There are quite a lot of boots out there on the market and as such, there are quite a lot of different leathers used for them. In this article, I wanted to go over some of the most common types of leathers used for making our favorite footwear. If you are fairly new to the boot world, this should hopefully give you some good starting knowledge to build on and if you are already an expert, it will give you an insight into how I view different boot leathers, so let’s get started!
Chrome or combination tanned: Chrome or combination tanned leather is the most common type of leather today. It involves using chromium salts to tan the leather which is much quicker and less environmentally friendly than vegetable tanning. Combination tanned leather involves using a chrome tanned base with a vegetable re-tannage, but I have grouped them together due to the fact that both involve using chromium salts.
Chrome tanned leather from Red Wing
Chrome tanned leather can be tanned in as little as a day and the use of chemicals results in a very unnatural looking blue color when the leather is initially tanned. Additionally, chrome tanned leather is softer than vegetable tanned leather. This type of leather is generally characterized by a consistent and even color that does not age as drastically as its vegetable tanned counterpart. It is generally considered to be more resistant to water and stains than vegetable tanned leather is. Finally, chrome tanned leather generally does not show as much grain or fiber as vegetable tanned leather does in general.
In my personal experience, chrome and combination tanned leather is extremely common in dress shoes, which often prefer a more consistent color that is more resistant to the elements and aging. It can be made into some very beautiful shades of leather. For example, I believe the color my Carmina Chelsea boots and my Red Wing Irish Setter Moc Toes have very beautiful shades that are both achieved with chrome tanning.
On the downside, both of these leathers are very flat and consistent in terms of color in general. There is little to no complexity in the grain and the colors do not have very much depth to them. Finally, I personally find the lesser aging ability of chrome tanned leather to be a major negative.
Chromexcel: This is a type of combination tanned leather made by Horween tannery in Chicago, Illinois. Perhaps the most famous chrome tanned leather in the world, Chromexcel is distinguished to a degree from other chrome and combination tanned leathers by the amount of oils, waxes, and grease that is stuffed into it. As a result, this leather has a pull up effect, meaning that the leather color changes when pulled on as the waxes and oils are shifted. Chromexcel is also known for looking better as it ages, something that distinguishes it from many other chrome and combination tanned leathers.
Natural Chromexcel leather on my John Lofgren engineers
This is a very common and readily available leather. If it is one that you like, you will have no trouble finding a pair of boots made out of it. It is so popular in fact, that the very next article will be devoted to Chromexcel.
Vegetable tanned leather: Vegetable tanning is the more traditional way that leather is tanned and utilizes natural vegetable tannins that are derived from plants such as oak and mimosa. This far more friendly to the environment, but does have a couple of downsides. Firstly, it is known to be less water resistant than chrome tanned leather. Secondly, it is usually stiffer than chrome tanned leather, but this is only a downside for some people.
The pluses of vegetable tanned leathers are in my opinion, quite vast in comparison to chrome and combination tanned leathers. Firstly, I personally love the initial stiffness of vegetable tanned leather. It feels more substantial and this leads to more pleasing creases in the leather as it ages. Secondly, the depth of color is vastly superior with vegetable tanned leathers when compared to chrome tanned leather. There is a richness that I have yet to see a chrome tanned leather replicate.
Vegetable tanned cowhide by Badalassi Carlo as seen on White Kloud boots
If it matters to you, it smells a lot better than chrome tanned leather. Vegetable tanned leather is what people think of when they think of a beautiful leather smell. Finally, it ages much more noticeably and gracefully than chrome tanned leathers. With vegetable tanned leathers, the leathers often darken and become even more deep and rich as they age. Marks and scuffs look beautiful and with proper care, vegetable tanned leather only looks better over time.
Vegetable tanned horsebutt from Italy seen on my Clinch boots
Additionally, I have gotten many of my vegetable tanned leathers wet with no ill effects other than a slight darkening of the leather, so I would argue that they handle water fairly well. However, this may depend on the specific leather and some veg-tanned leathers may react poorly in rain.
