Types of Leather for Laser Engraver and Where You Can Buy Them
Welcome to our complete guide on laser engraver leather types and where you can buy them from. This webpage is your go-to resource for understanding the vast array of leather types available for laser engraving and cutting. We delve into the nuances of commercially available leathers, exploring options from traditional animal sources to modern artificial alternatives. You'll gain insight into the unique characteristics of different commercial categories of leather, including veg-tanned, oil-tanned, chrome-tanned, and PU leather. Our culmination point is a user-friendly table providing links to purchase various leather types, making it easier for you to source the perfect material for your laser engraving and cutting projects.
What is Laser Engraver Leather?
Laser Engraver Leather (also called laser leather, leather for laser engraver, or leather for laser cutting) is leather that is meant to be marked, engraved, etched or cut using a laser engraver, typically utilizing a blue laser beam. These forms of laser leather processing are performed in order to create top-quality leather products to be sold commercially or kept as personal keepsakes. To learn why blue lasers are the best for leather processing, we recommend reading our Complete Guide to Laser Engraving and Cutting Leather.
Exploring Diverse Sources of Leather for Laser Engraving and Cutting
Nowadays, there is a very diverse range of natural laser engraver leathers that you can purchase. Commercially, cowhide, pigskin, lamb, and goat leather are commonly used. However, the market is expanding to include exotic leathers such as deer, zebra, beaver, boar, kangaroo, buffalo, ostrich, eel and various bird, fish, snake, crocodile, lizard, and other reptilian and amphibian skins. These rare leathers offer unique textures and qualities, ideal for distinctive laser engraved patches. This provides you with a wide range of options for custom leather engraving projects.
While PVC and PU artificial leather patches are widely used for their affordability and non-animal-based production, it's important to bear in mind their behaviour in laser processes. When laser cut or engraved, artificial leathers can emit various concentrations of toxic gases, which necessitates suitable ventilation and safety measures. In contrast, natural laser leather patches, derived from animal hides, do not present the same level of concern during laser engraving or cutting, and can be considered laser safe. Natural leathers are often preferred for laser engraving due to their authentic texture and the unique patina they develop over time. This offers a classic and high-quality finish that's sought after in many leather products.
Irrespective of the type of leather you want to laser engrave or cut, blue lasers are the best solution for processing your leather products. To learn why, please visit our Comprehensive Guide to Leather Engraving and Cutting.
Nevertheless, when browsing leather selling online stores, you are more likely to encounter laser engraver leather types being divided into a few categories based on their tanning method and/or origin (natural or artificial). These are listed and described below, offering you an in-depth insight on what you can expect from the type of laser leather you source.
Oil-tanned laser leather is a type of leather that has been treated with natural oils during the tanning process. Contrary to common belief, oil-tanned leather isn't actually tanned with oils. It is either veg-tan leather or chrome-tan leather that, once it had been tanned and dried, it was then bathed in hot oils, waxes or other compounds at the end of the tanning process. The oil bath permeates the leather and creates a permanent coating. This treatment makes the leather more pliable, durable, and resistant to water and stains, distinguishing it from other tanning methods. Common oils used in this process include fish oil, neatsfoot oil, and various vegetable oils. These oils are massaged into the leather, giving it a distinctive supple texture and a rich, warm hue. Oil-tanned leather is often used in making outdoor gear, work boots, and bags due to its robust nature and ability to withstand rigorous use. However, the specific oil type used in the tanning process determines the features of leather you purchase. The resulting differences are compared below:
- Fish Oil: Often used for its increased penetrating qualities, fish oil helps in making the leather more flexible and durable. Compared to other oils, it is particularly effective in enhancing the water-resistant properties of the leather.
- Neatsfoot Oil: Derived from the shin bones and feet of cattle, neatsfoot oil is excellent for conditioning and softening leather. It helps maintain the elasticity of the leather and prevents it from drying out and cracking, altough for shorter amount of time than other oils. Neatsfoot oil is prone to getting oxidised over time, which means it is more suitable for high-volume oil-tanned leather production rather than long-term storage. Nevertheless, like tallow, it provides a basis for the growth of bacteria and fungus cultures, and may turn leather rancid.
- Olive Oil: Olive oil is known for its mild conditioning properties and imparts a subtle yet distinctive sheen to the leather. It can also restore colour and repair small scratches. Olive oil also extends the life of leather.
- Linseed Oil: Linseed oil is often used for its protective qualities, creating a slightly tougher leather surface finish compared to olive oil, but at the cost of making leather fibers more prone to wear and cracking in the long term. It also takes longer to dry on the leather.
- Pine Pitch: Sometimes used to add a unique finish and scent to the leather. In addition, it has antibacterial properties.
