The Ultimate Guide to Leather Grades
Posted at 9:17 AM • October 7 2019 • Ryan Popoff
Is “Genuine” leather genuine? What’s the difference between Top and Full Grain leather? Before you buy your next wallet or couch, let’s dispel some common myths and dive into what these leather grades mean.
There’s a lot of information and a lot of misinformation about the various types of leather.
As someone who has worked with leather professionally for over 6 years and made thousands of wallets, even I was confused conducting this research.
Many websites have conflicting information which made this process difficult.
My hope is that consumers who take the time to inform themselves with this guide, can make better purchasing decisions.
Table of Contents
It Starts with a Cowhide
All cowhides (also called rawhide) range in thickness between 6 and 10mm. This thickness isn’t usable for much -especially not wallets or book covers.
So it's split into usable sections. Here's an example of how a cowhide passes through a splitter and is made into top and bottom cuts.
When we order our leather from Horween, we specify the thickness that we want. The leather thickness we use for most of our goods is between 1.2-1.6mm.
After tanning and processing, the tannery takes each cowhide and “splits” it.
They take the hide and shear off the top cut for us. This portion contains the full grain of the hide and that's what we make our products out of.
The bottom cut is used for lower grades of leather which I’ll discuss later below.
The Grades of Leather
There is no official standard for grading leather. Most tanneries use their own proprietary systems of grading based on cosmetic imperfections - not quality.
For example, Wickett & Craig use the following grades: standard, utility and special to describe the amount of blemishes and marks are on their hides.
However, there are 4 common categories in which we can classify leather based on how a hide is finished and which section of the cowhide is used.
These leather categories are used interchangeably throughout the industry by manufacturers and retailers alike.
The leather grades are as follows (listed in order of quality):
- Full Grain Leather
- Top Grain Leather
- Split Grain Leather (sometimes called "Genuine Leather")
- Bonded Leather
Take a look at this cross section of a cow hide. You can see where each leather grade comes from when the cowhide is split.
Noticeably absent in this diagram is Bonded Leather - an abhorrent concoction of leather slurry I will cover later.
Full Grain Leather - Simple is Best
In simplest terms, if you’re looking for heirloom quality you want to start with full grain leather.
What is Full Grain Leather?
Full grain is a side of leather with the complete grain intact. The surface hasn’t been altered except (in almost all cases) the hair has been removed.
This leather can include natural markings such as scarring, blemishes, insect bites, branding and stretch marks. But these markings are considered the signature of fine leather goods.
A common misconception is that these types of markings are “defects.” Instead, think of these as proof of natural origin. These markings incorporate the life of the animal. The absence of natural markings often means that the leather is of lesser quality.
Another feature of full grain leather is that it breathes.
The leather will absorb moisture and oils from handling it over time. And this leather will patina beautifully.
Full Grain Leather at a Glance
Full grain leather is often used in goods and products where customers seek a higher-end experience. People who really want to put their own mark on the product through patina and every-day use.
Characteristics of Full Grain Leather:
- Marbling or fat wrinkles that look like shaded bands
- Variations in the grain and coloring
- Scars and “imperfections”
- Pigments and dyes will often be in varying shades across the leather
Full grain leather is also very durable.
Since the grain is fully intact, its fibers contribute to its strength. It’s not uncommon for a leather wallet to outlast the threads used to stitch it together!
Types of Full Grain Leather
Horween Chromexcel Leather
Chromexcel is a trademark tanning process from the Horween Leather Company. A combination tanned leather that undergoes at least 89 separate processes taking 28 working days.
A full grain leather with dramatic pull-up and soft waxy feel. Even though these can be pigmented with color, they will still Patina dramatically over time.
Horween Derby Leather
This is another beautiful leather that is tumbled to produced rich character and textures within the grain. It features a subtle pull-up and ages wonderfully.
