The leather manufacturing process is divided into three fundamental subprocesses: preparatory stages, tanning, and crusting. A further subprocess, finishing, can be added into the leather process sequence, but not all leathers receive finishing.
The preparatory stages are when the hide is prepared for tanning. Preparatory stages may include: soaking, hair removal, liming, deliming, bating, bleaching, and pickling.
Tanning is a process that stabilizes the proteins, particularly collagen, of the raw hide to increase the thermal, chemical and microbiological stability of the hides and skins, making it suitable for a wide variety of end applications. The principal difference between raw and tanned hides is that raw hides dry out to form a hard, inflexible material that, when rewetted, will putrefy, while tanned material dries to a flexible form that does not become putrid when rewetted.
Many tanning methods and materials exist. The typical process sees tanners load the hides into a drum and immerse them in a tank that contains the tanning "liquor". The hides soak while the drum slowly rotates about its axis, and the tanning liquor slowly penetrates through the full thickness of the hide. Once the process achieves even penetration, workers slowly raise the liquor's pH in a process called basification, which fixes the tanning material to the leather. The more tanning material fixed, the higher the leather's hydrothermal stability and shrinkage temperature resistance.
Crusting is a process that thins and lubricates leather. It often includes a coloring operation. Chemicals added during crusting must be fixed in place. Crusting culminates with a drying and softening operation, and may include splitting, shaving, dyeing, whitening or other methods.
For some leathers, tanners apply a surface coating, called "finishing". Finishing operations can include oiling, brushing, buffing, coating, polishing, embossing, glazing, or tumbling, among others.
Leather can be oiled to improve its water resistance. This currying process after tanning supplements the natural oils remaining in the leather itself, which can be washed out through repeated exposure to water. Frequent oiling of leather, with mink oil, , or a similar material keeps it supple and improves its lifespan dramatically.
Tanning processes largely differ in which chemicals are used in the tanning liquor. Some common types include:
- Vegetable-tanned leather is tanned using tannins extracted from vegetable matter, such as tree bark prepared in bark mills. It is the oldest known method. It is supple and light brown in color, with the exact shade depending on the mix of materials and the color of the skin. The color tan derives its name from the appearance of undyed vegetable-tanned leather. Vegetable-tanned leather is not stable in water; it tends to discolor, and if left to soak and then dry, it shrinks and becomes harder. This is a feature of oak-bark-tanned leather that is exploited in traditional shoemaking. In hot water, it shrinks drastically and partly congeals, becoming rigid and eventually brittle. Boiled leather is an example of this, where the leather has been hardened by being immersed in hot water, or in boiled wax or similar substances. Historically, it was occasionally used as armor after hardening, and it has also been used for book binding.
- Chrome-tanned leather, invented in 1858, is tanned using chromium sulfate and other chromium salts . It is also known as "wet blue" for the pale blue color of the undyed leather. The chrome tanning method usually takes approximately one day to complete, making it best suited for large-scale industrial use. This is the most common method in modern use. It is more supple and pliable than vegetable-tanned leather and does not discolor or lose shape as drastically in water as vegetable-tanned. However, there are environmental concerns with this tanning method, as chromium is a heavy metal.
- Aldehyde-tanned leather is tanned using glutaraldehyde or oxazolidine compounds. It is referred to as "wet white" due to its pale cream color. It is the main type of "chrome-free" leather, often seen in shoes for infants and automobiles. Formaldehyde has been used for tanning in the past; it is being phased out due to danger to workers and sensitivity of many people to formaldehyde.
- Chamois leather is a form of aldehyde tanning that produces a porous and highly water-absorbent leather. Chamois leather is made using marine oils (traditionally cod oil) that oxidize to produce the aldehydes that tan the leather.
- Brain tanned leathers are made by a labor-intensive process that uses emulsified oils, often those of animal brains such as deer, cattle, and buffalo. They are known for their exceptional softness and washability.
- Alum leather is transformed using aluminium salts mixed with a variety of binders and protein sources, such as flour and egg yolk. Alum leather is not actually tanned; rather the process is called "tawing", and the resulting material reverts to rawhide if soaked in water long enough to remove the alum salts.