Explore the different types of leather along with the various dying processes to help you make an informed decision in choosing new leather for upholstered furniture.
This month we bid farewell to our lounge suite. An unfortunate accident occurred between my puppy’s teeth and the couch; the puppy claimed a decisive and undisputed win! This started me on my quest to replace the beloved couch with a high-quality leather couch. Hopefully, the lessons I learned will benefit you in your journey to pick the perfect leather furniture.
Furniture is covered by upholstery leather. There are seven common types of upholstery leather used on furniture: full-grain, top-grain, corrected grain, split grain, nubuck, sheepskin, and hair on hide leather. Different dying processes are used to produce aniline, semi-aniline, and pigmented leather.
My stomach dropped when I saw the prices of leather furniture. Once I had returned my jaw to its proper place, I began to wonder:
- Why is leather furniture so expensive?
- What leather furniture will best suit my household?
- Can leather furniture be both beautiful and functional?
- How do I make my leather furniture last?
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What is Leather?
Leather is a natural material made by tanning the hides of animals. The most prevalent leather used in furniture manufacture is sourced from cows.
Although bovine leather remains the most popular cost-effective source, other leathers such as kangaroo, zebra, goat, and sheep are also used. Leather can be made from almost any type of animal skin.
As a natural material, each hide and piece of furniture made from leather will be unique. Like a fingerprint, it is impossible to generate duplicates. The magic of leather lies in the history captured within the hide and the slowly evolving patina as the leather responds to its environment.
What Parts of the Hide are Used for Upholstery Leather?
Not all parts of the hide are suitable for use on furniture. Most upholstery furniture is produced from leather sides or backs. These pieces are sufficiently large to cover the surface areas associated with couches and chairs, avoiding the need for extra seams to join additional leather pieces together.
How is Upholstery Leather Made?
Once the skin has been preserved by salting it, it is delivered to the tannery. The two most common methods for tanning leather is chrome-tanned leather and vegetable-tanned leather.
Both methods of leather tanning aim to alter the collagen fibers of raw leather. This process is absolutely vital to preventing the decay or rotting natural to biological material.
In both processes, the leather is soaked in a solution of lime and sulfides, rehydrating the salted hide, causing it to swell to 8mm or more. The hair is softened and scraped off.
Once the hair has been removed, the prepared hide is then placed into a drum for tanning. In vegetable tanning, the drum contains a mixture of tannins derived from plant-based extracts, e.g., roots, berries, fruit, etc.
In chromium tanning, the tanning solution contains chromium salts, which cross-link with proteins within the hide, stabilizing them and preventing decay. Each chromium tanned leather will have approximately 5% of chromium.
After tanning, the leather hides are dyed and treated with fats to bind and protect the collagen fibers. The leather is removed and dried using a felt roller and “ironed” out to remove creases following the dying process.
Once tanned and dried, the hide is split using a splitting machine. Leathers intended for use in upholstery are split to a thickness of 1.2mm to 1.4mm.
Which is Better for Use on Leather Furniture: Vegetable-Tanned or Chrome-Tanned Leather?
There has been a rapid decline in the popularity of vegetable-tanned leather in recent years, with 80% of the market being dominated by chromium leathers produced in the East.
- Vegetable tanning takes significantly longer than chromium tanning and, as such, is more expensive.
- White and light-colored leathers cannot be achieved with vegetable tanning. A white finish may be added to the tanned leather to produce light-colored leather; however, the thick finish will disguise the natural leather grain.
- Vegetable-tanned leather is relatively high maintenance. If neglected or cared for improperly, vegetable-tanned leather can shrink, become hardened and brittle. Cracks may appear in the upholstery, ruining the aesthetics.
- Exposure to light darkens and warms the color of vegetable-tanned leather, which may not be desirable in all situations.
Despite the drawbacks, many artisan and discerning buyers still prefer vegetable-tanned leather to chromium leather. Many artisans who work with leather every day still insist that vegetable-tanned leather’s smell, texture, and behavior are far superior to chrome-tanned leather.
The chemicals used to tan chromium leather are toxic if ingested and are not environmentally friendly. USA and UK regulations have strict laws governing chromium tanning techniques due to the high level of toxicity.
For environmentally-conscious buyers prepared to invest in quality and enjoy the natural appearance of leather, vegetable-tanned leather may still be the best option.
What is Leather Grade, and Does It Matter?
Most leather manufactures and artisans will spend hours poring over the budget to ensure they buy the highest-grade leather. Leather is a natural product, and while the imperfections and individual nuances of each hide give leather its character, some blemishes are too big to overcome.
