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Paul Durrant

Buff leather

Just throwing this out to all our leather aficionados...

We've had a query from one of our other regimental colleagues asking us about what period so-called 'buff leather was really like, in particular, was it as thick as the stuff we use now.

My research has mainly been on black leather items of which the most surprising thing is discovering that they're not massively thick. The few cross belts, slings and sword(bayonet) belts I've looked at are usually no more than a couple of mms thick. I've come across a a couple of sets of white 'buff' straps on knapsacks which were quite thick but wondered if anyone has any details on other stuff - especially cavalry sword belts.

Anyone from our redcoat friends examined extant items that can pitch in on this please?

Here's a couple of 'white' items;


Thatcher pack pre 1820 (Swedish Army Museum)

Oldham Local Militia C1810 (NAM)
Neibelungen

Generally speaking, crossbelts   were  3-4mm thick,  with sword belts  2-3mm.  Officer's  occasionally thinner as  often  using finer quality materials.

It's important to  bear  in mind though,  that  period  leather was much denser than modern leather and was sold by weight rather than  footage.  So  two pieces of equal  thickness and area,  one could weigh twice as much as  the  other,  hence having a greater density  of  fibres composing  it's structure.


(Slower growing animals, not specifically bread for meat farming so  slaughtered at 3-5 years not the current 2-3 years.  Breeds were about 2/3rd the size of current livestock.  Tannage was  intensively hand processed to)

Overall it means that going  on a period thickness  isn't a reliable indicator as you have to  bear  in mind the density and stretch  in any given leather
John Waller

Following on from Andrew's comments. One respected maker of buff wares told me that if he made his repros as thin as some originals he had handled then no one would buy them!
I've just made five sets of X-belts, a sword belt and a couple of slings in 3.5-4mm white alum tan because buff is so damn expensive these days (but buff is so much nicer to work with!). Alum tan was around in the period (aka Hungarian leather). It has a reputation for not as robust if exposed to water but is quicker and cheaper to produce.  I wonder if it was ever used for military wares even if only in extremis?
Neibelungen

Alum tannage (tawing) was never used for  military accoutrements for the simple reason it's not a stable tannage.  
When it gets wet the  alum and egg wash  out reverting to  a  sort  or  rawhide,  raw skin mixture which  rots.   It's also  generally more stretchy and  soft than most leather,  unless part tanned  in chrome first.

Alum (potassium aluminium sulphate) is also  high  in sulphur compouds so it will  corrode most metals it comes  into  contact.  (Modern buff  is similar and has the same effect)

Cod  oil tannages were used for the simple reason they were water resistant and  were less  prone to  brittleness, shrinkage or tearing  from repeated wetting.

Traditional oil  tannages were  poor  penetrators though,  hence required the top grain to  be removed from  leather  for correct tanning.
John Waller

Neibelungen wrote:
Alum tannage (tawing) was never used for  military accoutrements for the simple reason it's not a stable tannage.  
When it gets wet the  alum and egg wash  out reverting to  a  sort  or  rawhide,  raw skin mixture which  rots.   It's also  generally more stretchy and  soft than most leather,  unless part tanned  in chrome first.

Alum (potassium aluminium sulphate) is also  high  in sulphur compouds so it will  corrode most metals it comes  into  contact.  (Modern buff  is similar and has the same effect)

Cod  oil tannages were used for the simple reason they were water resistant and  were less  prone to  brittleness, shrinkage or tearing  from repeated wetting.

Traditional oil  tannages were  poor  penetrators though,  hence required the top grain to  be removed from  leather  for correct tanning.


Points taken. In defence of the alum tan I used I have been conducting a bit of an experiment on an offcut by repeatedly soaking and drying it over several months. No ill effects so far but I suppose that given accoutrements were to last 5-10 years, or even longer, and were used daily then it's not really a fair trial. I admit I compromised authenticity for economy in this instance (the hide was 1/3rd the price of buff) but at least the cut and construction ot the belts was correct.

Ref original buff - one militia knapsack I saw at close quarters had very thin straps - no more than 2mm.
Paul Durrant

Neibelungen wrote:


Traditional oil  tannages were  poor  penetrators though,  hence required the top grain to  be removed from  leather  for correct tanning.


