The Rebel’s Guide to Leather Work Gloves
Welcome to The Rebel’s Guide to Leather Work Gloves. This guide was created as a celebration for one of the greatest natural materials the world has ever received.
The aim of this Guide is to inspire respect and appreciation of leather and to teach you everything you need to know about leather work gloves.
How leather is made – from the hide of an animal to wet blue to its final stage as a gorgeous pair of gloves. You’ll learn which jobs are best for leather and how much you should be paying for your gloves.
Still not sure if you should invest your time in this Guide?
This Guide is right for you if you say ‘yes’ to any of these statements:
- Your car air freshener is ‘fresh leather’ scented.
- You get excited about breaking in a new pair of gloves.
- You cry when anyone mentions the word ‘pleather.’
This is a guide written by leather lovers for leather lovers.
What’s Inside the Rebel’s Guide?
- The Uses of Leather Gloves
- Leather Manufacturing Process
- The Dangers of a Poor Tanning Process
- Oilbloc™ and Treating Leather for Water Repellency
- Types of Leather
- Grain Leather or Split Leather: How to Know the Difference
- Location and Cuts
- How Much Should You Pay for Leather Gloves?
- Frequently Asked Questions About Leather
Leather is the original work glove fabric.
For thousands of years, leather was chosen because of its availability; wanting to use every part of the animal, hunters would fashion crude clothing, footwear and tents from the hide.
Yet, centuries later, even with technological advancements that allow us to make gloves using yarn, leather is still in high demand.
Possessing a natural combination of characteristics unrivaled by any other textile, leather is excellent for resistance to:
- High temperature
- Flame and fire
- Abrasion and friction
The Natural Flame Resistance of Leather:
Take a lighter and hold it underneath a swatch of leather and something amazing will happen. As the flame heats up, the leather will begin to shrink and curl but it won’t catch fire.
Leather’s natural flame resistance makes it the preferred material for linemen and electricians for protection from arc flash and flash fire.
Leather’s Excellent Thermal Properties:
Without any special treatment, leather can withstand 430°F without a hint of charring and cracking.
Chrome-tanned leather, which will be discussed in-depth in the section on leather tanning, can tolerate upwards of 600°F before beginning to char and harden.
According to Steven Lange, the Director of Leather Research Laboratory at the University of Cincinnati, “the thermal properties of chrome-tanned leather is very high. It has a shrink temp is over 100°C (212°F) whereas a vegetable-tanned leather is around 70° to 80°C (158° to 176°F).”
The secret here is that chrome tanning extends serviceability of the glove; the more chrome that is used, the more heat the glove can withstand “but there’s a limit to how much chrome can be bound to the collagen fibers,” Lange said.
Leather’s Incomparable Abrasion Resistance:
Picture a biker in your mind, what is he wearing?
- Leather vest
- Leather gloves
- Leather chaps
That’s because if he loses control of his bike and skids across the pavement, leather’s amazing abrasion resistance will protect him from road rash.
The way that leather’s grain binds together creates a strong, protective layer that no synthetic textile can compare to.
The Advantage of Using Leather With a Kevlar® Lining:
Leather isn’t cut resistant, but thanks to high performance yarns like Kevlar®, it can become cut resistant. But how is this an advantage?
Workers in industries like oil and gas find themselves needing protection from multiple hazards:
- Arc Flash
- Cuts and Lacerations
- Abrasion and Friction
- Water and Liquids
Having a durable glove that can stand up to the brutal demands of day-to-day work is a must.
It’s easier to take a material that has the natural properties discussed above and add thermoplastic rubber for impact resistance and a Kevlar® liner for cut resistance than it is to take a synthetic material with inherent cut resistance and reinforce it to stand up to the aggressive workload in the oil industry.
Now that we’ve examined what sets leather apart from other work gloves, we need to pay our respects to the process that takes the hide of an animal and turns it into hand protection.
Leather production is divided into three sub-process:
The Preparatory Stages:
Much of the preparatory stages occur in tumbler drums, which are made from wood or stainless steel and range in size from 4 feet to 20 feet wide.
