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.