Leather Safety

I am interested in working with leather in the Glowforge. I understand that chrome tanned leather can be harmful and oil tanned burns easily, so I found this leather from buckleguy.com (Valdibrana Concerie, Tarano, Italian Vachetta Leather, Panel, Olive Green - Buckleguy.com), which is vegetable tanned, but says it is colored with aniline. Has anyone tried using leather like this with their Glowforge?

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All natural leathers can be cut in the glowforge, more or less. As with anything, be sure your ventilation setup is properly working without leaks and you’ll be fine.


Thank you for that! After looking at #4 on that list, it looks like it poses no threat to the glowforge, so ventilation is the only issue. But how does that explain how chrome tanned leather can damage the machine?

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To my knowledge it can’t.

Someone correct me if I’m wrong [and cite sources outside the forum], but my understanding is that the chrome in the smoke is more of a health hazard than with veg tan. Just vent well and you should be fine.


I etch oil tanned leather a lot–any organic material produces soot from the laser–as the laser burns it. I avoid etching pig skins, but have been OK working with some chrome tanned cowhide, but usually work with oil tanned hides.

Any leather you need to clean the surfaces that are etched or cut to remove the soot (else gets all over your fingers)–very soft toothbrush & bit of soap and water is my method for most leathers–suede often just use low tack tape to get the soot off.

But whatever you choose, you should test the settings–high power + low speed = more burning. When I cut with my GF (I rarely do cutting, but lots of etching), I found multiple passes with higher speed and lower power minimizes burns. It can also be tricky keeping thicker leather flat for cutting (less issue if just etching)–so small magnets, kept at least 1" away from laser path, can be a good option along with the honeycomb hold down pins.

And do be aware that leather can vary based on position the piece was in the hide (e.g. belly is much softer than shoulder or butt) and hide to hide can vary–but I think the leather you bought should be more consistent due to its processing. But many leathers are “stuffed” with oils (such as harness leathers) and may need different settings than a similar thickness and color from a different manufacturer…

But be patient, test a lot, and enjoy it.


Here is a post about lasers and chrome-tanned leather (with cited sources) that seems to do some due diligence, but I’m no chemist so I can’t really confirm: https://groups.google.com/g/heatsynclabs/c/JGRst9GxPUk/m/9Pa1qG5_UvMJ
He does mention the possibility of damage to certain types of metals that may or may not come into contact with the smoke.

the ATX Hackerspace laser safety guide does not mention tanning method, just pretty much says real leather is safe but can tricky.

Another makerspace (I can’t remember which) had chrome-tanned on the “don’t cut” list with the note that it shriveled and deformed when lasered.

Another thing to consider is just how terrible the chrome-tanning process is for the environment.
This post goes into that a little bit… but of course it is from a leather company that uses natural methods and is promoting their process/product over others.

here is an NIH publication that talks about the hazardous materials found in a laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) of chrome-tanned leather.

Granted, they are using a Yag laser, not C02, but it seems relevant to me: laser the leather and measure what comes out.
It’s nasty. If you roll coal, flush your old medications, and dump your used motor oil in the drain, you probably don’t care. If you do care about the environment, maybe avoid the chrome stuff, and get veg-tanned. Or, even better, get brain-tanned.

Brain tanning : Basically, the brain can be used for all animals. Usually, the brain mass of an animal is enough to make leather from its skin. It is available at the slaughterhouse or butcher, if one does not have the head of the animal. Brain is quickly perishable. Therefore, needs to be used immediately or must be frozen. Approximately 300 grams of brain mass is needed for a deer skin.

Variations of these methods are still used by do-it-yourself outdoorsmen to tan hides. The use of brains and the idea that each animal (except buffalo) has just enough brains for the tanning process have led to the saying “Every animal has just enough brain to preserve its own hide, dead or alive.”


It’s a bit off topic, but here we are…

If we want to go down this path, let’s talk about how much damage the cattle industry does… it’s quite arguable that we shouldn’t be in the leather business at all, instead look for fungus-based alternatives and the like.

It’s tough being an ethical consumer. Nobody can chase down the entire supply chain to find polluters.


Yeah, what they said. Good ventilation and cleaning/caring post cutting and you should be good - despite the entire rabbit warren worth of info (sometimes contradicting itself) about leather and lasers.

This is chrome tanned straight out of the laser, and then many years (and wearings) later:


this is why I only use human skin for my lampshades.


Based on something I saw this morning, I bet there would be some interesting things to be done with seaweed:


Massive damage. I’m sure you’ve seen the satellite time-lapses of cattle-grazing land being carved out of the amazon. gotta have them one-dollar burgers.
But I love eating beef, so what to do?
Baby steps. Buy good meat from smaller, local ranchers. Ones who choose to use better practices. The price is higher but the money stays local, and the meat is better. Be open to changing habits as more alternatives are developed/become available. (have you tried an ostrich burger? nom nom nom!)

totally, and you would have a strong argument. Fungi are way underused. But again, baby steps. It’s not like there aren’t other tanning methods already available, or that chrome tanning is some traditional method that needs support.

that’s very, frustratingly, true. And our collective definition of what is and isn’t ethical changes over time, as does our understanding of the impacts of certain industrial processes vs. others.

