FAQ: What leather finishes are best for my travel gear?

Answer:

When it comes to robust leather travel gear, you've got a lot of excellent options. Here's a general overview and some thoughts on what to to aim for and what to avoid when choosing the right gear.

  • Dyed Leather - Don't get me wrong, I love brown. But if you're looking for leather in any other color, it's typically going to require a dying or painting process of some sort. Aniline dyes are typically considered the highest quality as they retain the natural grain of the leather. Leathers that are vat- or tumble-dyed spend time fully immersed in the dye while, in other cases, the dye is applied only to the top surface and worked in from there. Once properly set, leather dyes tend not to leech out, meaning they typically won't stain adjacent items. Overall, dyed leather is mostly an aesthetic choice and doesn't have much impact on the item's suitability for travel.
  • Waxed or Oiled Leather - While customers are generally advised not to wax or over-oil their leather, a number of specialized waxed and oiled finishes were historically developed to provide effective weatherproofing for traditional use. Those specialized traditional finishes, commonly referred to as bridle leather, saddle leather or crazy horse leather, are now highly regarded and sought after. The waxes and oils in these finishes have a unique two-tone effect on the grain, with the orientation of the grain shifting and reflecting the light differently based on the direction it was most-recently brushed. The additional weatherproofing provided by the waxing or oiling process is a welcome benefit for travel gear and the two-tone effect on the grain can be quite attractive.
  • Lacquered Leather - A lacquer is sometimes applied to already fine-grained leather to give it a high-gloss, easy-clean finish while still retaining the leather's underlying flexibility. Patent leather is a popular example of this technique. While traditional lacquers were typically linseed-based, most modern leather lacquers include a plastic or polymer component. Lacquered leather offers a very formal look and can often be found on certain business-focused carry items like briefcases and attach√© cases. It doesn't take well to scuffs and wear, however, and is generally best avoided as a material for travel gear.
  • Brushed or Sanded Leather - Not to be confused with the sanding used to eliminate blemishes in low-quality Top Grain leather, brushing and sanding can also be used to create a velvet-like napped finish, typically on the leather's underside. Suede and Nubuck are examples of this technique. In both cases, the brushed leather is softer but less durable than standard full-grain leather. Due to their textured nature and open pores, they may become dirty and quickly absorb liquids. Based on those properties, these leathers typically make for poor travel gear. One final example of brushing or sanding, however, involves a manual aging process that is quite interesting. After finished leather is fully stitched and sewn to become a new item, the item can be tumbled, brushed or sanded to give it a more lived-in vintage look. This process does damage the grain and create a bit of a napped finish at the well-worn locations but, as it's not applied evenly over the piece, it's much easier to maintain. In short, it will take on some dirt over the course of your adventures but the dirt will at least look like it belongs there.
  • Embossed Leather - The physical depth of leather allows it to respond very well to embossing. With a sharp impact, a shape or pattern is driven into the leather and will remain there throughout its life. Manufacturers will often emboss their brands and logos into their leather designs. In some cases, they may emboss a broader texture, giving their leather the feel of a textile weave or even mimicking the look and feel of a more exotic or expensive animal leather (that's why it always pays to check the actual animal source of the leather).