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What are the different types of leather?

Leather is animal hide and is distinguished by different tanning, dyeing, and finishing methods. Vinyl, bonded, and faux leather are synthetics made to look and feel like the real stuff.

Types of Genuine & Synthetic Leather

Full grain / top grain leather – This is the best quality leather, as the hide and epidermis (skin surface) are fully intact. It can be absorbent semi-aniline or aniline (referring to little or no clear finish) or have a more stain-resistant pigmented finish. As such, the leather may appear monochromatic (single, solid color), marbled or a multi-colored base-and-print. All can be refinished with Rub ‘n Restore®. 

Semi-aniline – This is also the best quality full grain leather. The dyeing process accentuates variations in the fiber, resulting in a marbled appearance. Despite a thin  lear finish, the leather is still prone to sun fading, stains from liquids or body oil, and a fingernail may easily mark the surface. Rub ’n Restore® Colors will correct and prevent stains and fading by adding a thin, pigmented finish. The leather will still feel soft and breathe. We recommend working with a glaze (diluting Color with Clear Prep+Finish™) and a mottling technique to mimic the original marbling.

Aniline – This is also the best quality full grain leather. The dyeing process accentuates natural variations in the fiber, resulting in a marbled appearance. There is no finish whatsoever. Aniline has a warm, velvety feel but is all the more susceptible to sun fading, stains, and scuffs marks. Using Rub ’n Restore® Colors to add a thin pigmented finish will correct and prevent stains and fading. The warm, velvety texture may slightly cool to the touch, but the leather will still breathe and feel soft. We recommend working with a glaze (diluting Color with Clear Prep+Finish™) and a mottling technique to mimic the original marbling.

Pull up – This beautiful aniline leather has a pigmented waxed or oiled finish. This will repel our water-based acrylic finish, so the leather must be deglazed before Rub ’n Restore® can be applied.

Nubuck – This full-grain leather has no finish and has been brushed. It is especially warm and velvety feeling but is very prone to sun fading and staining. Rub ’n Restore® Colors should be used with some caution, as they will finish the material and may stiffen any worn, chafed areas.

Suede – The backside of full grain leather is raw suede, which has a nappy texture and should never be finished.

Corrected grain leather – This full grain leather’s epidermis (skin surface) was sanded to correct blemishes and scars before a finish is applied. The leather may be monochromatic (single, solid color), or different base-and-print and colors.

Split leather – This refers to the lower, weaker half of the hide that has no epidermis (skin surface) and is therefore of poorer quality. Unfinished it looks like thin suede. 

Bi-cast / bycast – This split hide (lower, weaker half of the hide with no epidermis) has a urethane or polyurethane coating to create a new ‘skin’ surface. These coatings eventually lose their luster and become tacky or sticky. They can also delaminate, peel or flake like bonded and faux leather. 

Leather Match Leather upholstery is often paired with a matching synthetic to reduce cost. The synthetic (usually vinyl but occasionally bonded or faux leather) is used on back and side panels where the body does not touch. The leather is usually finished full grain but can also be corrected grain. Leather match is common on furniture and auto interiors.

Vinyl – This synthetic is made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). The backside of the material is a woven mesh. It is used on boats and spa covers, as well as auto interiors and furniture. Naugahyde was a trademarked name in the 1950s. 

Bonded leather – This is a composite material made of ground scrap leather with a polyurethane (PU) coating that catastrophically peels or flakes. It is cannot be effectively repaired.

Faux Leather Faux is French for “false”. This synthetic is made of a polyester or microfiber fabric. Many have a polyurethane coating that, like bonded leather, peels or flakes and cannot be effectively repaired. Other faux leathers wear more naturally but still expose a fuzzy microfiber and can only be painted and waxed to retain a leather-like appearance.

Tanning

Most upholstery leathers and garments are chromium tanned, which lends to a softer, stretchier hide.

Vegetable tanned leathers are heavy and stiff and used to make saddles, belts, and luggage.

Aldehyde or brain tanned leathers are less common, especially in upholstery.

Dyeing & Finishing

After tanning, most leathers are dyed, commonly with aniline dyes. This is confusing, because aniline and semi-aniline can refer to both the type of dye used as well as the resulting finish.

Aniline dyes are water-based and accentuate the fiber’s natural variation. Aniline-dyed leather has no protective finish. 

Semi-aniline dyes have added oils which result in a thin clear finish.

As such, both aniline and semi-aniline leathers are more absorbent and prone to staining and fading.

Some aniline-dyed leathers have a pigmented, water-repellant finish (like those used in auto interiors). These leathers better resist stains and fading but are often monochromatic or have a base-and-print finish applied to create a varied appearance.

Learn more about the difference between leather dyes and finishes.

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Catherine Cormier says

    I inherited a recliner chair, so it is approximately 50 years old. Across the top of the chair the leather is VERY crusty and stiff, probably due to body oils and sun. The leather is not absorbent. Is there a product to make the leather soft and pliable? I have cleaned it with alcohol and water.

    Also this area could use some additional batting to help with the sagging, but there is no zipper or spot to add more. The back of the chair is one piece of leather from top to bottom. Thoughts??

    Thank you.

  2. Connie says

    My father left me 2 jackets….sort of bomber style leather jackets that was very expensive (over $500). One is old and brown color worn to where it is as if there is no color at all in many areas – almost ivory.
    What is the best way to restore color? It seems there was a seal or finish which isn’t shiny but not a dull mat finish either?
    On the second jacket, there is no color loss yet but what is the best product to use to keep the leather soft and moist – keep from drying out? Some have said mink oil but….
    Thank you so much for any help.

  3. Phil Fluke says

    I have a pair 2007 car seats. The seating surfaces are leather but there is a material on the sides and back which is synthetic, but feels very similar to the leather in texture and look. It is light gray and I want to refinish it in blue. Is your “ rubnrestore” right for this application? I intend to spray the restore on.

  4. Lisa says

    The seller called it “Italian leather.” When I got it home I realized that it had scales coming up on the front of the seats. Is there anything I can do to keep it from getting worse?

  5. Tina says

    I have a 3-seat cognac leather sofa and ottoman that I want to dye camel with your product. As well as dyeing it I’d like to make the feel warmer first. I was thinking of sanding. Will that work or can you advise a better approach?

    • lesandre says

      Refinishing leather is not going to make it warmer in temperature. Sanding will remove any roughness or wear and make it feel smoother.

  6. Dave Eriksen says

    My new spa cover is a much lighter brown than anticipated. Can the vinyl material be darkened with your product?

  7. Brenda Hernandez says

    I bought an upholstered faux leather bed frame in white but the color is actually off white. I want to recolor the faux leather to a bright white so it matches my other furniture. Would I be able to use Bright White Vinyl & Leather Finish on my furniture?

  8. Roe says

    I have a recliner but am not sure what kind or leather it is but I am certain it is not absorbent, does your product work on both absorbent and none absorbent leathers? Thank you!

  9. Lisa says

    Does your product work on non-absorbable leather that the top layer of color has been rubbed off of?
    Thank you in advance!

  10. Jerry Bartlett says

    I have a stadium sofa piece that I got from Room to Go iij t is black and resides in my man cave/garage in the hot and humid New Orleans area. It is some type of cheap or bonded leather that is starting to wear off. Not horrible but starting. Do you have a product for this?
    I could send picture if u have that ability.

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The Knowledge Hub is a library of articles and videos complied to help our customers complete their DIY leather and vinyl restoration projects.