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Tanning for generations


WORLD Radio - Tanning for generations

Two Australian brothers have carried on the family business for decades

Photo by Amy Lewis

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Tuesday, August 16th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: a dying trade.

Two Australian brothers tan leather for a living. In fact, their family has been tanning leather outside Melbourne, Australia for a very l-o-o-o-ng time.

So as the current generation ages, what’s next for the family business? Here is WORLD correspondent Amy Lewis with their story.

AUDIO: [Tacking nails]

AMY LEWIS, REPORTER: Fifth generation tanner Ross Greenhalgh stoops beneath a low ceiling. He’s in a corrugated metal drying shed in Bunkers Hill, Victoria. Greenhalgh tacks a deer hide to a nail-pocked board. When he’s done, he slides the board into place beside hundreds of other hides in the shed.

AUDIO: [A/C & heater]

A blowing heater and air conditioners dry the air and the hides in the moist winter air of the southern hemisphere.

Greenhalgh Tannery has been around since just after the Australian Gold Rush of 1851. This is their newest location–built in 1863. Black cows wander across the driveway amid gnarled apple trees at least a century old.

ROSS: So my grandfather's place, see the chimney over there? We had a fire three years ago that wiped everything out, bushfire…So, his house was there. That's where my father grew up. And his sister.

AUDIO: [Bell on store door]

AMY: It smells good in here. (sniff)

The Greenhalgh Tannery showroom shelves are full of new Ugg boots, leather purses, belts and pelts and stamping tools. But the smell of history permeates the room with the earthy, brown aroma of fresh leather. This is the smell you might remember from the tack room of a barn or old leather-bound books.

But the smell of leather is fading. Most leather today goes through a three-day-long chemical chrome tanning process. Only 10 percent of all leather produced in the world still uses the 3-month-long vegetable tanning method.

Ross’s co-worker and older brother Bruce explains the beginning of the veg-tan process.

BRUCE: So when you get the hide these usually come salted so we soak them back. That’s to rehydrate them and get rid of the excess salt. After that we split them in half and flesh them….

The first wet parts of the process are done in the beam shed.

ROSS: And the reason that is because big tanneries back then they used to have, you know, 50 of these beams with someone over each one of them doing it. So, it was a beam shed.

Fleshing used to be done by hand.

ROSS: That's, this is a fleshing knife. Right? Bit rusty because we don't use it very often at all. But you put the hide over to cut the meat off the back and you slice it with this. But this is sharp, razor sharp. And the more you tilt back, you can alter how deep you cut each time.

An experienced flesher could get all the meat off 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 put in a lime solution with a bit of sulfide as well. That plumps it up and loosens the hair.

To become leather, the hides have to be soaked in lime to loosen the hair. Then they’re scudded or scraped clean and de-limed.

Ross dons a long thick apron before pulling 160 neutralized pink hairless kangaroo hides from an immense metal drum perched on its side. Ammonia gasses smart 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 the strength of cow leather the same thickness, hence it's used for a lot of football boots and things like that because it’s very strong.

AUDIO: [Watery wattle tea]

The hides are then suspended in pits filled with an increasingly intense wattle bark tea. The tannins of the wattle—or black acacia bark—replace the moisture in the hides over the course of two months.  Those natural tannins are where the process gets its name.

Wattle pits

Wattle pits Photo by Amy Lewis

AUDIO: [Squeezing machine]

After the hides are tanned all the way through, Bruce and Ross squeeze the hides dry, then shave them to an even thickness.

Squeezing hides

Squeezing hides Photo by Amy Lewis

AUDIO: [Shaving machine]

BRUCE: And the top half has the good half. That’s the grain leather. And the reason you're doing that is because it's the hides themselves are not an even thickness. They can be thick in the neck and thick in the butt and fall away in the middle, that sort of thing.

Then they wax and dye the hides. After all these steps and all that time, the hides finally have that classic smell of leather.

Bruce brushing hair on rugs

Bruce brushing hair on rugs Photo by Amy Lewis

The tannery and the leather they make are classic, but they can’t go on forever. The brothers are in their 60s and thinking about retirement. Here’s Ross.

ROSS: Probably the hardest thing is when you're getting in your twilight years. That's probably the hardest part is, When are you going to give up? (laughs) You know.

When the brothers retire, the smell of leather in Australia will fade that much more. The Greenhalgh sixth generation has chosen other professions.

It’s not too bleak a future for the brothers though. Bruce has an exit plan.

BRUCE: Oh, I've got a little house paid off on the Murray and try and head up there on odd weekends and holidays sort of thing. Fishing which, well you know, when I say fishing I throw the line out and go to sleep. Fish are pretty safe! (laughs)

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Amy Lewis in Bunkers Hill, Australia.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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