Andrew,
Could you tell us a bit more about this please?

The smooth shiny grain surface of our common commercial 'veg-tanned' (harness?) leather hides, is that natural? I'm presuming there's some sort of machining/polishing going on here. Has 'Buff' had the surface removed - and if so, why?

As you can gather, I'm woefully ignorant of this 'buff' leather business and often get conflicting info from different suppliers, so I'm trying t get my head round it. Sometime ago I bought half a hide of buff from Clayton's and I'm trying to understand how it is the way it is. Can you help or recommend some reading material?

I was reading from this from http://www.jarnaginco.com/leather%20definitions%20index.htm

Buff Leather
Buff leather's original name was "losh" or "lash. I have seen it spelled both ways. Buff-leather for belts and Military purposes was not buffalo. This mistake is found in many different books even ones printed during the period. This leather was tanned from cow hides. These hide may have been ones with bacterial damage or skin defects since the grain surface would be removed during the tanning process.
The leather was subjected to a long lime and then sanded with a pumice stone or split by machine after they were invented. The oldest way is the sanding process, and was called buffing by tanners.
From reading records we know that buff leather could only be tanned during the spring and fall. This is due to the liming process that requires mild weather. This was a difficult and time consuming tanning process. After the Mexican war when the amount buff ordered fell off dramatically and when the army wanted more in the later 1850's tanner were not interested. This is the reason that the army switched to waxed leather in 1858. In a letter from G. Bomford Bt Col. of April 17, 1828 states that: As this kind of leather (buff) is unsalable, except for the public service. This shows that tanner were not willing to stock buff leather due to lack of sales to any other individuals beyond the Ordnance Dept.
Buff leather according to the Ordnance Dept. should be of a firm consistency, and should not be Spongy.

Buff leather is found in three forms.

“Natural or buff”: this is when no whiteners have been added to change the color from the color given by the oils during the tanning process. That was the thought about natural buff but I found that it was stained in order to give its distinctive yellow. This was done in order to give a more pleasant color to the leather. This may be the reason that it was said that it was impossible to get buff all in the same color.

“Whitened buff”: buff leather with whiteners added in order to give a much lighter color. This color was not originally a pure white but tended to be in the range of a yellowish white or what we would call an antique white. Originally "whitened buff" was whitened with "Paris Whitening" this was a white chalk. [ I have add this term for clarity. The army referred "whitened buff" as buff. For more information on these two terms check out page 261 in Paul D. Johnson's book on "Civil War Cartridge Boxes of the Union Infantryman"]

“Blackened Buff”: This buff leather dyed black. This leather was also stained in order to give it a yellow color as can be seen on the back. I did see on buff belt that was a blackened buff belt to begin with but the blackening was removed and plates changed in order to make it look like an earlier belt but the yellow color gave it away as being later belt modified.
Chamois Leather: This is the only true oil tanned leather. This leather is its original form was made from the skin of a goat called chamois. Imitation chamois was made for other species of goats or sheep. This leather was known for its ability get and dry and wet again with no damage. it could also be washed with no damage either. It was used in quick silver production since it could pass through the pore in the leather itself.




cheers.
Neibelungen

Most  of my research  is based  on  Bennett (1913)  The Manufacture  of Leather,  though I have 2  other bookd dating to  1840 and  1853 on leather manufacture, though I havn't worked through them fully to  see any differences.
Bennett  is at that  period between  traditional  oak  tannage and chrome tannage so  gives lengthy descriptions  of both as well as  chemical and vegetable dyes and  finishing.

Buff  leather  is essentially the same  processes as  Chamois,  though  on larger and heavier hides.  At this date they are mostly cow,  though  earlier  periods (1600-1700) baltic reindeer were the prefered  animal.
As you note,  Buffalo has absolutely nothing to  do  with  it, though  probably confusion occurs with American use  of Bison for  leather.  The Americans tend to  use slightly different  processes,  being  hemlock based tanages rather than oak.

