Learn more about the different types of leather finishes to avoid getting overwhelmed with the numerous variety available in the market. Having the right knowledge will avoid indecisiveness while allowing you to choose the perfect leather that's right for you.
When I first started leatherworking, the sheer variety of leather finishes available to choose from quickly overwhelmed me and left me paralyzed in a state of indecisiveness. I spent many hours investigating, touching, and working with different finishes to better understand which finishes suit which projects. I hope the information I collected and the simple decision tree I created will be as beneficial to you as it is to me.
There are many different types of leather finishes, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. The most common categories of leather finishes are aniline, semi-aniline (including pull-up and antiqued leather finishes), pigmented, patented, and handworked leather.
The leather finish used is a pivotal aspect influencing both aesthetics and the practicality of your completed products. Using the correct finish on your product is one of the critical factors dividing high-end products from cheap, poor-quality items.
Learning to appreciate the nuances of different leather finish will allow you, the artisan, to create the perfect product or, if you’re the buyer, to make a choice guaranteed to bring long-term satisfaction!
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What Is A Leather Finish, And Is It Different To Leather Finishing?
Leathercraft is an ancient craft with roots buried deep in history. As leathercraft evolved, so too did the terminology surrounding it.
The constantly evolving terminology and use of words more appropriate to much older times can make the lingo surrounding leather very confusing for the modern-day individual.
Leather finishes and leather finishing are two very different concepts with a tangential relationship.
What Is Leather Finishing?
Leather finishing refers to all the details used to turn a sheet of leather into a finished work of art. The best artisans will spend years learning the stitching, dying, carving, and cutting techniques essential to producing a product characterized by superior craftsmanship.
I’m sure you’ve heard the following saying used to describe Venn diagrams and subsets:
“All Greeks are men, but not all men are Greeks.”
The same is true for leather finishes versus leather finishing. A leather finish is part of leather finishing but not the entirety of the process.
What Is A Leather Finish?
The leather finish, by contrast, is part of the finishing process but does not encapsulate the entirety of the finishing process. Instead a leather finish refers to the final topcoat or technique used on the leather before completing the project.
A leather finish can refer to a mechanical technique used to change the appearance of a product, a protective chemical layer, or a specific dying process used.
Does The Leather Finish Matter?
You may be asking yourself, why does leather finish matter. It may seem like a small, even inconsequential detail, hardly worth the mountains of literature that has been written about it.
However, the leather finish has a profound impact on the aesthetics of a project and an even more significant impact on the practicality or user-friendliness of a leather item.
How Does The Leather Finish Impact The Appearance Of Leather?
The leather finish used will lighten or darken the natural color of the leather. It will also influence the richness of colors used if the leather is dyed.
The sun and leather do not always enjoy a harmonious relationship. The ultraviolet rays from the sun darken undyed leather or cause color loss in dyed leather. Excessive exposure to the sun can also cause the leather to become dry and cracked. Depending on the finish used, some of these unwanted sunshine effects can be mitigated or wholly prevented!
How Does The Leather Finish Impact The Practicality Of Leather Items?
Leather items often require more maintenance than synthetic materials. It is easy to throw a material jacket into the wash for a clean, but heaven forbid you do the same to your butter-soft leather coat!
Most leather products are like that jacket. Leather products do well when they are cared for with leather-specific techniques. However, these care instructions can be efficient and straightforward or complex and time-consuming depending on the finish.
The leather finish used will determine the amount of protection offered against:
- Water stains
- Mechanical damage such as scratches and marks
- Weather damage associated with changing temperatures and humidity
- Normal wear and tear, primarily if the product is used in a high-traffic area
Do Artisans And Commercial Factories Produce Different Finishes On Leather?
Artisans and commercial factories have very different motivations for working with leather. The former is primarily interested in the preservation of historical techniques and the production of individualized custom pieces. Commercial factories, by comparison, want finishes that can be easily performed using a production line for the use in mass-produced products.
The finishes on artisan-produced versus mass-produced leather products reflect these two vastly different attitudes and motivations underpinning the use of leather.
What Leather Finishes Are Commonly Used In Commercial Factories And Tanneries?
Commercial factories are primarily focused on the bottom line. They have costly industrial machinery that is used to provide uniform finishes for specific product lines. Commercial factories will only do finishes that can be easily done on a production line and have a reasonable cost vs. benefit ratio.