At this point the raw hide will be prepared for tanning and unwanted parts are removed.
Notable steps in the preparatory stage include:
During preservation, the hide is covered with salt to make it suitable for transportation to tanneries around the world and prevent decomposition.
Once the hide arrives at the tannery, it’s soaked in water for 24 hours to remove the salt.
Soaking will also increase the moisture content of the hide, which will help later on and biocides may be added to prevent bacterial growth.
The leather will now be soaked in limewater (diluted calcium hydroxide). Liming opens the hide and removes unwanted oils and greases.
The hides tumble for 24 hours with water and sodium sulphides in the drums to remove the majority of hair.
From here the hides are placed into a fleshing machine that strips away any leftover flesh or meat.
Deliming and Bating:
Chemicals that were used in the liming and unhairing process are removed from the pelt.
In the bating stage, the hide is treated with enzymes to soften them and make them easier to work with.
Pickling is the last step before tanning begins. Sulfuric acid is mixed with the hides for a few hours to lower the pH level. This makes it easier for the chromium to penetrate the hide during the tanning process.
The Tanning Process:
Tanning leather can be accomplished in a number of ways, including aldehyde and vegetable tanning.
When tanning leather was a relatively new concept, using vegetable matter was very common.
But 90% of the leather that’s tanned today uses chromium oxide.
For glove manufacturing, chrome tanning is the most popular – and traditional – process.
Chrome tanning uses chromium(III) sulphate, or chromium three for short.
Chrome tanning is popular because it’s widely available, easy to work with and effective.
Chrome-tanning takes between 24 and 48 hours to complete and during this time the hides will be soaked in sulfuric acid before chromium three and magnesium oxide are added.
Magnesium helps the chromium to bond with the leather fibers at a molecular level, giving the leather a blueish hue and the nickname “wet blue.”
This type of tanning also gives leather a supple, more pliable feel compared to alternative methods and it won’t discolor or lose its shape in water.
At this point the tanning process is complete, but the leather is not quite ready to be sold to glove manufacturers around the world.
First the leathers are stacked to decompress for 24 hours before being divided into grain and split leather.
The wet blue hide will then be retanned in tumbler drums with water-soluble dyes with tannins and highly-refined oils.
This process takes 8 to 10 hours and during that time the collagen from the hide and the chromium from the first tanning will bond together with the oils and tannin to make a soft and durable leather.
From here the hides are squeegeed and placed on a heating vacuum system to begin the drying process. Drying involves a step called Toglin where the hide is pulled tight across a board for it to be pinned in place before being baked.
If tanning is not done correctly or if it’s is rushed, you’ll end up with bad leather.
For instance, if a tannery wants to produce a high quantity of leather but doesn’t have the capacity, they’ll cut corners by tanning the leather for half the time. This means that the chromium three won’t penetrate all the way in – where the greases and preservatives used to be – and that’s why cheap leather work gloves fall apart after only a few uses.
A poor tanning process also means that “the leather wouldn’t have full penetration of the chrome and you may end up with early degradation and have the problem of the formation of chromium six,” Lange said.
What is Chromium Six?
Those exposed to the human carcinogen chromium six — sometimes called hexavalent chromium or chromium VI — in large doses are at a higher risk of developing lung cancer or asthma.
Even though chromium six is not added during the tanning process, chromium three can convert to chromium six through oxidation.
Oxidation occurs through fluctuations in humidity or temperature either during the tanning process or post manufacturing, like during transit. If the leather is stored incorrectly, air cannot enter between the stacks, which leads to excess heat and conversion begins.
A poor tanning process can also result in the presence of spew on the leather, “the natural fats and oils are removed during the tanning process, and if you don’t properly remove them, they can come to the surface and create a glossy spew. That’s the fatal flaw in bad leather,” Lange said.
In Europe, REACH regulations limit chromium six levels to 3 mg/kg (3 parts per million) for any leather article that comes in direct contact with the skin. For most people, this level will go unnoticed, but for people with sensitive skin, it’s enough to trigger allergic reactions.
This is why choosing a reputable leather work glove manufacturer is so important.
