The five distinct grades of leather are generalizations; in actuality, there are as many leather grades as there are tanneries in the world, or at least an unlimited number of them. To put it another way, these are the most prevalent methods of "grading" leather. In actuality, the designations reflect more on the way the leather has been split and handled on the surface than on actual "grades." However, these variances have an effect on how well a leather item performs and looks as a whole. As a result, "grades of leather" is a popular term used to describe them. After that, we'll have a look at the real grades used by meatpackers when evaluating hides for sale to tanneries.
Leather has been used to make clothes and other consumer products for 7000 years in our culture. That's a lengthy history of leatherwork. The leather fad is here to stay, but how long will your items last? The quality of leather varies from one manufacturer to the next. Understanding the differences between the five varieties of leather can assist you in making the best purchase decision, whether you are purchasing a leather watch strap, backpack, or a handbag. Our leather articles explain the five different types of leather, typical leather styles, tanning processes, how to recognize the difference between leathers, and how to care for your leather items.
The thickness of all cowhides (sometimes referred to as rawhide) is between 6mm and 10mm. This material's thickness makes it unsuitable for most applications, including wallets and book covers. In other words, it's divided into pieces you can use. Here's an illustration of how a cowhide is divided into top and bottom cuts after it has gone through a splitter.
We indicate the desired leather thickness while placing our Horween leather purchase. Most of our products are made from leather that is 1.2-1.6mm thick. Each cowhide is "split" at the tannery before it is prepared for tanning and processing. When the hides are still wet, they need to be divided to get the final leather quality and weight. If the leather isn't split and shaved, the weights (thickness) will be uneven throughout the treated side of the leather and the chemicals, dyes, and/or waxes will not effectively enter the leather during the retan/color/fatliquoring step.
They remove the hide off the animal and shear off the top portion of the cut for us to use. We use the whole grain of the hide from this section to manufacture our goods. The bottom cut is used for lower-quality leather, which I'll go into more detail about later on in this article.
The Grades of Leather
Grading leather is not governed by any recognized standards. The majority of tanneries grade their leather primarily on aesthetic flaws rather than actual quality. However, we may divide leather into three general leather types based on the way a hide is polished and the part of the cowhide that is utilized. Manufacturers and merchants alike utilize these leather classifications as a means of interchangeability throughout the business.
The grades of leather are as follows (listed in order of quality):
- Top Grain Leather, which includes:
Full Grain Leather
Corrected Grain Leather
- Split Grain Leather (sometimes called "Genuine Leather")
- Bonded Leather
Here's a look at a piece of cow leather skin cut in half cross-section. When the cowhide is split, the origin of each leather grade is visible. Bonded Leather, an awful mixture of leather slurry that I shall discuss later, is conspicuously absent from this diagram.
Full Grain Leather
A full grain piece of leather has the entire grain visible on one side. Except for the removal of the hair (in nearly all cases), the surface has remained untouched. Natural imperfections like scars, blemishes, bug bites, branding, and stretch marks may be present in this leather. However, these blemishes are regarded as the distinguishing feature of high-quality leather items.
It's a frequent misunderstanding that these kinds of marks are "defects." Instead, think of them as evidence that life exists on Earth. The animal's history is reflected in these marks. When leather lacks natural marks, it usually implies it is of lower quality. Full-grain leather also has the advantage of being able to shed moisture because of its porous structure. Over time, moisture and oils will be absorbed by the leather due to handling. And the patina on this leather is going to be stunning. Full-grain leather has a long-lasting quality. Because the grain is still whole, the fibers inside it add to the overall strength of the product. There are several cases where the threads used to sew a leather wallet together outlast the wallet itself.
Full-grain leather is frequently utilized in high-end products that cater to affluent clients. people with a passion for patina and daily usage who want to leave their imprint on a product.
