The American buffalo, or bison, is one of the strongest native animals on the continent, but how does leather from its hide compare with that of the domestic cow? We will compare differences between buffalo and cow hide leathers in appearance, size, grade, and typical tanning practices.
Tanning Practices & Planetary Health
Buffalo leather is typically tanned using traditional methods, called “brain tanning,” which is an ancient practice used by Native Americans and several other tribal societies around the world. Today it would be considered a “green” practice, because it does not use the highly toxic chemicals found in modern tanning practices. Brain tanning uses organic materials: brains, liver, bone marrow, castor or other natural oils, combined with wood smoke. Other native tanning practices use the bark of a tree, such as oak. Smoking the hide at the end keeps the leather resistant to moths, preserves the fibers and allows the leather to stay soft and pliable even if it becomes wet. The result is a durable leather that is soft and breathable.
Cow hides are usually tanned with modern methods, which use highly toxic chemicals, such as chromium, and have as their byproduct poisonous vapors emanating from large quantities of chemicals, such as ammonia. Combine tanning practices with ranching practices, and buffalo wins for the overall health of the planet.
Hide Size & Grain
Though buffalo are bigger than cows by about half a ton, the hides are smaller, averaging 30 square feet, versus 50 square feet in cow hides. The reason? Buffalo hides are not stretched in order to preserve their wonderful, desirable grain patterning. Buffalo hide grain is more distinct than cowhide leather grain, and gives a project a more earthy or rustic look.
Is buffalo leather stronger than cowhide leather? Not really. Cow and buffalo hides are similar in strength and elasticity; both are the strongest of easily obtainable animal hides, and do not stretch easily, which make them a good choice for upholstery, shoes, or bags. In these hides, strength is dictated by the thickness of the hide or the leather grade.
Grading leather tells you what to expect in the appearance and the weight of the leather. In this, buffalo or cow hide may be equal. Full grain leather is the leather from the top of the animal; it has not been treated by sanding or buffing to take the imperfections out, and is the strongest grade of leather. Top-grain is second best; it is sanded or buffed or otherwise worked to remove imperfections. This leather is more commonly found in garments. Other grades of leather include strapping or latigo, split, suede, nubuck or nappa; some of these are not commonly found as buffalo leathers. However, as buffalo meat becomes more commonplace, the leathers are becoming easier to acquire and so different commercial applications are created.
Cow or buffalo hides are identical in terms of caring for them over their lifetime. However, there is a great deal of general misinformation in books and on the Internet when it comes to how to care for leather. The best way to care for leather properly is to ask the manufacturer or leather distributor what products they recommend or instructions they have for the care of a particular piece. If possible, get it in writing.
If it is an older item, such as an antique upholstered item or garment, it's best to ask a qualified conservator of leather goods in your area by contacting the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.
American or Water Buffalo?
Finally, a word of caution. When looking for American buffalo or bison hides, be careful of overseas sources. Buffalo in India or China usually means water buffalo, a very different breed!