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Buyer’s Guide to Good (and Bad) Leather Furniture

By Jeff Frank

“Leather” sofas & “leather” reclining furniture are available in a wide range of prices.

Confusing terminology like “full grain,” “aniline,” and “bonded,” and many others can be ambiguous or have multiple definitions.

How do you make sense of it all?

You just wanted a leather couch, right?

Bonded, Match, Faux, or Real?

Do you know the difference between “bonded” leather, “leather match,” “faux leather,” and “real leather” made from animal hides?

If you don’t know the difference, you should not be buying leather furniture.

Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of people who thought they were buying long-lasting, durable leather furniture have seen their expensive seating literally fall apart within a few years.

For hundreds of years, leather furniture was known for its extreme strength and comfort.

High-quality leathers covered durable frames and foundations that lasted 20 years or more.

Leather couches were beautiful, comfortable and dependable.

Now there are bonded leathers, leather-match, faux leathers and composite fabrics combining polyurethane, vinyl, polyester and other fibers.

It is not unusual for consumers to think they are buying real leather furniture, when it is actually one of the many synthetic alternatives.

Some alternative synthetic leathers, sold with cheap frames and cushions, can literally fall apart after only a few years.

Other synthetic leathers are extremely durable and easy to clean.

They can remain looking and feeling good for 10+ years.

The Confusing World of Leather

Prior to 2010, leather furniture was expensive.

Cheaper vinyls and other 100% synthetic faux leathers had been around for a long time, but sales were minimal.

As technology improved, synthetic leather fabrics improved. looking and feeling closer to “real leather.”

But the vast majority of furniture shoppers just could not take the psychological leap of accepting “fake leather” as an acceptable lower price alternative to the real thing.

Because real leather was expensive, most leather seating consisted of smaller pieces, especially reclining chairs.

Larger “real leather” pieces, such as reclining sofas and sectionals were rare.

They were simply too expensive for most furniture shoppers.

Everything changed in 2010, when Bonded leather was first introduced.

For the first time, there was a “faux leather” that combined synthetic material with 10% – 20% “real leather.”

The fact that this 10 – 20% “real leather” consisted of left-over hide scraps that were crushed, mixed with adhesives, rolled-flat and then used as the backing for a 100% synthetic facing material, did not matter.

Salespeople quickly discovered that it was easy to sell these “bonded leather” fabrics by implying that they were actually “real leather” or “partially real leather.”

For the first time, “leather” furniture was available to the public at prices that most people could afford.

In the beginning, bonded leather fabrics were more expensive (and more durable) than the cheaper versions that were soon introduced as price competition increased.

As a result, it took about 5 years before retailers and manufacturers began noticing the high number of complaints about “peeling leather.”

They responded by adding exclusionary clauses to warranties, protecting themselves against consumer claims relating to defective bonded leather.

It took consumers nearly 10 years to begin realizing just how many complaints were being registered about defective bonded leather furniture.

By then, it was too late!

Bonded leather reclining furniture had become the fastest growing furniture category (by far.)

The sales volume and profitability of bonded leather furniture was so high that retailers were willing to accept thousands of complaints (per retailer) to continue selling the products.

Bonded leather is finally being phased out of residential furniture.

Beginning around 2020, retailers finally began replacing bonded leather with new, composite faux leathers made from polyester and polyurethane

The new composite faux leathers look and feel very similar to bonded leathers, but cost less and do not “peel.”

Shoppers have finally overcome their resistance to 100% synthetic faux leathers.

This consumer acceptance is a great relief to furniture retailers and manufacturers.

The new 100% synthetic leathers are less expensive and trouble-free.

Although they have become widely used for only a few years, the new composites appear to be just as durable as highly durable 100% polyester and polyurethane fabrics.

Bonded leathers are still flourishing in office seating and small accessory products, such as wallets, belts, etc.

Leather is a complex and confusing subject.

It is still possible to buy high-quality leather furniture that will last 20 years and more.

If you have paid over $5,000 for your couch, you probably have a well-made piece of furniture that can last for many years.

Leather terminology is extremely flexible. Important terms can have several contradictory definitions, which are easily confused, even by industry professionals.

The Importance of Definitions

Important terms that have multiple, conflicting definitions include:

Genuine leather

Top grain leather

Full grain leather

Corrected leather

Aniline leather

PU leather

Leather terms and definitions vary between the U.S. and Europe.

Europeans tend to be far more restrictive and exact in their leather descriptions.

Americans are more casual and non-specific.

Leather guides written for the furniture industry can be completely different than those written by people interested in clothes or leather accessories.

Identical words may have completely different meanings.

Here are a few examples:

Genuine Leather

Most residential furniture industry professionals use genuine leather to mean “real leather” made from hides.

Leather accessories (belts, wallets, purses, etc.) that are labelled “genuine leather” are using the same material the furniture industry calls “bonded leather.”

The term genuine leather is also used for products made with bottom grain leather that is split away from the hide after the top grain has been removed.

