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.
HIGH QUALITY FURNITURE
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.
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.
ADVANTAGES OF VEGETABLE TANNED LEATHER
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.
FUTURE BESTLEATHER ARTICLES
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.