This category includes establishments primarily engaged in tanning, currying, and finishing raw or cured hides and skins into leather. Converters and dealers who buy hides, skins, or leather for processing under contracts with tanners and/or finishers are also included in this category.
Leather and Hide Tanning and Finishing
Leather tanning and finishing in the United States is a billion-dollar industry. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the dollar value of U.S. leather industry shipments in 2005 was $1.98 billion, down from $2.06 billion in 2002. In the United States, automotive upholstery and casual footwear make up most of the leather market. The number of companies engaged in leather tanning and finishing has declined since the 1980s as larger firms have acquired smaller ones. The number of U.S. tanning and finishing establishments decreased from nearly 350 in the early 1980s to approximately 250 by the mid-2000s. Competition from overseas leather tanners, especially in developing nations, has adversely affected the industry in the United States.
Leather tanning in the United States is primarily the work of privately held companies. The vast majority of the leather processed in the United States is cattle hide. So-called specialty leathers—including deer, calf, pig, goat, sheep, lamb, kangaroo, and various reptiles—represent only about 5 percent. With forty-nine establishments, New York has the most companies engaged in leather tanning and finishing, followed by California, with thirty-eight establishments. Massachusetts, Texas, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania are each home to more than ten tanneries.
Leather tanning is a process in which chemical agents and extracts are applied to various types of hides and skins in order to prevent rotting. Not all tanneries follow the same method of processing hides into leather. However, the process described here is used by the majority. First, the hides must be prepared for tanning at the packing house. This includes unhairing (a lime solution loosens the hair, making removal easier), fleshing (cleaning off the inner side of the hides), and bating (removing the lime from the hides). Next, the skins and hides are cured—salted or soaked in brine to preserve them until they reach the tannery. Once at the tannery, the hides are soaked to remove the salt. Two primary methods are used to then convert the raw material into leather: chrome tanning and vegetable tanning. The method used depends on the intended use of the leather. Chrome tanning, which involves the use of soluble chromium salts such as chromium sulfate, is used primarily to tan leather for the upper parts of shoes. Vegetable tanning, which uses tannic acid, is used to tan heavy leather for shoe soles, bags, straps, harnesses, and products used in industrial equipment. Chrome tanning is the most widely used method in the United States.
Several basic stages are involved in the tanning process. First, the underlying layer of the hide is "split" off and shaved to uniform thickness. Tanning drums are then used to saturate the hides in the tanning solution, which preserves the hide and adds strength. The hides are tanned again, where dyes and oils are added to provide, color, softness, and durability. Then the hide must be stretched and dried to remove all excess moisture. At this point, the leather is firm, flat, and ready to be trimmed. Finally, the hide is conditioned and finished. The finishing process involves softening the hide mechanically, spraying final colors onto the leather to meet customer requirements, and embossing to the required texture.
Tanning—the process that turns raw animal hides into the soft, pliable, and enduring material called leather—is one of the world's oldest industries. Recovered specimens of leather tents and shoes date as far back as 6000 B.C., and ancient Egyptian carvings show tanners at work. Early Romans used leather not only for shoes, shields, and harnesses, but also as currency. As the centuries passed, tanning grew into a highly developed art. Twelfth-century England gave rise to tanners' guilds, and in America, early settlers learned that tanning was not new to the Native Americans. Advances in the chemical and mechanical processes of tanning and the invention of the thermometer and hydrometer (for measuring density) opened up the industry worldwide and brought tanning from the realm of the arts...