In the last article, which you can read here, I stated that Chromexcel (also called CXL) is probably the most well known chrome tanned leather in the world. In fact, I misspoke. Chromexcel is likely the most well known and recognizable leather by name in the world regardless of tannage. People often refer to it as if it were the standard for leather quality and a myriad of boot brands from some of the least expensive all the way to two of the three best heritage-style boot brands in the world use it. Chromexcel is many people’s favorite leather and it truly has a major following, but is it really all that great?
Let us first set the stage with some facts from Horween themselves. This is a combination tanned leather that is created using an 89 step process that takes 28 working days and goes through all 5 floors of the Horween leather building. I apologize if you have read or heard that exact sentence 15,485 times before, but it is important to state here because this one sentence is responsible for a lot of the hype behind Chromexcel. This sentence has been repeated by many who tout the quality of this specific leather and it makes it seem quite impressive.
Horween Natural Chromexcel – Image via East West Apparel
Being combination tanned, it is first tanned using chromium salts and then given a vegetable re-tan afterward. Horween themselves admit that their chrome tanning process is not very unique, but they do say that what makes Chromexcel special is the proprietary blend of oils, wax, and grease that are hot stuffed into the leather using steam. This results in the famous pull-up effect of Chromexcel, in which the leather becomes lighter in an area that is pinched or pushed on as the many waxes, oils, and greases are shifted around. After this, Chromexcel is given an aniline finish and a coat of Neatsfoot Oil and then is essentially finished.
The waxy, greasy, oily, pull up quality of Chromexcel is much of what gives the leather its reputation. In fact, from what I have seen, the biggest selling point of this leather is how well it ages. Many boot fans will say that Chromexcel takes a beating well and in the view of many, it looks better aged than it does new. There is definitely truth to this from where I am standing. Especially for a chrome tanned leather, Chromexcel does age quite nicely and in many cases, it does look better with age while many chrome tanned leathers look better when shiny and new. Despite this, there are quite a few negative aspects that Chromexcel possesses as well.
The same boots from above with the same leather aged and worn for 3 years
Firstly, it is insanely smooth and has little to no grain visible, even after several years of wear. It does gain character over time as it ages due to the oils and waxes and scuffs it receives, but it does not develop an interesting grain or character in the leather itself. There are many other leathers that share this trait, but at the same time, there are plenty that do have much more interesting grain. Part of this may be down to the tanning process, but part of it is a result of the fact that Chromexcel is technically corrected grain leather. Horween themselves have said that they do shave a little bit off of the top layer. To me, this makes the end result less beautiful and certainly takes away character from the product.
The smoothness of Chromexcel on full display – Image via Rancourt
The second issue with Chromexcel is that there is very little depth to any of the colors. Like the grain, the color is very flat and consistent with very little variation. On top of that, the leather appears rather dull when compared to other leathers on the market. There are even several chrome tanned leathers that have richer colors than Chromexcel offers.
The brown CXL HH on my Role Club engineers has minimal grain or color depth to my eyes
There are exceptions, though. The burgundy/color 8 CXL is consistent, but the color does look very rich and natural Chromexcel starts out a very sickly, ugly grey, but it does develop into a very interesting and beautiful leather with a decent amount of depth and color variation. Also, both the olive and black Chromexcel colors age pretty nicely, though not as dramatically as other leathers. On the other hand, the standard brown CXL is possibly the dullest and most boring leather I have ever owned. I love the work the Brian at Role Club does, but the brown Chromexcel horsehide on my engineers is quite dull, with no depth of color whatsoever to my eye. It is just dark brown. Nothing more. In comparison, my Clinch horsehide engineers have a very deep, nuanced medium brown color that shows more grain, irregularities, and color differences while having a nice sheen to it. This gives it an incredible amount of character that CXL simply does not have.