This is a cheaper leather (often called “splits”) that is not as strong as the top grain.

It is more easily stained or discolored.

Office furniture companies are beginning to adapt the accessory definition of “genuine leather.”

If you search for “genuine leather”office chairs on Amazon, you will find both bonded leather and top grain leather chairs listed.

Top Grain Leather

Residential furniture professionals usually define top grain leather as a major category with several sub-categories that fall under the term.

Corrected leathers are top grain leathers that have been sanded down with the natural grain replaced by an artificially engraved embossing.

Natural leathers are leathers that have not been “corrected.”

There is a huge variation in price among different types and qualities of “top grain” leathers.

Leather accessories labeled top grain are almost always corrected leathers.

Leathers that are top grain but not corrected are known as “full grain” (which means something different for residential furniture).

Office seating labeled top grain usually refers to corrected leather.

The exception is high-end office seating where you may find expensive, top grain, pure aniline leathers.

The exception to the exception is that some people in the office furniture industry refer to pure or full aniline leathers as full-grain even when top grain hides are used.

Full Grain Leather

For most residential furniture professionals, full grain refers to a leather that has not been “split.”

The top grain has not been separated from the lower grains.

Exception: Many interior design professionals willo refer to any natural grain leather as full grain.

For accessories, full grain refers to any leather that has not been corrected.

These are leathers that have not been sanded down and embossed but retain their natural grain patterns.

Most full grain leathers used for accessories would be considered top grain for furniture.

Office furniture professionals are similar to professional interior designers.

They frequently confuse full grain with natural grain.

Corrected Leather

For residential furniture, corrected leather is also referred to as protected or pigmented leather.

Usually these terms are applied to top grain leathers that have had the natural grain completely removed and then replaced with an artificial embossing.

For high-quality leathers, minor corrections are sometimes made, but the leather is not identified as being “corrected” when sold.

Non-corrected leathers usually cost more.

“Corrected” leather does not refer to the bottom layer of leather left over after the top grain has been removed.

Suede (the bottom layer of the hide after the top grain has been removed) is not a corrected leather when referring to furniture.

Although pigmented is usually used as synonymous with corrected, the term is also used to describe the coloring process for pure aniline (non-corrected) leathers.

Leather accessories have a completely different definition for corrected leather than furniture companies.

Accessories made with corrected leathers are labeled “top grain.”

When leather accessories use the term “Corrected leather“, it is synonymous with what the furniture industry refers to as “split leather.”

Split leather is the bottom hide layer (bottom grain) left over after the top grain has been removed.

It is not as strong as the top grain and more susceptible to stains and discoloration.

Suede is a “corrected leather” when referring to accessories, but not to furniture.

Just like corrected top grain leather, the bottom grain is sanded to remove natural imperfections.

Usually, the surface is spray painted and embossed with a leather-like pattern to resemble natural appearance.

The processing alters the inherent breathability of the leather.

Just to make the subject even more confusing, the accessory industry often refers to this bottom grain as “genuine leather.”

That is the same term they use to describe “bonded leather.”

The term “corrected leather” is not usually seen applied to office seating.

Aniline Leather

Aniline leathers have very strict definitions that separate them from semi-anilines.

In actual usage there can be major confusion between the two.

Hides that one supplier sells as aniline might be sold as semi-aniline by other suppliers.

The difference between them is often described as aniline having no correction and semi-aniline having minor corrections, but that is not always the case

Europeans have a third sub-category below semi-aniline that is used for sanded hides with corrections that still retain some natural grain.

I have not seen that category used by U.S. leather suppliers.

PU leather started off as a shortcut for Polyurethane leather, a 100% synthetic faux leather that is quite durable and easy to clean.

Somewhere along the way, the term began to be used as meaning bonded leather.  

When the term PU leather is used today, it usually refers to bonded leather.

The Common Umbrella of Leather Types

In this article, I am attempting to deal with the widest possible range of furniture products sold under the common umbrella of “leather.”

It is important to first understand how manufacturing and retail costs relate to the many different types of “leather” furniture currently being sold.

Leather Types

Full grain leathers are very soft, very expensive, and can last 50 years or more with proper care and maintenance.

Top grain leather is, by far, the most common type of real leather from hides.

It is available in a vast selection of textures and finishes, ranging from relatively inexpensive “protected” variations to very expensive “aniline” versions.

Split grain leather is the bottom layer of the hide, left over after the top grain has been removed.

Suedes come from this bottom layer.

Suede is not as durable as the top grain and becomes stained or discolored more easily.

Split grain leathers are rarely used for furniture.

Bonded leather often disintegrates (peels) within 3 years or less.

Bonded leather cannot be repaired and has been the source of many thousands of complaints since its introduction in 2010.

Leather match combines cheap real leather with vinyl or other synthetic leathers.

A wide variety of faux leathers is now available.

Many faux leathers now closely mimic the look, texture, and feel of “real” leather.

Some synthetic leathers are extremely durable.

They are easy to clean and can last 10 years or more.