- Mink Oil: Widely used for its unique conditioning properties (including being able to significantly soften the leather) and ability to make leather water-resistant. Mink oil is a stable leather oil, which means it can be kept for many years without going off.
- Soybean Oil: Offers a softer finish and is often used due to its availability and lower prices, allowing oil-tanned leather manufacturers to cut production costs.
- Tallow: Animal fat that helps in conditioning the leather and making it more flexible, although much less stretchy than oil fats do. Like Neatsfoot oil, tallow is more prone to oxidisation and can result in the formation of bacteria and fungi cultures on the leather.
Characteristics of Oil-Tanned Leather
- Tanning Process: Oil tanning involves treating the leather with natural oils after the initial tanning process. This method imparts unique properties to the leather, different from both vegetable and chrome tanning.
- Durability and Flexibility: Oil tanned laser leather is known for its durability and flexibility. The oils make the leather more pliable and resistant to cracking, which is ideal for items that require a degree of flexibility.
- Water and Stain Resistance: One of the standout features of oil tanned leather is its natural resistance to water and stains. The oils in the leather create a protective barrier, making it a practical choice for outdoor and heavy-duty applications.
- Appearance and Feel: Oil tanned leather generally has a more rugged and natural appearance, often with a slightly waxy feel. This type of leather can develop a rich patina over time, enhancing its aesthetic appeal.
- Maintenance: While oil tanned leather is low maintenance compared to other types, occasional conditioning to replenish the oils can help maintain its appearance and longevity.
- Applications: Oil tanned leather patches are commonly used in workwear, outdoor gear, and casual fashion accessories. Their durability and resistance to elements make them suitable for products that are exposed to tough conditions.
In summary, oil-tan laser engraver leather offers a unique blend of durability, flexibility, and natural resistance to the elements, making it suitable for a variety of applications where these characteristics are desirable. They provide a distinct look and feel that can add a rugged charm to any item they are affixed to.
Vegetable-tanned laser engraver leather, commonly referred to as veg-tan leather, is a type of leather that is tanned using natural materials derived from plant sources such as tree bark, leaves, and fruits. This traditional method of tanning imparts unique characteristics to the leather, making it distinct from other tanning methods like oil tanning.
Characteristics of Veg-Tanned Leather
- Natural Tanning Process: Veg-tan laser leather uses organic materials, avoiding the chemicals used in chrome tanning. This slower process, often taking several weeks, is more environmentally friendly than other tanning methods and gives the leather unique qualities.
- Firmness and Molding Ability: Veg-tanned laser leather is firmer and holds shapes well, making it ideal for stamped or tooled designs. It's often used in leather goods that require a sturdy structure.
- Color and Patina: Initially, veg-tan leather has a pale, natural color that darkens and develops a rich patina over time when exposed to sunlight and natural oils from handling. This aging process adds character and beauty to the leather.
- Customization and Dyeing: It readily absorbs dyes and finishes, allowing for a wide range of customization options in terms of color and finish.
- Sensitivity to Water: Veg-tan leather is more susceptible to water damage and requires regular conditioning to maintain its appearance and durability.
- Applications: Oil tanned leather patches are commonly used in workwear, outdoor gear, and casual fashion accessories. Their durability and resistance to elements make them suitable for products that are exposed to tough conditions.
Comparison with Oil-Tanned Leather:
- Flexibility and Softness: Veg-tan leather is generally stiffer compared to oil-tanned leather, which is softer and more pliable due to the oils infused during tanning.
- Water Resistance: Oil-tanned leather has higher water and stain resistance due to the oils, whereas veg-tan leather is more sensitive to moisture and stains.
- Aging Process: Veg-tan laser engraver leather ages and develops a patina more prominently, changing in color and texture over time. Oil-tanned leather also ages but retains more of its original texture and color.
- Applications: Veg-tan leather is often used in high-quality leather goods that require structure and can be beautifully tooled or stamped, such as belts, wallets, and saddles. Oil-tanned leather is more commonly used in products that require more flexibility and exposure to outdoor elements, like bags and outdoor gear.
Overall, veg-tanned leather is valued for its natural tanning process, ability to shape and dye, and the beautiful patina it develops. It differs from oil-tanned leather primarily in flexibility, water resistance, and the way it ages. The choice between the two depends on the specific requirements of the leather product and the desired aesthetic and functional properties.
Chrome tanned leather for laser engravers is another significant category. Unlike vegetable-tanned leather, which uses natural tannins from plants, chrome tanning involves using acidic chromium salts and chemicals. As a result chrome-tanned leather patches are more readily available in a diverse pallette of colours. The underlying chemical process is analogical - water molecules are removed from collagen and replaced with chrome ions, which bind collagen. However, chrome ions are much smaller than vegetable tanning molecules. This process is also much faster than vegetable tanning, often taking a day or less, which can make chrome-tanned leather products more affordable. However, since the chemicals used in the chrome-tanning process dissolve parts of the hide, this makes the resulting tanned leather thinner. It also means that cracking and tear can happen quicker than in veg-tan leather, lowering product lifetime.
