The following information will help you understand the differences between the various boot leathers available in cowboy boots, shoes and leather goods.
Alligator has a hard and shiny finish and is most suitable for an upscale dress boot. Soft flexible membranes separate the hardened scales or tiles. Most skins are from farm raised animals in the southern United States. Alligator is available in many colors and almost never loses its sheen. If given some tender loving care an alligator boot should last a lifetime. Boots made from alligator tail or alligator head give addition fashion variations to this classic leather.
Most anteater skins originate in Asia and Africa. Anteater is very durable and comes in many colors. The scales or tiles are diamond shaped and is sometimes mistaken for alligator. However, the skin is more.
Apache, Distressed or Crazyhorse is cowhide that has been impregnated (stuffed) with oils and waxes that give it 'pull-up' color changes to make it look 100 years old when brand new. The advantage of the oil and wax impregnation is to provide more water resistance in rainy and wet climates and easy removal of scuffmarks. Apache leathers can be used to make casual dress boots or durable work boots. The pull-up antique look of apache leathers is most visible and pleasing on the brown tone colors.
Although Buffalo Bill got his name hunting American Buffalo, the proper name for our native species is Bison. The newly available American Plains Buffalo leather, which is actually American Bison, is extremely soft, yet incredibly durable.
Most water-buffalo skins come from Africa. Buffalo is a very popular boot leather, tough but soft and supple. Buffalo leather has good tensile strength and provides long wear. It is resistant to scuffing, peeling and scratching but soft enough for great comfort. It is often sueded or embossed with a heavy leather grain to add surface interest. Buffalo leathers are good choice for every day casual or work wear.
Bullhide is also known as cowhide shoulder leather, although sometimes shrunk during the tanning process to enhance the heavy wrinkles and creases. Bullhide is normally thicker than dress leathers and exotics thereby protecting the foot inside the boot from thorns and other possible penetrating dangers. Bullhide will take a good shine and its textured surface hides scuffs and scratches.
Calfskin is the hide from a young cow that is known for its soft comfort. Although calfskin is finer than the hides of older animals, it has good durability and abrasion resistance because the fiber structure of calfskin is denser, tighter and stronger than that of cowhide. Because it is so soft, calfskin can scratch and scuff but proper polishing will fill in the scratches well. Calfskin is a very good boot leather that is available in many colors and finishes and can be finished to a high gloss. It is usually used in dress or casual styles of boots. Because most Americans eat beef, not veal, the best calfskins come from Europe. In addition, European cattle do not wear brands because they are not able to roam the range so their skins are unmarred and smooth.
Most camel skins come from Asia and Africa. The hides are scarce because camels are a very valuable animal to the local inhabitants and skins are only taken if the animal dies. Camel leather has a hard finish that resists scuffing and the leather has a faint vein effect running through its surface. Camel skins are often sueded to give a softer finish.
Cowhide is the most available and used leather for all footwear. It is the byproduct of the edible meat industry. Cowhide is the standard by which all other leathers are measured when comparing durability, comfort and scuff resistance. Cowhide is available a multitude of colors and finishes and is used in work, dress and fashion styles.
Crocodiles currently are not being farmed on a large scale like alligators and therefore are less available and more expensive. However, crocodile skins are virtually identical to alligator. Unless you are a bootmaker or hide expert, you will likely miss the tiny pinhole in the center of each scale, which is the only way to tell crocodile from alligator skin.
Deerskin, like elkskin, is very soft and supple. Wearing a pair of these boots is almost like slipping your foot into a soft glove. However, both deerskin and elkskin are not too popular with bootmakers because besides stretching and water spotting they scratch, scuff and tear very easily. Renton Western Wear recommends consumers not purchase deerskin boots but consider horsehide as a better alternative.