My Clinch veg tanned HH boots when brand new
They have now gained a darker and much richer color after only 1 year
Look at the color depth, grain, and irregularity on the toes alone
Without question though, the biggest problem that Chromexcel has is that there are other leathers that age much more dramatically and in my opinion, much more beautifully. Even natural CXL, one that is probably most famous for its drastic aging, does not change to the degree that other leathers do, especially other lighter colored vegetable tanned leathers. Because vegetable tanned leathers are tanned with natural materials, they naturally react to the environment around them far more than chrome and combination tanned leathers do. That 28 day process to tan CXL sounds impressive when compared to chrome tanned leathers that can be fully tanned in one day, but some vegetable tanned leathers take much more time to tan than Chromexcel. Shinki Hikaku vegetable tanned horsehide can take up to 6 entire months to tan, over six times the length it takes to complete Chromexcel.
Obviously, “better” is a subjective term here, but in my experienced opinion, there are many leathers that age “better” than Chromexcel does. Purely vegetable tanned leathers do age more than chrome tanned leathers, even Chromexcel. This can be seen in the horsehide on my Clinch engineers, which have darkened beautifully while retaining the character and grain of the leather. This can also be seen in Badalassi Carlo’s cognac cowhide while darkens dramatically over time and becomes an even richer shade of tan/brown than it was when it started. It also exhibits more of the leather’s natural grain over time.
The rich aging of Badalassi leather shown with incredible patina, color change, and development of grain in the leather- Image via Speedway
These issues mean that if you want to buy a pair of boots that looks better with age, there are many other options that in my opinion, would work better than Chromexcel. These include leathers such as Shinki Hikaku horsehide, Badalassi Carlo Minerva, Maryam vegetable tanned leather, the Italian vegetable tanned horsehide that Clinch uses, and even Horween’s own vegetable tanned leathers such as Essex and Dublin. Moto, Mister Freedom, Viberg, Truman, and Rolling Dub Trio also all have different vegetable tanned leathers that I would suggest over Chromexcel for beautifully aged boots.
This is not to say that CXL is a bad leather. However, there are quite a lot of other leathers that have more character than it does as I mentioned above. I own two pairs of Chromexcel boots and if I could have bought them in other leathers I would have. Even after owning both pairs for years, CXL has not warmed on me. In fact, I see more clearly than ever that there are many leathers that I prefer to it. I really wish that brands like John Lofgren and Role Club would expand their leather selections more to use leathers with more character and beauty than CXL offers.
My Badalassi leather White Kloud boots when brand new (already nicer than CXL to me)
The same boots after only 2 months and less than 10 wears- look at the grain that is already developing
If you could not already tell, the answer to the initial question is yes. To me, Chromexcel is very overrated. The fact that I have heard people talk about how it has a great depth of color when there are so many leathers with immensely much more color depth shows just how inflated Chromexcel’s reputation is. It is not bad, but it is not as special as its reputation would have you believe.
This article was not written to disparage CXL, but instead to encourage people to look at other leathers that I believe are not as talked about as they deserve to be given their quality. If you like or love Chromexcel, that’s great and you have quite a lot of choice because so many boot makers use it. It does age nicely, especially for a chrome tanned leather and the pull up effect can look pretty cool. If you prefer the way that it ages to all other leathers, then I would genuinely be interested to hear why and would encourage you to share this with me.
However, I personally believe that there are many other leathers out there that have more character, beauty, and aging potential within them that deserve more attention and I want to encourage people to look beyond CXL to see the beauty of different leathers, especially the magic that is vegetable tanned leather. Below are several examples of leathers that I think should be looked at instead of CXL.
Italian vegetable tanned horsehide from Clinch by Brass Tokyo: Brass’ Website
Hand painted vegetable tanned cowhide from Moto: See the boots here
Shinki Hikaku vegetable tanned horsehide from Viberg: Sold out, but could return here
Images via Rivet and Hide
Vegetable tanned tan horsehide from Viberg: Viberg’s WebsiteImage via Viberg
Vegetable tanned horsehide from Maryam on Truman boots: Truman’s Website
Image via Truman
Image via Speedway
Attractions Horsehide engineer boots: Several models available here
Image via Attractions
Mister Freedom Road Champs: Shown here, but you are better off emailing to get on the wait list by emailing them at firstname.lastname@example.org
Image via Mister Freedom
Vegetable tanned horsebutt boots from Rolling Dub Trio: Available here
Image via Masuya