Leather Tanning and Finishing Workers


Exploring this Job

If you are interested in this field you may wish to contact the local offices of leather workers' unions to receive information or speak to people working in the industry. Trade journals such as Leather International (http://www.leathermag.com) will help you learn more about the trade. If you live near a tannery, you might try to arrange a tour of the plant to observe leather processes firsthand.

The Job

Leather is made by curing, shaving, treating, and finishing the hides of sheep, goats, deer, pigs, cows, horses, and elk. Different kinds of leathers are called cowhide, horsehide, sheepskin, capeskin, kid, and chamois. Workers in slaughterhouses remove the hides from the animals and cure them with salt to prevent decay. They then tie them in bundles and ship them to tanneries.

At the tannery, workers untie the bundles and begin to process them. Hide inspectors examine the shipments and check to see if they meet specifications of type, weight, and grade. They also check for defects and record this information. The hides are then put into machines tended by drum attendants. These machines, filled with wetting agents and disinfectants, agitate the hides to remoisturize them and wash out the curing salts completely. Hides may soak in these machines for as many as 20 hours.

After the soaking, workers remove the remaining flesh, fat, and hair from the hides. Wool pullers remove pieces of wool from sheep pelts, while fleshing-machine operators tend machines that scrape flesh and hair from hides. Hides are then delimed and rinsed in chemicals and water to prepare them for tanning. Workers called beaming inspectors examine hides for remnants of hair and flesh. Incompletely cleaned hides are reprocessed, while the rest go on to the tanning operations.

In tanning, the hides are preserved and turned into leather. Lightweight leathers are tanned through the chrome tanning process, in which the hides are soaked for a few hours in chemical solutions. Heavy leathers are tanned with tannins, acids made from certain trees and plants. Hides may soak in tannin solutions for several weeks. Tanning-drum operators load large vats with tanning agents and hides and set the proper temperatures for the process. Continuous-process rotary-drum tanning-machine operators perform procedures that dehair, deflesh, and tan leathers all in one machine.

After leathers are tanned, wringer-machine operators remove the moisture left in the hides. Hide splitters and splitting-machine feeders cut the leather to specified thickness. Split leathers then are colored or otherwise finished. After color matchers mix the pigments used to dye leathers, hide and skin colorers dye leathers by pulling them through trays or immersing them in drums filled with coloring and softening agents.

Trimmers cut leathers to specified shapes. After leather is trimmed, it is finished to make it soft and pliable. Stakers place leather in a machine that flexes and stretches it to make it pliable. Some leather is buffed smooth in buffing machines by machine buffers. Sprayers finish the surface of leather pieces by spraying them with solutions that make them resistant to scuffs and stains. Leather coaters apply grease or lacquer to waterproof leather, a process sometimes called currying. Roller machine operators tend roller machines that smooth or glaze the surface of leathers and accentuate their natural grain. Embossers may then operate machines that print designs on the leather.

After processing, measuring-machine operators measure each piece of leather and write the measurements on the piece. Inspectors and sorters examine the pieces for defects and thickness and sort them according to quality, color, and other properties. Workers then wrap the pieces in bundles and label them, and the leather is sold to companies that make leather products.

Leather manufacturers also employ general laborers who apply solutions to hide pieces, move hides and supplies from one processing machine to another, and perform many other tasks. Frame makers construct and maintain the frames over which leather is stretched after tanning. Roll fillers install and replace the blades and rollers in rolling machines.

In addition, supervisors coordinate the work of employees in many leather manufacturing departments, such as the pelting room, finishing room, split and drum room, split-leather department, tan room, beam department (in which hides are dehaired, fleshed, and washed), vat house, and hide house.