Other faux leathers, including bonded and bicast, are fragile and can fall apart very quickly.

Real leather, made from animal hides, can have hundreds of different textures, looks and other characteristics.

Natural leathers are unique. Every hide is different.

Grain patterns are not removed or protected.

Individual grain patterns will be inconsistent throughout a hide, sometimes showing significant variations.

Natural leathers can last a very long time but are easily damaged or stained.

The Costs of Leather

The cost of adding leather to a sofa can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.

So how much does “real leather” cost compared to faux leathers?

Cushion types affect leather costs.

For an average-size sofa, made with removable cushions, the manufacturer’s cost (from the mill) for faux leather fabrics is typically $35 – $75 for the entire sofa.

To calculate what you are actually paying for the fabric when buying a sofa, quadruple the manufacturer’s cost.

Bonded leathers, residential grade vinyls, and 100% polyurethane faux leathers (residential grade) have similar costs.

These artificial leathers are far more popular on reclining furniture than on non-reclining sofas, sleepers, and sectionals.

Sofas with non-removable cushions need about 1/3 less fabric.

The manufacturer’s average cost for a reclining sofa in a bonded or faux leather is around $25 – $50.

Most low and mid-priced reclining furniture is designed with non-removable cushions.

In comparison, the least expensive “real” leathers needed to cover an average size sofa (with removable, reversible cushions) would cost the manufacturer at least $500.

For reclining sofas with non-removable seats and backs, the least expensive “real” leather would cost at least $330.

More expensive “real” leathers for average size sofas with removable cushions can cost a furniture manufacturer $1000 and more.

The most expensive leathers can cost manufacturers $2000 or more to cover a sofa.

Sofas made with expensive leathers are rarely constructed with non-removable cushions.

It is common for seat cushions on expensive sofas, with high-cost leathers, to be removable, but non-reversible.

That can save hundreds of dollars in leather costs.

Leather-Match and Non-Removable Cushions

Leather-match is used almost exclusively for furniture with non-removable cushions.

A reclining sofa with non-removable cushions and 50% vinyl/50% protected top-grain leather would have a material cost of at least $260.

The cost breakdown would be approximately $200 for the leather and $60 for the faux leather.

Generally, the manufacturer’s cost for fabric is tripled to end up with an approximate retail price.

Profit margins for leather are typically lower than for fabrics.

The least expensive real leather costs (the manufacturer) at least $100 more for an entire sofa than bonded or other faux leathers.

This $100 additional cost is typically doubled before selling the sofa to a retailer. The retailer then doubles the cost again before selling to its customers.

A bonded leather or fabric sofa selling for $999 would be priced at $1499 in the cheapest “real” leather possible.

Leather-match would cost at least $50 more than bonded leather (on a sofa with non-removable cushions.)

This $50 additional cost is typically doubled before selling the sofa to a retailer.

The retailer then doubles the cost again before selling to its customers.

A bonded leather sofa selling for $999 would typically be priced at $1199 in leather-match.

The leather match sofa would typically sell in the store for about $300 less than the cheapest “real” top grain leather and $200 more than the bonded leather.

The prices listed above are based on estimated costs.

In many cases, the pricing spread between the different leather types will be greater.

What is the difference between bonded and faux leathers?

Bonded leather is a type of faux leather.

Faux leathers are synthetic materials that mimic the look and feel of genuine leather at far lower prices.

The most common faux leathers currently are bonded leather, 100% polyurethane, and 100% polyvinyl chloride (better known as vinyl).

Recently, new composite faux leathers have been introduced that combine polyurethane, vinyl and polyester.

Some furniture companies are attempting to use these new composite faux leathers to replace bonded leathers.

At this time, it is too early to tell how durable these new composite faux leathers will be.

Looks, texture, and comfort all seem to be acceptable so far.

Most faux leathers are extremely durable (at least 10 years.)

Caution should still be exercised to avoid low-cost products with thin facing materials or poor quality backings, especially bonded leathers.

100% polyurethanes are generally softer and closer to the actual look and feel of real leather than the vinyls.

As a result, polyurethane faux leathers have been growing in popularity for residential furniture buyers.

The new polyester based composite faux leathers are less expensive and growing even more quickly.

Vinyl fabrics have become far less popular for residential furniture.

The exception is in leather match, where vinyls are the most popular choice.

Higher cost vinyls are still widely used for commercial and institutional use where durability is the most important factor.

What Are Bonded Leathers?

Bonded leathers are typically made of thin layers of vinyls or (less commonly) polyurethanes, “bonded” (glued) to a backing comprising anywhere from 10% to 20% “genuine” reconstituted leather hide scraps.

These scraps have been chopped into tiny pieces, crushed into tiny particles, mixed with adhesives, and rolled flat.

The face of the bonded leather fabric is usually 100% vinyl or polyurethane.

The re-constituted leather is used only for the fabric’s backing.

You do not see or feel any of the “genuine” leather part of a bonded leather fabric.

Crushed leather particles make a very poor backing material.

