Choosing Leather Furniture and Understanding the Levels of Leather?

When we go out to shop for leather furniture where do we begin? We hear words like aniline, bonded and nubuck but what do they mean and how do they translate to furniture?

The first thing to know is that the highest grade of leather is not necessarily the best option for your needs.  Take into account your situation.  Do you have pets?  Children?  Will the sofa or chair be in direct sunlight?  Even knowing the difference between leather and imitations there are still a lot of factors to take into account.

There are many words to describe products that are not 100% leather.  Bonded leather, bi-cast leather, faux leather, pleather, leatherette and naugahyde are all words that make you think you are buying leather but they describe a product that is manmade.

Bonded Leather is made from the waste, dust and shavings of real leather.  It ends up being about 17% leather and the rest is polyurethane or latex mixed together and then put onto a backing sheet.  It is then spray painted and embossed so it resembles 100% leather.  It is extremely durable and will never age or breathe like real leather.

Another leather look alike is Bi-cast Leather, which takes a split hide of leather and then covers it with a layer of polyurethane.  It is embossed and also looks like top grain leather but never gets that worn-in look and comfort level that real leather gets.  It too, is durable, long lasting, stain and fade resistant and very economical for someone wanting the look of leather without the price.

Genuine Leather is 100% leather but also has a corrected grain and can sometime be called “Corrected grain leather”.   The top layer is split off the hide and then the next part gets sanded to shave off any imperfections.  Once it has been sanded the surface is spray painted and embossed.  This can alter how the leather breathes but does create a protective layer on the leather so it won’t absorb stains.

The second highest grade of leather is Top Grain Leather.  The top layer of skin from the blemished hides is split off and then the surface is sanded to take off the obvious imperfections.   The leather is stained and has a light coat put on for protection.  When the underside of the top grain leather is sanded it is called Nubuck Leather.  It has a velvety feel and can be dyed.  Suede is also created using the same process.  It is not good for pets as it can absorb liquids and oils but gives a nice soft feel to your leather.  Top grain leather is more flexible than full grain leather and feels a bit smoother to the touch although both leathers are extremely durable.

Full Grain Leather, both pure aniline and semi aniline, is not altered and when it is dyed they use a transparent aniline dye to maintain the natural grain and look of the leather so it will show any imperfections or scarring on the hide.  Semi aniline has a small amount of protection.  Considered the highest grade of leather full grain leather is very durable.

When choosing furniture the debate is whether or not to choose top grain leather, corrected leather or man-made leather.  The full grain leather looks very natural and is extremely durable but will soil easily and fade over time.  It will need continual upkeep and will also show any marks, scars or scratches.  There are hide imperfections and fat wrinkles that are considered a part of the look so when you buy this leather you need to be comfortable with the more natural look of the furniture.  Over time it will become more supple and pliable and get a “lived in look” to it.  Top grain leather shows fewer imperfections as it has been sanded out and has a protective coating on it so it will scratch less easily and not absorb liquids as quickly.  If you move to a genuine leather you are getting real leather but with a top layer of protection and color.  It is durable leather that won’t scratch easily and is easy to clean.  Man-made or bonded leather is very durable but doesn’t breathe like 100% leather so doesn’t feel as nice to sit on.  It will not soften with age as some leathers do so what you see is what you get.

When you go out to buy leather furniture ask questions about the different grades of leather and also ask if the piece of furniture is all leather or a leather/vinyl match.  Some companies, in order to keep the price down will put 100% leather on the areas of the furniture that you touch and a vinyl match on the back side and parts that don’t get touched.  Over time the 2 different materials won’t necessarily age at the same rate and could become different colors.