In the past, the chrome tanning process involved creation of high concentrations of Hexavalent Chromium (more comonly known as Chromium VI in the US). Chromium VI is a substance that poses health risks when in high concentration in a given material that is cut with a laser. However, this is now a much lesser of a concern as the processes resulting in the formation of Chromium VI have been largely banned, or put out of use. Hexavalent Chromium compounds can be formed in leather through the oxidation of Trivalent Chromium compounds. Chromium III compounds are added in certain tanning processes to cross-link collagen subunits in order to increase leather's dimensional stability, heat resistance as well as resistance to mechanical action. Nowadays, the conditions requirements and mechanisms under which Hexavalent Chromium is formed are known, and European Union based tanneries have already developed and established measures aimed at controlling and minimising Chromium VI formation. Trivalent Chromium itself is safe when burned, eliminating previous health and safety issues associated with laser cutting, and ensuring no harm to both health and the laser equipment.
In the European Union, Hexavalent Chromium usage was first banned in electrical and electronic devices in 2003, with its full implementation coming into force in 2006. On 25th March, 2014, this EU-wide ban has been expanded to leather patches and leather-based products, and in full force since 1st May 2015. As a result, any leather that you import from EU, cannot contain Chromium VI in concentrations at or above 0.0003% (3 mg/kg) of the total dry weight of the leather part.
In the USA however, at the time of writing this article (19.12.2023), there has not been a clear nationwide ban on hexavalent chromium in leather products. Chrome-tanned laser leathers in the USA are simply said to be free of Hexavalent Chromium nowadays, as it is claimed US-based tanneries apply similar advanced production technology as tanneries in the EU. But it is not controlled or set in US legislation. Nevertheless, US introduced secondary pathways of controlling Chromium VI concentration. USA's Occupational Safety and Health Administration established a legal Permissible Exposure Limit (PEL) of 0.0050 mg/m3 for (only) airborne exposure to Chromium 6. In addition, California was the first US state to order a state-wide standard of 10 parts per billion (0.010 mg/L) of hexavalent chromium in Californian drinking water in 2014. This was a result of a lawsuit from NRDC, won against the California Department of Public Health. However, a different court ruled that this Californian standard must be eliminated since CDPH could not prove this standard was economically feasible. Another hearing on this regulation was held on August 18, 2023, with its effective date of implementation yet to be determined. These US regulations are however still rather poor measures for leather products as they don't target concentration in leather and leather products specifically, unlike the EU legislation. Chromium VI concentration in US-made chrome-tanned leather can be orders of magnitude higher than its concentration in water, air and much higher than concentration limits in EU-sourced leather. It also does not apply to leather imported to the US- leather from non-EU countries can still have dangerous concentration of hexavalent chromium.
More importantly, over 75% of leather imports to the US (most of which is chrome-tanned leather) come from countries such as China, India and Vietnam, which have not banned Hexavalent Chromium in leather products and use it widely. In fact, out of 2,345 unsafe products, shipped worldwide and identified in 2015 only (listed by the EU Commission for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality), approximately 64 percent were attempted to be introduced in the EU market by China-based manufacturers. Approximately 23% of them were clothing articles, including leather goods contaminated with hexavalent chromium in high concentration.
Effectively, as long as you use trivalent-chromium chrome-tanned leather patches (or oil-tanned or veg-tanned leather patches), you don't really need to equip your laser machine with an air exhaust system. Nevertheless, it is a good practice to ask your leather supplier store about the Hexavalent Chromium concentration (if any) in chrome-tanned leather patches they provide. Alternatively, another good practice is to source your chrome-tanned leather exclusively from the EU. Notwithstanding, bear in mind that any leather is laser safe with a suitable exhaust system.
Characteristics of Chrome-Tanned Leather
- Flexibility and Softness: Chrome tanned laser leather is typically softer and more flexible compared to veg-tan leather. This makes it ideal for applications where a more pliable material is desired.
- Variety of Colors: This type of leather is available in a wide range of colors, as it absorbs dyes well and the tanning process allows for vibrant coloration.
- Durability: While chrome tanned leather is durable, it may not age as gracefully as veg-tanned leather. It's more resistant to water and heat, making it a practical choice for certain applications.
- Environmental Considerations: The chrome tanning process has raised environmental concerns due to the use of chemicals. Some manufacturers address this by adopting more eco-friendly practices in the tanning process.
