All You Need to Know About Shopping for Leather Furniture

FULL-GRAIN LEATHER

This is the highest-quality, most durable leather you can buy; pretty much the only things done to it are a scraping of the fur from the hide and then tanning, typically with vegetable dye, to bring out its natural, earthy tones. Because of this, the thick, rugged texture is generally stiffer and tougher than top-grain, but it softens with age, often with beautiful grain lines like a marbled piece of steak. It’s also very water-resistant and breathable—think of saddles, boots, and other cowboy accoutrements—and it will last practically forever.

TOP-GRAIN LEATHER

This is the next highest in quality. Very similar to full-grain—it’s a slightly thinner slice of the top layer of leather—it goes through an additional buffing-and-polishing process, making it softer and smoother, without sacrificing the long wear of full-grain, and it can take on more vibrant colors, so it's more versatile. Top-grain leather can also be treated to be stain-resistant, though it’s not as breathable. There may be some grain lines as it patinas, but not as much as with full-grain, meaning it will mostly retain its glossy beauty. This is a very desirable type of leather, so expect to pay many pretty pennies for it!

SPLIT-GRAIN LEATHER

When the top-grain layer—where the strongest fibers are—is sliced off, the split-grain is either the middle or bottom layer below it. It’s more supple than full-grain or top-grain, and it can be torn somewhat more easily, but it is still fairly durable. Case in point? A lot of work gloves are made from split leather. Because of its fuzzy, nappy texture, it is difficult to make water-resistant. After it’s softened, brushed out, and color-treated, it’s commonly known as suede. BEWARE: “Coated” or “laminated” split leather is basically a plastic or other cheap film (with a fake grain texture) applied to split leather with an adhesive. This film can tear or separate from the leather, meaning it could soon fall apart

BONDED LEATHER

This is made from leftover scraps of leather that are shredded and mixed together with other, usually synthetic, materials then glued onto a backing sheet to form a large, thin piece of fabric, which can then be used to upholster furniture (only 10 to 20 percent may be actual leather, but it can still be called "genuine leather"). It is the cheapest option and, unsurprisingly, is the least durable. Depending on the type of glue, how paper-thin the sheet is, and how well it’s Frankensteined together, this leather could look great and stay that way for a couple years, or it could tear, rub off, and disintegrate quickly, leading to a ragged monster.

By Ann Lien

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