The main reason for the removal of the grain was to assist  in the  penetration of  cod  oil  into  the skin,  which would be more resistant  if the skin was  retained and would  not penetrate equaly, leaving  the centre raw.  Afterwards the skins are  hung  in dried  in heated rooms ,  with  new applications  of oil daily  gradually  increasing temperature to about 30 C finally.   This causes the  oils to  oxidise into  the tissue of the hide and crates the stable tannage.   Afterwards the are washed  in hot soda solution and the excess  oil  removed to  be reused.  Theyare still  hard dry hidesof as dirty yellow colour and  are then fat liquored to  restore suppleness and  complete the finishing.  
The tanning  is  only part  of the process and various  currying and dressing  processes are

Claytons use a modern  synthetic oil  to  replace the cod oil (degrass) in the process, which penetrates better,  hence the  retention of the grain  on their skins.  Helvetia, is a similar leather,  but with  much more  oil retained and was  designed for  oil seals and  hydraulic pumps.  
There are also  modern  'syntans'  (synthetic tanages)  which  produce white leather using  chemical processes similar to  chrome,  but without the danges  of chrome waste.


The one thing about leather  production is that  it evolves with time and chemistry and similar terms are  often  reused  and mixed  interchangable where a similar product  is made in a modern way to  replicate older traditional forms  of leather.  Often  leather can be part tanned with  one process and retanned  or finished with another.  A  lot  of so called alum leather  is veg  or chrome leather retanned with alum to  produce a white but water  stable leather etc.

To  go  back to  our buff leather,  it's finishes  in a dirty pale yellow that varies depending  on the  oxidation process,  from light to  dark and  can be patchy depending  on each  piece  of leather and the amounts absorbed  or dried  out.
Hence the  finishing  to  a uniform 'buff'  colour with  ochre  or to  whitening with pipe clay or chalk  (all  mixed with glue to  make them stable).

Buff  is a stable, dense and supple leather, stretch resistent and  very resistent to water and  rot/brittleness and was  ideal  for  belting.  It was however labourious to  produce and required considerable control of temperature to make  it stable.  
While  england  is  moderate, the US tended to be much  more variable and often had temperatures above 25- 30C especially closer towards the cattle country for the raw skins,  so  found consistent manufacture of quality difficult.  I suspect they moved  over to black dyed and later waxed leather for partly that reason and because pipeclayed leatherwork was very  'british';
Also supplies  of cod  oil  inland are more difficult and they had an  abundance  of  hemlock tanage materials.  

We find Britain gives way to veg tanned and later  webbing, once  it realises formal  battle lines are thing  of the past.  America tended to have  less need of formal warfare post 1812 and by 1860 had moved towards modernised warfare without the traditionalism and victorian 'bull and  polish' mentality.

Hope that helps a little and  puts  'buff' into  context as well as explaining the process.    

Personally  I'm  of the  opinion modern  buff (claytons) isn't entirely close to period buff and  is far too  spongey and  soft.   Their MOd version (bandsman) is better,  but still  not entirely close either.    I  havn't yet decided on a good substitute,  but have seen some modern white syntans (french I think)  that have a better  look and feel and don'thave the corrosive sulphide content the is a problem.
Neibelungen

losh  or lash,  generally refers to  elk hide leather  with an oil tannage and was  used  initially as the  primary material for buff.

Later  post 1500 as demand increased and supplies reduced  horse,  ox,  cow and  deer were also  substituted and with  developments  in  tanning and  cod  oil availability   cow and  ox take  over as the primary materials by 1600/50.   (Costume Journal No  7)

You tend to  find military  buff coats are  principally  cow or ox with  finer  deer  or elk  used for  dressier type garments or sleeves  on laced buff coats.  

In the same way chamoise was  originally  a type  of antelope and later becomes almost exclusively sheep leather except for the finest kinds,  which are  often goat  or pig too.  America defines  it as  sheep though so it has different meanings depending where  it's made.

PS..  Hemlock tanning gives a redder leather than oak,  hence black  dying  or waxing  would appear more military...  

there's also  a greater tradition of  black  accoutrements supplied to Canada (1812)  so  would also  give some  incentive away from white  pipeclayed buff.  Refer back  to  the notes on accoutrements which allowed  ordinance supplied  or substituted black leatherwork to militia forces and were  often supplied out to  Canada.
Paul Durrant

Great stuff Andrew! Most appreciated.
Pvt._McNamara

Wow! Most interesting! Now I look differently on my x-belts...

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