04/30/12 07:44AM Classic Cars, custom, leather upholstery, Restorations

LEATHER ISN’T LEATHER, WHEN IT COMES TO AUTOMOTIVE USE!

Keleen Leathers 

LEATHER ISN’T LEATHER, WHEN IT COMES TO AUTOMOTIVE USE!

by Rick Mullen
Keleen Leathers, Inc.

The pendulum has swung back and forth when it comes to the use of leather in automobiles.  Years and years ago the use of leather was predominant throughout an automotive interior.  Seating, door panels, and even headliners were all in leather.  In the ’50s it became a combination of some leather, some vinyl.  In the ‘60s and ‘70s manufacturers went almost totally to vinyls for their upholstery materials, attempting to keep costs down, into the ‘90s, it is back again to leather, the miracle product of nature.  Strong, rough and rugged as a bull, yet breathable, soft and supple as baby’s butt depending on how it is tanned, nothing manmade can even approach the features of the incredible product – leather.

The long molecular chains in the leather’s makeup create a product that wears out razor blades after just a few cuts, demonstrating its truly unusual strength and durability.  Yet these three-dimensional chains are what allow it to drape and mold to any contour, offering a look when upholstered nonexistent with any manmade material.  The porous structure of the natural skin provides a very desirable breathability and absorption of color creating a beauty only Mother Nature can offer.

But leather isn’t leather!  Vast differences exist in leather when tanned for different end uses.  For the purpose of this article let me limit the discussion to the differences between leather tanned for furniture versus lather tanned for automotive end use.  Generally, when tanning leathers we look to accomplish three goals.  First is to make the product inert.  It is initially a living substance and we must stop what would be the process of decomposition.  Then we want to both color and soften the material for upholstery use.  The hides are placed in very large drums and rotated with numerous chemicals to impart desirable features we wish to have in the finished product.

Four major differences exist in tanning skins for automotive end use versus furniture use:

  1. The split or thickness of the leather should be greater.  Automotive end use demands far more “use and abuse” than furniture.  Heavier threads are used in sewing, and more sliding across and bouncing up and down are encountered as one rolls down today’s not so terrifically smooth highways.
  2. Because of the above sliding and bouncing, automotive leathers require a little “harder” finish in the final stages of tanning to insure long-term wearability.
  3. Automobile leathers are exposed to much more ultraviolet rays (sunlight) than furniture leathers and require more ultraviolet resistance or rapid fading and overall degradation of color will ensure.
  4. Automobile leathers must be tanned to withstand more temperature extremes.  Some cars wind up in northern Minnesota and others in southern Texas.  Some cars go from one place to the other during their lives, and the owner expects the leather to hold up, and rightly so.

Therefore, be aware of these differences.  Choose a reliable supplier and ask about how products being offered for sale are tanned.  You will be the wiser and happier for it.  Your investment in properly tanned leather will pay dividends as the years go by.