Now that we have covered different tanning methods, we will look into different types of leather that can be tanned in either way.
This is the standard skin used for leather. It gets its name because it is made from the hides of cows. I don’t know why I had to explain that, but for some reason I felt as though it was important. Cows are quite common and therefore their leather is easily obtained and fairly inexpensive. It is generally characterized by a fairly consistent, even grain that can at times look a little pebbly, being strong and durable, but not as durable as many other leathers, and being sort of in the middle overall when it comes to stiffness.
Cowhide on my Red Wings
In my view, cowhide is the standard not only in how often it is used, but also in its characteristics. In Super Smash Brothers, cowhide would be Mario.* In terms of cars, cowhide is a Toyota Camry. Cowhide is what Iowa is to the United States and Belgium is to Europe. It is decently good at everything, and great at nothing. The effect of this is that a lot of mediocre leathers are made out of cowhide, but it also means that some incredible leathers are made from it as well. Cowhide is the best example of how much the tannery matters with leather.
Calfskin is simply cowhide that is taken from younger cows. In general, it is known to be more even in grain, smoother, and softer than cowhide or steerhide. It does not tend to have the slightly pebbly texture that cowhide can develop. As a result, it is most often used by dress shoe and boot makers, though it has been used by brands such as Viberg and Trickers for slightly more rugged boots. There is debate about the durability of calfskin. Some have said that it has more strength per ounce vs. cowhide because the fibers are denser due to the younger age of the animal.
Very smooth calfskin on my Carmina Chelsea boots
However, calfskin is generally much thinner than cowhide or steerhide so in practical terms, it is not going to be as robust as them. This does not mean that it needs to be avoided by any means. In my view, it can be made into some very beautiful leathers. If you are looking for boots to work in or beat up, this is likely not your leather. If you want a slightly dressier alternative to cowhide, this may just be your ticket.
Suede: This leather is made by splitting the hide and brushing it up into a soft, almost velvet-esque texture. Suede can be absolutely gorgeous and is generally more casual than regular calfskin shoes and boots in the dress shoe world while in the work wear and heritage menswear world, it is considered more dressy and formal. However, because it is split grain and due to the texture, suede can be a very delicate leather. It does not react well to water, dirt, or stains, and is generally not considered to be a leather that looks better with excessive wear or patina.
Beautiful suede texture on my other pair of Carmina Chelsea boots
Like calfskin, this is usually used by dress shoe and boot makers, but it has been used in more work or rugged style boots. For certain occasions and styles, this is a leather that I personally really love. My suede Chelsea boots from Carmina receive the most compliments from women.** Suede lends itself very well to classic casual looks such as wearing chinos with a tucked in button up shirt.
Roughout: Roughout is often confused with suede, but is different in that it is a full grain leather. Simply put, roughout is just a normal leather that is turned inside out. If you have a regular, smoothout pair of boots that is unlined, you will feel the suede-like texture on the inside and roughout is using that side of the leather on the outside. This leather is meant to be beat up. It is essentially suede’s bad ass older brother that like suede, technically does not respond well to water, stains, and blemishes. However, because of its rougher appearance and history as a military leather, people consider it to look incredible when put through the ringer.
Roughout patina – Image via Red Wing
With that said, I have seen beat up suede boots that look absolutely amazing too and think that both roughout and suede can look incredible with a lot of patina. The difference is that the boots that suede is used on (Chelsea boots, Jodhpur boots, Derby-style boots) are not work wear boots in general. Both of these textured leathers are a great change up from more common smooth leathers.
Waxed Flesh: Put wax on roughout and you have waxed flesh. From a distance, this unique leather can appear to be a normal smooth leather, but upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that it is something different. Being that it is simply roughout with a smooth coating of wax applied to it, the aging of this leather is very beautiful and unique.