The backing is much thicker than normal backings found on 100% synthetic faux leathers.

Crushed leather backings used for bonded leathers are far more likely to delaminate (separate) from the facing than standard cloth backings.

Compounding the problem, mills sometimes compensate for the backing’s extra thickness by thinning out the vinyl or polyurethane used for the facing.

There are thousands of cases (and numerous lawsuits) about expensive furniture that is ruined when the surface facing delaminates (“peels”) from the backing.

This can occur after only a few years or even just a few months.

Why Do Companies Use Bonded Leather?

Bonded leather’s primary purpose is to fool uneducated consumers into believing they are buying real leather at affordable prices.

Many salespeople do not mention that bonded leather is not the same as real leather from hides.

They allow their customers to think it is the real thing.

Others imply that, because the material is “partially” real leather, this makes it better than 100% synthetic faux leathers.

Bonded leather has no advantages for consumers over other types of faux leathers.

It does not look or feel closer to real leather than good quality polyurethanes or vinyls.

It is not even less expensive than alternative (more durable) 100% synthetic faux leathers.

Furniture retailers sometimes try to hide the fact that they sell bonded leather furniture by substituting brand names, such as Nuvo Leather, Renew Leather, LeatherSoft etc., to disguise its use.

Bonded leather is, by far, the most common material used for popularly priced office seating.

Office furniture sellers are far more likely to use the term “bonded leather” on their product descriptions than residential furniture retailers

That may be changing.

Many office furniture sellers are beginning to leave the material description blank in their product descriptions.

Occasionally, seating described as “leather” is actually bonded leather.

Small leather accessory item sellers are the most deceptive.

Sellers of belts, wallets, purses and other small leather items almost universally use the term “genuine leather” as a substitute for “bonded leather.

So far, the furniture industry still reserves the term “genuine leather” to describe “real” leather made from hides.

What Happens When My Bonded Leather Peels?

If you purchased bonded leather furniture which has started to peel, retailers will rarely do anything for you if the furniture was purchased more than 1 year previously.

Warranties do not cover peeling bonded leather, even when the bold print at the top of the warranty seems to guarantee coverage.

Retailer, manufacturer, and extended warranties all have specific clauses to exclude coverage for fabric issues.

Many lawsuits have been filed regarding bonded leathers that began to peel after a short period of time.

They are rarely resolved in the customer’s favor.

A 2017 editorial in Furniture Today, the leading trade publication for the furniture industry, discussed the many problems associated with bonded leather.

The author of the article proposed that maybe it was time for bonded leather to be voluntarily banned by retailers and manufacturers throughout the furniture industry.

The use of the term “leather” to describe bonded leather products is already banned by law in some other European nations.

Is Leather-Match Worth It?

Leather-match is a combination of real leather with vinyl or other faux leathers.

Leather match combines protected leathers on the parts of the furniture you touch (seats, inside backs, inside arms.)

Vinyl (or other faux or bonded leather) is used on the parts you do not touch (outside backs and arms, bases.)

The real leather used for leather match is the cheapest available “corrected” top grain leather.

“Corrected” (also known as “protected” or “pigmented”) leather begins with large numbers of flaws and unsightly imperfections.

These are sanded down, removing the natural grain.

The sanded hide is covered with a heavy layer of dye (pigment.)

The dyed hide is then embossed (engraved) with an artificial grain pattern that is identical to a matching vinyl (or faux leather.)

When the furniture is brand new, the vinyl and the leather should look virtually identical.

Unfortunately, the two materials do not age the same over time.

After a few years, the real leather stretches or contracts at a different rate than the vinyl.

This can cause seam slippage.

In addition, leather and vinyl colors fade at different rates.

The color can be noticeably different after a few years.

Leather types and sub-types

Although there are four basic types of leather, you can find a wide range of options based on the percentage of organic material, durability, and the finishing process.

Aniline Leather:

This is the most natural leather with a minimal resistance to soiling.

It requires regular upkeep.

Semi-Aniline Leather:

Semi-aniline leather consists of a light surface coating with a small amount of pigment.

It has more protection than aniline leather, but maintains its natural look.

Antique Grain Leather:

This consists of a unique surface processing that resembles the ragged appearance of conventional leather.

It is also known as “distressed leather.”

Chrome-Free Leather:

This type of leather uses aldehyde tanning, which, just like vegetable tanning, does not use chromium.

Chrome-free leather is often used to make infant shoes and automobile accessories.

Chrome Tanned Leather:

Most leather manufacturers use chromium salts (chromium sulfates) for the tanning process instead of vegetable tanning.

Though chrome tanned leather is thinner and softer than vegetable tanned leather, the process is not considered environmentally friendly.

Corrected Grain Pigmented Leather:

Imperfections are removed by abrading the grain surface before applying the coating.

A decorative grain pattern is embossed to simulate a natural look.

Pigmented Leather:

A polymer surface coating, containing certain pigments, is applied to produce the desired look and properties.

Due to its durability, pigmented leather is often used to make furniture and car upholstery.

