Hermann Oak Leather Company – About the Harness Line of Leather

The Hermann Oak Leather Company provided BestLeather.org with the opportunity of reviewing a few different lines of their leather.  We’ve reported on their Latigo line of leather as well as their English Bridle line of leather in previous articles.  The purpose in reviewing some of their different leathers was to showcase and highlight the advantages and uses of each line and where their greatest strengths lie.

As with all of Hermann Oak’s leather, their Harness line is top notch for its category.  It is tanned used decades old methods by one of the oldest tanneries in the United States.  It is used by leather shops throughout the United States and beyond.  Possibly the greatest attribute of Hermann Oak’s Harness leather is its weather resistance.  More on that below.

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About Hermann Oak

The Hermann Oak Leather Company was established in 1881 in order to handle the local harness trade and to supply the wagon trains of settlers traveling west along the Lewis and Clark trails.  As the company grew, they began to supply the US military with various leather needs for both World Wars, and also began to establish a reputation for producing some of the finest vegetable tanned leathers available.  Hermann Oak has become renowned for supplying world class vegetable tanned leather for not just the equine industry, but for consumer goods as well.  Their experience has resulted in the creating of a line of leathers that is prized by craftsman the world over.

A visit to my local Tandy Leather store testifies to this.  A conversation with one of their employees led to her describing how Hermann Oak’s leather was far superior to the other brands they carried.  Her particular skill was leather carving and she described how carving with Hermann Oak leather was like carving into butter.  She was a raving fan. Gfeller Casemakers in Meridian, Idaho uses only Hermann Oak leather for different purposes, but for the same reasons: it’s the best.

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Benefits of Vegetable Tanned Leather

Vegetable tanned leather is the age old process of tanning leather using tree bark and other organic materials.  Vegetable tanning takes significantly longer (months versus days) to fully tan leather than the much more common Chrome tanning.  The result is a product that is stiffer, arguably more durable, acts more as an insulator, has the ability to be molded, has the ability to be burnished, and develops a patina.  To be sure, chrome tanned leather has its place in the leather world and has some advantages (lower cost, more pliable, faster tanning times), but vegetable tanned leather is the veritable cream that rises to the top.

Oil Content

In discussing the differences of Hermann Oak’s Latigo, English Bridle, and Harness leathers, the main difference between the three is oil content.  English Bridle has the least amount of oil.  This is evident when working with the leather as it has a slightly drier feel.  It also needs treatment to make it more weather resistant.  Their Latigo line has slightly more oil, which once again is evident in the working of the leather.  The reason for the differing oil content is simply purpose.  Latigo was traditionally used as strap leather (i.e. strapping the saddle to the horse) and therefore needed to be slightly more weather resistant than English Bridle, which is obviously traditionally used in bridle making.

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Harness leather is unique in that it is meant to be the most weather resistant because traditionally Harness came into closer proximity to horse sweat.  As such, it is stuffed with additional waxes and tallows that imbue the leather with its weather resistant property.  The result is a leather that is a little heavier, but which also has a slightly softer feel on the exterior.  Of the three types of leather that Hermann Oak provided BestLeather, Harness was my favorite to work with.  I loved the sturdiness of the leather and the more supple feel.  I also found the Harness leather was also easier to cut than the other two.

I used the Harness leather in combination with Hermann Oak’s English Bridle leather to make a briefcase.  The harness leather in particular was used for the two side panels and for the handle strap.  The contrasting colors provided some visual appeal to the bag, but the contrasting leathers also added a different feel.  The Harness leather is very stiff, especially at the twelve to fourteen ounce weight of the leather, but it was workable and the finish looked great.  The handle was made by sewing two strips of leather together, which resulted in a rock hard handle.

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BestLeather Conclusion

The simple fact that Hermann Oak has been tanning leather since 1881 and has a very loyal following among leather craftsman across the United States and beyond is a testament to the high quality of their leather.  Our personal experience with their leather was one of enjoyment and appreciation for a high quality product.  The items we made were admired by family and friends who loved the stout nature, but soft feel of the leather.  The Harness leather in particular was a joy to cut, bend and piece together.  Hermann Oak’s Harness leather is an excellent choice for a wide range of leather projects.