I normally just shut my mouth about this stuff on here. It makes people mad. Nobody wants to hear it. I don’t like hearing it, I don’t like saying it, and I hate the cognitive dissonance that I experience as an artist: how much damage and waste is created by my art, and is it worth it?
But I don’t ignore it. I can’t. I don’t have the ability to blissfully ignore, for example, that another useless trinket has been made from and endangered wood species, or that some people’s concern with safety only extends as far as their exhaust hose.

I don’t stop painting, but I stop using certain products. What’s the longest lasting, most brilliant, uv-resistant, full-coverage red paint that I could use? well it’s lead-based paint. But I don’t buy it (yes, before you ask, it is absolutely, bewilderingly, still being manufactured and available from certain parts of the world). I transitioned from printing on PVC-based wrap material to PVC-free material that costs almost double… but it lasts twice as long (and installs beautifully!)

that’s not the entire warren. That’s just barely inside the entrance :wink:


As I understand it, chrome-tanned leather (and associated chromium salts) are avoided by knife makers in sheaths because continued exposure will affect a metal knife blade. From what I have read, this is much more of a long-term issue - as opposed to the near-immediate damage that can occur when laser engraving/cutting PVC. In addition, there are concerns about breathing fumes from lasered chrome tanned leather. There is NO comprehensive list of all the chemicals used in chrome tanning. Every tannery has their own secret formula.

I use a lot of leather in the GF, primarily veg-tan since it is generally much more predictable and gives me better results. However, I’ve used chrome tanned leather occasionally for about 4 years now without any noticeable ill effects.

I’m not a scientist declaring all leather safe, just that I believe adequate ventilation allows me to cut all leather (excepting faux leather with PVC) without damage to me or my GF. I suggest each person needs to personally research the subject and find a path on which they feel comfortable.


Why not Buffalo?

Large hide, small brain? I don’t really know, just something that I’ve always seen when reading about brain tanning.

When the animals life is taken it gives you a complete tanning package as a bonus. Every critter has enough brains to tan it’s own hide, except buffaloes (and some people I know).
Adapted from Brain Tan Buffalo Robes, Skins and Pelts by Jim Miller
(Tan Your Pelts With Nature's Tools - Traditional Tanners)


Kind of interesting that a quick Google search gives brain mass results for tons of different species, even dinosaurs. Yet, American bison doesn’t seem to pull up nearly as easily.


I just want to like your post a million times. I can’t, so I’m stating it for the record.

Doing something small is better than doing nothing at all.

But also I’m laughing at how quickly we derail the threads here in fascinating, infuriating, and sometimes wildly predictable ways.


As much as I try to stay out of this debate, I feel there needs to be a fact check so that people do not stray away from this valuable byproduct.
Fact: Cattle leather, is actually a byproduct of the meat industry. In other words, ranchers do not raise cattle for it’s leather, they raise it for it’s meat. The natural leather would otherwise be tossed away.
Vegetable tanned leather, using tannin from vegetation, is far more environmental than the poly carbons, glues and chemical process many of these leather alternatives use. In fact, chrome tanned leather has even started needing safer environmental practices, although chrome tanning will never be as environmental as vegetable tanned. Protecting the environment is a huge area that many animal byproduct (such as cow leather) activists do not consider. In fact, even bamboo clothing goes through some very caustic processing ensured to endanger the wildlifes environment.
Vegetable tanned cow hide is a byproduct and that is important to know.
Onto the subject, Chrome tan is very hazardous to use in any type of pyrotechnics. The metals are released into the air and it becomes very dangerous, as well as hard to avoid, without serious protection and a mask. It is not advisable to use anything other than vegetable tanned and whether anilin dyed or not, you should use a mask. People will burn chrome tanned however the metal actually builds up in your body/lungs, so immediate toxicity is not known until prolonged exposure.

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That was my point:

Whatever people are raising the cows for, it’s a pretty destructive process for the environment, carbon emissions, water use, land use, you name it.

The environmental strain I was referring to is not about the tanning process.

As for meta toxicity, you’re not wrong, and that’s been discussed before as well:

If you’re going to process metal with your laser, be sure your ventilation setup is excellent.

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Using a byproduct is the most environmentally friendly thing anyone can do, but this wasn’t the topic, soo….

John Calabrese

This is debatable.

Let’s assume that we’re not talking about trying to get away from cows in general, and leave that part alone for now.

For something like leather, it may be more environmentally sound to landfill or reprocess unwanted stock into other protein-based products like fish feed and keep it local. The process of tanning (as you’ve noted) is messy, and you have to transport the leather all over the place, costing carbon and infrastructure (negative externalities add up).

A perfect example of that is buying produce from a guy in a pickup truck. Buy local, way better than going to a supermarket and buying fruit from a foreign country! … or is it? That guy in his 20 year old pickup just burned a lot of carbon to bring you his 2 bushels of apples. The impact per apple is far worse than the shipping container that came from Chile, the economy of scale is overwhelming.

As I said originally and which has apparently been glossed over:

While using byproducts is better than some other options, reducing consumption is generally far and away the best option (e.g. reduce, reuse, recycle – in that order).

There is a great deal of irony that we’re talking about this on an internet forum devoted to people with laser cutters. Talk about conspicuous consumption.