When buying leather goods it’s very important to know how to distinguish high-quality leather products from ones that have lower quality. By learning about leather grades you won’t find yourself in a situation where you might buy leather that is not worth its price or that will quickly deteriorate.
The five main grades of leather that indicate the quality of the leather are full-grain leather, top-grain leather, split-grain leather, genuine leather, and bonded leather. Out of all of them, full-grain leather has the best quality, while bonded leather has the worst. Even so, each leather type has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Everything you need to know about leather grades
If you have seen a leather item you’ve probably already noticed labels on it that say “genuine leather”, or something similar. Leather grades are used as a sort of rating system for the quality of leather, and here is everything you need to know about them.
What are leather grades?
Leather grades are used to indicate the quality of the leather item. The grade itself shows which part of the animal leather was used to create the leather material used in the manufacturing process.
Apart from leather grades, there are other things that are important to consider when speaking of the leather quality, like the tanning method used on the leather, as well as the animal the hide comes from. This article covers the splitting of the hide, which affects the main leather grades, that can be commonly seen on the stamps of leather items.
What are the main leather grades?
There are five most commonly seen grades of leather:
- Full-grain leather
- Top-grain leather
- Split-grain leather
- Genuine leather
- Bonded leather
Keep in mind that these grades are widely used by leather consumers when speaking of leather quality and aren’t technically leather grades in every sense of the word. Either way, it’s important to know of them so that you can identify the best quality leather and make the right choice when purchasing leather items.
Which grade of leather is the best?
Full-grain leather is the highest quality leather. It comes from the top layer of the hide and it includes all of the natural grain.
Which leather grade has the lowest quality?
Bonded leather has the lowest quality out of all the other leathers since it is made out of leftovers which consist of scraps from the hide and shredded fibers. Other names used for bonded leather are reconstructed leather or blended leather. As a material, it must contain at least fifty percent animal hide.
How is the animal hide connected to the leather grade?
The leather grade depends on how the animal hide is split. Each layer of the leather hide (the leather grade) has a different quality. In short, the upper layers of the hide, like full-grain and top-grain leather, have better quality.
How does the splitting of the animal hide happen?
In its initial state, the animal hide is too thick to be used for the production of leather items. Because of this, it needs to undergo a splitting procedure. How thick the split is will largely depend on the customer’s order and only the top cut will be taken into consideration. The cut is usually a little bigger than the customer’s order because the leather needs to be further processed and compressed.
Is there a way to tell that leather is real?
There are ways to tell real leather from fake one. In order to do this, you can try a couple of things.
Look at the label
The first thing we all do when buying anything is look at the label. Here you can find basic information about the material used to make a specific item. This applies to leather goods as well, so you can check the label to see if there is any real leather used for the item. If you happen to notice words like “polyester” or “synthetic” then the leather item is probably fake.
Leather has a very specific smell which will be absent if the leather is fake. If you decide to use this method of verification, it would be helpful to first find a real leather item and smell it, so that you can make a better comparison.
Check for any pores
Leather initially comes from animal hide, which will always have distinct pores that can show you if the leather is real or not. If you don’t notice any pores on the surface then the leather is most likely fake.
Do a touch test
Touching the leather item is another way to verify if the leather used to make it is fake or real. Real leather will feel soft, flexible, and maybe even a little grainy in the hand. Another distinct feature of real leather is that it feels warm when you touch it, while on the other hand, leather that is fake will feel cold.
The five different leather grades
There are five leather grades that you will most commonly come across when shopping for leather goods. Each of them has a different quality, so it’s important to know what they are in order to determine if a leather item has a leather grade that is appropriate for your needs and budget.
Full-grain leather is the part of the hide which is right under the animal hair. Out of all the leather grades, it is the strongest and most durable one.
The most important thing to know about full-grain leather is that it isn’t buffed or sanded so it still contains all the natural characteristics of leather. Usually, this leather only has an aniline finish that still allows the natural grain to show through. Not only is full-grain leather of the highest quality, but it also develops the best patina over time, so if you appreciate the fine natural design of aged leather, this is the material you should search for.
Because the leather has a subtle finish, it can still breathe and maintain a lot of its natural qualities, compared to sanded and buffed leather materials which don’t have this due to their thicker coats of finish.
When it comes to looks, full-grain leather has the most similar aesthetic to the original hide, which just develops its own patina over time. A lot of people would argue that this is one of the main charms that this leather has to offer.
Since full-grain leather doesn’t undergo intense treatment you can even see pores on it and hair follicles if you use a magnifying glass. Some small scars and interesting wrinkles are also noticeable on this type of leather.
There are different hides used to make full-grain leather, so no one hide is like another.
Full-grain leather is made in three stages:
Advantages of full-grain leather
The main advantage of full-grain leather is that it’s very strong and durable. Apart from this, it also offers one of the most beautiful looks that develop their own unique patina over time. It doesn’t undergo any manufacturing processes that might damage the leather’s natural state, so it’s long-lasting and ages very well.
Disadvantages of full-grain leather
High quality comes at a higher cost, which is why full-grain leather is more expensive than most types. The material itself is very tough so it can’t be used to manufacture leather goods that need a flexible material. It’s also quite hard to find a craftsman to work with this leather, which makes it even more expensive.
