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What are the different types of leather?

Leather is animal hide and distinguished by the quality and different tanning, dyeing, and finishing methods used. Vinyl, bonded, and faux leather are artificial.

Types of Genuine & Synthetic Leather

Full Grain

Full grain is the finest quality leather. As the name indicates, the hide and grain (skin texture) are fully intact. Full-grain can be absorbent semi-aniline or aniline (referring to little or no clear finish), or it may have a more water-repellent, stain-resistant pigmented finish. Rub ‘n Restore® can be safely used on all these types of full grain leather.

Top Grain

Top grain is the second best grade of leather. The outermost layer is sanded or buffed to minimize blemishes (like scars) and create a more uniform appearance. The finish may be a single solid color or have a printed, varied appearance to look like aniline, but top grain repels liquids and resists stains. Many top grain leathers have been split and the lower suede half removed. This makes a thinner, more flexible leather better suited to upholstery and luxury goods.

Close-up photo showing natural variation of dyed unfinished aniline leather

Aniline & Semi-Aniline

These leathers are the finest quality full grain. The dyeing process accentuates variations in the fiber, resulting in a marbled appearance. Aniline has no clear finish and a warm, velvety texture. Semi-aniline has a thin translucent finish and a slightly cooler, smoother feel. These leathers are prized for the natural patina that develops, but their absorbency also makes them prone to stains. They also sun fade and scuff easily. As such, cleaning doesn’t improve their appearance. A thin pigmented finish, however, can and will prevent new stains or fading, even though the leather will still be absorbent and soft. However, the warm velvety feel of unfinished aniline may slightly cool to a semi-aniline texture. We recommend diluting Rub ‘n Restore® Color with Clear Prep+Finish™ to make a glaze and use a mottling technique to mimic the original marbling.

Pull up

This beautiful full grain 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. As with aniline leather, we recommend diluting Color with Clear Prep+Finish™ to make a glaze and using a mottling technique to maintain the natural variation and marbling.

Nubuck

This unfinished full grain leather has been brushed. This results in a subtle nap that affects its color and appearance (similar to carpet). Nubuck has a very warm and velvety feel but is absorbent and thus prone to sun fading and stains. Our products should be used with some caution, as they will finish (or coat) the material, slightly cool its texture, and may stiffen any worn or chafed areas. We recommend working with a glaze by diluting Rub ‘n Restore® Color with Clear Prep+Finish™ and using a mottling technique to mimic the original marbling.

Suede

Suede is the underside of full grain leather. Many suedes have been split and separated from the top grain and thus are only the lower, weaker half of the hide. Suede has a shaggy, almost furry texture and should never be finished. Imagine latex paint on carpet.

Corrected grain leather

This top grain leather has been sanded to correct blemishes and scars and then finished and embossed with a different grain. It is non-absorbent.

Split leather

This refers to the lower, weaker half of the hide that has no skin surface or grain. Unfinished, it looks like thin suede and is absorbent. Others are embossed and finished, making them non-absorbent but still of inferior quality and strength.

Bi-cast / Bycast

This is a split hide with an artificial grain embossed into a non-absorbent urethane or polyurethane coating. These coatings eventually lose their luster and become tacky or sticky. They can also delaminate, peel or flake, exposing the split suede underneath.

Leather Match

Leather upholstery is often paired with a matching synthetic on furniture and in auto interiors to reduce cost. The synthetic (usually vinyl but occasionally bonded or faux leather) is used on back and side panels where the body seldom touches. While the leather may discolor or fade, the vinyl or faux leather are often what crack, peel, or flake and require repair. Both the leather and matching vinyl are typically non-absorbent, except where worn or damaged.

Vinyl

This synthetic is made of water-repellent polyvinyl chloride (PVC). The backside of the material is a woven mesh or fuzzy polyester-cotton blend. It is used on boats and spa covers, as well as auto interiors and furniture. Naugahyde® was a trademarked name in the 1950s. 

Picture of flaking, delaminating bonded leather and exposed composite fabric

Bonded Leather

This is an inferior composite material notorious for peeling and flaking. Scrap leather is shredded, mixed with an adhesive, and rolled into a fabric which is then coated with a water-repellent polyurethane (PU) finish. The finish delaminates from the fabric. As such, repairs do not last and cannot prevent further degradation for reasons demonstrated here. DuraBlend® is a common brand trademarked by Ashley Furniture.

Picture of cracking, peeling, flaking polyurethane faux leather

Vegan or Faux Leather

Faux is French for “false” and pronounced “fo”. Ultraleather® is a popular trademarked brand. This synthetic is made of a rayon or polyester fabric with a water-repellent polyurethane coating. It is hard to discern from good quality leather until it begins to crack, peel, and flake like bonded leather. Faux leather is difficult to repair and typically resists fillers and finishes.

Faux Leather Fabric

Other faux leathers wear more naturally but still degrade from a smooth, lustrous, non-absorbent material to a fuzzier absorbent microfiber, often lighter in color. All that can be done is to stain or paint the fabric and then wax it to create 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 translucent finish.

Aniline and semi-aniline leathers may have little or no clear finish, are absorbent and thus prone to staining and fading. Others have a pigmented, water-repellant finish (like those used in auto interiors).

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.