Standard finishes produced by commercial factories and tanneries are:
- Printed leather
- Patent Leather
- Pull-up Leather is sometimes called waxy or oily leather.
Which Leather Finishes Are Commonly Used By Artisans?
Artisans aim to produce one-of-a-kind masterpieces. This means that they will still use intricate, time-consuming processes to obtain the desired results. However, artisans are typically limited in the type of finish they can apply due to the lack of heavy-duty (and usually exorbitantly expensive) machinery.
Standard finishes produced by artisans are:
- Hand-worked leather pieces, i.e., tooled, stamped, and burnished pieces
- Leather pieces using gold-leaf
- Marble-effect dying techniques
- Embroidered leather
- Leather pyrography
There are many other types of leather finishes that can be performed by both individual artisans or commercial factories with equally good results.
What Are The Different Types Of Leather Finishes?
There are over 20 different types of leather finishes used. However, only a select few will be used in the various leather-related industries. For example, aniline and hair-on-hide leather finishes are never used in the automotive industry but are commonly used for upholstery and other home furnishings.
Aniline, also known as “naked leather,” is one of the most minimalist leather finishes that can be used.
Aniline leather is treated with transparent, soluble Aniline dyes. These dyes allow the leather’s natural grain to shine through, including any character marks that may be present in the hide.
The lack of a protective topcoat makes Aniline leather susceptible to the sun, water, and mechanical damage. I love the warm feel and natural look of aniline leathers, but I would think twice about using aniline leathers in any hard-use or high-traffic areas.
Why Is Aniline Leather Products So Expensive?
Due to the honesty of aniline leathers, only the most blemish-free hides may be used in the production of aniline leathers. Only the best 5% of hides are suitable for producing aniline leather.
The premium nature of aniline leathers means they are used almost exclusively for luxury products and marketed to top-end buyers, with a matching price tag.
Are There Different Types Of Aniline Leather?
There are two types of aniline leathers, full-aniline, and protected-aniline. Full-aniline will have no topcoat, but protected-aniline may have a thin coat of oil applied. This oil or wax application provides a small amount of protection from spills and stains.
Since January 2016, Germany has recognized a third category of aniline leathers: aniline leather, refined. This refined aniline is allowed to have a delicately applied layer of refined pigment to the leather. However, for the leather to still be classified as aniline, the pores of the leather must still be easily visible to the naked eye.
Semi-aniline is one step below aniline regarding quality but is still highly regarded by most artisans and commercial factories.
Semi-aniline leather is treated with a primer followed by a thin layer of pigmented dye. This dye allows the majority of the natural grain to be showcased while creating a more uniform color distribution.
Once the pigment layer has been allowed to dry, a protective topcoat is applied. The pigment and topcoat make semi-aniline much more durable and suitable for hard-use items than aniline leather.
Why Do Artisans Sometimes Prefer Semi-Aniline Leather To Full-Aniline Leather?
As so often happens in life, there is a compromise that must be made to find a workable solution. Semi-aniline leather is the godchild of the leatherworkers’ compromise between aesthetics and functionality.
While semi-aniline is not as “honest” in its appearance as aniline leather, it is far more robust and durable. Although semi-aniline leathers are still considered suitable for most luxury items, it is not as high-end as full-aniline leathers.
Pull-up leather, also known as oily or waxed leather, is actually one of the sub-categories belonging to semi-aniline leather. After a layer of pigmentation has been applied, a thick layer of wax is applied.
As the wax stretches and pulls, microscopic cracks appear in the protective topcoat, allowing the lighter-colored pigment to shine through. Due to these minuscule cracks, pull-up leather has the most enchanting two-toned appearance that only gets better with age.
The distressed appearance of this leather makes it a firm favorite with manufacturers of handbags and high-end furniture.
The patina of pull-up leather continues to evolve and change with age. With use, damage to the surface of the leather is inevitable. The forgiving nature of pull-up leather allows these minor mishaps to blend and even add character to your favorite armchair or handbag!
Like so many other leather finishes, hand-rubbed leather is also known by another name. Hand-rubbed leather is sometimes referred to as antiqued leather due to its aged appearance.
It is important to note that ANTIQUED leather is not genuinely ANTIQUE. Antiqued leather refers to modern products dyed to mimic antique leather products.
What Are The Two Different Dye Techniques Used To Create An Antique Effect?
Once a primer has been applied, a light-colored aniline dye is applied evenly to the surface of the leather. Once this layer has been applied, an uneven layer of dark pigmentation is dotted, dabbed, swiped, or swirled onto the leather.