Embossed Leather:

Embossed leather is imprinted with artificial leatherwork for a certain grain design or pattern.

Finished Split Leather:

The middle or lower section of a hide is used to produce this leather.

It is coated with a polymer and embossed to resemble a more natural look.

Good Hand Leather:

This is a softer leather that feels pleasant to the touch.

“Buttery soft” is another term used to describe this type of leather.

Kidskin Leather:

Made from the hide of young goats.

Latigo:

Latigo is cowhide leather specifically designed for outdoor use.

It is found in cinches, ties, saddlebacks, and other leather outdoor equipment.

Nubuck Leather:

I sand nubuck leather on the grain side to create a velvety appearance.

Aniline dyed leather is used to produce nubuck leather.

Oil Tanned Leather:

Oil-tanned leather is produced using oils to create a smooth and flexible finish.

Pebble Grain Leather:

The top surface mimics a pattern of small pebbles.

Printed Leather:

Printed leather is often stamped with a design or texture to create a unique look.

Pull-Up Leather:

Pull-up leather, or oily pull-up leather, stretches over time, providing a unique worn-in effect.

I consider it a sign of high quality.

Skirting Leather:

Used to manufacture saddles and bridles.

Skirting leather is made from the sides of the cattle’s hide.

Suede:

Suede is most popular leather with a napped finish.

It is used to make jackets, shoes, shirts, purses, and furniture.

Suede is not as durable or easy to clean as top grain leather.

Tooling Calf Leather:

Tooling calf is a thin, lightweight, vegetable-tanned leather.

It is suitable for printing and engraving.

Important Notes:

Natural leather grains are not consistent throughout an entire hide.

It is very possible for a single hide to have more than one type of grain patterns.

This is sometimes artificially corrected, even on expensive hides.

For example: A hide that is mostly pebble grain may be corrected (artificially engraved) in small areas to make the hide look more consistent.

What Differentiates Leathers?

Distinguishing between these different categories is not always simple or obvious.

Here are just a few examples of how different categories can get blurred or confused.

Leathers that are considered “aniline” by one supplier or manufacturer may be considered semi-aniline by another.

Semi-aniline leathers can be “partially” corrected.

The two different types of “pigmented” leathers are often used interchangeably without distinguishing “corrected” from “uncorrected pigmented” hides.

Although corrected leathers are usually less expensive than semi-aniline and semi-aniline is usually less expensive than aniline, that is not always the case.

Leather comes from many different sources.

Some are obvious, such as cattle, sheep and pigs, and some not so obvious, such as stingrays, snakes, ostriches and mushrooms.

Leather hides, used for furniture are processed from cows that were bred for the meat or dairy industries.

Leather accounts for 5 – 10% of the value of the entire cow.

Many other factors go into determining the price of a leather hide.

Just a few of these include:

Type or breed of animal

Size of hide

Layer of the hide used (full, top, split)

Quality and condition of hide

Where does the hide come from?

Where is the hide processed?

Tanning process used.

Quality and skill of the person doing the tanning and processing.

Leather Costs

Determining leather costs, even for a manufacturer, can get quite complex.

Here is an example:

A leather sofa manufacturer has a choice of two different types of hides for a sofa that requires 200 sq. ft. of leather.

One of the hides comes from Europe. The average hide size is 50 sq. ft. and the cost is $3.00 per sq. ft.

The other hide is from South America.

The average hide size is also 50 sq. ft. but the cost is only $2.00 per sq. ft.

Would the sofa cost less to make with the European leather? Or the South American leather?

Basic mathematics indicates that the South American leather should be cheaper – $400 compared with $600 for the European leather.

But with leather, there are other factors to consider.

In this hypothetical case, the European leather has relatively few flaws.

The wastage factor (amount of leather that will be cut away from the hide and not used) is 20%.

As a result of the wastage, each European hide has only 40 sq. ft. of usable leather. The sofa will require 5 hides, resulting in a total leather cost of $750.

The South American leather has more flaws.

In addition, it comes from a cattle breed that has a hump.

Cutting around the hump leaves a hole right in the middle of each hide.

The South American hides have a wastage factor of 40%, meaning there is only 30 sq. ft. of usable leather on each hide.

As a result, 6 2/3 hides are needed to make the sofa.

Since it is not possible to purchase 2/3 of a hide, the manufacturer will have to use 7 hides. T

The total price of 7 South American hides is $700.

This seems to indicate that the South American leather is still $50 cheaper than the European leather, even though it requires 2 additional hides.

But that does not account for the additional labor needed to cut, sew, and upholster 7 hides compared with only 5.

In the end, costs come out about even in this hypothetical example.

What Makes Leather “Aniline?”

Aniline leather is the most natural-looking leather type.

It is dyed with soluble aniline dyes in vats so that the color goes all the way through the hide, giving the leather its lush and rich colour.

In order to maintain the natural feel and look of the hide, no protective coating or surface pigmentation is applied.

The hides maintain their natural markings and texture.