Portions of the leather that are deeply scarred or have holes in them are considered unsuitable for use and discarded or given to apprentices for practice. Thus the grade of leather refers to its quality and number of blemishes.
Most shops and leather suppliers use the following algorithms to determine the leather grade:
- Grade 1 – 75% to 100% cutting value. It is free of blemishes and the highest quality leather; as such, it is also the most expensive.
- Grade 2 – 50% to 75% cutting value. This leather is reasonably priced per hide, but manufacturers will need to buy more hides as the wastage is higher.
- Grade 3 – 30% to 50% cutting value. This leather is the cheapest and rarely used for upholstery. The usable portions are often too small to cover the upholstery sections.
A master artisan can only produce luxury leather furniture if the raw materials used are of the highest quality. Thus furniture made from Grade 1 leather will always be superior to other leather types used to cover furniture.
What Are the Most Common Types of Leather Used for Furniture?
Understanding leather terminology is crucial to successfully navigating the world of leather furniture. The first time I walked into a leather store, I was utterly bewildered and lost. Thankfully, an exceptionally kind elderly gentleman took pity on me and gave me an impromptu leather lesson.
Almost any type of leather can be used for upholstery, although there are five commonly used types and two types that are gradually gaining popularity.
Common types of leather used for leather furniture:
Modern leather types gaining popularity for upholstering leather furniture:
- Hair on hide leather
Full Grain Leather
The ultimate luxury in leather furniture is that made from full-grain leather. The leather is only made from the highest quality hides that are as close to blemish-free as possible.
Full-grain leather is not split during the tanning process, and the unreduced hide thickness is used. Due to the thickness of full-grain leather, it is more resistant to mechanical damage but can be trickier to mold around corners and edges.
The thickness of full-grain leather means that more natural oils and fats are retained, increasing the longevity of leather products made with full-grain leather.
Most leather surfaces are buffed or corrected to a certain degree. The exception to this is full-grain leather. The topside is left untouched, and the natural grain is allowed to showcase the uniqueness of each hide.
Top Grain Leather
Top-grain leather pulls into a close second behind full-grain leather for sheer quality. This is split-leather, in which the leather has been thinned, and the top grain buffed out. This leather is not as robust as full-grain leather due to being split into a thinner, more delicate sheet.
Top-grain leather provides a much more uniform finish to leather products and is easier to mold around sharp corners and edges without creating creases.
My attempts at upholstering have not always been successful, especially in the beginning. Getting a tight finish and crease-free edge was much easier to achieve with top-grain leather than full-grain. Although, I have eventually managed to master full-grain leather.
Artisans often use various dye techniques to create custom effects and as with any artist, starting with a blank clean canvas is essential to success. Top-grain leather is often more suitable for complex color finishes than full-grain leather due to its uniform finish. The smooth finish of this leather is essential where the dye needs to be applied and absorbed evenly.
Corrected Grain Leather
As with most things, humans often can and do make life more complicated for themselves. Corrected-grain leather, also known as embossed leather, is top-grain leather in which an artificial grain has been impressed into the surface of the leather.
Leatherworkers definitely experience a unique type of madness! We’ve just deliberately removed the top grain, and now we impress a new grain. However, despite the roundabout way of achieving the grain, the embossed leather is actually extremely useful to a leatherworker.
Embossed pieces allow us to create a decorative grain that may not be found in nature. Embossing also enables us to mimic the grain of exotic leathers without the hefty price tag associated with these rare leathers.
If you are ever wondering whether a piece of furniture is made with full-grain leather or embossed leather, examine the leather for blemishes. Embossed leather will be completely uniform and without flaws, thus giving away its slightly lower value.
The Irony of Artisan Produced Vs. Mass Produced Leather Furniture
I always laugh when I consider the irony associated with the value of artisan-produced pieces. Artisans aim to create one-of-a-kind, handmade pieces using traditional techniques. Typically, these pieces are much more expensive than their mass-produced counterparts.
However, part of the value is due to the blemishes seen in the leather and the human-induced variances (and occasionally errors) incorporated into the piece. Despite this, a master artisan works their entire life to be able to produce error-free products. In contrast, mass-produced products are valued less due to their perfection and uniformity.
Split Grain Leather
The toughest fibers in any hide are always found in the upper surfaces of the hide. These are the portions that are used to make top-grain leather. Split-grain leather refers to the leather section that remains after the top-grain leather has been sliced off.