Deartanned leathers are cowhide that has been specially tanned to provide a soft and velvety feel. Deertanned cowhide boots have the good properties of cowhide leather and do not have the disadvantages of real deerskin or elkskin. Deertanned boots provide the instant comfort of a glove fit the first time you put them on and are available in many colors.
Most eel comes from Korea and the Philippines. The skin is thin and fragile and subject to peeling. Therefore, eel skin should only be used for dress boots that are not subject to abrasion. Eel is available in a wide variety of colors. Making a boot requires several strips of the narrow skins to complete the vamp resulting in a very beautiful and distinctive look.
African elephant is available again after many years. (The United Nations permitted several African Nations to thin the herds in their national parks to preserve the health of this protective species. The hides were auctioned with United Nations control and all monetary proceeds returned to protect and aid the elephant habitat. The United Nations continues to prohibit the sale of elephant ivory to ensure that illegal poaching of elephant is banned and enforceable.) Elephant skin has a crackled, dullish, hard finish and is one of the most durable and scuff resistant skins. Elephant skin boots are much more comfortable and breathable than sharkskin boots although having superior scuff resistance.
Elkskin, like deerskin, is very soft and supple. Wearing a pair of these boots is almost like slipping your foot into a soft glove. However, both deerskin and elkskin are not too popular with bootmakers because besides continual oversize stretching they water spot, scratch, scuff and tear very easily. Renton Western Wear recommends that consumers not purchase elk boots but consider horsehide as a better alternative.
Goat is often referred to as 'kid' leather. It is a very fine-grained leather similar to calf, but with a little more stretch. Kid will take a high shine and is always soft and comfortable. Kid is less durable than calf with a tendency to scuff and peel more easily and is therefore used more extensively used in the shaft of the boot where its good looks and color choices fully enhance the foot leather.
Horse & Mule
Most skins come from North America and France. These skins can be used for rugged work boot because of their scuff and scratch resistance. Horsehide boots, many times called Ranchhand leathers, can also be used for very comfortable dress boots. Horsehide is much more elastic than cowhide and fits the foot like a soft glove similar to deerskin or elkskin but the toughness of horsehide gives it long life without the disadvantages associated with deer or elk. Horsehide jackets and chaps are the preferred leather of motorcycle riders to protect against accidental road rash and baseballs were covered with horsehide for years before the major leagues switched to the less durable but lower cost cowhide.
Kangaroo has a tightly woven skin structure consisting of closely intertwined fibers running in all directions that makes it one of strongest leathers for its weight and thickness. Kangaroo is a very soft and flexible skin whose very high tensile strength allows it to be made into a thinner and lighter weight boot. Kangaroo competes with calfskin for comfort and feel and is lighter weight and tougher than calfskin but is also prone to scuffing and scratching. Kangaroo resists the effects of repeated wetting and drying better than most leathers but it is damaged by barnyard acids just like other dress type leathers. Not suprisingly, all skins come from Australia where many consider the kangaroo a pest. Most Olympic level or professional athletes wear lighter weight kangaroo shoes to improve their performance.
Lizard skins come from all over the world and although there are many species of lizard the most commonly used for boots are iguana, teju, and ringtail. Most lizard boots are made from animal's belly where the tile pattern is in straight lines or rows. Soft flexible membranes separate the hardened scales or tiles similar to alligator. The hard lizard tiles retain a good sheen, are available in a multitude of colors and hold up over the long haul better than alligator. Lizard is a boot that can be worn every day or used as a fine dress boot. The popularity of lizard has reduced the population of larger lizards and required most bootmakers to work with smaller skins and create pieced vamps for larger sized boots. Some dress boots are fashioned with a lizard wing tip toe to add styling and also provide exceptional toe scuffing resistance. Hornedback lizard uses the back of the animal skin instead of the belly. The bumpy back is flattened mechanically and the tiles have an irregular pattern.
Nubuck or sueded shoulder is top grain leather that has been lightly sanded to give it a sueded finish but with a definite grain pattern and more velvet feel and greater water repellency than suede made from a split leather.
