Most people agree that there is no finer car upholstery material than leather. The feel and smell of rich, buttery leather makes a car luxurious and absolutely inviting. And as most of us know, though, fine leather doesn’t come cheap. This is not just because leather is made from hides of animals, so much, but because fine leather goes through many labor-intensive processing steps, some of which custom specified for the customer.
The original tanning
The history of leather processing goes back thousands of years. Because wild animals were a major food source and commonly hunted, early man quickly realized that their skins or pelts were a great material to make clothing and other goods out of.
As rugged and comfortable animal hides were, however, there was a major problem: early leather didn’t last very long. After all, it was a natural product and degraded, especially under warm, moist conditions. At some point, though, some clever group discovered that the sap and juices from certain plants could be used to “tan” animal hides so they last longer.
Tanneries are where all the processing of leather hides occurs. It’s a lengthy process with many steps.
The first step occurs when the hides are neutralized with acids and treated with special enzymes to increase softness. This takes several days. Then they are pickled to lower the PH. The last step before final finishing is the actual tanning process. There are several methods of tanning but the most common is chrome tanning. Most tanneries use rotating drums with a bath containing trivalent chrome. After a dozen or so hours, the hides are removed and dried.
Finishing the hides
Final finishing consists of placing a series of coatings on the surface of the hides. This is where the custom part of leather tanning comes into play. The coating and finishing steps are essentially different for each production run and are specified by the customer. Some finishing processes apply plastics such as acrylic and urethane resins to the surface of the leather. Others coat it with vinyl, wax, or nitrocellulose. In some cases, to make the surface of the leather attractive, it is often embossed with patterns. The result when dried is the wonderful leather that we enjoy in our automobiles and other products.
Since leather processing is fundamentally a custom process, thousands of leather variations have been made over the years. For those that are restoring classic automobiles, you find it interesting that some leather suppliers can make the leather to original factory specifications. There may be no one who does this better than Jonathan Connolly who owns C B Leather and Connolly. Connolly is a member of the famous Connolly family who has made leather for most of the world’s finest automobiles. As our friends at Warren Henry Jaguar explain, Jaguar has had a relationship with Connolly for close to 100 years. The finest Jaguars ever made had Connolly leather interiors.
If one is restoring a classic car that came with Connolly leather, Jonathan Connolly may be able to re-create the original leather upholstery or make a new version.
We hope you have an appreciation for what a custom product fine leather is today. When you inspect the leather in a fine car, you are experiencing a one of a kind material because that manufacturer has “designed” the leather just a intensively as the rest of the car.