You need to make sure that your leather manufacturer has quality control checks in place so that the leather is properly tanned and stored for transportation.
While leather has a decent natural resistance to water, if you work in industries with a lot of oil or water, it won’t be enough.
Leather work gloves can be made water repellent during manufacturing or treated post-manufacturing for impermeability.
Treatments will generally be a spray or wax that can be applied quickly and easily. But these treatments will need to be reapplied regularly to guarantee a good seal.
The other option is to look for gloves that are treated during the manufacturing process to be waterproof, like our Oilbloc™ treatment. Learn more about Oilbloc™ here.
By treating the leather during the tanning process, the treatment is drawn into the cross-sections of the leather, going right through the hide. This means that even after the glove has been worn several times and the surface of your glove begins to wear away from abrasion, the oil-resistant properties aren’t affected.
How Does Oilbloc™ Work?
Rather than penetrating through the material, Oilbloc™ creates a barrier causing water, oil and other liquids to bead and roll off. This treatment also means that gloves become stain and contaminant resistant.
Not all leather is created equal, each type has its specific strengths and weaknesses.
As a rule of thumb: The bigger the animal, the thicker the leather
This means that choosing the right type of leather is crucial to getting the best glove for your job. For instance, in TIG welding, it’s important to have the tactile sensitivity to perform precision welds. Leather from a larger animal like a cow wouldn’t work. Instead, goatskin is used.
Discover the best type of leather for your job with this infographic:
When the hide is removed from an animal, it is about 4 millimeters thick. Whether you’re in the glove making, upholstery or fashion business, this is way too thick.
To make the hide more manageable to work with, it’s split into layers.
- Split Leather: The bottom layer
- Middle Split: The middle layer
- Grain Leather: The top layer
What is Split Leather?
Split leather is the bottom layer of hide, it’s easily identifiable by its fuzzy, napped finish and is commonly used for jackets and shoes.
Most often, split leather is associated with larger animals like cows, whose skin is thick enough to be split into layers. Smaller animals like goat or sheep will only produce a top-grain leather.
Although split leather is sometimes mischaracterized as being a ‘cheaper’ leather, it actually has better abrasion resistance than grain leather.
What is Middle Split?
Middle split leather is found on heavier hides. It will have a gelatinous consistency and shouldn’t be used for manufacturing purposes.
What is Grain Leather?
Grain leather is the top layer of leather. It has a smoother, softer feel than split leather and is commonly used for upholstery. Grain leather is best for wet and wintry conditions because it is more naturally water repellent than split leather.
Location and cut makes a big difference when it comes to choosing leather, especially with split leather. Price and durability will differ largely depending on which part of the animal that the leather is cut from. In general:
- Side split:Most durable and best quality, most expensive.
- Shoulder split: Durable but more economical.
- Belly split: Most economical, least durable.
Side split leather will be about four times more expensive than belly leather but for work gloves, that cost translates to a longer lifespan.
Leather has a grain similar to wood in that the direction of the grain matters a lot in how it is cut. If a piece is cut ‘against the grain,’ it won’t retain its shape as a glove and will be more prone to stretching. This means that the person cutting the leather needs to be a proficient cutter and take care when deciding where and how to cut.
One of the hardest parts of buying leather work gloves is rationalizing the price tag — especially to your purchasing department.
Good leather will be expensive, but that shouldn’t deter you. Below are some general guidelines for what you should expect to pay for leather:
Grain Versus Split:
In general, grain leather will be more expensive than split leather because it’s in higher demand from upholstery and fashion companies.
The price for grain leather is about five times more than split leather, depending on the grade.
But that’s not to say that grain leather is ‘better leather,’ as Lange explained “grain is more for aesthetic and split is more for strength.”
Grade of Leather:
Grain leather that will be used for gloves is typically divided into four grades, A through D:
- Grade A: A large piece of leather with little to no marks.
- Grade B: A large piece of leather with many marks.
- Grade C:A small piece of leather with little to no marks.
- Grade D:A small piece of leather with many marks.
Grades of leather shouldn’t be confused with split of leather — a grain and split leather coming from the same cow won’t be in different grades.