About the Hermann Oak English Bridle Line of Leather

The Hermann Oak Leather Company is one of the premier commercial tanneries remaining in the United States.  Established in 1881 by Louis Charles Hermann to provide harness leather to wagon trains and settlers traveling west, Hermann Oak has maintained a tradition of producing high quality vegetable tanned leather.  Businesses tend to flourish when a high quality product is provided at a fair price and Hermann Oak is no exception.  As the company grew, Fred Hermann Sr. contracted with the US military to provide leather for our soldiers in both world wars.  The company segued into more consumer based products after World War II with the help of Fred Jr. and Hermann Oak today is captained by Shep Hermann, who is one of the most gracious business men I have had the opportunity of speaking to.

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Shep gladly provided several hides for Best Leather to review and work with.  We posted our first review on their Sierra Latigo line of leather several months ago, and in this review, we’ll look at their English Bridle line of leather.  We will also be looking at their Harness leather in a future review.

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Hermann Oak specializes in vegetable tanned leather.  With the vast majority of leather being chrome tanned, vegetable tanning is almost becoming a lost art form.  Hermann Oak is keeping this tradition of tanning leather using tree barks and other natural ingredients alive and well.  The benefits of a vegetable tanned hide are many and varied.  Vegetable tanned leather takes a patina, whereas chrome tanned leather does not.  Patina is what gives high quality leather its distinctive look and what makes a bag or wallet look better with age.

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Another significant benefit in our more environmentally conscious world is that vegetable tanning is significantly more eco friendly than chrome tanning, and it also results in a product that is moldable, than you can carve and make beautiful patterns in, and that has a slightly stiffer hand.  Vegetable tanned leather also absorbs moisture better which allows the dye color to more fully saturate the leather and form a tighter chemical bond.  Chrome tanned leather is essentially painted or pigmented with color, resulting in a product that has less color saturation.

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For this review, we took the English Bridle hide that Hermann Oak sent us and crafted a large bag (approximately 16″ Wide by 12″ High by 8″ Deep) to show some of the properties and beauties of this leather.  The leather provided was thick, approximately 9 ounces so, and was a pleasure to work with.  Vegetable tanned leather is stiffer than chrome tanned leather, but I found this a benefit when working on this bag.  Adding a slight burnish to some of the edges was a breeze and punching holes by hand and weaving the waxed polyester thread through them was a snap with the firm leather.

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The chestnut color that Hermann Oak uses is beautiful as well.  It has an earthy tone and marries well with the natural brown color on exposed edges of the leather.  You can also get Hermann Oak’s English Bridle leather in black, British brown or havana.  Most of Hermann Oak’s leathers are not struck through, meaning that the dyes are not impregnated to the middle of the leather.  This can be an issue to some consumer good producers, but many bag makers will hand dye or hand paint the edges of the leather to give it a more finished look.  This is a small tradeoff for using a thicker, finer, and more substantial leather that is bound to outlast most people.  I found that this step was unnecessary with the chestnut color for our project, especially when you burnish the edges, with the finished product looking handsome.


English Bridle leather has a characteristic smooth finish with a hint of a waxy feel.  As the name implies, the leather was originally made for horse bridles and as a result, did not need to contain a significant amount of wax to perform effectively.  Unlike harness leather, which is impregnated with more wax to better withstand the elements, English Bridle has slightly less wax, which still helps it to be weather resistant, but is a little drier.  Their Latigo line is slightly drier still, which is characteristic of Latigo in general.

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The underside of the English Bridle hide is also quite smooth, not nearly as much as the finished outer side of course, but smooth enough that I felt adding a liner to the bag was not necessary.  Unlike certain leathers that fray or have a lot of loose fibers on the underside, this is not the case with Hermann Oaks English Bridle, which made for a nice finish on the interior of this bag.

