My First Experience Buying Leather
When I bought my first piece of leather, I was an idiot. Christmas had just ended and I had a little spending money to purchase the leather for my first project. So naturally, I opened up Google and typed in something like 'buy leather for leatherworking.' Tandy was the first search result. Once there I looked around their leathers and decided on a medium quality leather, because who wants to buy the crappy stuff. Finding a cut in my price range, I hit order, filled in my information and was done. I had successfully ordered my first piece of leather... sort of. The reality was I didn't even know what kind of leather I needed. I didn’t know which parts of the hide I needed (yup it matters… more than you’d think). I didn’t know what tannery to get my leather from, and didn't really even know that they used widely different processes. And then what the hell is chrome tanned anyways.
When the leather arrived it was perhaps the ugliest piece of leather I'd seen, and that's only been reinforced by my experience since. It was mangled, loaded with creases, bent, and the grain on the flesh side stuck out a good half inch. Since then I've learned a lot about purchasing leather, and have bought a lot cheaper pieces that are a lot better quality. So, now that I have a bit of experience under my belt, I wrote down some tips to help you not be an idiot too:
Sometimes I get really excited about a project and dream big, which is great, except that it means I overlook how tough some of the details are. When you are new, you have to come to terms with the fact that you are going to make mistakes no matter how hard you try. Things you won’t even think of will go wrong… something weird like your brown dye coming out with a green sheen. Make your mistakes on cheap leather. There’s nothing worse than making an incorrect cut or screwing up the dying process on a piece of leather you just dropped $300 on. If you’ve got money to waste, feel free to waste it on a custom order from my shop, not on expensive mistakes.
Tandy is great for buying cheap leather.
Tandy Leather is a leather retailer for hobbyists located close to major cities in the US. Here is their website: tandyleather.com
I view Tandy in the same way that I view McDonalds. When I was in college, spending a bunch of time learning and had little money for anything, $3 meals were greatest thing known to man. But all good things must come to an end, especially if they will end you. And so I don’t eat McDonalds any more because I don’t want to die at 30. Tandy is great for learning - it’s great because you can leather extraordinarily cheap, but just know the leather is cheap for a reason, and one day you will have to mature and branch out to keep growing as a craftsman.
Here’s a few things to know when buying leather from Tandy.
1. Their cheapest leather is called Craftsman Oak. That’s the one you want. It will have scars on it, spots where the leather got mangled in the machine, poor grain, and maybe even some brands on it. All those defects knock down the price and make it great leather to learn with.
2. Tandy is always having sales. I don’t think I’ve ever gone to Tandy and not seen a cut of their Craftsman Oak on sale. Sometimes it's the single shoulder, sometimes it's the side, sometimes it’s the belly, etc, but something is always on sale. As I write this, they have double shoulders on sale for $60. Look for those sales - just make sure it’s the right cut for what you are doing.
3. Craftsman Oak leathers aren’t from the same place. They grab the leather that doesn’t make the cut from different tanneries and lump them together and sell them as Craftsman Oak. As is the case with all leathers from different tanneries, they don’t dye the same, don’t burnish the same, and generally have a different rigidity. Most these things can be dealt with. However, when you are learning and one day burnishing is easy and the next it’s suddenly unworkable, it’s very hard to track your progress. That’s why I suggest buying a larger piece of leather (sides work for this). A bigger piece of leather will be enough for multiple projects, which gives you a consistent experience with the leather and better track your progress.
4. Any other leather at Tandy is generally overpriced. Tandy does offer higher quality leathers, but I don’t suggest buying them there. Once you feel comfortable that you won’t make many costly mistakes, it’s time to buy from a tannery that works with smaller customers.
5. Go in if you can. This is one of the really great things about Tandy. They are all over and if you live close to a big city there’s a good chance you can find a Tandy nearby. When you go in, you get to check out all the variables yourself. You get to see for yourself how big the piece of leather is, which actually varies a lot. You can see how tough or how supple it is. You get to see what the gain on the back looks like. You get the idea.
6. If you cannot go in, or you are really trying to keep things inexpensive use Tandy Leather Outlet: https://www.tandyleatheroutlet.com. Note the outlet at the end. This is different than Tandy’s online store. It’s all the leather they couldn’t sell. And it’s incredibly cheap. I once bought a really ugly pre-dyed side of leather for $30. Sure it was ugly but I got so much experience out of it. Here’s something I made with it early on.
And that’s it.
Buying cheap leather is the best choice when you are starting off and Tandy is a really good place to find it. Hopefully these tips help you get the most out of your experience at Tandy. But even with the tips I know that navigating buying leather for the first time can be intimidating, so if you want any help at all just let me know by dropping your question in the comments below or sending me an email. I also know that I probably didn’t cover all the questions that you have about buying leather. What’s your one question about buying leather?
As I mentioned above, I still have a lot more tips for buying leather for people new to leatherwork that I will be writing about over the new couple of weeks. I post every Tuesday and Thursday, but if you want to make sure not to miss these posts, I encourage you to sign up for our newsletter.