The leather industry doesn’t tend to make it easy for customers to understand the different types of leather and their quality levels.
Let’s face it, even “faux leather” sounds legit with that slightly French twist to the name.
Before you commit to an investment in an expensive new leather sofa or recliner, let me give you the information you need to understand and identify leather quality without needing to be an expert in the tanning process.
Let’s start with a definition.
What Is Full Grain Leather?
Full-grain leather means that the tanning and manufacturing process has left the top layer of the animal skin unprocessed.
It still goes through the standard treatment and softening techniques, but that top layer isn’t sanded or buffed to create a different effect.
To better understand why this is an essential factor that distinguishes high-quality leather from the rest, we need to take a look at the different layers of animal skin.
When you look at a magnified cross-section of leather, then you’ll see the very top layer of the hide which is called the grain.
This is where the hair attaches, similar to the upper layer of the human scalp.
But there’s a big difference with animal skin.
This grain layer is thick and made of very tightly woven strong fibers. It’s essentially the toughest part of the hide and functions as a strong barrier and defense against injury.
The junction is a thin layer where the fibers start to become less dense, and it acts as a connective layer between the grain and the split.
This layer doesn’t get exposed to environmental factors that much, and it would take quite a bit of damage to the grain to make it through to this layer.
There are types of real leather that shave off everything under this layer, and that process is called splitting leather.
While there are uses for both the upper and lower portions separately, it’s essential to understand that split hides are not classed as full grain cowhide.
Underneath the junction is a thicker layer of even looser fibers that has its uses because of the softness.
You’ll more commonly hear this split leather referred to as suede. I guess it does have a nicer and more marketable tone to it.
And while the smoothness can look attractive and be soft to the touch, it’s not very practical or durable.
What Are The Differences Between Full Grain And Top Grain Leather?
You’ll often see product descriptions that define something as real leather. But even split leather is real leather, and there is a world of difference in several areas.
Let’s take a closer look.
Quality & Cost
Full grain leather is the highest quality leather available. As described above, it keeps all the layers intact and doesn’t remove the toughest upper section.
But that thicker leather comes at a price.
Not only is there more hide to work with, but that really tough full grain upper layer is also quite difficult to work with.
That makes the manufacturing process that much more labor and machine intense, which results in a higher price.
Some people say that top grain leather is the second-best from a quality perspective,
And while it does lose that upper layer that full grain has, a high-quality top grain leather with a protective layer can be a much better solution for families or very heavy use.
Appearance & Durability
One of the main attractions for using full grain on furniture is the appearance. When you don’t remove the outer layer, you maintain the natural grain with all its beauty and imperfections.
The visible imperfections can be the result of insect bites and even damage from a barbed-wire fence.
Yes, it’s not a uniform appearance, but that is what makes high-quality furniture so interesting.
Full grain leather is also extremely durable and will beat any other type of leather when it comes to wear and tear.
With top grain leather types, that outermost layer is gone, and so are the unique imperfections.
Some companies then print an imitation grain (also referred to as an artificial grain) onto the surface to give it that natural look.
But this can fade with time and looks quite different from the original grain.
If you prefer the more uniform color appearance, then dyed top grain leather has that advantage.
Aging & Character
A full grain leather sofa will age in a unique way. The natural grain won’t wear down but rather gains a slightly polished effect. This is called patina and cannot be artificially recreated.
This sought-after patina look also improves the more you use the sofa.
To make up for some of the lost benefits with top grain leather, manufacturers often apply a synthetic stain and water-resistant layer to add protection to the split.
The advantage of this is that you’ll be able to use a clean cloth to simply wipe off any dirt and spills, which is particularly suitable for families with young kids..
Care & Upkeep
Both full grain leather and top grain leather will require some regular care to keep it looking great. And this is the same whether you have a leather bag or sofa.
Some would argue that full grain sofas stain easily. And if you spill a glass of red wine, then it might leave a lasting mark.
A good quality top grain leather with a protective coating will help avoid such stains.
But if you regularly apply a leather conditioner and protection solution, then you can avoid the most obvious staining.
How Is Full Grain Leather Made?
There are three main steps involved in the process.
Whether it’s cow or calfskin leather, the preparation always starts with treating the hide to make sure it doesn’t decompose.
It’s also important to remove all the protein and natural fats that would otherwise start to seep out.
And, for most products, the process also removes the hair to fully expose a fresh top surface.
Preparation can sometimes involve splitting the hide for suede or top layer leather. But that’s skipped for high-quality leather like you get with full grain.