The more uneven the layer of dark pigmentation, the more dramatic the antique effect. The greater the volume of dark pigment applied, the darker the final effect and vice versa.
Only skilled artisans should attempt this technique. Failure to blend the dark pigmentation into the light dye can leave the product with a clownish appearance. When done well, antiqued leather is highly prized, especially for heirloom-type furniture and artifacts.
Some artisans prefer to apply a uniform layer of dark pigment over the light dye. The dark pigment is then partially rubbed off using a solvent. The pronounced portions of the grain are lightened while the recessed areas remain dark.
What Are The Differences Between Pull-Up Leather And Antiqued Leather?
Like pull-up leathers, antiqued leathers are a sub-category of semi-aniline leathers. However, unlike semi-aniline leather, it is not the protective top coat that is altered but rather the pigmentation layer.
Once the pigment has been applied to antiqued leather, a thin layer of protective topcoat is applied. This thin coat is much more flexible and cracks resistant than the thick waxy coat associated with pull-up leather. Thus, antiqued leather is more moisture-resistant than pull-up leather due to the absence of microscopic cracks.
Pigmented leather is the most widely used leather for high traffic areas or products intended for hard use. A thick layer of pigment mixed with a binder is applied to the surface of the leather, followed by a protective topcoat.
Due to the excellent camouflage afforded by the thick topcoat and pigment, almost all hides can be successfully used in the production of pigmented leather. The ease of turning hides into pigmented leather makes this one of the most cost-effective leathers to purchase.
What Does Pigmented Leather Look And Feel Like?
Pigmented leather will have a slightly plastic look and feel, courtesy of the thick pigment layer. The plastic feel will be especially prevalent in leathers where an excess of pigment has been laid down.
Pigmented leather will have a uniform appearance with no gradations or variations commonly seen in leather.
Is Pigmented Leather A Durable Leather?
The thick pigment and plastic-like topcoat make this leather the least porous of the leather finishes we have covered. The more porous the leather, the more sensitive it is to oil and liquid stains.
Pigmented leather is the most stain-, soil- and damage-resistant of all the leather finishes.
Pigmented Full Grain
A pigmented finish is often used with full-grain leather when the leather is intended for use in the automotive or upholstery industry.
Although full-grain leather is thicker and more durable, a thinner pigmented top grain leather may also be a viable alternative. The thinner top-grain leather will mold more easily around tight corners and complex shapes.
The thick pigment layer overlays and obscures most of the leather’s natural grain. The grain will be virtually impossible to see in leathers with a very fine grain, like calfskin.
However, the grain will remain partially visible
with leather that has a very pronounced grain like crocodile or ostrich. Although, one must question why anyone in their right mind would want to obscure (even minimally) the grain of exotic skins.
Corrected Grain – Embossed
Leather is prized for its natural appearance and unique smell and feel; however, there are certain situations in which the grain is considered undesirable.
Leather in which the top grain has been buffed or sanded out is said to be degraded, i.e., it’s as smooth as a baby’s bottom! Degrained leather is as bland as milk pudding and as appealing.
However, the blank canvas of degrained leather opens a world of possibilities for applying decorative and complex finishes and embossing leather.
The leather is lightly dampened to create embossed leather, and the pattern is applied using enormous amounts of heat and pressure.
Once embossed, the leather will now carry a new 3D textured pattern. You may be asking yourself why leatherworkers would go to all the trouble of imprinting a new design or grain when we’ve just removed the old grain?
That is a good question, and the answer is twofold:
- It allows us to imprint patterns not seen in nature, as with these gorgeous flower motifs seen at Texas Leather.
- It allows us to mimic the grains seen on exotic leathers but without the exorbitant price tag. Rocky Mountain Leather Supply has brilliant examples of embossed crocodile leather, i.e., the leather is typically bovine with a crocodile grain embossed into the surface.
Split leather is a type of leather and not the finish. It is essential to understand what spit leather is to fully understand what type of finishes are possible with split leather.
When a hide is processed, it may be split or thinned to create a more flexible soft leather. Commonly a leather will be divided into two layers, the top or grain-side layer and the bottom or flesh-side layer.
The top layer containing the grain is unoriginally called the top-grain. Top-grain differs from full-grain in that it is thinner, whereas full-grain is a full-thickness hide.