This contributes to the uniqueness of the leather.

The lack of protective treatment can render these leathers more susceptible to scratching, staining, or fading and might show some colour variations on the surface of the hide.

The natural texture of the skin is clearly visible.

This is considered high-grade and has a high price.

The lack of a pigmented color layer on the surface means that aniline leather feels natural, soft and warm to touch.

The pores of the skin must be clearly identifiable in aniline leather.

If you rub a drop of water onto it, it will penetrate and darken the surface.

Aniline leather is therefore highly susceptible to water marks and grease stains as well as to fading caused by sunlight.

Aniline leather generally has a warm and waxy grip and a low degree of gloss.

Aniline leather that is completely porous and without any finish is classed as pure or full aniline.

Soft aniline leather is sometimes called Napa leather.

Since the surface structure is fully visible in aniline leather, only nearly flawless hides can be processed.

Any damages on the skin surface of the animal caused by scratches, warts, insect bites, brands and other markings can leave visible scars.

Because the majority of hides have some scars or damage, true (pure) aniline leather is more expensive than pigmented leather.

It is estimated that less than 5% of leather hides should be considered true or pure aniline leather.

Advantages:

Aniline leather is comfortable and soft to the touch.

Since it retains all the unique markings and characteristics of the hide, each piece is different from any other one.

Disadvantages:

Since it is not protected, aniline leather can be stained easily. It is not recommended for use in furniture for young families or in high traffic areas for that reason.

The grain pattern can vary from hide to hide, and also within a single hide. It is not unusual for a customer to purchase leather from a sample swatch and then receive furniture that looks completely different than expected.

The aniline leather classification is strictly specified in national and international regulations and standards.

In everyday usage, leather suppliers, manufacturers, retail furniture sales personnel and professional interior designers all ignore the strict definitions of “aniline.”

They apply the term to many other leathers that do not actually fall under the official classification of “aniline.”.

Pure aniline leather is not allowed to have any pigments on the surface.

The soluble color must go all the way through the hide.

There is another classification, between aniline and semi-aniline, designated as refined aniline leather.

Refined aniline leather is allowed to have a very fine pigmentation, but the classification is rarely used in the U.S.

Full or Semi-Aniline?

Semi-aniline leather is leather, which is only slightly pigmented (“corrected.”).

The natural leather grain and the hair pores are not allowed to be concealed by the pigmentation.

These can only be slightly protected and must remain visible.

The natural grain must be completely preserved and should not be buffed.

Semi-aniline leather is soft and warm and feels very natural compared to protected (corrected) leathers.

This is due to the less intense coating and the absence of compression of the leather fibers by a strong embossing (engraving) in protected leathers.

Embossing is not completely forbidden when producing semi-aniline leather.

Many leathers identified as semi-aniline do have small portions that have been embossed to give the hide a more uniform look.

Semi-anilines have better protection than anilines.

The protection is not as strong as for pigmented smooth protected leather, where the pigment layer acts as a barrier and the hair pores are no longer recognizable.

Protected leathers are mostly firmer and feel colder than semi-aniline leathers.

Semi-aniline leather is just a little tougher than aniline leather because its surface has been treated with a light coat that contains some pigment.

This makes the leather more soil- and stain-resistant.

It also makes the effect of dyeing different since even the slightest change in the process creates a different outcome.

Advantages:

While it retains the uniqueness of aniline leather, semi-aniline leather has more consistent color and is more resistant to stains.

It can stand up to tougher conditions and isn’t damaged as easily.

Pieces upholstered in semi-aniline leather are less expensive than anilines.

Disadvantages:

The natural grain patterns are not as apparent.

The piece does not have the unique appeal of aniline leathers.

What Are Protected Leathers?

Protected leathers (also known as Pigmented or Corrected) are the least expensive and the most common type of real leather found in furniture and car upholstery.

Protected leathers are the most practical for families with kids, pets or others who do not want to worry (as much) about long-term care and maintenance.

There is a wide variation in pricing for “protected” leathers.

Counter-intuitively, the more “protection” the leather has, the less expensive it will be.

The cheapest real leathers (usually made using Chinese hides) start off with multiple scratches, insect bites, brands, and other imperfections.

These flaws are covered over with heavy dyes.

The dye completely covers up the hide’s natural grain pattern.

An artificial grain is then embossed (engraved) over the dye.

A polyurethane resin protective coating is then applied.

The heavier the protective coating, the more resistant the leather will be to scratches and other things that may damage the furniture.

Heavier protective coatings, however, will also make the leather less soft and pliable.

Although the protective coatings will prevent minor scratches, it also makes serious damage more difficult to repair.

Protective coatings make the leather easier to clean.

A damp cloth is usually sufficient for routine cleaning.

Protected leathers are usually less expensive than “natural” leathers.

Most mass-produced leather furniture uses protected leathers that cost the manufacturers between $1.50 – $3.00 per sq. ft.

Better quality leathers (with less protection) can cost $5 per sq. ft., or much more.