Characteristics of Full Grain Leather:
- Marbling or fat wrinkles that look like shaded bands
- Variations in the grain and coloring
- Scars and “imperfections”
- Pigments and dyes will often be in varying shades across the leather
- In some leathers, hair follicles are present and can be seen.
Types of Full Grain Leather
Vegetable Tan Leather (can also be called tooling leather)
There's a good chance you've seen this style of leather before. Because it lacks a protective coating, it's famously difficult to deal with. When exposed to the elements, it patinas like crazy, quickly turning dark brown. It consumes everything in its path.
Corrected Grain Leather
Corrected Grain leather comes up next on my grades of leather list. Corrected Grain is a hotly debated topic among leatherworkers and leather products enthusiasts alike since many believe it to be inferior to full grain. Corrected Grain and Full Grain come from the same portion of the cow's skin. When it comes to leather splits, some people think that "top grain" and "full grain" are interchangeable terms for the same type of leather, however, this is incorrect.
In layman's terms, it implies that this leather comes from the very top of the hide after it is split. The entire grain is divided into the same part like this. So what makes Corrected Grain leather different from Full Grain leather? In a nutshell, tanneries will remove "imperfections" or make different degrees of repairs to obtain a desired appearance or usefulness. Many large manufacturers (particularly in clothing and footwear) cannot have cosmetic variations in their product - so they use top grain leathers for quality, but also to have a constant look in their leather products.
With Snuffed Suede leather, the Nu-Buk look is created by extensively "correcting" the leather (heavy tracking), whereas Chromexcel is "fixed" by burnishing the leather (light tracking). Horween is able to hand-stain the leather because of this. The Chromexcel burnishing procedure opens up the grain of the leather, allowing stains to penetrate more easily.
Pores in the leather are sealed during the repair procedure. So the leather is easy to clean and doesn't soak up as much grease and moisture as other materials. Additionally, patina may take longer to develop, and the leather will be less breathable than full-grain leather. Because of the sanding involved in the correcting procedure, some people believe corrected grain to be less durable than a full-grain. It's a flimsy argument, and in my experience, rectified grain hasn't caused any problems with durability.
Corrected-Grain Leather Has Corrected Imperfections
Corrected-grain leather is sometimes known as the lesser-known grain. Experienced leatherworkers adjust and fix this particular sort of leather to improve its usefulness and aesthetic features. The hides that go into manufacturing semi-aniline leather and vegetable-tanned leather do not fulfill the quality requirements. The top has been embossed with fake grain and dyed or stained to match the rest of the piece. Imperfections are often sanded down and then fixed. Imperfections are generally rectified. Pigmented leather is made using corrected-grain leather. This sort of leather is typically more easily accessible in stores and less expensive.
Accessories, upholstery leather, and footwear are frequent places to see this. Nubuck leather is commonly seen on high-end work gloves and dresses boots. Formal footwear frequently features smooth, rectified grains.
Characteristics of Top Grain Leathers:
- As sanding and pigmentation hide these flaws, marbling and fat wrinkles become less noticeable.
- Grain and color differences are no longer visible.
- Scars and “imperfections” are sometimes sanded away
- Colors are frequently the same, with no variety or depth to them (some exceptions for example chrome tanned leather has wonderful pull-up effects)
- Leather is resistant to stains/spills
- Less breathability
- Somewhat waxy feel
Types of Corrected Grain Leather
Horween Chromexcel Leather
The Horween Leather Company's Chromexcel tanning method is a trademark. Combination-tanned leather goes through 89 different processes and takes 28 days to complete. This rectified grain leather has a dramatic pull-up and a soft waxy feel to it. Despite the fact that they may be painted with pigments, they will nonetheless fade drastically over time. Horween resident John Culliton says "Because you can see the grain in Chromexcel when you look carefully, everyone assumes it's made of whole wheat. Even if it's corrected, it's only corrected leather to the point that the leather still has some of its natural leather grain showing through."