These marks come from scars, insect bites or wrinkles, which in upholstery are considered defects but other companies, like Saddleback Leather Co. prefer it for the added characteristics.
Type of Leather:
The breed, age of the animal, as well as the climate where the animal was raised will all play a factor in leather quality and price.
Northern countries like Italy, Germany and the Netherlands are renowned for their superior quality of leather because of the temperate climates that have a healthy amount of rainfall.
The more features that are added to a leather work glove – cut-resistant liner, anti-impact backing, Kevlar stitching for seam integrity – the more you should expect to pay.
$22,384 USD is the average total incurred cost per claim for hand, finger and wrist injuries in 2012-2013.
The average cost for a goatskin driver glove with a Kevlar liner, anti-impact backing and padded palms for vibration dampening: $25 to $30 USD.
Looking at these numbers, the cost of a leather work glove is incredibly reasonable.
How Do I Shrink Leather Gloves?
One problem with buying leather work gloves is that they don’t fit as snug as a string-knit option. One option is to pay big bucks for custom fit gloves. Another, more affordable option, is a technique called wet forming.
Step 1: Run the water from your faucet until it’s hot.
Step 2:Carefully dip the gloves in the hot water until they are fully wet.
Step 3:Let the gloves sit on a flat surface to dry
Step 4:Try them on periodically during the drying process to make sure that they will fit properly to your hand.
Step 5: Once the gloves fit properly, use mink oil or leather conditioner to soften the leather since water can leave your gloves feeling somewhat stiff.
How Do I Clean Leather Work Gloves?
When caring for your personal pair of leather gloves: use a toothbrush to gently clean away noticeable dirt and grim. If your leather gloves need a thorough washing, use the same conditions that you would use for washing your own hands:
- Use lukewarm water.
- Use a mild soap with a lot of natural fat like a marseille soap.
- Rinse the gloves thoroughly under running water, making sure to get all of the soap out.
- When cleaned, gently squeeze out the water but be sure not to twist or ring out as that will damage them.
- Place in a dry towel and squeeze one last time to remove excess water.
- Let them dry on a flat surface at room temperature — heat source will damage the leather.
- Be sure to try them on a few times to reshape them.
Watch a full video by Hestra here.
When caring for many pairs of leather gloves:If you’re looking to clean a workforce’s worth of leather gloves, you won’t have time to follow the steps above. In this case, dry cleaning will be your best bet to keep the gloves’ natural condition while cleaning them in a timely manner.
How Do I Tell If the Coloring of My Glove is Quality?
Nothing ruins the love you have for your new leather work gloves quite like taking them off to discover your hands are stained the same color as the glove.
Leather is naturally white but can be dyed any color under the sun.
Most glove manufacturers will have quality control processes in place to ensure the color fastness of their product.
But for your own piece of mind, you can stick the fingertip of your glove in a glass of warm water. The water should remain crystal clear.
If the color bleeds into the water, it means the color was not chemically bound properly to the leather and you should return your gloves.
What are the Best Leather Work Gloves?
The best leather work gloves are the one that allows you to work unimpeded.
Goatskin and cowhide are the two most common types of leather that we use for our gloves.
Goatskin is an excellent option for fine work that needs a lot of dexterity. Cowhide is the most common type of leather, it’s durable, easy to care for and naturally resistant to water.
What is Pigmented Leather?
Pigmented leather is leather that has been coated with a pigmented resin or clear coating. Pigmented resin creates a film, which bonds to the surface of the leather to protect it from wear and stains.
Pigmented leather makes a fine coat or sofa but is not recommended for gloves because your grip will be significantly reduced.
Which Pattern Should I Choose?
The most common patterns are driver and fitter.
Fitter pattern: The fitter pattern is designed for protection from puncture and abrasion for workers doing manual labor. These gloves will fit more loosely than driver gloves and are meant for handling bigger items like rocks or lumber.
Driver pattern: Driver glove sometimes known as driving gloves were first developed for race drivers who needed extra grip when holding wooden steering wheels. Driver gloves are made with thinner leather to allow more hand movement and protection from abrasion.