Vegetable Tan Leather (can also be called tooling leather)
You’ve probably seen this type of leather. It’s notoriously hard to work with because it doesn’t have a protective finish. It patinas like CRAZY often turning dark brown after a short period. It absorbs everything in its environment.
Top Grain Leather - Good as full grain?
Next on my list is Top Grain leather. Top Grain is a contentious issue with leather-workers and fans of leather goods alike because many people consider this to be inferior to full grain.
But some rightly argue that it’s just as tough or durable.
What is Top Grain Leather?
People can confuse the word “top” meaning “best” in quality. But it simply means that this leather is from the top cut of the hide when it is split. This is the same section where full grain is split.
So, what’s the difference?
Tanneries will almost always remove “imperfections” from top grain hides through a corrective process.
Many big manufacturers (especially in apparel and footwear) cannot have cosmetic variances in their product – therefore they choose top grain leathers for quality, but also to have a consistent appearance in their leather goods.
Tanneries will go to great lengths to hide any imperfections or flaws in the leather; everything will be sanded and buffed to look uniform.
Top Grain Leather at a Glance
Very common with upholstery and footwear categories. Nubuck is often used for boots and higher-end work gloves. Smooth corrected grains are often seen used with formal footwear.
Characteristics of Top Grain Leathers:
- Marbling or fat wrinkles disappear as sanding and pigmentation conceals these properties
- Variations in the grain and coloring disappear
- Scars and “imperfections” are also sanded away
- Often uniform in color, no variation or depth of color
- Leather is resistant to stains/spills
- Less breathability
- Somewhat plastic feel
During this corrective process the pores of the leather are sealed. This means the leather is easier to clean and doesn’t absorb oils and moisture. It means that patina takes a much longer time to develop. It also means that there’s also no breathability with top grain.
Ever feel sweaty when sitting on a leather couch? Ever stick to a leather car seat? It’s because the leather cannot breathe. If it’s an expensive couch (or car) it usually means a top or split grain was used as upholstery.
Some folks consider top grain less durable than full grain because of the sanding during the correcting process. It is arguable, but in my research, I haven’t found any durability issues with top grain and I think the jury is still out on this.
Types of Top Grain Leather
This is the most common type of top grain leather. An overwhelming majority of top grain leather is corrected and finished with pigments. All the cosmetic imperfections are sanded away and buffed during this process.
Smooth Corrected Grain
These types of top grain leathers are popular with formal shoes and can be buffed to an eerie and glass-like appearance.
Embossed Corrected Grain
Usually an imitation print is stamped over top using a plating press using high heat and pressure. Some top grains have leather grain texture printed on top after it’s been sanded away.
Other types of embossing include pebble, hair cell, exotic and man-made.
If you’ve seen alligator or snake leather, it’s usually top grain leather with an artificial embossed print.
These top grain leathers are sanded and buffed to a matte finish. The have a fuzzy feel – like suede but not as “hairy.”
These leathers hide scratches well and are less prone to cracking when repeatedly exposed to the elements. A lot of shoe and boot manufacturers favor nubuck for it’s durability and appearance.
Split Grain Leather - the Leather Leftovers
The next category of leather goods in our grading scale is split grain leather. This is where it's common to see durability and quality issues.
What is Split Grain Leather?
You know that part of the leather that gets shaved or split off at the bottom? That’s considered split grain.
It sometimes has a nappy appearance and doesn’t contain any of the hide’s grain. It’s created from the fibrous part of the hide that’s left over.
Split grains are the leftovers.
Split grain leather doesn’t have any of the hide’s natural markings and products made from this material won’t stand the test of time.
Finished split leather is often coated with polymer and embossed to make it look like natural leather. Then it’s stamped with the words “Genuine Leather” to fool you into thinking its good quality.
Types of Split Leather
Genuine Leather (also called Bicast)
Finished split leather is often referred to as “Genuine” leather simply because it’s a marketing person’s strategy designed to fool customers. When you see the word “Genuine” you think of quality and the “real-deal.”