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You can order directly through Hermann Oak if you have a large enough order (typically five sides or more), or for smaller orders you can order through one of their distributors, such as Weaver Leather or Tandy.  Their customer service is excellent and they have a high knowledge of their leather and the leather industry in general.  Shep Hermann himself leads the effort of being leathercated, and takes pride in knowing and understanding the history of leather, being current on new technologies and practices, but still maintaining the art and craft of days gone by.

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The Hermann Oak Leather Company produces some of the finest vegetable tanned leather in the world.  Period.  Their English Bridle line of leather is smooth, has a slight waxy finish to it, is substantial in feel and is excellent to work with.  And it is beautiful to boot.  A bag was produced from their English Bridle leather that will outlast the bag’s craftsman, but that hopefully his sons will use on many adventures of their own.  If you are in the market for some exceptional veg tanned leather, look no further than Hermann Oak.

The Distance – An Article On The Horween Leather Company

A website recently came to my attention that writes an in depth article every month on companies older than 25 years.  Called TheDistance.com, the site has just two articles published so far, but the very first was on the Horween Leather Company.

It is an excellent article that explores why Horween has thrived in an ever changing environment by being committed to old fashioned ideals and continuing to provide the highest quality products.  For any lover of leather or business, it is a very interesting read.  You can do so by clicking this link.

We have also done interviews with Horween on their Shell Cordovan and Chromexcel lines of leather.

Happy reading.


About The Hermann Oak Leather Company

The Hermann Oak Leather Company was founded in 1881 by Louis Charles Hermann to supply the settlers and wagon trains headed west.  The company grew over the years and became a supplier of leather for US soldiers in both World Wars, and countless artisans and craftsman since.

Since its inception, the company has been committed to producing the highest quality vegetable tanned leathers for a variety of purposes.  Today, the company is actively managed by Shep Hermann, one of the nicest guys you could talk to, who is committed to continuing the company’s traditional methods of tanning, but implementing new technologies and systems where appropriate.  When speaking to Shep about his company, it quickly became obvious that he has a passion for quality leather and continuing Hermann Oak’s storied traditions.  He is extremely knowledgeable and is happy to share that knowledge.


In my conversation with Shep, he likened vegetable tanned leather to high quality furniture.  When building furniture out of high quality wood, like mahogany or walnut, you do not paint the wood after building the furniture; you stain it.  Stain is comprised of smaller molecules that actually adhere to the wood.  The stain allows you to see and appreciate the fine grains and beautiful natural appearance of the underlying wood.


Similarly, with vegetable tanned leather, the leather is tanned using an age old tanning process with organic tree barks.  The underlying tone of the leather is a rich natural brown, like wood, and this tanning process allows you to appreciate the underlying beauty of the leather.  This is especially true when using full grain leather, which Hermann Oak supplies.  Most leathers were vegetable tanned like this prior to 1900.  Hermann Oak’s vegetable tanned leather is then finished in the old fashioned way using analine dyes, oils, and waxes.  Like staining wood, this does not cover up the underlying color of the leather.

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Chrome tanned leather, on the other hand, has an underlying blue/gray appearance and is finished with pigments (which is basically paint).  These pigments are comprised of larger molecules that are basically glued to the leather.  This covers the leather, so that you cannot see what is underneath.  This process is similar to painting a pine cabinet. What is underneath is different than what you see on the outside.  Chrome tanned leather certainly has its place, like painted pine furniture does, but that place is not with high quality leather products.  Hermann Oak leather is more like a beautiful mahogany sideboard.  Even though the wood is highly finished, you still can see and appreciate the beautiful underlying wood grains.  Many of the leather goods we have reviewed in past articles are made from Hermann Oak leather, a testament to a high quality product.


Shep pointed out a few other things that were interesting about their vegetable tanned leather:

1. Vegetable tanned leather has more body (firmness).  It is more rich and more rigid.  This is a result of the process of tanning leather with natural tree barks.  Chrome tanned leather is softer and much more pliable.

