By Lee Mason
Leather: It is a wonderful material, naturally sourced, sustainable. People have used it for centuries for clothing, shelter, bags, lashings and more recently Cartridge Cuffs and Rifle Slings. Leather is not all created equal. Different tanneries specialize in different kinds of leather and leather wholesalers source their leather from all over the world.
You may be starting to see why finding the right leather, the best leather for the task, can be tough. Since 2011 when I first began leatherworking, finding good leather to begin a project was always the hardest part. Keep reading to learn all about my journey to provide Mason Leather customers with the best vegetable tanned leather available anywhere:
Vegetable Tanned Leather: Why it’s the best
Veg-tan leather is the gold standard for gun leather of all kinds. The name comes from the tanning process used, whereby hides are tanned with tree bark and other plant extracts. The result is a very durable, long lasting leather that can stand up to years of service.
Veg-tan leather also lends itself to wet molding, tooling and stamping, making it popular in the gunleather world. Boot makers also prize veg-tan leather for its durability and break-in process. Boots and shoes made from veg-tan only get more comfortable with time and wear.
Unlike harsh chemical tanning processes, vegetable tanning produces a leather that accepts dyes with character, with the true grain of the leather showing through on the finished product.
Veg-tan leather is also extremely strong, which makes it great for things like bullet-loop straps, Rifle Slings and such.
Veg-tan leather is the only kind of leather I use. There simply is no substitute.
Good vs. Bad Veg-tanned Leather
After reading the above paragraph you might think that all veg-tan leather would be great, but like anything there is a quality scale to it.
When I first started leather work I would go to a local supplier that is well known in the leather industry, but I’m withholding the name so as not to ruffle any feathers and get nasty emails. Long story short, I used them for years for the main reason of being able to physically examine the hides before purchasing them. I was very hesitant to mail-order leather, not knowing what I’d get, then have to return it.
The problem was that I would sort through a pile of 50 or more sides of leather, only to find a few (if any) of high enough quality that I’d want to use it. It became a real chore just to get a supply of good, clean veg-tan for my Cartridge Cuffs and Slings.
So, what makes good veg-tan or bad veg-tan?
Bad veg-tan could have one or many of the following qualities: a high number of holes or scars, stretch marks, changes in temper on the same hide (how soft or hard the leather is), a nappy flesh side (this could be from the leather being split poorly, with a dull blade, or poor handling at the tannery), or inconsistent thickness throughout the hide. The biggest problems were inconsistent thickness and bad temper, which I believe to be signs of a poorly run tannery. Scars and holes have to be expected to a point, but thickness and temper can really ruin a project.
Good veg-tan is a thing of beauty. It will have the following qualities: Few if any holes or scars, consistent temper throughout the hide (a good balance is needed between firmness and pliability), a clean, smooth flesh side and consistent thickness. It is very hard to find veg-tan with all these qualities, and when you do find it, it tends to be expensive.
A note on leather thickness: in leather working the thickness of the leather is referred to as the leather’s “weight.” This does not actually have anything to do with how heavy the leather is, rather it refers to some goofy thing from hundreds of years ago having to do with the machine used to split the leather (I don’t recall exactly)… sort of like how the “gauge” of a shotgun refers to the diameter of the quantity of lead balls that could be cast from a certain weight of lead.
I use 8/9oz veg-tan leather for all Cartridge Cuff blanks as well as my Slings. It is thicker than what a lot of other makers use for similar products (either because they are cheap or they don’t know any better, thinner leather costs less) and makes a very durable piece.
For the cartridge loops I use 5/6oz leather. This is definitely thicker than what I’ve seen other makers use for cartridge loops. It provides a very long-lasting cartridge loop that will not wear-out over time.
Mason Leather Cartridge Wallets are built from 6/7oz leather. This produces a very durable pouch that will stand the test of time, without being overly bulky.
The Cuts: Shoulders, Sides, Backs, Bellys & Whole Hides
Back in the early days I wasn’t making nearly as many Cartridge Cuffs and Slings as I am now, so naturally I purchased leather in smaller quantities.
The various cuts of leather listed above refer to where on the hide they come from: the shoulder is just that, the shoulder section of the cow. A side refers to the right or left side of an entire hide, split down the middle length-wise. Backs are a premium cut, the leather of both sides along the middle, but excluding the belly. Bellies are a less premium cut, as they typically have inconsistent thickness and can be wavy. Whole hides are exactly what it sounds like, the entire cow!
I use sides exclusively as it gives you the best value per square foot and you can select the best sections out of a side (whole hides are not really feasible to mail order, they are HUGE).
Searching for Great Sides
As mentioned earlier, for years I had a lot of trouble finding great quality leather consistently. I could always find enough to get orders made, but it might involve driving all over town, going to different stores and sorting through piles and it became a true hassle.
Finally I decided to mail order leather online. Besides not being able to see the actual sides first, another possible concern with mail ordering is shipping cost. A rolled up leather side is pretty big and isn’t cheap to ship, so to make it worthwhile you really need to order as much leather as you can at once. If ordering several sides at once is viable, the shipping cost isn’t too bad.
Best Supplier in the World - Weaver Leather
After a lot of research and emailing back and forth with a few suppliers, I decided to place an order with Weaver Leather out of Ohio. They had great reviews and if you set up a vendor account with them you can get discounts if buying in bulk. For my first order I selected a few sides in various weights, mainly to save on shipping.
Shipping was prompt, with a large box arriving via FedEx about a week later. I opened the box and unrolled the sides on the floor. Each was extremely smooth with a firm yet pliable temper that was just what I wanted. When I flipped the sides over I was amazed: the flesh side was the cleanest I’d ever seen, without any nappiness whatsoever. The leather even smelled amazing!
That was back in early 2019 and Weaver has been my exclusive source for leather ever since. I don’t know how many sides I’ve ordered from them, but every one of them has been top-notch. I’m constantly amazed at their incredible quality control every time I open one of those big FedEx boxes (but the FedEx guy probably hates me, a box with 5 sides in it has to be around 100 pounds!).
Mason Leather Customers Get the Very Best
It has been quite a long journey here at Mason Leather trying to find a trustworthy leather supplier to provide my customers with the very best every single time, but we finally found them!
Rest assured that when you buy a Cartridge Cuff, Rifle Sling, Cartridge Wallet or any other leather gear from Mason Leather it will be cut from the best sides money can buy. Also, as I’m making your gear I look over every piece of leather to make sure that it is of highest quality. If there is something wrong with it, it goes in the trash and not out the door.
Lee Mason is the owner and craftsman at Mason Leather and has been leatherworking since 2011 and hunting since he could carry a rifle.