Which leather is the best for making belts? There are three main things to consider when choosing a type of leather to make a belt out of - the grade or quality of the leather, what part of the cow the hide comes from, and how thick the hide is.
TLDR: High quality leather belts are made using full grain leather from a double butt cut hide in 8.5 - 9.5 ounce thickness.
Table of Contents
What are the different grades of leather?
In general, there are six different leather grades used to make leather goods - top grain, full grain, corrected grain, split grain, genuine, bonded. Full grain and top grain leathers are the best types to use for most leather goods.
Top Grain Leather
Top grain leather has the best durability and best quality of all the leather grades. This includes the outer grain of the hide that has more densely packed fibers, making it stronger and durable. Top grain leathers are split into two categories - full grain leather and corrected grain leather. The majority top grain leather is made into corrected grain leather. Typically, a high end leather product is made with a type of top grain leather.
Full Grain Leather - The Best Leather
Full Grain Leather comes from the uppermost layer of the hide. Once the hair is removed from full grain leather you can see the entire grain of the hide and all of its original character. You can see the imperfections of the cow and the character it got from everyday life. Rather than wearing out, full grain leather develops a patina over time allowing the natural marbling, texture, and natural color variations in the hide to come through.
Full grain leather is extremely strong and durable, wonderful for making many different kinds of leather products. The natural surface of the top layer makes each leather belt other product made with it unique. We make most of our belts out of full grain leather hides.
As you can see, full grain leather has a lot of natural variation and character, like wrinkles and scars. We made this particular hide into our limited edition Slate Grey belts.
Corrected Grain Leather - Second Highest Quality
Corrected grain leatheris a type of top grain leather that is sanded and embossed to give the end product a more uniform, smooth appearance. Tanneries can create a variety of artificial grains using metal dies and hydraulic embossers. The grain is stamped on to hide imperfections and give it a uniform, natural feeling texture. Some common examples of corrected grain are products with a snake skin or crocodile texture.
Depending on the amount of correction done, products made with this type of leather can be as durable as full grain leather. However, the process of correcting the grain seals the surface of the hide, meaning it is easier to maintain, but takes much longer to develop a beautiful patina. Overall, corrected grain leather is a good quality material to use for belts where full grain leather is not an option.
Split Grain Leather - Bad for Belts!
Split grain leather is created when the cushier middle layer of corium is separated from the top grain of the leather hide using a leather splitting machine. A thicker hide can be split again into a middle split and a flesh split. Split grain leather is thinner, weaker, and has a looser structure that is not as durable or resilient as top grain leather. It has a fuzzy texture on both sides and requires special care to keep it looking good. It is most often used to make genuine leather, suede, and other leather by-products.
Genuine Leather - Lowest Quality
Genuine leather is a type of finished split leather made using leather scraps. Of the various grains and cuts, genuine leather products are the lowest quality and at the bottom of the list. The name is a misleading marketing buzzword that makes you think it is a good material, but genuine leather is not as durable and long-lasting as other leather grades. Genuine leather can make a good first impression but will not stand up to wear and tear of regular use. This type of leather is often used to make low quality mass-produced belts and cheap upholstered furniture. "Genuine Leather" is often stamped on a cheap truck stop belt like a seal of approval, but don't fall for it - it is just a waste of money.
Bonded Leather - Is this even real leather??
Bonded leather is a garbage leather material that shouldn't be considered real leather. It is a by-product made of leather dust and scraps that are shredded and bonded together with polyurethane or latex onto a fiber mesh. The mixture contains from 10% to 30% leather fibers and has a great impact on the end product's durability. While bonded leather has some stain resistance, it is almost guaranteed to crack and split with regular use. You can expect a cheap belt made of this material to only last about 6 months. Bonded and genuine leather should never be used for belt making. They are the worst belt leather possible.
What are the best leather cuts for belts?
When making a belt, the type of leather cut you use is just as important as the quality used. It is a topic less discussed in the tanning industry than leather quality, but equally important for making a great leather product.
Double Butt Cut - The Best Hide for Belts
The double butt cut of a cow hide is from the hind leg portion of the hide, running around the butt and up towards the spine, on both sides of the cow. This is the thickest and firmest part of the hide and yields the most consistent and even material. Double butt cuts are great for making thicker items like belts. Their more rectangular shape and consistent thickness translate to less waste and more useable belt straps than other cuts. This cut of leather makes the best belts for men and women.
We exclusively use vegetable tanned leather double butt hides for all our belts and work closely with the R&D department at Seidel Tanning Corp in Milwaukee to develop our hides.
Side Leather Cut - Good, but not Great
A side cut of a cow hide is half of an entire hide cut lengthwise down the middle. It contains part of the shoulder, butt, and belly of the cow. Side cuts yield leather with a variety of characteristics - it will have thinner, softer, stretchier leather closer to the belly and thicker, stiffer leather closer to the spine. This would not be our first choice for making a leather belt out of because it yields too much waste. However, it is a good compromise if you intend to make a variety of leather products.
Belly Leather Cut - Bad for Belts
The belly cut of a leather hide is from the left or right edges of the hide and can be a more irregular shape than other cuts. The belly of animals naturally expands and contracts as they eat and drink. This makes belly leather softer and stretchier than leather made from other areas of the hide. Stretchiness is not a characteristic you look for in a great leather belt, and the irregular shape yields a lot of waste, so we do not recommend or use belly leather for belt making. While it is not the best leather cut, it is still a fair option for making a variety of other leather products like wallets or bags.
How thick should a belt be?
There is a sweet spot to hit when choosing the thickness for a leather belt. The best belt is sturdy enough to resist wear and tear over time, but supple enough to wear every day with a variety of outfits. A belt that is too thin might be comfortable to wear as a dress belt, but it will stretch and distort over time. A belt that is too thick might be good as a gun belt, but it will not be very comfortable to wear all day. In our experience, the ideal thickness for most people ends up being 8.5 - 9.5 ounces, or about 1/8 - 9/64 inches thick. Our solid leather belts are the perfect thickness to balance longterm durability and comfortable everyday wear.
Conclusion: Thick, full grain leather makes the best belts
The long and short of it is that you don't have to settle for a crappy belt anymore. There are plenty of artisans out there making great quality products. Look for a maker who knows the materials they use and can tell you where their leather comes from. Thanks for making it through this article, it's obvious you have discerning taste. Why not check out the cool leather belts we make while you're here? And don't forget to measure your waist if you want a custom belt size.