How To Tell If A Couch Is Real Leather: A Simple 6-Step Guide

This is something you have to be aware of before you go leather furniture shopping. Too many people get fooled into thinking they are getting the real deal at an amazing price, only to find out within a few months or years that they didn’t get a real leather sofa. 

And worse yet, there are some dodgy furniture stores out there that charge top dollar for fake leather. 

So, to help you tell if a couch is made from real or fake leather, we’ve put together this guide. And if you ever encounter an enthusiastic salesperson, then you know what to do to see if you can catch them out in a crappy deal. 

Quick Tips To Tell The Difference Between Real And Fake Leather

There are a few ways to tell if a couch is made from real leather. And the important thing to keep in mind is that you need to be able to confirm all of them. 

It’s not enough to determine 2 or 3 of these tips, as they all add up to a conclusion that a piece of furniture is real leather. 

Home Theater Recliners - leather Rustic Burlap - close up of nail trim

1 – Check The Price Tag

If you encounter a reasonably “honest” salesperson, they might be trying to sell a low quality leather as a great deal because the price is so low. But when it comes to leather quality, cheap almost definitely means fake. 

Let me give you an example. 

A full grain leather 3-seater sofa will generally have a starting price of about $4,000. Prices can easily go to $6,000, but that should give you a rough idea. 

This would also be a price for an American-made leather sofa, which would almost certainly make it the best possible quality. 

Now, let’s compare that to a fake or faux leather sofa.

You might have someone tell you that a 3-seater leather sofa for $997 is an absolute bargain. Maybe a cheap, low-quality sofa is all you need. But keep in mind that even if a real leather sofa is four times more expensive, it’s going to last more than four times as long. 

It’s only cheap in the short term, but the long-term benefits of real leather are significant. 

2 – Take A Close Look At The Leather Surface

Depending on the color, you’ll need to get up close and look at the surface patterns of the leather. A real leather couch will have natural imperfections (more on these shortly), and it will also not be completely uniform.

Classic Leather Brooks Sofa 8063 leather Lumina Rose' nails Zenith

The structure, pattern, and shading will not have a repeating pattern. If you get up close and you see that it’s completely uniform, or if certain patterns repeat in a regular way, then it’s most likely fake leather or bonded leather. 

Another dead giveaway that upholstery isn’t real leather is if there is a very large continuous piece of leather. Typically, you’ll see that the back of a leather sofa will have one or two stitched vertical seams. 

The reason for this is that a natural animal hide has a size limit. With most leather coming from cows, there is a natural limit. 

So, if you see very large areas of leather on the back of a couch, then it’s most likely faux leather or bonded leather. 

3 – Smell The Upholstery

If you have ever smelled real leather, whether furniture or clothing, you’ll know that it has a unique scent. It’s a natural type of skin, and no matter how much the hide is processed, some of the smell will always remain. 

And you’ll be able to tell the difference between real and fake leather pretty much immediately. 

What you’ll notice with fake leather and bonded leather is that there’s a strong synthetic smell. This will almost be like glue and cheap plastic and won’t be particularly pleasant. 

It’s a bit more difficult to tell the difference between top/full grain leather and the smell of genuine leather. The best way to describe it is to say that higher quality real leather has a stronger smell. 

With genuine leather, the smell will be a lot more subtle. 

4 – Feel The Leather Structure

This is another way to tell if it’s real or fake leather. 

First of all, gently run your fingers across the leather surface. If it’s real leather, then it will not feel cold and completely smooth. The natural animal hide will have imperfections, and just like human skin, it will have lumps and bumps. 

Now, with top-grain leather, it will be a lot more difficult to feel bumps as the preparation process lightly sands the outer grain. 

But there’s a solution for that. 

Another way to test it is by pressing your fingertips down into the leather. If it’s a real leather sofa, then you should notice wrinkles forming just like with your skin. 

That’s a great way to check if it’s top grain leather or bonded leather. 

5 – Check The Upholstery Backing 

This is a bit more difficult, and you might need to tilt a sofa on its back. 