- Applications: Chrome tanned leather patches are often used in fashion items like jackets, bags, and shoes where softness and flexibility are key. They're also common in leather goods that require a wide range of colors or a more uniform look.
Chrome-Tanned Versus Oil-Tanned Leather:
- Texture and Flexibility: Chrome-tanned leather is generally softer and more pliable compared to oil-tanned leather, which retains more of its natural toughness and durability.
- Water Resistance: Oil-tanned leather typically has better natural water and stain resistance due to the oils infused in it.
- Aging and Patina: Oil-tanned leather tends to develop a more noticeable patina over time, adding character, whereas chrome-tanned leather maintains its initial appearance longer.
Comparison with Veg-Tanned Leather:
- Flexibility and Softness: Chrome-tanned leather is typically softer and more flexible than veg-tan leather. This is due to the chemicals used in chrome tanning, which create a pliable and supple material.
- Water Resistance: Chrome-tanned leather offers better water resistance compared to veg-tan leather, making it more suitable for everyday use and items exposed to moisture.
- Aging Process: Veg-tan laser engraver leather is known for developing a unique patina over time, changing in color and texture. Chrome-tanned leather ages differently, often retaining more of its original appearance and coloration.
- Applications: Chrome-tanned leather is widely used in a variety of products including fashion accessories, furniture, and car interiors due to its softness and durability. Veg-tan leather, with its ability to be tooled and dyed, is preferred for artisanal and custom leather goods like belts, wallets, and saddles.
To sum it up, chrome-tanned leather, distinguished by its diverse color palette and quick tanning process, differs from veg-tan leather in its thinner profile and quicker wear. Chrome-tanned leather has undergone significant changes in its tanning method and evolved to be safe for laser cutting and engraving. While the EU enforces strict safety standards, the US lacks specific legislation but generally adheres to safe tanning practices. For safe leather cutting, etching or engraving, using a suitable exhaust system, or sourcing chrome-tanned leather from the EU or verifying its safety with suppliers is recommended to ensure minimal health risks.
Artificial leather (commonly known as faux leather, leatherette, pleather, or imitation leather) is a synthetic material designed to mimic the look and feel of real leather. It's made from a base material (usually a type of fabric like polyester) that is coated with a flexible polymer and then treated to create a texture akin to that of genuine leather. The most commonly used artificial leather is polyurethane (PU) leather. Here are some key aspects of PU leather:
Characteristics of Artificial (PU) Leather
- Non-Animal Origin: PU leather is a popular choice for those seeking animal-friendly alternatives to real leather. It's made from synthetic materials, making it suitable for vegan products.
- Variety and Versatility: Available in a range of colors and textures, PU leather can be designed to look like various types of real leather. It's adaptable for a wide array of products, from fashion accessories to upholstery.
- Maintenance and Durability: Generally easier to clean and maintain than real leather, PU leather is resistant to water and stains. However, it is not as durable as high-quality genuine leather and can crack or peel over time.
- Affordability: PU leather is usually less expensive than genuine leather, making it a cost-effective alternative for a variety of applications.
- Environmental Considerations: While PU leather does not involve animal products, its production involves synthetic materials and chemicals. The environmental impact of its manufacturing process and its non-biodegradability are considerations for eco-conscious consumers.
- Applications: PU leather patches, are flexible and have a texture closer to real leather, making them popular in fashion and accessories.
Comparison of PU Leather with Real Leather:
- Texture and Feel: While advanced manufacturing techniques have made PU leather quite similar in texture to real leather, it still lacks the unique, natural variations and feel of genuine leather.
- Breathability: PU leather is generally less breathable than real leather, which can impact comfort in clothing or upholstery.
- Aging: Unlike genuine leather, which can develop a patina and character over time, PU leather does not age similarly and shows wear differently.
- Sustainability: Real leather is a natural, biodegradable material, whereas PU leather is synthetic and non-biodegradable.
PVC leather patches are known for their durability and resistance to wear, making them suitable for heavy-duty applications. PU leather patches, on the other hand, are more flexible and have a texture closer to real leather, making them popular in fashion and accessories. Both types are available in a range of colors and finishes, allowing for extensive customization. As mentioned on top of this article, artificial leather can emit various concentrations of toxic gases while laser cut or engraved. Hence, for laser processing synthetic leathers, you should install a suitable air exhaust system.
In a nutshell, PU leather is an affordable and animal-friendly alternative to real leather, suitable for a wide range of applications. Its choice depends on considerations such as budget, ethical preferences, and specific use-case requirements. While it offers certain advantages, it also comes with its own set of limitations, especially in terms of durability and the authentic feel of real leather.
Where To Buy Different Types of Leather From
The table below shows where you can purchase your laser leather from.