The bottom layer is now referred to as the split. Split leather does not possess grain and will have a fluffy appearance on both the upper and lower surfaces.
The strongest fibers are found in the uppermost layers of leather; once the top grain leather is removed, only the weakest fibers remain in the split. Thus, split leather is made of loosely woven, relatively fragile fibers. Split leather is easily torn due to this fragility.
In a way, split leathers can be viewed as the discards of leather intended for use in luxury items. Splits may be coated or uncoated but are often used in lower-end economy products. Split leathers are one of the cheapest genuine leathers available for purchase.
What Kind Of Finishes Are Used With Split Leather?
Split leather invariably needs some kind of finish to stabilize the fibers and improve the durability of the product.
Uncoated split leather is turned into a type of suede where the hide is sanded from the inside out. The hide is then treated with a moisture-resistant topcoat.
Coated split leather is sometimes known as laminated leather. In this, a plastic film is applied to the upper, lower, or both sides of the split leather. This plastic layer is vital to improving the durability of split leather.
A pattern or grain may be embossed into this plastic layer mimicking the grains seen in smooth leather. For this reason, embossed split leather is sometimes referred to as imitation leather and needs to be declared as such.
In 2011, another technique for coating split leather was introduced to the market. In textile-coated split leather and synthetic fabric, textile is laminated onto one or both sides of the split. This product is 89% leather, 11% fabric and cannot be sold as an authentic leather product.
Textile-coated split leather is often marketed under the names Rodea, Tasan, and Pilot leather.
Clever techniques and advancing technology mean that manufacturers can often make split leathers look and feel like genuine top grain leather, at least initially. Unfortunately, the quality of embossed and coated split leather will never be as good or as durable as genuine smooth leather.
Buyers who have unwittingly brought split leather instead of top grain leather will be disappointed in their purchase. Many countries have strict laws governing the sales of split leather, forcing the manufacturer to declare the use of split leather in leather products.
Are There Other Types Of Leather Finishes?
There are more leather finishes than you can count; each tannery and artisan will have developed unique techniques and finishes. These techniques are often treated as highly prized trade secrets that differentiate one artisan’s work from another.
Despite the massive variety of finishes available, most finishes can still be grouped into one of the categories already covered: aniline, semi-aniline, pigmented, and split leathers (coated or uncoated).
What Type Of Leather Finish Gives A Metallic Or Pearlized Finish?
Metallic leathers have the bright shiny appearance characteristic of precious metals. Typically, only smooth leathers like full-grain, top-grain, and degrained leathers are suitable for manufacturing metallic leathers.
Nubuck, suede, and hair-on-hide leathers are not good fits when creating a metallic look.
Depending on which technique is used, metallic leathers can be classified as either laminated (coated) leathers or pigmented leathers.
To achieve genuine metallic leather, a thin layer of colored foil is laminated to the surface of the leather. A metallic effect can also be achieved with pigmented leather. A layer of plain pigment is applied, followed by a protective topcoat containing metallic flecks is applied.
This pigmented leather will have a sparkly appearance reminiscent of metals, whereas the laminated leather will have true metal’s bright, pure appearance. Pigmented metallic leather has a more subtle appearance than laminated metallic leather.
Choosing the correct finish can be the difference between the success or failure of your leather product. The finish will affect the appearance of the leather’s grain, the uniformity and vibrancy of color, and the robustness of your leather item.
The highest quality and most expensive finish are aniline leathers, but this is also one of the most sensitive leathers to stains and mechanical damage.
Semi-aniline is often the best choice if you want a certain level of robustness without sacrificing quality.
The most durable leather finish still used in luxury items is pigmented leather. Pigmented leather is often used with full-grain leathers, although the heavy topcoat will hide a large portion of the leather’s natural grain.
Pigmented leathers are also good candidates for embossed leathers, making them favorites of artisans who love fancy patterns and swirling motifs.
Coated and uncoated split leathers are the poor relation of high-end leathers. While made of real leather, they are often finished with other modalities such as plastic and fabric. Due to the inclusion of different materials and the poor quality of split leathers, many countries have banned selling split leather as genuine leather.
The Leather Dictionary: Aniline leather
LeatherMag: Identity crisis
Leather Hide Store: Upholstery Leather 101 – Aniline, Semi-Aniline & Pigmented
Texas Leather Goods: Floral Embossed Leather
RM Leather Supply: Embossed Crocodile 🇮🇹 – Veg Tanned Leather – 2.5oz (1.0mm)