At this stage, you probably wouldn’t recognize the look and feel of the hide. It will be very rough and difficult to shape into anything, really.
And that’s what the tanning process solves.
By soaking the hides in different chemicals and raising the pH levels, the hide slowly softens and remains soft once it has been rinsed and dried.
This is where the finishing technique is applied, which fully dries the leather and slightly lubricates it.
It’s also where coloring and glazing with a shiny finish are applied to the top layer of the hide in order to achieve specific effects.
Essentially, this is where the final touches for appearance and a pristine look happen.
There’s a lot of time and effort involved, but It’s this process that separates the highest quality leather from good quality leather.
Caring For Full Grain Leather Furniture
No matter how careful you are, a regularly used sofa will get dirty and attract the occasional stain.
But even if you’re extremely careful with your full grain leather furniture, you’ll need to plan for some ongoing care.
The more you look after it, the more durable it will remain and the longer you’ll be able to enjoy it.
Here are our top 3 tips.
Careful Choice Of Cloth
As much as you might be tempted to grab a rough cloth, brush, or sponge to remove dirt or stains, this could end up making things worse.
Always approach a full grain leather cleaning job with the softest cloth you can find, and use a soft brush to remove any fine particles or debris first.
Then use a small amount of warm soapy water, ideally soap that is pH neutral. Some of the gentlest products you can buy are baby soaps, which work surprisingly well on good leather.
Gently rub the soap into the leather and wipe away with a second cloth.
You should do this on a regular basis to stop the leather from drying out and becoming brittle.
I would also suggest that you buy the highest quality conditioner you can find, as many of the cheaper products could cause problems for durability and appearance.
Allow For Slow Drying
The last thing you want to do is wash down the surface with loads of water and then get your hairdryer to dry it out.
This can seriously affect the quality of all types of leather.
Instead, let it dry out slowly at room temperature and wait a day or two before you sit on it again.
How Is Altered Hide Different?
Altered grain refers to any technique that reduces the thickness of full grain leather. In this altered category, there are several different leather types, from top grain leather all the way down to genuine leather, with many factors influencing the quality.
Let me show you what to look out for.
Top Grain Leather
Top grain leather is what’s left after the top layer of the cowhide has been cut, shaved, or sanded away. The rest of the hide is left intact, and you end up with a slightly thinner but also softer material.
While top grain leather also loses some thickness, it allows for different finishing techniques including a spill and stain proof coating. .
Corrected Grain Leather
Corrected leather is often somewhere between the full and top grain.
It refers to a process where the surface area is altered, mainly by sanding it. The resulting corrected grain leather then doesn’t show signs of damage like contact with a barbed wire fence or insect bites.
Some people prefer this immaculate look, but it does take away some of the natural character and uniqueness.
This is a less common leather where only slight sanding is applied to the grain. It gives it a velvety surface that is soft but not as low quality as suede. It’s sometimes used for clothing and handbags but wouldn’t be the most suitable top grain for furniture.
Some would argue that bonded leather really isn’t leather anymore. The process involves using all the cut-off pieces from the highest quality types and then throwing them in a blender with a bonding material.
It’s a bit like making MDF or plywood panels.
Yes, there are uses for it, but just not when it comes to furniture.
Genuine leather is a bit of a marketing ploy to make something very low-grade sound more appealing. Don’t ever mistake the term “genuine leather” with “best leather.”
It’s essentially everything that’s leftover that is still technically leather.
If you’re buying furniture, this is probably the least durable material you can get.
How long does full grain leather last?
Full-grain leather can last many decades with the right care. This mainly depends on how much and how the furniture is used, but it would not be uncommon to find antique leather furniture that has aged exceptionally well over 80 years or more.
What does full grain leather feel like?
Full-grain leather feels like it has a soft and smooth surface, almost like touching human skin. Despite that softness, it won’t become less durable, and the natural feeling is also matched by a natural and authentic look.
Are You Ready To Pick The Right Type Of Leather?
When you’re investing in a statement piece of furniture, and you want to make sure that it looks great and is durable enough to withstand regular family use, then full grain leather is the best way to go.
Investing in top grain leather is a great option for families with kids, but be aware that you won’t get the entire thickness of the cowhide, and therefore it won’t be quite as durable.
You also have to account for the fact that you will only get the patina effect with full grain, which will add character to your furniture.
And don’t be fooled by statements like “genuine leather.” It might sound like it could be superior, but it’s nothing in comparison to full grain leather.