A typical mass-produced all-leather reclining sofa with non-removable cushions may require approximately 150 sq. ft. of leather and sell for $1500

The retail value of just the basic leather in this hypothetical reclining sofa will be approximately $500.

In comparison, the retail value for a microfiber or bonded leather fabric on that same reclining sofa would be less than $100.

The retail price of the reclining sofa (with the identical frame and construction) would be closer to $999 in the microfiber fabric.

Full grain vs. Top grain – What is the difference?

There are literally thousands of questions and answers relating to this topic.

Many of the answers are completely contradictory.

First, I will give my definition of what full grain and top grain should be for consumers who purchase leather furniture.

Then, I will try to explain why there are other definitions that are completely different.

What is Full-Grain Leather?

Full grain leather is the highest quality grade of leather money can buy.

It comes from the top layer of the hide and includes all of the natural grain.

It is more expensive for manufacturers to buy and more difficult for them to work with, requiring special equipment and expertise.

Full grain leather is not buffed (sanded) where the natural grain pattern, including the skin irregularities of the animal, is still recognizable.

The natural surface of full grain leather is unique.

It tells a story and reveals natural imperfections, marks, and even light brands in the surface.

Full grain leather is extremely strong and durable, as the natural grain contains the strongest fibers in the hide.

Full grain leather is also extremely breathable, resulting in less moisture from prolonged contact.

Sanding, buffing and other processing which affects the natural grain disqualify a hide from being considered “full grain leather”.

These restrictions (and other leather terminology) are often loosely interpreted in the U.S. furniture community.

Europeans tend to be more precise in their definitions and descriptions of different leather types.

Full-grain leather is considered to be of higher quality, because the surface is more natural and softer.

Each full-grain hide will be unique, with a grain pattern that is different than any other.

Are Full Grain Leathers Aniline?

Aniline leather and semi-aniline leather can be full-grain leathers, but most are top-grain.

Less than 2% of hides sold for furniture are full grain aniline leathers.

Top grain aniline and semi-aniline leathers are not terms that are normally used for handbags and other accessories.

For accessories, those types of leathers are referred to as full grain.

That can be confusing to people shopping for furniture where full grain has a different definition.

Office furniture rarely uses delicate aniline and semi-aniline leathers.

What is Top Grain Leather?

Top grain leather is the second highest grade of leather, but there can be a huge variation in terms of quality and cost.

Over 90% of real leather furniture uses top grain leathers.

The term “top” does not refer to “best.” It refers to the position of the hide layers.

Leather hides can be split into two (or more) layers.

The top layer has stronger fibers than the bottom layers.

The natural grain is found only in the top layer.

A hide’s top layer includes the natural grain.

However, that top layer often includes imperfections that make the top grain unsuitable for use without “correction.”

The natural grain may be sanded down, to remove imperfections, and an artificial grain embossed onto the hide.

The natural grain may also be left on most of the hide with only small portions “corrected” with embossing.

Top grain leather is available in a wide range of prices.

Cost depends on many factors.

One of the most important is the amount of “correction” that is done to the hide.

In general, the more “correction” that a hide needs, the less expensive the leather will be.

Top grain leathers that require no correction at all are termed “natural.”

These are the most expensive and make up less than 2% of total leathers used for furniture.

There are exceptions to this.

For an example, check out my article, Which Leather Sofa is Better?

Top grain leathers that need only slight “correction” are processed with aniline or semi-aniline dyes.

These have a wide range of pricing, depending on many factors, but are usually more expensive than “corrected” top grain leathers.

Aniline and semi-aniline leathers may receive minimal “correction” but all or most of the natural grain pattern is still visible.

Minimal correction may include some artificial embossing, with or without sanding down the hide to remove the natural grain.

“Corrected leathers” are known by several different commonly used terms, including protected leather, pigmented leather and finished leather.

These are top grain leathers that have been sanded down to remove imperfections.

After sanding an opaque dye is added.

This removes all signs of scratches, bug bites, brands and other blemishes.

It also removes the natural grain pattern.

A new, artificial grain pattern is then embossed onto the hide.

The embossed grain is then covered with a clear, protective polyurethane coating.

The thickness of the protective coating determines how scratch-resistant the leather will be, but also reduces the leather’s softness and other characteristics.

Mass produced office furniture generally uses top grain corrected leathers.

The term all-leather generally refers to top grain corrected leathers when describing office seating.

The term genuine leather may mean the same as all-leather, but is sometimes also used to describe bonded leather or leather-match.

Most leathers used for consumer products are “top grain.”

When the top grain is removed, what is left over is called “splits.”

Split leathers will be discussed in the next section.

Why are most leather hides split instead of being sold as “full grain?

Full grain hides are much thicker and harder to work with.

Cutting, sewing, and upholstering with a full grain hide requires special equipment and takes far longer.

It also requires considerable physical strength.

As a result, full grain hides are usually restricted to the very few that are virtually flawless and can command top prices.

Exception: Occasionally, low quality (low cost) full grain hides that have too many flaws to be used for high-quality sofas are cut up into small pieces, which are sewn together.

