Part 2 Of The History Of The S.B. Foot Tanning Company
Last week, the first article of the 150 years of S.B. Foot Tanning was published, themed: 150 Years Of S.B. Foot Tanning: The Legacy Of Family & Community: (Part 1). Now, it’s time for the follow-up, part 2 which focus on ‘experience capture in every leather detail’.
Producing Top-Quality Leather
Over the last century and a half, countless technology advances have emerged that make leather tanning more automated and efficient. But for S.B. Foot Tanning Company, producing top-quality leather of the ideal color, consistency and durability is still mostly a matter of applying time-honored techniques. And paying absolute attention to detail in a process that involves dozens of steps. Put another way, making premium leather doesn’t happen by accident, and it starts at the very beginning with the health and care of the cattle.
The S.B. Foot tannery sources much of its hides from ranchers in Nebraska, USA, who ensure cattle don’t roam too far or wide to reduce injury or scarring.
A Meticulous, Multistep Process
Once the carefully chosen hides reach the S.B. Foot facility, the tanning process begins converting animal proteins into a more stable material that won’t easily break down, which ultimately creates leather that is built to perform. Properly tanned leather is critical to ensuring a long life of the final product, be it a boot, wallet, bag, or otherwise. The leather can be finished in several ways after initial conversion to achieve the desired pliability, water resistance, and texture. The tanned hides are known as “wet blue” hides because the hides take on a bluish tone after being subjected to the tanning process.
To get to a finished state, the wet blue hides are rewetted, shaved by hand to get the correct thickness, and placed into giant wooden drums to soak in specialty tree oils, tanning agents and dyes. The wooden drums are similar to those used by Silas Buck Foot and his team when the tannery was built in 1872. Although many tanneries have switched to steel and aluminum drums, wooden drums tend to yield better dying results. The longer the leather soaks in the drums, the more the chemicals and oils penetrate the leather to help conceal scuffs and maintain color consistency. As the hides come out of the drums, they are rolled, dried and stretched prior to being delivered to customers for cutting and crafting. Hides are also cut lengthwise into two equal halves for handling, each of which is referred to as a side. From start to finish, every side of leather takes between two and five weeks to move through the tannery, with more than 50 people contributing to the process along the way.
“No matter how much the technology advances, leather will always be a somewhat labor-intensive process, especially if you’re driven by quality,” said Brandon Yoemans, a 28-year employee at the S.B. Foot tannery who started as Process Chemist and is now Technical Manager. “For example, there are more than 50 steps to coloring alone, which uses a combination of specialty ingredients to achieve a very specific tone.”
According to Rollie Pomeroy, Technical Manager of Finishing at the S.B. Foot Tannery, color matching of the leather is still done with the naked eye. “Everyone who color matches has to pass an eye test. It’s an art that takes years of experience to
master.” Pomeroy has worked at the tannery for 55 years. His father worked in the color mills, and Rollie worked in the lower tannery during the summer when he was growing up. He started out removing the hairs off hides with a hand sander, before
doing color mixing for 20 years and ultimately ending up at his current role in finishing.
More than 100 dyes used during coloring and finishing can produce leathers in thousands of different colors at the S.B. Foot tannery. Waxes, prints, tumble mills and specialty materials are also used to make leathers with a unique look, feel and performance characteristics. “The oldest piece of equipment in use is a spraying machine we call the ‘one-armed bandit,’” Pomeroy said. “It’s the only one of its kind and at least 50 years old. It does its job extremely well, so we figure there’s no need to replace it.”
Quality & Craft
As America’s largest side leather tannery, the S.B. Foot tannery manufactures different leathers for a variety of applications. Each leather type possesses unique color, performance, and visual characteristics, including exceptional beauty and durability. The most popular leathers for footwear range from waterproof Black Dove and Mohave for military applications to reverse suede Boomer leather, waxy and rugged Rough & Tough leather, and striking orange brown Oro Legacy leather.
“Our leathers are harder to make than most others, but we’re willing to do the extra work to get the most out of them,” Pomeroy said. “Waterproofing is especially difficult, but ours goes all the way through the cross-section of the leather to really keep out the moisture. It’s little steps like these that make a big difference in the end.”
The tannery produces more than 3,000 finished sides a day – enough to make more than 20,000 pairs of shoes. While much has advanced in leather-making today, the foundation of delivering the most premium, American-made leather remains the same. Only a small fraction of leather products available in the United States feature American-made leather.
“There aren’t many businesses left like S.B. Foot that have been making the same product from the same location for such a long time, and this experience can be felt in the quality of our leathers,” Yoemans said. “For me, to go from hides coming into the factory to the beautiful, finished product makes all the hard work worthwhile. I’m sure everyone who did this work before me felt a similar kind of satisfaction.”
(Article taken from The Red Wing Post No. 9 by Red Wing Shoes)
Read also Part 1: 150 Years Of S.B. Foot Tanning: The Legacy Of Family & Community.
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