2. Hermann Oak’s vegetable tanned leather is always cool to the touch, because vegetable tanned leather is actually an insulator.  Conversely, chrome tanned leather is a conductor, and the leather is either hot or cold to the touch, depending on the environment.  Have you ever sat on your car’s leather seats on a summer day?  Ouch!

3. Vegetable tanned leather can also be rubbed smooth or burnished, whereas chrome tanned leather cannot.

4. Vegetable tanned leather is also mold-able and can be shaped to meet various needs, whereas chrome tanned leather cannot.

5. Hermann Oak’s vegetable tanned leather will accept oils from your hands and the result is that vegetable tanned leather patinas over time, giving the leather a beautiful, aged look.  Chrome tanned leather does not patina.

Hermann Oak sent BestLeather.org four of their premium hides, two of their English Bridle, one Sierra Latigo, and one Harness side.  These leathers are all similar in respects, but they also have a few differences that give them their distinguishing characteristics.



Possibly the biggest difference is the oil content in the different leathers.  English Bridle has the least amount of oil.  The Latigo has a middle amount of oil and is meant to secure a saddle onto a horse.  It is meant to be more sweat resistant than English Bridle.  The Harness Leather has the highest amount of beef tallows or oils.  This is meant for working harnesses for horses.  It is meant to be very resistant to horse sweat, rain, sun, snow, and the elements in general.  The English Bridle is the firmest, but Harness is pretty similar in firmness.  Latigo is the softest leather of the three.  The Latigo is most similar to what was produced 100 years ago by Hermann Oak.  English Bridle also has a higher degree of finish.  The Latigo and Harness are more of the working leathers and the English Bridle is meant to have a finer appearance.  The English Bridle has special waxes to give it a shine and finer appearance.


Best Leather will be posting separate articles on each of these four hides and will highlight some of these differences.  Stay tuned to learn more about Hermann Oak’s premium leathers.  In the meantime, take a video tour of their process and tannery.

Horween Leather Company – The Essex Line of Leather

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The Horween Leather Company was established in 1905 in Chicago, Illinois by Master Tanner and founder Isadore Horween.  At the time, there were thousands of tanneries in the United States and at its peak, dozens in Chicago.  Isadore Horween felt that he could produce a better tanned hide based on his tanning experience, and soon the Horween name was known for its high quality leather.  Today, Horween is the only tannery in the Chicago area, and one of just a handful of commercial tanneries in the United States.

The tradition of excellence that Isadore established is still very palpable today for Horween’s current owners and management.  The commitment to quality craftsmanship and superior leather is still very much alive.  BestLeather has had the fortune of working with Horween on a number of past articles and we are fortunate to work with Horween on a series of upcoming articles.  Horween agreed to send to us three of their top selling leather hides for us to post articles on.  We were sent one hide each of their Essex, Chromexcel, and Latigo leathers.  These leathers are all somewhat different in application, appearance, and feel, but one common thread is that they are all beautiful leathers that are in high demand.  In fact, many of the goods we review at BestLeather are made with these and other types of leather from Horween.

For this article, we will take a look at the Essex leather that Horween sells.  The creation of Horween’s Essex leather was the brainchild of wanting to tan cowhide in the same manner as tanning Genuine Shell Cordovan (Cordovan being horsehide).  When Horween constructed this idea, they knew that the result would be extraordinary.  Extraordinary results normally take extraordinary work to accomplish, and this was the case for Essex.  It took Horween two to three years of trials and production runs, and according to their own works, they eventually “nailed it”.  Nailed it, they have.

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Like Genuine Shell Cordovan, Essex is straight 100% vegetable tanned.  It similarly uses the same blend of liquors and extracts as the Cordovan.  The result is a leather that is smooth to the touch, that feels durable and strong, yet is supple enough for the most sophisticated bags and leather goods. The leather is also full grain, which means that it has not been altered in a way that weakens it’s fibers or structure.  It is the outermost leather of the hide, which is the strongest and most durable.  Another characteristic of Essex is its high oil content.  In making their Essex leather, Horween puts the hide through a fat liquoring process that enriches the leather with high quality oils, which, in turn, help give the leather not only long life, but the ability to age well, and look better and better over time.  The leather is also hand glazed and then given an aniline finish.

