Leather 101

  • Full-grain leather refers to hides that have not been sanded, buffed, or snuffed (as opposed to top-grain or corrected leather) to remove imperfections (or natural marks) on the surface of the hide. The grain remains allowing the fiber strength and durability. The grain also has breathability, resulting in less moisture from prolonged contact. Rather than wearing out, it will develop a patina over time. High quality leather furniture and footwear are often made from full-grain leather. Full-grain leathers are typically available in two finish types: aniline and semi-aniline.
  • Top-grain leather (the most common type used in upper end leather products) is the second-highest quality. It has had the “split” layer separated away, making it thinner and more pliable than full-grain. Its surface has been sanded and a finish coat added to the surface which results in a colder, plastic feel with less breathability, and it will not develop a natural patina. It is typically less expensive and has greater resistance to stains than full-grain leather, so long as the finish remains unbroken.
  • Corrected-grain leather is any leather that has had an artificial grain applied to its surface. The hides used to create corrected leather do not meet the standards for use in creating vegetable-tanned or aniline leather. The imperfections are corrected or sanded off, and an artificial grain impressed into the surface and dressed with stain or dyes. Most corrected-grain leather is used to make pigmented leather as the solid pigment helps hide the corrections or imperfections. Corrected grain leathers can mainly be bought as two finish types: semi-aniline and pigmented.
  • Split leather is leather created from the fibrous part of the hide left once the top-grain of the rawhide has been separated from the hide. During the splitting operation, the top grain and drop split are separated. The drop split can be further split (thickness allowing) into a middle split and a flesh split. In very thick hides, the middle split can be separated into multiple layers until the thickness prevents further splitting. Split leather then has an artificial layer applied to the surface of the split and is embossed with a leather grain (bycast leather). Splits are also used to create suede. The strongest suedes are usually made from grain splits (that have the grain completely removed) or from the flesh split that has been shaved to the correct thickness. Suede is “fuzzy” on both sides. Manufacturers use a variety of techniques to make suede from full-grain. A reversed suede is a grained leather that has been designed into the leather article with the grain facing away from the visible surface. It is not considered to be a true form of suede.

Less-common leathers include:

  • Buckskin or brained leather is a tanning process that uses animal brains or other fatty materials to alter the leather. The resulting supple, suede-like hide is usually smoked heavily to prevent it from rotting.
  • Patent leather is leather that has been given a high-gloss finish. The original process was developed in Newark, New Jersey, by inventor Seth Boyden in 1818. Patent leather usually has aplastic coating.
  • Shagreen is also known as stingray skin/leather. Applications used in furniture production date as far back as the art deco period. The word “shagreen” originates from France.
  • Vachetta leather is used in the trimmings of luggage and handbags. The leather is left untreated and is therefore susceptible to water and stains. Sunlight will cause the natural leather to darken in shade, called a patina.
  • Slink is leather made from the skin of unborn calves. It is particularly soft and is valued for use in making gloves.
  • Deerskin is a tough leather, possibly due to the animal’s adaptations to its thorny and thicket-filled habitats. Deerskin has been used by many societies, including indigenous Americans. Most modern deerskin is no longer procured from the wild, with deer farms breeding the animals specifically for the purpose of their skins. Large quantities are still tanned from wild deer hides in historic tanning towns such as Gloversville and Johnstown in upstate New York. Deerskin is used in jackets and overcoats, martial arts equipment such as kendo and bogu, as well as personal accessories such as handbags and wallets.
  • Nubuck is top-grain cattle hide leather that has been sanded or buffed on the grain side, or outside, to give a slight nap of short protein fibers, producing a velvet-like surface.

There are two other types of leather commonly used in specialty products, such as briefcases, wallets, and luggage:

  • Belting leather is a full-grain leather that was originally used in driving pulley belts and other machinery. It is found on the surface of briefcases, portfolios, and wallets, and can be identified by its thick, firm feel and smooth finish. Belting leather is generally a heavy-weight of full-grain, vegetable-tanned leather.
  • Napa leather is chrome-tanned and is soft and supple. It is commonly found in wallets, toiletry kits, and other personal leather goods.

The following are not “true” leathers, but contain leather material. Depending on jurisdiction, they may still be labeled as “Genuine Leather”:

  • Bonded leather, or “reconstituted leather”, is composed of 90% to 100% leather fibers (often scrap from leather tanneries or leather workshops) bonded together with latex binders to create a look and feel similar to that of leather at a fraction of the cost. This bonded leather is not as durable as other leathers and is recommended for use only if the product will be used infrequently. Bonded leather upholstery is a vinyl upholstery that contains about 17% leather fiber in its backing material. The vinyl is stamped to give it a leather-like texture. Bonded leather upholstery is durable and its manufacturing process is more environmentally-friendly than leather production.
  • Bycast leather is a split leather with a layer of polyurethane applied to the surface and then embossed. Bycast was originally made for the shoe industry and recently was adopted by the furniture industry. The original formula created by Bayer was strong but expensive. Most of the bycast used today is a very strong and durable product. The result is a slightly stiffer product that is cheaper than top grain leather but has a much more consistent texture and is easier to clean and maintain.

 

Fine leather deserves good care. The appropriate treatment of a leather item depends upon its condition, or the degree of deterioration when treatment is started. If you care for your leather goods and treat them the way you’d treat your own skin, they can last more than a lifetime.

Leather deteriorates largely by four means:

1. Oxidation is most readily seen in very old dry leather, with surface cracking and flaking, and over-all weakness. Oxidation will eventually turn leather to dust. Oxidation is reduced by a thorough impregnation with a leather care lotion. Leather items should not be sealed in a display case and forgotten – they must be kept moisturized.

2. Chemical damage can be through the effect of ultraviolet light, ozone, acid from sulphurous and nitrous pollutants in the air, or through chemical action following treatment with tallow or oil compounds. Both oxidation and chemical damage occur faster at higher temperatures. Leather should be stored away from heat, and not needlessly exposed to sunlight.

3. Internal chafing or breaking of fibers occurs when dry leather is flexed. A lubricant is essential to allow the fibers to slide one against the other. Dry leather should not be flexed prior to thorough lubrication.

4. Abrasion can be external, from rubbing on the outside, or internal from dirt particles ground into the leather.

 

Surface Dirt
Most surface dirt can be removed by gentle wiping with a clean, damp cloth.

Scuffs
Lightly rub the marks with your fingers. Often the natural oils in the leather will help buff out small scuffs. Leather care lotion can also be used to help remove small scuffs. Apply a small amount onto a clean, dry cloth and rub gently into the leather, evenly covering a complete section or panel of the product in order to achieve a uniform appearance. When dry, gently buff the leather with a dry, clean cloth.

Most of the leathers we use are oil tanned, so they’re already coated in waxes and oils that give them a supple feel and the durability to sustain a lifetime of heavy use. For the most part, you shouldn’t need to do anything to your products, and they’ll develop a beautiful patina as time goes by. If you do feel that you’d like to give a piece a quick ‘refresh’, a leather conditioning product or a leather oil like neatsfoot oil works wonders – but be aware that it may darken the leather, so we recommend doing a ‘spot’ test somewhere inconspicuous first!

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