The resulting patchwork sofa is made with full grain leather, but is available at a lower price than is normally associated with full-grain leathers.

Reasons why consumers (and industry professionals) get so confused about the difference between full and top grain leathers.

“Full Grain leather” indicates that the original natural grain of the leather has not been altered in any way.

It appears just the way it did during the tanning process.

Top grain hides may also show the natural grain, without any alteration.

Many people who work with leather products also refer to this as “full grain,” even though it is missing the bottom layer of the hide.

The highest quality top grain hides, with natural uncorrected finishes, can cost just as much (or more) than full grain leathers.

The term “top grain” does not have any relationship to quality.

Top grain leathers can be among the cheapest available or they can be among the most expensive.

There is a vast range in-between.

Salespeople and advertising descriptions routinely use the term top grain to imply superior quality.

It does not.

A salesperson may only sell corrected top grain leathers.

They may not know the difference between what they sell and higher quality top grain leathers.

Salespeople also routinely use the term “top grain to describe leather-match furniture, which is only partially made with corrected top grain leather.

Most of the piece is covered with cheaper faux leather.

Same Word, Many Meanings

Top grain and full grain have entirely different definitions if you are shopping for shoes, handbags, or other small accessory items.

For clothing and small accessories, “top grain” has the same meaning as “corrected leather” does to someone in the furniture industry.

For small accessories “full grain leather” is the same as aniline or semi-aniline leather in furniture.

Another factor that affects the cost and durability of top grain leathers but is rarely considered, even by furniture professionals, is the thickness of the top grain layer.

Most leather hides for upholstery are split to make them easier to work  with. The thicker the leather, the more difficult it is to cut, sew and upholster.

Leather thickness is usually measured in ounces. One ounce equals 1/64 in thickness. A good thickness for high quality furniture is 2.25-2.5 oz.

The leather furniture found at discount stores is usually much thinner than this and may not hold up more than a few years.

Split leather

Split hides are the bottom layer of a hide, after the top grain has been removed.

Split leathers are often used in clothing (especially gloves) where thinner layers of leather are appropriate.

The bottom layer of the hide that has been split off, can be split again if needed.

Since there is no grain on the split layer, it is sometimes embossed to give it an artificial grain.

Suede is made from splits.

The fuzzy nap is what is left behind after the top grain has been split away from the hide.

When this bottom layer is split again, the fuzzy suede texture appears on both sides of the leather.

Suede and other split leathers are far less durable than top grain.

They also stain more easily and lack other properties that make top grain leathers attractive for furniture applications.

Sofas that use split leathers are not recommended for heavy use.

Split leather is not recommended, even on the outside back or sides of a sofa that receive light use.

Cheap “all leather” furniture is sometimes made from splits, but not by reputable manufacturers.

Split leather is less expensive than the cheapest top grain corrected leathers.

Cleaning and Maintaining Leather

It is crucial to keep your leather upholstery clean.

Leather should always be treated gently.

It is best to remove dust, dirt, and grime frequently, rather than do a heavy, intense cleaning every so often.

The first step is to wipe down the furniture with a soft cloth to remove dust.

Then remove the dirt and grime on your furniture.

The exact process depends on the type of leather:

Aniline Leather:

Never use soap.

Wipe the furniture with a clean cloth that’s been slightly moistened and then wipe with a dry cloth immediately.

Never allow water to accumulate on the leather.

Saturation with water will do serious damage to the upholstery.

Semi-Aniline Leather:

Prepare a weak solution of water and mild soap and rub a little onto a “hidden” area of the furniture to make sure the soap won’t harm the leather.

Then gently clean the upholstery with a soft cloth and the soap solution to remove accumulated dirt and grime, following that with another wipe down using a damp, clean cloth.

Don’t allow water to saturate the upholstery.

For stubborn dirt, you can add a little more soap to your cleaning solution.

When cleaning, concentrate on areas where skin regularly contacts the leather.

Perspiration and skin oils can build up and damage upholstery.

Don’t use commercial conditioning treatments.

They won’t prevent dirt from accumulating and could render the upholstery’s warranty void.

Here is a chart from the Octaneseating.com website featuring the best cleaning methods for many specific different types of stains.

Final Thoughts on Leather

To avoid falling for sales pitches or flashy advertising, go into buying leather furniture with a plan.

It’s important to know:

The different types of leathers (bonded, match, faux, and real)

What makes these leathers different from each other?

How much do different leathers cost?

And the importance of grain in leather quality

If you go into the buying process knowing what you want, then you can leave with exactly what you need. 

If you like my Insider’s Guide To Furniture please encourage your friends and family to check it out.

My 45 years in the furniture industry have provided me with a detailed knowledge of furniture brands, construction, quality & value.

Over the past decade, I have written over 2,000 articles, reviews, and answers, seen by over 2 million viewers.

If any company or individual feels that the information on this website is out-of-date or inaccurate, please let me know and it will be promptly corrected.

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