Ostrich skin is by far the best choice in the exotic leather category. It is one of the softest, yet most comfortable and durable, of all the exotic leathers. Ostrich has soft, medium-sheen finish and is easily maintained. Ostrich is available as full quill, smooth and leg. The full quill is obtained from the prime part of the ostrich's back where the large and uniform feathers marks provide the distinguished quill markings and provide better breathability. Smooth ostrich comes from the sides or flanks of the ostrich and although having the same strength and comfort as full quill does not show many distinguishing quill markings. Ostrich leg has a distinguished wide scale pattern similar to chicken leg but with the durability and feel of lizard.
Usually a heavyweight calf or bullhide is oil treated for heavy work use. Retan simply means the skin has been tanned twice, the first time with a chrome tanning to make it tough, and the second time with fats and oils to enable the skins to resist water, petroleum products, barnyard acids and waste etc. Retan makes a tough-as-nails work boot. Pitstop cowhide leather is a form of retan with an oil and wax finish that gives superior pull-up like apache leather but with a darker brown coloration.
Roughout originally was made by positioning the top grain, smooth side of the cowhide skin, inside the vamp and the fleshy rough side of skin on the outside of the boot thereby getting the name 'rough side out' or simply roughout. Today roughouts are made from the cowhide 'split' with flesh sides top and bottom. Roughout leathers are soft and casual looking and are very low maintenance, not requiring polishing or conditioner oils. However, they can absorb water more readily than top grain leather and usually show stain marks that give a boot a well-worn character.
Shark is an extremely rough and rugged skin. The surface has raised sections, which allow the skin to be dyed so that the higher-textured areas will be lighter than the background producing a pleasing mottled effect. Shark is a long-lived skin and is virtually scuff-proof. Variations amongst sharkskins are fundamental to the type of shark. There are hundreds of different shark species but bootmakers and leather tanners group them to be all the same name 'shark' despite some species having very stiff rigid skins that are hard to break in and some having soft flexible skins that conform to the foot easily. Sharkskin boots have good water shedding properties but tend to be hotter on the foot since they have less breathability than boots made from animals that have skin porosity from hair, feathers, sweat glands, flexible membranes, etc.
Boots are made from various types of snakes but mostly python, boa, anaconda, rattlesnake and watersnake/seasnake. The most popular snakeskin boots are python although boa and anaconda are first cousins to python and it would take an expert to tell them apart once a boot was finished. Python is by far the most durable of the snakeskins. Natural color snakeskin is a combination of a white background with brown or black markings but snakeskin can be dyed to many fashion colorations. Natural color snakeskin yellows with age, similar to old newspaper, caused by ultraviolet sunrays. Dyed colored boots maintain their coloration. Snakeskin boots can be either backcut to give the wide belly scales prominence on the top of the boot or can be bellycut to give the smaller and distinctive pattern of the snake's back prominence on the top of the boot. Rattlesnake has a coarser finish than python and both western and eastern rattlesnake are usually bellycut to display the strong diamond pattern of the skin. Watersnakes and seasnakes have usually been used for women's fashion accessories or fashion boots in vibrant colors. Watersnake and seasnake are a thinner, more delicate snakeskin than python or rattlesnake. Snakeskin boots are good for everyday urban wear or dress wear and look great with blue or black jeans or all colors of dress slacks.
Stingray is available in many colors and has a marbled, gravel-like texture, resembling thousands of tiny pebbles glued to a leather backdrop. The pebble finish boot usually has a natural bright white calcium deposit located right in the middle of the vamp that reminds people of a star opal. The skin is so tough, and breaks so many needles, that not all bootmakers will work with it. Stingray is one of the most scratch and abrasion resistant exotic leathers and is very waterproof. It may feel stiff when first purchased but it will break-in to be very comfortable in a few days. The finished boot has a very unique appearance.