Split-grain is much softer and more flexible than both top-grain and full-grain leathers. It has a fuzzy appearance on both the grain and flesh side. Due to the weaker fibers found within split-grain leather, this leather is much more fragile and less durable than other types of leather.
The complete removal of the top grain means that no grain or patina will be visible on split-grain leather, nor will it ever have the shiny, polished finish of full and top grain leather.
There are tannery-specific techniques that are used to improve the finish of split-grain, but they do make the leather stiffer and more brittle. However, split-grain leather is a much cheaper alternative than the previous leathers mentioned.
Nubuck and Suede Leather
Both nubuck and suede leather have similar velveteen appearances—however, these two types of leather show vast discrepancies between their price, durability, and manufacturing process.
Although any leather can be used to create these two types of leather, the most common leather used internationally is calfskin. In nubuck, the top grain is lightly sanded from the outside, whereas in suede, the top-grain is lightly sanded from the inside.
The complexities of sanding the top grain from the outside makes nubuck much more expensive than suede. However, this technique retains more of the leather’s natural patina and grain than seen in suede.
Nubuck is more durable than suede and is the preferred leather for upholstery, although throw pillows can be made from suede. The fluffy effect of the nubuck is susceptible to water stains and will need a protective coating to preserve the furniture’s aesthetics.
Unlike most leather products, you never polish nubuck or suede. It is advised to clean nubuck and suede with a product-specific brush. These leather types are not easy to wipe down and can collect more dust than the smooth leathers previously mentioned.
Hair on Hide Leather
Hair on hide leather is exactly what it sounds like. The animal’s natural hair is retained during the tanning process allowing you to appreciate the many variations seen in an animal’s coat.
Most hair on hide leather is taken from animals that have a coarse, robust hair structure. Animal coats characterized by fluffy fine-textured hair are unsuitable for this leather type as the hair breaks down and molts too quickly.
Hair on hide leather from Africa is commonly derived from Nguni cattle, known for the colorful markings. This leather type may also be derived from game such as zebra and kudu, and other loudly marked cattle breeds.
Hair on hide leather, while not common, is rapidly gaining traction in European markets. In Europe, it is often used as an accent or even a singular focal piece. Designers love the natural color variations and patterns unique to hair on hide leather.
Like nubuck and sheepskin, hair on hide leather should not be polished but rather brushed with specialized brushes to keep it in peak condition. This leather is exceptionally durable and tough, but it comes with a hefty price tag due to its exotic nature.
All of us are familiar with or at least know about sheepskin leather from the clothing industry. Sheepskin provides a lovely snuggly throw or lining in our jackets and shoes. Most people would dismiss sheepskin as a viable option for furniture upholstery. However, sheepskin provides a surprisingly luxuriant finish to furniture.
Sheepskins are much smaller than bovine hides and, as such, are not always suited to upholstering large settees. However, the wool on the sheepskin will hide stitch lines so multiple pieces can be stitched together without compromising the aesthetics.
Due to the fluffy appearance of sheepskin upholstered furniture, these pieces are best featured on smaller areas like an armchair. These armchairs, particularly if situated within the bedroom, will rapidly become your “go-to” comfort chair.
If Sheldon from the Big Bang had claimed a sheepskin-covered chair as THE chair, I would have absolutely understood and supported his decision.
Sheepskin needs to be brushed regularly to avoid clumping of the hairs, but apart from that is relatively low maintenance. Medical-grade sheepskin is available, making it suitable for people suffering from allergies or other related health issues.
Sheepskin is not suitable for families with pets. Your dog or cat will LOVE the sheepskin, but it is difficult to separate your pet’s shed hair from the wool fibers of the sheepskin. Alternatively, you could get your dog a sheepskin dog bed to match your sheepskin upholstered chair, and you can both enjoy the cozy enjoyment of sheepskin.
Can You Get Leather Furniture in Different Colours and Finishes?
Now that we’ve covered the categories of leather-based on tanning and the types of leather-based on texture, we need to investigate leather types based on the finish used. The leather finish will determine the color of the leather and the hardiness of the leather.
Leather can be obtained in an infinite number of colors. However, white and light-colored leathers are the almost exclusive purvey of chrome-tanned leather.
Where the color of the leather is only limited by our imagination and dying technology, there are only three finishes commonly used for upholstery leather: aniline, semi-aniline and pigmented.
Often referred to as “naked leather,” full-aniline leather is the leather to satisfy a purist’s heart. Treated and dyed with non-toxic transparent aniline dyes, full-anilines leathers will display all the blemishes and character marks inherent to leather hides.