Smooth Corrected Grain
Formal shoes often include these sorts of top-grain leathers, which may be polished to give them a ghostly, glassy look.
Embossed Corrected Grain
With a plating press, intense heat and pressure are used to stamp a replica print on top of the real thing. After sanding away some of the top grains, a leather grain texture is printed on top. Pebble, hair cell, exotic, and man-made embossing are examples of other kinds of embossing. Most alligator and snakeskin leather is top grain leather embossed with a pattern.
To achieve a matte appearance, the top-grain leather is sanded and buff. They have a fuzzy texture to them, similar to suede but not as "hairy." These leathers hide abrasions effectively and are less prone to breaking when exposed to the weather on a regular basis. Nubuck is popular among shoe and boot makers because of its strength and good looks.
Split Grain Leather
Split grain leather is the next level of quality in our leather grades classification system. Durability and quality problems are more frequent in this area. Do you know how the bottom of the leather gets shaved or split? That's the portion I'm talking about. In the grain industry, that's called split grain.
It might have a nappy look and is devoid of the hide's grain. It's made from the fibrous parts of the hide that are leftover. Split grains are what's leftover after you've used everything else. Split grain leather lacks the inherent marks of the hide, making it unsuitable for long-term use. Split leather that has been finished with polymer and embossed to resemble genuine leather is common. Once this is done, the leather is branded with the words "Genuine Leather" to give the impression that it is of high quality.
Finished split leather is used in almost all leather items sold at large box retailers (aka genuine leather). Look for a stamp that says so.
Characteristics of Split Grain Leather:
- Variations, scars, and "imperfections" such as marbling or fat wrinkles are all eliminated during the restorative procedure.
- Pigments and dyes will often be a uniform color,
- the colors are all the same depth and variety
- Leather is resistant to stains/spills
- Zero breathability
- Plastic feel
- Not durable
Types of Split Leather
Because it's a marketing ploy used to dupe buyers, finished split leather is sometimes referred to as "Genuine" leather. When you hear the word "Genuine," you automatically associate it with high standards and authenticity.
Genuine Leather Is Not A Statement About Its Authenticity
Real leather is used to make genuine leather. Genuine leather items are the lowest grade in a class of real leather products. Leather scraps from high-end products are used to make these items. When compared to high-quality leather, goods created from it aren't as appealing to the eye or touch. Products manufactured from real leather, meanwhile, do not last as long until they become worn out. However, because of its widespread availability, this sort of leather goods is affordable to the majority of people.
Genuine leather is made up of multiple grain layers of split leather glued together with a thin polyurethane or vinyl coating to give it strength and a consistent look. The rear of a product is normally hidden from view by the end-user.
Offcuts that have been extensively treated are the least breathable and won't weather. Aside from surface cracking and deterioration of the patina, there are no defects. And it nearly always has a plastic-like texture to it. What about the odor? Have you ever walked into a cheap shoe store and been struck by the distinct fragrance of phony leather? When you see that, you know you're in the presence of genuine leather.
When it comes to suede, it's hard to beat the rough feel and "napped" appearance. Typically produced from the hides of animals such as lambs, goats, deer, or calves. Suede, on the other hand, is flimsy, delicate, and readily soiled.
This is the cheapest "leather" you'll find. It's the hot dog of leather jackets. Essentially, this is leather dust combined with vinyl and then pressed to form a sheet. To make the polyurethane glue, leftover waste leather is mulched, combined with fiber cloth or paper, and then put over the backing using a polyurethane adhesive.
This completed sheet is then sprayed with spray paint or embossed with a print. In places where bonded leather is produced, this sort of "leather" has as little as 20% real leather fibers. Because it is made from recycled leather scraps, bonded leather might be regarded as more ecologically friendly than regular leather. On the other hand, you have to consider all the cheap wallets and leather belts that are thrown away as a result of their poor quality.
Supplies, publications, and leather furniture upholstery are all manufactured on the cheap.