Unfortunately, this is total garbage.
Split Grain Leather at a Glance
Almost all leather goods you'd see in a big box store are made from finished split leather (aka genuine leather). Check for the stamp that says so.
Characteristics of Split Grain Leather:
- Marbling or fat wrinkles, variations, scars and "imperfections are removed during the corrective process.
- Pigments and dyes will often be a uniform color,
- No variation or depth of color
- Leather is resistant to stains/spills
- Zero breathability
- Plastic feel
- Not durable
Genuine leather is often several layers of split leather bonded together with a thin polyurethane or vinyl layer to give it strength and a uniform appearance. The backing is generally not visible to the end consumer.
These are heavily processed off cuts, that are the least breathable and will never develop patina. Unless you count surface-cracking and falling apart patina.
And the feel is almost always like plastic.
And the smell?
Ever walk into a crappy shoe store and get hit by that trademark fake leather scent? That’s how you know you’re surrounded by genuine leather.
Suede is well known for its signature textured feel and “napped” look. Often made from lamb, goat, deer or calfskins. Suede is less durable, thin and absorbs liquid very easily.
Bonded Leather - Scraps and Slurry
Welcome to the last stop on our tour of the leather grades. The absolute rock-bottom of the leather grades.
What is Bonded Leather?
This is simply the lowest grade “leather” available. It’s the hot dog of leathers. Essentially leather dust that is mixed with vinyl and turned into a sheet.
Shreds of leather from leftover scrap are mulched and mixed into a pulp slurry, then spread on a fiber cloth or paper backing with a polyurethane adhesive.
This finished sheet is then spray painted and/or embossed with a print.
In some countries where bonded leather is manufactured, this type of “leather” is made with as little as 20% actual leather fibers.
Bonded leather could be considered more environmentally friendly since it using recycled bits of leather that would otherwise be disposed of.
But then you have to think of all the crappy wallets and belts being thrown away due to quality.
Bonded Leather at a Glance
Cheaply made bags, office supplies, books and upholstery on furniture.
Characteristics of Bonded Leather:
- Made from a combination of PVC, fiber content and as little as 20% leather
- Grain and appearance will be uniform since it’s artificially embossed and spray painted
- Will not breath
- Feels like plastic
- Smells artificial
- Will never patina
- Will de-laminate and fall apart in a short time
Comparing Leather Grades: A Wood Analogy
Full Grain Leather
If full grain leather was compared to a type of wood, it would be walnut table with a live edge.
This slab of wood is prized for its living edge that shows the story of the tree it came from. Each table is one of a kind and many "imperfections" remain in place.
Top Grain Leather
If top grain leather was compared to a type of wood, it would be a solid and durable, but mass-produced oak dining room table. Not one-of-a-kind, but well-constructed and consistent.
Just like Top Grain leather, it's a heavily-sanded, buffed and varnished wood that is mass produced and well-suited for commercial purposes.
Split Grain Leather
If split grain leather was compared to a type of wood, it would be similar to composite or engineered wood.
Not a true piece of wood but something built from multiple layers of thin wood that wouldn’t otherwise be used. Quality can vary widely, engineered wood is not as durable as solid wood. It can become chipped or de-laminated.
If bonded leather was compared to a type of wood, it would be cheap particle board.
Particle board is not real wood, but made up of wood chips and sawdust. Bonded Leather is not real leather.
Which Leather is right for you?
If you were paying attention, two grades of leather are undoubtedly the best quality: Full and Top grain.
These grades of leather are both sheared from the same durable grain and will patina over time. Imperfections and personality that comes from full-grain is a personal preference, but I would have it no other way.
I love celebrating the personality that comes from each cowhide and the dramatic patina that every customer makes using their Popov Leather goods.
Do you have a story about your experiences with genuine or bonded leather? Was there a time you bought something full grain and it has developed crazy character? Share below! 👇