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For this project, we decided to make a simple messenger bag from the hide that Horween sent to us.  As amateur leather crafters, we knew that what we would make would not be to the high standards of goods we normally review, but we wanted to get a feel for the Essex leather and learn about it from the experience of working with it.  What we learned is that the leather is very supple, is gorgeous, and is easy to work with.  The hide we were sent weighs four to five ounces.  For some vegetable tanned leathers, that thickness would result in a leather that is fairly stiff and not very flexible.  The Essex, on the other hand, is very supple, even at that weight.  The process for creating the Essex leather is the reason for this result, with the oils and liquors used and the process for finishing each hide.

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If you desire stiffness in a thinner leather, the Essex would not be the best choice.  If you desire a leather that is a little thicker, but still very malleable and fine, then Essex is an excellent choice.  The messenger bag that we made for an example turned out beautifully, but in hindsight, we probably would have made a bag that does not require as much rigidity.  The design of this bag was fairly deep and needed to have some rigidity to hold up appropriately. The leather is supple enough that when you lay the bag on its bottom, it sags a bit.  We decided to put the handle on the very top of the flap, and when lifting the bag up, the flap sagged as well and the result was that the bag did not hold up very well with that type of handle.  It would have been better to put handles on the back of the bag.  Since the rivet holes were already punched, we ended up adding a thick piece of leather on the underside of the flap, then lined the underside of the flap with pigskin.  As a result, lifting the bag with the handle is now very secure.


The lesson learned is that Horween’s Essex leather is very supple, and the product design needs to take that into consideration.  This particular messenger bag could be made with Essex with excellent result, but in a thicker weight, probably eight or nine ounces, as opposed to the four to five.  We also could have lined the whole bag with a stiff pigskin lining, and that would have given it sufficient structure.  Better yet would have been to choose a design that marries well with supple leather and that accentuates it.  One company that does this well is Libero Ferrero.  They use the Essex Leather from Horween and the bags they craft are beautiful and designed extremely well.  We will be doing a follow-up article on the Essex leather and looking at one of Libero Ferrero’s bags in greater detail.

As discussed, Horween’s Essex leather is very supple, but that does not mean that it is not durable.  To the contrary, this leather is made to last for generations.  Vegetable tanned leather by nature is made more beautiful over time as it ages and patinas.  It stands up better to the elements than straight chrome tanned leather, and the thickness of this leather will stand up to years of use.

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The Essex hide sent to us is what Horween calls their Dark Cognac color.  I tend to love slightly darker brown colors on leather and it was not a surprise that I loved this color.  It is a dark brown and in the right light has a small hint of red.  The Essex has a high oil content which yields a finish that has a little bit of sheen to it, but not too much.  The underside of the hide is a light brown color, but it is also finished beautifully, so we felt it not necessary initially to line the messenger bag.  Another thing you get with Horween leathers are hides where the color is struck through.  This is not very common with most tanneries because it takes longer in the large drum dyers and requires more dye to accomplish, which makes it more expensive.  The result though is that the center of the hide is not blue or a really light tan.  It is the same color as the entire hide, through and through.

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The Horween Leather Company produces some of the finest leathers in the world, that are renowned for their quality, beauty, and durability.  Their Essex line of leather is a very beautiful, supple leather that has a wide range of uses.  Whether you are making wallets, duffel bags, purses, handbags, or any other consumer good made from Essex or buying said goods, Horween’s Essex is a fantastic choice.

Below is a sequence of pictures from the hide we received from Horween to completion of a simple messenger bag.

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Great Video From Moore & Giles On How Their Leather Is Made

Moore & Giles uses leather tanned in Italy. On a recent trip to their tannery they made this fantastic video featuring each step of their leather making process. What I found particularly interesting is the modern equipment featured in the film compared to some other renowned tanneries such as Horween that seem like not much has changed for a hundred years.

Source: https://www.mooreandgiles.com/resources/how-leather-is-made/

Included for comparison; this video by Trunk Club of the Horween facility.