Characteristics of Bonded Leather:
- Made from a combination of PVC, fiber content, and as little as 20% leather
- Since it's been artificially embossed and sprays painted, the grain and look will be synthetic leather.
- Will not breath
- Feels like plastic
- Smells artificial
- Will never patina
- Will de-laminate and fall apart in a short time
Genuine Leather vs. Bonded Leather
The bottom cut of the hide is used to create genuine leather products. It's still leather; it's simply stripped of its natural grain and highly treated. Bonded leather, as the name indicates, is made up of leather scraps, leather dust, vinyl, glue, and plastic that have been bonded together. Products manufactured from faux leather or wax canvas are more durable and of better quality than those made from genuine or bonded leather.
Types of Leather Grades – For Raw Hides
Meatpackers evaluate rawhides as soon as they get them. These leather grades are used to assess the quality of the rawhide and allows for more accurate sales to tanneries. The skins will be tanned at tanneries, turning the raw material into finished leather. As a result, it is critical that they understand the specific characteristics of the leather grades they are getting. This guarantees that they will have all they need to consistently create high-quality finished leathers for the manufacture of leather products.
For example, while grading rawhide, the inspectors will look for problems such as holes, significant abrasions and discolorations, machine damage (from the skinning machines), residual hair, and grain irregularities.
It's also worth noting that many major ranches mark their livestock to signify ownership. A distinctive design (typically letters or initials) is permanently burned into an animal's skin as part of the branding process. A metal band in the shape of the design is heated and then pushed into the animal, leaving the pattern permanently burnt into the hide. While it is typical, the influence of the brand on the hide quality is also taken into account during the grading process.
The leather grades hides will be evaluated according to the following system:
Leather Hide Grade – Number One
Hides marked with a number one are of the highest quality. They're typically free of flaws like holes or cuts in the surface. If there are little holes around 3-4 inches from the edges of the skins that may be cut out, it will not impact the overall grade. 80 percent should be a number one grade for the hides that are sent to tanners for processing.
Leather Hide Grade – Number Two
Up to four holes or cuts are permitted on a number two hide, as long as they are situated in a straight line across the hide. This would make it possible to cut around them later on while still leaving a significant amount of useable hide.
For a number two grade hide, holes should be no larger than 5" in diameter. Grain flaws should also have a covering area of no more than 1 ft. square. A number two hide grade accounts for about 15%-20% of all hides supplied to tanners.
Leather Hide Grade – Number Three
Number three hides have five or more holes or big cuts in the hide, ideally in a straight line. This would allow them to be trimmed around later while still leaving a large amount of useable hide. A single cut or hole larger than 6” in diameter is permissible. Grain flaws or a sequence of closely spaced smaller holes with a surface area of more than 1 ft. sq. may also exist. Most number three-graded hides should have a useable surface area of at least 50%. In general, tanners will only buy number three grade hides from you if you expressly agree to buy them.
Leather Hide Grade – Untannable
If the quality requirements are graded one, two, or three, then the hides are considered usable. They aren't sent to tanners; instead, they go into another lucrative market for raw animal hide materials not related to the leather business.
Which Leather is right for you?
If you've been paying attention, there are only two types of leather that are truly premium: Full Grain and Corrected Grain. These two types of leather are made from the same long-lasting grain and will develop a rich patina with use. A personal preference is for full-grain products to have imperfections and individuality, but I wouldn't trade that for anything. I enjoy showcasing the unique character of each cowhide and the dramatic patina that each client creates while utilizing Steel Horse Leather Co. products.
Genuine leather products, even in their tiniest forms, may be prohibitively costly. Buying leather goods of any size necessitates consideration. The price, quality, and appearance of leather are all influenced by a variety of factors, such as the type of animal skin used, the vegetable tanning process, and any finishing touches. From learning about grades of leather and production methods to knowing how to recognize and acquire genuine leather, we hope this information will answer all of your questions.