What you want to do is find an area of the leather where you can see the back of the upholstery. You might need to loosen some staples or stitching, but it’s important to see if it’s leather all the way through. 

Synthetic leather or bonded leather will have some form of polyurethane backing. These are synthetic fibers that provide support and structure for the manufactured upholstery, and it’s a 100% giveaway that you’re not dealing with real leather. 

6 – Look For Imperfections

Finally, I want to get back to those imperfections I mentioned above. This is the best way to verify if something is full grain leather as the manufacturing process makes sure that the outer grain layer isn’t modified. 

That means there will be natural hide markings like scratches from barbed wire and fence posts, as well as insect bites. Another good indicator is fat wrinkles.

Fat wrinkles are completely natural and form in places where the animal’s fat deposits slightly protrude. If you can’t find fat wrinkles, then either the cow was on a severe diet, or there’s something fishy going on. 

Taking A Closer Look At Different Types Of Leather

Next, I want to show some techniques to identify specific types of leather. 

Full Grain Leather

To identify full grain leather, there are three main things you need to do. 

First of all, feel the leather surface and pay attention to whether you can feel the bumps in the hide. Full grain leather shouldn’t be completely smooth as the processing ensures that the outer layer isn’t compromised. 

Secondly, take a close look at grain characteristics and imperfections. The pattern in the grain should never be completely uniform or repeating. And when you press your finger down into the leather, you should see natural wrinkles form. 

And finally, if it’s semi-aniline leather, then you should barely see any pores in the leather as there is a thin coat of dye. 

Top Grain Leather

The main thing to check for top grain leather is the feel and the bumps on the surface. 

During the preparation process, the outer layer is lightly sanded to provide a softer and smoother surface. This also removes some of the imperfections, which should be noticeable. 

Run your fingers over the surface and check if you can feel bumps. Then take a closer look with a magnifying glass to see if you can even see any bumps on the surface. 

Split Leather

You’ll sometimes see this labeled as genuine leather upholstery, and there are a few ways to tell genuine leather from higher quality real leather types. 

First of all, it will naturally feel a lot rougher as the outer smooth grain layer is completely removed. But what manufacturers then often do is roll or spray a paint layer on top to give it an artificially smooth feel and the visual texture of the grain. 

However, if you take a close look with a magnifying glass, then you should notice that what looks like bumps and imperfections really is just a clever mix of paint. 

Bonded Leather

Bonded leather is made out of the pulp of discarded leather pieces. And while it’s a clever way to recycle discarded leather, you have to understand that it might smell like real leather, but it won’t have the same feel or durability. 

One of the giveaway signs that you’re dealing with bonded leather is that while it might smell like leather, there’s also a bit of a synthetic smell from the glue or bonding agent. 

Then there’s the fact that it will have a completely uniform texture. While some manufacturers spray on a grain effect, a close look with a magnifying glass will show you that they are not real bumps and imperfections. 

And finally, check at the back or underneath the leather sofa to see if there’s even a small bit of exposed upholstery backing. If this is synthetic, then it’s a slam dunk that you’re dealing with bonded leather. 

Faux Leather

Many furniture companies have started marketing this fake leather as a vegan-friendly option. But even if it might look a bit like bonded leather, this synthetic leather type won’t last well for furniture. 

The first thing you should check is if it completely lacks that appealing smell of a real leather sofa. You’re more likely to smell something completely synthetic, including solvents used to create faux leather. 

And checking the upholstery backing should also reveal a synthetic woven mesh that aims to hold the upholstery together. 

Have Your Homework Done Before You Buy A Leather Sofa

Classic Leather Brooks leather Lumina Rose'
Classic Leather Brooks leather Lumina Rose’

Unless you shop at a highly reputable store or from a manufacturer who only deals with the highest quality leather, you always need to be cautious. 

And being able to tell if a sofa is made from real leather is an important piece of knowledge in a world where salespeople will tell you exactly what you want to hear. 

Try checking your home furniture and clothing to see if you can tell the difference between real or fake leather now. You might even find a few surprises. 

And if you’re looking for the highest-quality, American-made, real leather furniture, then browse through our collection. Our team is on standby to also help you with any questions you might have. 

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