Why Do the Seams in My Glove Keep Splitting?
Seams will split for a variety of reasons including:
- Buying a glove that’s too small for your hand
- Working around heat and flame that chars the seams
- Poor craftsmanship
If you’re finding that the seams of your gloves are splitting regularly, consider a glove sewn with Kevlar® thread. Kevlar® won’t burn and has a strong tensile strength to reduce the chance of seam splits.
How Can I Tell if My Leather is Real?
The easiest way to tell if your leather is real is by looking at the pattern of grain. Real grain leather will have an inconsistent pattern, whereas faux leather will have a consistent pattern as created by a press.
What is Synthetic Leather?
Synthetic or artificial leather is manufactured as a substitute for leather. It’s created by using a synthetic polymer base like PVC or polyurethane that is treated to resemble real leather with brand names like Clarino. It might be favored by people for ethical and financial reasons, but is not comparable to real leather.
How Do I Treat Leather Work Gloves?
Leather gloves can easily be treated with conditioners like saddle or boot oil to protect your gloves and keep them supple and waterproof.
When treating gloves, be sure to apply generous amounts of saddle oil, specifically to the palm and seams. As these oils soak in, the glove will become darker but should lighten as it dries.
Oil will need to be reapplied every four to six months for best results. Another option that requires less upkeep is choosing gloves that are treated with Oilbloc™.
Are Leather Work Gloves Naturally Cut Resistant?
One of the few disadvantages of leather work gloves is that leather is not inherently cut resistant. Being the skin of an animal, it is no more cut resistant than your hand.
As Ray DiBello points out in his essay “Confessions of a Leather Addict,” in 1985, 80% of gloves sold in North America were made of leather.
In the 21st century, more gloves are being made with inherently cut-resistant fibers like Kevlar® and Dyneema®.
But just because leather isn’t inherently cut resistant, doesn’t mean leather glove lovers should have to suffer.
Technological advancements now allow for leather gloves to become cut resistant by using liners made of Kevlar® or Dyneema® that are sewn into the leather and are barely noticeable.
Is There An Alternative to Chrome-Tanned Leather?
Chrome tanning is the most popular option because it’s a relatively simple process and has quick turn around. But for those with chrome allergies, there are some alternatives:
- Vegetable Tanning: Uses vegetable tannins from bark and fruit extract. It was the most popular form of tanning prior to chrome. This is a slow and complex process that requires repeatedly soaking skins in natural tannins and can take two months to complete the process.
- Titanium Tanning: Uses titanium (titanyl sulfate) is a newer alternative that has been studied in recent years, but it’s still not widely available.
- Aldehyde Tanning: The main type of “chrome-free” leather, this leather is referred to as wet-white because of its pale color.
- No Tanning: Purchasing a synthetic leather, which does not require the process of tanning.
How Can I Tell If I Have a Chromium Allergy?
Even though chromium three is non-toxic, it can become an issue for leather wearers who are allergic to chrome.
If you begin to notice little bumps on your skin, it becomes itchy, dry or cracking, chances are that you have an allergy to chrome.
Severe chrome reactions include contact dermatitis or irritant dermatitis that can lead to ulceration of the skin.
Topical ointments can relieve the pain of dermatitis but to prevent further outbreaks you’ll need to avoid chrome-tanned leather.
If this is not possible, you can try using a glove with a liner like Kevlar® to avoid direct contact.
Final Thoughts About Leather Work Gloves:
As mentioned in the beginning, this is a guide written by leather lovers for leather lovers.
The success of Superior Glove is built on leather. Founder, Frank Geng, was a highly trained leather tanner, with 15 years’ experience in the trade before he immigrated to Canada.
When he emigrated from Hungary, he chose Acton, Canada because the town was known for leather, and was home to the largest tannery in the British Empire.
Frank began by using leftover bits from that tannery to sell gloves to farmers and factory workers. Today, Superior manufactures quality leather work gloves for construction, mining, welding and winter conditions.
This guide was created to pay respect to our heritage and to remind glove wearers’ just how awesome leather work gloves really are.