Top-grain leather is also made from the upper layer of the hide split, but the outermost layer is sanded off in order to remove any unwanted imperfections. Because of the way that it’s made it isn’t as tough as full-grain leather, but it still offers great quality. On the other hand, because top-grain leather isn’t that tough, it’s more flexible, so it is suitable for manufacturing items that need such flexibility from the leather material.
Cutting the hide to be top-grain is easier than making it full-grain, so it has a lower manufacturing cost as well.
Even though some of the natural qualities of the leather are removed, this type of leather still has good quality. Because of the way it is made it also offers a consistent color to the leather material, that doesn’t have any imperfections. Unfortunately, removing the breathability of the leather will mean that it won’t be able to develop a patina, like full-grain leather can.
Top-grain leather has a uniform look because the top layer is sanded off and there is an imitation grain imprinted on it. What’s great about this is that different stamps can be used so the final product can even look like it was made from an alligator, while the real hide comes from a cow.
This type of leather is used to make all types of products, such as leather wallets, purses, briefcases, and belts. It works best for leather items that won’t be used carelessly and won’t be exposed to too much sun or water.
Advantages of top-grain leather
As I previously mentioned, one of the main advantages of this leather is its flexibility. This is very important to mention because if a leather material is too tough it can’t be used for just any type of product, while the flexibility of top-grain leather makes it perfect for just about anything.
The whole process of making it isn’t that hard, so it doesn’t cost that much to make it either.
Since the surface is sanded off, you can just imagine how many differently designed products can be made from it. It can even be imprinted to look like exotic leather.
Disadvantages of top-grain leather
The main thing I consider a disadvantage of this type of leather is that all of the natural properties of the leather are stripped off when the hide is sanded. Unfortunately, this results in changes in the final product as well. The leather items made this way will have a shortened lifespan and they won’t develop the signature patina that full-grain develops over time.
Caring for top-grain leather
If you properly care for the leather item that is made from top-grain leather you can prolong its life. You should try to store it in a dry place that isn’t warm. It’s also good to regularly clean it and use some conditioner on it.
The bottom part of the leather after it has been split is called split leather which usually has a rough and fuzzy texture and it has a lower quality compared to the upper split of the hide.
This type of leather is regularly used to make clothing, shoes, and furniture, and it’s even used in cars.
Split leather isn’t as resistant as top-grain or full-grain leather so it’s more susceptible to scratches and damage.
If you come across the term “embossed split leather” you should know that this is split leather that was coated with a specific color and was embossed. It might seem like you are looking at high-quality top-grain leather, but that won’t actually be the case.
Advantages of split-grain leather
Split leather has more fibers so it has more abrasion resistance and pretty good water resistance. It has a rough textured effect that some people really like and it can be colored in any color you can think of. Since the top portion of the hide is removed you will never be able to see any variations in the grain.
Disadvantages of split-grain leather
A major disadvantage of this leather is that it doesn’t have the best quality. It is quite resistant to tears and scratches, but it doesn’t have good breathability. Since this is the lower cut of the hide, it also means that you can forget about that beautiful patina that high-quality leather develops over time.
When you hear the word genuine leather, you might think that the leather is of very good quality, but this isn’t true. Genuine leather is made out of real leather, but it is one of the lowest-quality types of leather.
Something that you will immediately notice about items made from this leather is that they don’t look as good as ones made out of top-quality leather. Another thing about genuine leather is that it doesn’t last that long, so you should probably avoid it when buying items that you intend to use a lot or use for a long time.
Basically, genuine leather comes from the lower layers of the animal hide after it has been split. This hide undergoes a lot of corrections which is why you might also find genuine leather by the name of corrected leather.
This leather is still real, so it offers decent quality, but not as good as you would get from full-grain or top-grain leather. Items made from it also have a very uniform and beautiful look.
It’s usually used to make bags, briefcases, wallets, and in some cases, belts. As a material, it is a solid and cheap alternative to high-quality leather. You will most commonly be able to find items made from this material in department stores or malls.
Advantages of genuine leather
Out of all the previously mentioned leather grades, items made from this one come at the cheapest price, and you still get real leather. Another great thing about it is that it undergoes corrections so it can come in many different colors and patterns.
Disadvantages of genuine leather
A major disadvantage of this leather is that it has lower quality than top-grain and full-grain leather, so it’s also not as durable as them and doesn’t last as long.
It’s important to know that this leather has a uniform look that some customers might not be able to distinguish from high-quality leather, so they might end up purchasing a low-quality leather item for a higher price.
Bonded leather has the worst quality out of all the above-mentioned leather grades because it is a mix of real leather and fake leather. It’s made from leftover scraps and fibers from processing genuine leather. Most bonded leather only has about 10-20% genuine leather.
One of the main ways to differentiate real leather from bonded leather is by looking at the price since the bonded leather will be way cheaper than the real one. The bonded leather will smell and sort of feel like real leather, but you will be able to notice differences in the texture. Mainly the texture of bonded leather is more uniform due to corrections, while the one on real leather will have imperfections.
Advantages of bonded leather
Bonded leather comes at a much lower price than real leather, but still delivers a uniform look that some people quite like. It’s easy to work with it so you can make leather goods in different styles and colors. Another perk of this leather is that it has a very similar smell to real leather.
Disadvantages of bonded leather
Over an extended period of time, this leather releases chemicals, which is something to consider especially when buying leather furniture.
Since it isn’t of the best quality, it won’t be that durable, and it will wear off easily over an extended period of time.
On top of all this, it’s hard to clean, and the color can even fade away in the sunlight.