Tanning for generations | WORLD
MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Tuesday August 16th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.
Hello. I am Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next The world and all in it: a dying profession.
Two Australian brothers tan leather for a living. In fact, their family has been tanning leather outside of Melbourne, Australia for a very long time.
As the current generation ages, what’s next for the family business? Here’s WORLD correspondent Amy Lewis with their story.
THE AUDIO: [Tacking nails]
AMY LEWIS, REPORTER: Fifth-generation tanner Ross Greenhalgh leans under a low ceiling. It’s in a corrugated iron dryer in Bunkers Hill, Victoria. Greenhalgh glues a deer skin on a nailboard. When he’s done, he slides the board into place next to hundreds of other hides in the shed.
THE AUDIO: [A/C & heater]
Fan-forced heating and air conditioners dry out the air and skin in the humid southern hemisphere winter air.
Greenhalgh Tannery has been around since just after the Australian Gold Rush of 1851. It’s their newest location – built in 1863. Black cows roam the driveway amid gnarled apple trees that are at least a century old.
ROSS: So at my grandpa’s, you see the fireplace over there? Three years ago we had a fire that destroyed everything, a bush fire… So his house was there. This is where my father grew up. And her sister.
THE AUDIO: [Bell on store door]
AMY: It smells good in here. (sniff)
The shelves in the Greenhalgh Tannery showroom are overflowing with new Ugg boots, leather handbags, belts and hides and stamping tools. But the smell of history permeates the room with the earthy, brown aroma of fresh leather. It’s the smell you might remember from barn upholstery or old leather-bound books.
But the smell of leather is fading. Today, most leathers undergo a three-day chrome chemical tanning process. Only 10% of all leather produced in the world still uses the 3 month vegetable tanning method.
Ross’ colleague and older brother, Bruce, explains how the vegetable tanning process began.
BRUCE: So when you get the skin, it’s usually salted, so we soak it. This is to rehydrate them and get rid of excess salt. After that, we split them in half and flesh them out….
The first wet parts of the process are carried out in the beam shed.
ROSS: And the reason for that is that in those days the big tanneries had, you know, 50 of these beams with someone on top of each one. So it was a beam shed.
In the past, fleshing was done by hand.
ROSS: It’s, it’s a fleshing knife. Right? A bit rusty as we don’t use it very often at all. But you put the skin on it to cut the back meat and you slice it with that. But it’s crisp, razor-sharp. And the more you lean back, the more you can change the depth of cut each time.
An experienced flesher could remove all the meat from the back of a hide in five or ten minutes. Now they have a machine that can do it in thirty seconds.
BRUCE: After they’re fleshed, they’re also put in a lime solution with a bit of sulphide. This plumps up and relaxes the hair.
To become leather, the skins must be soaked in lime to loosen the hair. Then they are skinned or scraped and descaled.
Ross dons a long, thick apron before pulling 160 neutralized pink hairless kangaroo skins from a huge metal drum perched on the side. Ammonia gas burns the eyes. The hides definitely don’t smell like leather yet.
Kangaroo leather is unique.
ROSS: Kangaroo is the strongest leather in the world for its thickness…four times stronger than cowhide of the same thickness, so it’s used for a lot of football boots and things like that because it’s very resistant.
THE AUDIO: [Watery wattle tea]
The skins are then suspended in pits filled with an increasingly intense acacia bark tea. The tannins of the acacia – or black acacia bark – replace the moisture in the skins for two months. These natural tannins are the origin of the name of the process.
THE AUDIO: [Squeezing machine]
Once the hides are fully tanned, Bruce and Ross press the hides dry, then shave them to an even thickness.
THE AUDIO: [Shaving machine]
BRUCE: And the top half has the good half. It’s full-grain leather. And the reason you’re doing this is that the skins themselves aren’t of uniform thickness. They can be thick in the neck and thick in the buttocks and fall down the middle, that sort of thing.
Then they wax and dye the skins. After all these steps and all this time, the hides finally have that classic leather smell.
The tannery and the leather they make is classic, but it can’t last forever. The brothers are in their sixties and are thinking of retirement. This is Ross.
ROSS: Probably the hardest thing is when you enter your twilight years. This is probably the hardest part, when are you going to give up? (laughs) You know.
When the brothers retire, the smell of leather in Australia will fade even more. The sixth generation Greenhalgh chose other professions.
It’s not too bleak a future for the brothers, however. Bruce has an exit plan.
BRUCE: Oh, I paid for a little house on the Murray and I try to go there on odd weekends and holidays. The fishing which, well you know, when I say fishing I cast the line and I go to sleep. Fish are pretty safe! (Laughs)
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Amy Lewis from Bunkers Hill, Australia.
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