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.
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.