Leatherworking has been around for centuries, and it is one of the oldest crafts known to man. Creating leather goods began with our need for more durable footwear and apparel, and now, leather is still being used for all kinds of goods, from furniture to clothing, to footwear and even smaller accessories like leather jewelry and accessories.
The most important thing about buying leather is you know what types there are and how they differ from one another. The kind of leather used for any type of construction will be indicative of the price of what you are buying. Since marketing can easily twist what words mean, we are going to explore the four types of leather, how they are made, and what makes them unique.
Genuine leather is derived from the skin of animals, specifically cows. Cows are huge animals that have plenty of skin, but not all of the layers of skin are useful for making leather products. There are several layers of skin: grain (where the collagen bundles are tight and tightly packed together), the grain-corium junction, and the corium.
The top part of cowhide is usually stubborn, so it is sanded down and rendered thinner so that it will become more flexible and useful. The corium layer, which is right above the flesh, thickens with the age of the animal, so calfskin is always thinner and more flexible and cowhide, which is presumably from mature cows.
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Types of Leather
Leather that has been taken from cowhide is always called genuine leather, but there is an essential distinction between top grain leather and full-grain leather. Top grain leather is cowhide that has been modified (e.g., sanded) in any way. When the top layer is not fully intact because of modifications, the leather falls into this category.
Both top grain leather and full-grain leather are generally called “grain leather.” So when you visit a furniture store, for instance, and you are offered grain leather, be sure to ask whether it’s full grain or top grain. Full-grain leather is always more valuable – it is the most sought after form of expensive leather.
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Full-grain leather is derived from cowhide through various splitting methods (by hand and through the use of specialized machines). Full-grain will always show various imperfections that naturally occur the surface of the skin of the animal, from inconsistencies in the shapes of the grain to the direction of the hairs. If the animal has some old scars before the extraction of the leather, then those will show up, too. The thickness of full-grain leather will be heavily dependent on the maturity of the cow or calf, and the various applications used to create the leather. Both full grain and top grain may have an additional layer of protection (this is called a “finish”) that protects the leather from untimely damage.
Full-grain is sought after because it is the most durable form of leather – it will last for years despite regular use, and it will maintain its high-quality appearance as long as the minimum of care is provided. A subcategory of full grain is embossed leather. This is considered the third-best option when you are on the lookout for genuine leather.
When is full-grain leather embossed and corrected? Additional modifications are usually carried out when the cowhide has an excessive amount of imperfections, like scars and other imperfections on the leather surface. After obtaining the proper thickness of the leather, the surface of the leather is then buffed and polished with various implements to reduce the visibility of the imperfections.
The embossed grain is then applied to the finished product so that the leather surface will be consistent, visually. Scars are mostly eliminated, but what is facing you is no longer the natural look of the leather.
There is also a slight reduction in the natural feel of the leather, and because of the sanding, polishing, and other techniques, durability is also slightly reduced. Some manufacturers emboss leather with animal print designs and other attractive designs to appeal to customers. There is nothing wrong with modified genuine leather because you still get one hundred percent genuine cowhide.
Other types of grain leather are categorized based on additional treatments they get from start to finish. Analine leather is treated with natural dyes to maintain the organic look of the leather. The majority of the markings found on the skin will be retained. Semi-aniline leather, on the other hand, is processed with pigments to camouflage some of the imperfections of the cowhide. These are slightly more durable than aniline leather. And finally, protected leather has a layer of sprayed protectant that reduces wear and tear and prolongs the life of the grain leather.
Split leather is the part of the cowhide that is divided between the top grain and corium underneath. It can be confusing sometimes, but this is the type of leather used for other leather goods and accessories. Split leather is used to manufacture sued leather, which is used in a variety of goods, including shoes. Split leather is often treated, so it resembles full-grain leather (which it isn’t). Split leather can be processed so it can be as soft and flexible as full grain. However, in terms of durability, it remains subpar to the full-grain.
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Bonded leather is the lowest type of leather if it is placed side by side with different categories of genuine leather. Bonded leather is made from scraps of genuine leather and then combined with fillers and adhesives.
The finished product is then dyed, sprayed, and embossed to resemble genuine leather. The genuine leather content of bonded leather is 10-25% at most. It is not genuine leather and will never be because the cowhide content is too low. It is reconstituted leather or faux leather to be precise. The layer that you can touch is a separate layer of polyurethane coating that protects the fibers.