Olive waxed flesh on my Wesco x Standard and Strange knuckle dragger engineers
In fact, as far as I can tell, it is specifically used these days just because it ages beautifully and is durable. When scuffed, the wax can rub off and the textured hairs of the leather shift and the area affected tends to look much lighter than everything around it. It is almost like a much more textured, extreme version of a pull up leather. Generally tough and durable, this is one that I highly recommend if you love patina.
Hand painted leather: A little rarer than the other types listed, this is leather that is tanned and then painted by hand. In the dress shoe world, this is known as crust leather and is used often by very high end makers such as St. Crispin’s. This type of leather not only looks beautiful due to the fact that the hand painting inherently makes the color less even than a leather that is simply dyed whatever color it is supposed to be, but it also makes the aging quite unique.
Beautiful hand painted vegetable tanned leather on my Moto boots
These Clinch boots used a chrome tanned leather that was then hand painted
Hand painted leathers are either painted over an already dyed leather or are more of a tea core style in which the underside is a natural color and aging causes the painted color on top to chip away and expose the lighter color underneath, resulting in a very unique aging process. This is personally one of my favorite types of leather due to the fact that it looks very beautiful and special both when it is brand new and as it ages.
Horsehide: Horsehide is unique from cowhide in several ways. Firstly, it is generally considered to have a stronger tensile strength than cowhide, though it also usually is thinner. This leather does tend to feel stiffer than most cowhides, especially when vegetable tanned. Additionally, horsehide has a much larger and uneven grain than cowhide. This means that its aging is quite different and many people prize horsehide for the way its grain develops and ages over time.
Horsehide is my favorite leather for boots. The grain is more pleasing than cowhide to me overall and I think it looks more interesting as it ages due its unique grain and stiffness, but that isn’t to say all horsehides are created equal. For example, there are cowhides that I like more than most horsehides on the market. Regardless, it is definitely a beautiful hide that is well suited to aging over time while being quite durable.
Shell Cordovan: For many, this is the king of leathers. It is actually taken from the shell membrane of the horse rump. This small amount of leather present on each horse is responsible for the price as is the time it takes to tan it properly. The two main tanneries that produce this famous vegetable tanned leather are Horween and Shinki, with Horween being the most popular in the west. However, there are Italian tanneries that produce it and if I am not mistaken, a British tannery or two have started producing this leather as well.
Shell Cordovan leather- Image via The Shoe Mart
Because it is a membrane, shell cordovan does not crease the way leather does and instead, it folds in a very unique way. It is known to be highly durable and have a particular look to it that is quite shiny and smooth. I have heard quite a lot of different reports on whether or not it takes water well with some calling it highly water resistant and others pointing out that it has a very unpleasant bubbling effect when rain drops assault it.
Personally, I am not a fan of this leather. To me, it looks quite cheap and akin to plastic when brand new, and the lack of grain means that it does not age as beautifully to my eye. With that said, I think it works really well for wallets and keep in mind that a lot of people love it for shoes and boots, so you may love it as well.
There are many other unique leathers around such as kudu, kangaroo, deerskin, reindeer, alligator, crocodile, elephant, bullhide, and more that are all used for boots, but I wanted to give a general overview of the leathers that you will run into the most often on the market. There are a massive amount of incredible leathers out there and you are bound to find several that you love. For boots, my personal three favorites are my hand painted vegetable tanned Japanese cowhide on my Motor boots, the Badalassi Carlo vegetable tanned leather on my White Kloud boots, and the Italian vegetable tanned horsebutt leather on my Clinch engineer boots. Notice that all of these leathers are vegetable tanned, showing that I definitely have a certain type of preference with leather. The more leathers you see and own, the more you will develop your own preferences. Your tastes will age and develop just like a good leather does.
*Super Smash Brothers Melee is an amazing game and esport if you did not already know that. Just thought you should know. If you have ever heard of the term “wombo combo,” this comes from Super Smash Brothers Melee esports. Go watch this match to see why I bothered to talk about this in my article about leather.
**My engineer boots receive the most compliments from men