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What Is Horween Chromexcel Leather? Here’s Why It’s Special

William Barton
Expertise:

Boots, Leather, Heritage Fashion, Denim, Workwear

William founded BootSpy in 2020 with a simple mission: test and review popular men’s boots and give a real, honest opinion. Since then, we've welcomed over 5 million readers on our boot reviews and boot care guides. Reach out to him for your own personalized boot recommendation at william@bootspy.com. Or join 50,000+ subscribers on the BootSpy YouTube channel, or send him a message on the BootSpy Instagram. Read full bio.


Last Updated: Mar 15, 2024
6 min read

If, during your quest for the perfect pair of boots, you’ve spent considerable time falling down the ever-expanding leather rabbit hole, then you’ve surely stumbled across the term “chromexcel.”  

Since this label is highly credited in the leather niche, it makes sense to learn what chromexcel leather actually is. 

It’s equally important to understand what it isn’t. After all, each leather has a time and place.

To better understand what makes chromexcel leather so unique, let’s take a closer look at its manufacturing process and learn a little bit of its history too. 

What Makes Horween Chromexcel a Unique Leather? 

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Chromexcel has been around for at least 100 years. In fact, the original purpose for this leather was to be used in sealing engines and motors. Not only that, but chromexcel even found its way onto American tanks in World War Two! 

That’s right, the same leather marching across European sand was used to keep our freedom machines running. Interestingly, these leather seals are considered superior to their rubber counterparts. As a result, chromexcel is still found on oil rigs and other industrial applications.

A Focus on Provenance

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In addition to an incredible history, chromexcel is unique for a few reasons. Firstly, only chromexcel leather tanned by Horween in Chicago can be called “chromexcel.”  

There may be other similar leathers, but only the hides produced exclusively by Horween can truly be classed as chromexcel. 

Superior Durability and Finish

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When it comes to the product itself, chromexcel is desired due to both durability and finish. It balances the blend of function and form in a unique way. 

Unlike most vegetable tanned leathers, it holds a high shine, is fairly flexible, and fares better against moisture and heat. Unlike most chrome tanned leathers, it is long lasting, albeit not very scratch-resistant.

How Does Chromexcel Compare to Other Leathers?

Shell Cordovan

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Similar to chromexcel in that it is a waxy leather with a high sheen. Unlike chromexcel, however, it’s only vegetable tanned, and is sourced from the rump of horse hide (known as shells).

Think of shell cordovan as the preppy cousin to chromexcel. 

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Also, due to the fact that cordovan isn’t taken from the topmost layer of the skin, this leather does not crease and wrinkle like others. Shell cordovan is a popular but expensive choice for high-end footwear. 

English Bridle

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Available from a multitude of tanneries, English bridle, as the name suggests, was designed for equestrian usage. Made explicitly for bridles, this leather requires less oil than latigo or harness leather. 

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Overall, however, English bridle is more robust than chromexcel, though does not contain the sought-after pull-up effects found in chromexcel.

Oiled Latigo – Wicket and Craig

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In general, latigo leathers are designed for heavier-duty applications than what would be required of chromexcel. Additionally, oiled latigo from Wicket and Craig is entirely vegetable tanned, not a chrome and vegetable tan combination. 

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Wicket and Craig also use a different, more industrialized dying process, allowing for more even coloration throughout the hide. Although certainly more durable than chromexcel, latigo lacks the luster and beauty that is found in a less rugged type of leather. 

Old World Harness – Hermann Oak

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This comparison is similar to that between chromexcel and latigo. Designed for demanding applications, harness leather contains even more waxes and oils than latigo or English bridle. 

This means it can leach oils into clothing or furniture. It’s also very stiff, as it needs to be extremely weather resistant, so it can be challenging to break in.

Essex – Horween

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Another product by Horween, Essex leather is a vegetable tanned leather, tanned using the same ingredients as their shell cordovan. It does contain oils but does not receive the benefits of combination tanning like chromexcel. 

According to Horween, “The Essex family of leather is very versatile and can be used in a wide variety of products.”

Chromexcel Tanning Process

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As previously stated, the final goal of chromexcel leather is to incorporate the best aspects of vegetable and chrome tanning: durability and comfort. 

It’s a laborious process, comprising 89 steps and taking almost an entire month to complete! But the result is certainly worth it. 

Preparing the Hides Is the First Step

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Simplified, the basic process for making chromexcel can be split into three categories. In the first set of steps, raw, untouched skins are soaked in a solution to clean the hair from the top side of the hide. 

This is followed by soaking the hides in a lime solution to balance the acid composition within the material. Once thoroughly rinsed and cleaned, the hides begin the second set of steps in the process.

Chrome Tanning

The next few steps follow the basic form of chrome tanning leather. The hides are prepared for tanning and eventually tanned using chromium salts. This gives a leather that is supple and pliable.  

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Vegetable Re-tanning

The final treatment for chromexcel leather establishes the desired characteristics of vegetable tanning. Horween selects specific tannins (extracts from tree bark) and natural chemicals to use for this part of the process.  Using said tannins, the hides are tanned again.  

After this “re-tanning” process, the leather is subsequently “hot-stuffed.”  This means that the leather is permeated with waxes, oils, and fats, commonly done with the assistance of gentle heat. Adding so many compounds gives the leather much-needed protection from wear, as well as a coveted “pull-up” effect.

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Horween explains this as “the temporary displacement of these oil and wax blends that cause a lightening of the leather.”  

Simply, the leather lightens in areas that receive more wear and abuse. The hides are then hand-rubbed with dye and oil and are finally ready for use.

The Best Way to Care for Chromexcel Leather

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Even though it’s a natural material,  chromexcel contains such a high content of oils and waxes that very little care is needed for proper maintenance. In most cases, simply brushing the leather with a horsehair brush will restore the natural shine.

If more TLC is needed, applying a gentle, neutral leather cream, such as Saphir Renovateur or Venetian Leather Balm, will do the trick.

Keep in mind that chromexcel is very prone to showing scratches and scuff marks. If this is bothersome, you might want to consider another leather that hides wear and tear better.

FAQs

How often should I condition Horween Chromexcel?

How much you need to care for chromexcel depends on how much the item is worn, as is the case with many things. 

In general, chromexcel products that are used almost every day could be conditioned as often as once every month or so.  Brushing off the leather every couple of days could potentially reduce the amount of conditioning needed down the line.

Is Chromexcel considered a full grain leather?

Short answer: no. Long answer: intentionally, no. For a leather to be considered “full grain,” it must not have the top (grain side) of the leather altered in the manufacturing process. Chromexcel leather has a tiny amount of the top layer sanded, to help produce an even surface texture, and to eliminate some natural marks. Therefore, it isn’t full grain leather.

What is Chromexcel leather good for?

Due to its combination of durability and beauty, Chromexcel leather is ideal for a variety of products, boots and shoes being the most popular. Small products like watch bands and wallets seem a popular choice for this leather as well. As stated earlier, there are a few industrial applications for chromexcel, namely in making gaskets and seals for pipes.

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