The undisguised nature of full-aniline leather means that only the best, most perfect hides are used in the manufacture of aniline leathers. Typically, only 5% of hides are considered suitable for the manufacture of aniline leathers.
Full-aniline leathers do not have a protective topcoat. While this lack of protective coating allows the beautifully textured nature of leather to shine through is does come at a cost. Aniline leathers are incredibly vulnerable to stains and mechanical damage.
The sensitive nature of full-aniline leathers makes them unsuitable for homes with young children and pets. Protected-aniline leathers may be a better alternative. A light topcoat or wax is applied to protected aniline, giving it a small amount of protection from liquid stains.
Like wine, aniline leathers become better with age as the patina develops with an ever-increasing warmth, character, richness, and complexity. The exclusivity and purity of full-aniline leathers mean that these hides are marketed to top-end buyers at a premium price.
While more expensive than standard leathers, semi-aniline leathers are still cheaper than full-aniline leathers. Apart from the more affordable price, semi-aniline leathers are also a bit tougher than full-aniline hides.
Like full-aniline leather, semi-aniline leathers are dyed in a drum. Once removed, another layer of matching dye is sprayed onto the surface of the leather. The extra layer of pigment makes the leather more soil- and stain-resistant. It also makes the leather’s coloring more uniform.
Unfortunately, the additional layer of dye obscures some of the leather’s character marks. On a positive note, the fact that these blemishes are partially concealed means that a greater percentage of hides are suitable for semi-aniline leathers when compared to full-aniline.
Once the sprayed pigment has dried, a protective topcoat is applied. The protective topcoat and additional layer of sprayed dye work together to improve the hardiness and durability of semi-aniline leather.
If your family is known for being an accident-prone messy family or has young kids and pets, semi-aniline-covered furniture is a much safer option.
The overly sensitive full aniline leathers will stretch your nerves to the breaking point each time someone even glances at the furniture while holding a cup of juice. For the sake of your sanity and preserving family goodwill, choose semi-aniline!
Pigmented leather is the most durable finish that can be applied to any leather type. The extreme hardiness of this leather makes it ideally suited not only for the automotive industry but also for mass-produced leather upholstered furniture.
A color-infused layer of polymer is sprayed onto the surface of the leather creating a uniform layer of richly pigmented leather. The polymer layer creates a smooth-feeling finish, although it can give the leather a slightly artificial look as it obscures the grain to a large degree.
This finish is one of the cheapest finishes that can be applied to the leather as the manufacturer can use the majority of hides to produce pigmented leather. This leather’s stain- and soil-resistance characteristics make it one of the most suitable leathers to use in high-traffic areas.
Is Synthetic Leather As Good As Genuine Leather For Furniture?
When shopping for leather furniture, budget considerations must be accounted for. There is no denying that authentic leather products are costly. For those who like the look of leather but are working on a tight budget, a synthetic leather option may be a viable alternative.
Synthetic leathers include leatherette or faux leather, bonded leather, cactus leather, and mushroom leather. Although promoted as eco-friendly alternatives to genuine leather, these leathers cannot hold a candle to genuine leather.
The smell, texture, and behavior of these synthetic leathers are fundamentally different from genuine leather. Additionally, synthetic leather will often crack and peel with time.
While easier to clean than genuine leather, furniture upholstered in synthetic leather will not hold its value as well as real leather-covered furniture.
Choosing new leather upholstered furniture is an exciting prospect that can initially feel overwhelming. All the different options and strange terminology can quickly leave you feeling out of your depth.
To make things simpler write down all the criteria that are important to you and your family regarding the leather furniture. Then choose one option from each of the three categories: tanning process, leather type, and finish.
The tanning process results in only two types of leather, vegetable-tanned and chromium-tanned. There are seven types of leather and three finishes that can be chosen. If necessary, visit some furniture shops to experience the different effects of the finished products.
Buying leather furniture is a significant investment of time and money. So, take your time when making this decision and consider all your options. This way, you know you will be able to avoid the trap of buyer’s regret and choose the perfect leather furniture for your home.
World Of Leathers: What is Leather? Its Origins, Forms, and Uses
Mission Mercantile: TOP-GRAIN VS. FULL-GRAIN LEATHER | WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
Leather Hide Store: Upholstery Leather 101 – Aniline, Semi-Aniline & Pigmented
leather-sofa.org: Guide to Leather Types
Leather Hide Store: Upholstery Leather 101 – Aniline, Semi-Aniline & Pigmented
The Spruce: 3 Most Common Types of Leather Used in Furniture