Workplace Solutions Hand/arm protection

Choosing the right leather for welding

What should I take into consideration when choosing the right leather to protect welders?


Responding is Joseph Solheid, QSSP, director of safety sales, Fastenal Co., Winona, MN.

Welding is done in machine shops, in manufacturing facilities, on construction jobsites, in the automotive industry and in so many other places. Anywhere two pieces of metal need to be joined, there’s a good chance someone will need to weld. Considering the work involves molten metal, electricity and intense amounts of light, safety is paramount.

From welding to brazing and torching to cutting, leather is a commonly trusted material to protect workers. But why?


The basics


No two leathers are the same. Each has its own unique properties. The four most common types of leathers used in welding and other heat- and fire-related work are cowhide, elkskin, pigskin and goatskin, and each has specific cuts and grades to consider. Other types of leathers include deerskin, kidskin and sheepskin.

Two grain types of leather are top and split. Top grain refers to the outer layer of the hide and offers more durability and liquid resistance. Because of its appearance, top grain is more expensive. Split grain is the leather that remains when the outer layer is removed. This is a more economical leather, but it offers higher resistance to abrasion and is more water repellent because of the denseness of its fibers.

This makes split grain a great choice for gloves when wet and oily gripping is unavoidable. In some situations, both cuts will be used: top grain on the inside with the rougher split layer on the outside to provide grip.

When referring to the cut of leather, where the cut is coming from matters.

  • Side split is durable and provides great protection.
  • Shoulder split is more economical, but it’s also less durable.
  • Belly split is the most economical choice; however, the appearance and texture of this cut is inconsistent.


Types of leather


Cowhide is the most common leather used in welding. This is in part because of its abundance, but also its durability. Its robust structure offers resistance to abrasion, sparks and spatter, which makes it a perfect choice for tough jobs that involve metal inert gas and stick welding. Naturally water- and dirt-resistant, cowhide is easy to maintain. Slightly more durable than elkskin, it’s not quite as soft. However, for comfort, cowhide is preferred over other non-leather materials, allowing it to be worn for longer periods. With its abundance coupled with its durability, cowhide leather is a great choice.

Elkskin leather is one of the thickest soft leathers available. A very durable leather, it’s the most heat-, flame- and abrasion-resistant, and won’t harden as fast as other options. It stays soft – even in hot and wet conditions – and conforms to your hand, providing great movement and flexibility for the wearer. Elkskin’s ability to withstand heat makes it perfect for stick welding.

Pigskin is a dense leather, which means it’s not as flexible as other leathers on the market. However, small pores in the skin allow the wearer’s skin to breathe and make the glove one of the most durable. Pigskin leather has a supple feel, and it stays soft, even after getting wet. However, pigskin leather isn’t recommended for use where moisture levels are usually high. Pigskin leather is great for MIG and stick welders, where durability is a must.

Goatskin is good for jobs that require high tensile strength and flexibility. A thin leather, goatskin is soft and pliable but still offers great protection against cuts and abrasion. The higher lanolin levels in the skin offer a barrier against moisture, and the thin nature of the material provides great fingertip control. Its strength and durability make it great for MIG welding, and when coupled with the dexterity it’s a perfect choice for tungsten inert gas welding. The highest quality leathers for fingertip sensitivity come from kidskin, very soft and lightweight leather from young goats that also provides the durability and abrasion resistance required.

Deerskin gains attributes from the fact that deer spend their time in thorny, rough conditions, so their skin is naturally tough. This gives deerskin leather the ability to hold up against cuts and abrasion. Although it’s tough, deerskin leather is lightweight and spongy, which makes it one of the softest and warmest leathers available. It’s also one of the only leathers that can spring back to its original shape and softness after getting wet. Thicker cuts of deerskin leather are a good option for MIG welding, while thinner cuts are a good choice for TIG welding.

Sheepskin, unlike other leathers, is tanned with the wool intact. The wool provides insulation and is resistant to flames and static electricity. Sheepskin is thin and elastic, allowing for flexibility and sensitivity, which makes it perfect for TIG welding applications. Its natural lanolin content helps heal sensitive and inflamed skin, and the fibers draw perspiration away from the skin.


Selecting gloves


When faced with the decision of which leather to choose, remember to consider the applications for which they’ll be used.

  • What type of heat and temperatures will the worker be exposed to?
  • What is the handling time, and what is the weight of the material being handled?
  • As for the lining, what type of insulation is provided to protect against radiant heat energy?
  • What length of glove is needed, from fingertip to cuff?
  • Are the threads made of flame-resistant material, and if not, are the seams fully welted to protect against sparks and spatter?

Armed with these considerations, you should be able to make the best choice.

Editor's note: This article represents the independent views of the author and should not be construed as a National Safety Council endorsement.

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