Discovering How Leather is Graded in 4 Easy Steps

April 09, 2019

Discovering How Leather is Graded in 4 Easy Steps

How Leather is Graded (And Why You Should Know)

When you buy a real leather item — a handbag, coat, wallet, or other leather goods — you will generally find a stamp on the underside of the skin that categorizes it as top-grain, full-grain, split-grain, or genuine leather.

While leather is usually categorized into five different grades of leather (the four above, plus bonded), there are as many grades of leather material as there are leather tanneries.

Each grade represents different attributes of the leather and can contribute to durability, wear-resistance, and how the leather feels next to your skin.

Depending on the leather item and how you’ll use it, you may want to consider a specific quality to ensure that the item lives up to your expectations.

How Leather is Graded: What You Need to Know

If you plan on buying leather goods, you’ll want to be armed with as much knowledge as possible to ensure you get the best value for your money.

As we mentioned, there are five common grades of leather:

  • Full-grain leather
  • Top-grain leather
  • Split-grain leather
  • Genuine leather*
  • Bonded leather*

*These are not technically leather grades. Instead, they’re terms in the leather industry that have come to be widely used among today’s consumers. You may also run into a material called “corrected grain leather,” which is leather that has had the grain smoothed with abrasives.

We think it’s critically important to keep you informed of all the types of leather you may come in contact with, so you can make the best choice.

So, let’s begin with the basics: How leather is graded.

Splitting the Hide

In the first step towards becoming a beautiful piece of leather, a section of cowhide (also called rawhide) that ranges from 6mm to 10mm in thickness is run through a splitter and is split depending on what the final product will be used for.

For example, upholstery leather will be split to a thickness of 1.2mm while leather for belts may be 3.2 to 4mm in thickness.

The hide is split into two parts, the top, which is the most valuable, and the bottom, which may be even further split to make the various grades.

The Top of the Hide — Full and Top Grain Leathers

Both full- and top-grain leathers are made from the best quality part of the hide.

Full-grain leather is less processed and leaves the entire — or full — grain of the hide intact, including natural scarring and blemishes. Full grain leather absorbs moisture and oil and, over time, will develop a wonderful patina that looks better the longer the item ages.

Top-grain leather, on the other hand, is buffed, sanded, and pigmented to provide a more uniform and smoother look to the end product. Water and oils do not absorb into top-grain leather and can be wiped away since the leather’s natural pores have been sealed during the coloring process.

The Bottom of the Hide — Split and Genuine Leathers

Split-grain leather actually doesn’t contain any of the hide’s natural markings or grain. The most common split-grain leather is suede, which is used to make shoes, handbags, jackets, and other goods where a soft and pliable product is preferred.

Genuine leather is leather made from the very bottom of the cut. It is heavily processed and contains none of the original hide’s natural grain.

Although technically leather, it isn’t as durable or beautiful as high-quality leather, and it is considered by experts in the industry to be a very low-quality product.

Bonded Leather

Bonded leather isn’t technically leather at all. Instead, it is an amalgam of leather dust, vinyl, leather scraps, plastic and glue that have been bonded together through a complex process. Like genuine leather, it’s a relatively cheap product that doesn’t stand the test of time.

Bonded leather is commonly used to create cheap upholstered items and low-quality handbags, clothing, and other inexpensive leather goods.

In fact, waxed canvas and vegan leathers are more durable and of higher quality than most genuine and bonded leather products.

Using What You’ve Learned When Buying Leather Goods

The next time you decide to purchase leather goods, look for a stamp on the underside or raw area of the leather to ensure you’re getting the highest quality leather product for your money. If you're wondering if a particular product is really leather, give it the “fire test.” Wave a lighter quickly on the broad side of the product.

If it’s fake, it will shrivel and burn. Real leather is very fire-resistant.

Good leather can last a lifetime, so purchasing a full-grain leather product is worth the extra money it may cost up front.

A full-grain leather product, adequately cared for, can provide years and years of usefulness to its owner and will grow more beautiful as it develops the warm patina for which high-quality full-grain leathers are known.

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