather as air, light, the oils of your skin, and other environmental factors do their work, eventually developing a rich color and patina. Sun exposure, daily handling, water, and conditioning give natural vegetable tanned leather a rustic look over time. Learn how to condition leather here.

vegetable tanned leather patina
Source : Paper Republic

The aging process of leather takes time. After a while, you’ll be rewarded with a gorgeous patina that makes your product one-of-a-kind. Patina development depends on what type of product you have and how you use it – a small, natural vegetable tanned leather wallet may age much more quickly than a large leather bag that isn’t used and handled as much. You can speed up the aging process if you’re impatient to see results. Using a natural leather balm or more exposure to the sun will darken your leather.

Caring for Your Vegetable-Tanned Leather

caring vegetable tanned leather

 Old Swiss Army Bag - Before and after Galen Leather Balm

Because vegetable-tanned leather is more expensive than chrome-tanned leather, you’ll want to take good care of it to get the most extended life from your leather product.

Here are a few tips to keep your artisanal leather looking its best:

  • Don’t get it wet, particularly in the first month
  • Keep your leather away from heat sources and never blow-dry it
  • Don’t use brushes with synthetic bristles to clean it — only natural bristles should be used
  • Use oil or conditioner made specifically for leather weekly if the item is used frequently
  • Wax occasionally to keep it in the best condition

With proper care, you can expect to get years of use from your vegetable-tanned leather goods.

Vegetable-Tanned Leather Tanneries

Below you can find a list of the well know vegetable-tanned leather tanneries in the World.


Auburn - KY United States - auburnleather.com
Hermann Oak - MO United States - hermannoakleather.com
Horween - IL United States - horween.com
Lucy Saffiano - United States
Marbella - Spain
Rawlings Tennessee Tanning Co. TN United States tntanningcompany.com
Rocado Shell Cordovan - Toscana Italy cordovan.co
S.B. Foot Tanning Co. - MN United States - sbfoot.com
Sepici Leather- Izmir Turkey - sepici.com.tr
Tasman - ME United States - tasmanusa.com
OA Leather Supply - CA - Online Leather Supplier
Wickett & Craig - PA United States - wickett-craig.com

Loving— and Living With — Vegetable-Tanned Leather

vegetable tanned leather hide

If you want a gorgeous leather product you know will provide years of beauty and usefulness, you should consider purchasing a product that’s been lovingly created from fine, high-quality vegetable-tanned leather.

This leather is kind to the environment, doesn’t expose its creators to toxic substances, and requires a level of craftsmanship that is rarely seen in today’s world of fast-paced manufacturing by machine.

Vegetable-tanned leather represents the epitome of quality and beauty and is created to provide a lifetime of use. Discerning buyers understand the artistry and creativity that goes into creating leather of this quality.

Best of all, products created with vegetable-tanned leather are often classics in and of themselves and make beautiful heirlooms to be passed — and treasured — from generation to generation.



+How to identify vegetable tanned leather?
Here are some simple tips for identifying the tanning method used for a sample of leather.
Wet a piece and then stamp a mark into it. If the mark has a crisp impression afterward, the leather is vegetable tanned. If the impression is just discernable, it is chrome tanned. An easy way to test whether leather is 100% vegetable tanned is to drop a small strip of the leather into boiling water (be careful). If it is 100% vegetable tanned it will instantly shrink and curl up like a worm. If it doesn't other tanning agents have been used in tanning the leather. Chrome tanned, undyed leather is a pearl grey with a faintly bluish tint. Dyed chrome tanned leather often retains a grey-blue or white center core. Beware of chrome tanned leather for knife sheaths - it can corrode the metals.
+How to shape vegetable tanned leather?
Since leather is a naturally pliable substance, it is possible to shape and mould it into a very wide variety of forms. Leather moulding projects can be quite simple or extremely advanced, but in all cases is done using the same very basic process. The first step for any leather moulding project is soaking the leather in hot water to make it easier to shape and more capable of holding its shape. After you remove the leather from the water, immediately start moulding it into the basic shape you want. Once the leather is in the correct shape, you'll need to let it sit overnight to fully dry and harden to whatever extent it will.
+Is vegetable tanned leather vegan?
No. Vegan leather is a petroleum-based textile popularly known as the polyurethane or PVC.
+Is vegetable tanned leather full grain?
Exactly, you can find vegetable tanned leather in full grain and top grain grades. You can read our past blog post about leather grades.
+How does vegetable tanned leather age?
Sun exposure, daily handling, water, and conditioning give natural vegetable tanned leather a rustic look over time.
+Can vegetable tanned leather get wet?
If leather gets wet, dry with a paper towel or cloth, and let it air dry. After getting wet, leather may start to grow fungus if in a high humidity environment.
+Can you dye / color vegetable tanned leather?
Sure. With special leather dyes produced for this kind of leather, you can dye it to any color.
+What Is vegetable tanned leather made of?
Mostly from cow hides.
+What is semi vegetable tanned leather?
It is a kind of leather tanning with mixed Chrome and Vegetable tanning methods.
+How to seal vegetable tanned leather?
Seal with brass and metal molds. Both hot and cold embossing. This is the traditional way for the best results. Hot embossing burns and changes the color of the leather.
+How to waterproof vegetable tanned leather?
For waterproofing leather, we would suggest something like Galen Leather Balm. As it says on the can, it waterproofs, restores, and protects. For better waterproofing, do it twice. One thing to note is that you will never be able to get your bag 100% waterproof, but you can still get it resistant to most conditions.
+How to soften / smooth vegetable tanned leather?
The best solution for softening is to apply natural olive and neastfoot oil.
+How to darken vegetable tanned leather?
Just apply a kind of natural oil, like olive oil or neatsfoot oil. Also sun exposure, water, and conditioning darkens the leather over time.
+How to treat / condition / protect /polish vegetable tanned leather?
For conditioning the leather, you can use natural oils and besswax. Also we would suggest something like Galen Leather Balm. As it says on the can, it waterproofs, restores, and protects.
+How to stiffen vegetable tanned leather?
Water. Soak leather in hot water and submerge with the assistance of some heavy items on the leather overnight. When dried completely, the leather will be more stiff.

Galen Leather
Galen Leather


3 Responses


November 01, 2021

To say the fact I am very stunned at what you informed. You discuss plenty of exciting details, nice and outstanding style you have got here. It’s certainly one of the most useful things on this subject I’ve ever study.

Maes & Hills
Maes & Hills

March 30, 2020

Is vegetable tanned leather the same like vegan type leather? I have found this brand ‘Socha’ on this website https://maeshillscollection.com/de/ and was wondering about the differences or similarities.

Kind regards,


November 28, 2019

Do you have any products that would darken the lighter spots on these? They are new Bed Stu vegetable tanned distressed boots. I don’t like the super light spots on the ankle and crease of the foot. Is there anything I can put on it to try and blend it with the rest of the boot. Don’t care if the whole boot gets darker. Won’t let me add a picture

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