What is the difference between Top Grain Leather vs Bonded Leather?
Leather has been used by humans for centuries to create clothes, accessories, and furniture. It is strong, supple, and long-lasting. Down through the ages and in almost every culture, leather has been valued for its unique properties and its beauty. It has even a part of many of our shared experiences; the Fonz wouldn’t have been as cool without his leather jacket, for example, and many of us have vivid memories of the late Ricardo Montalban spending years extolling the virtues of “rich Corinthian leather” in the Chrysler Cordoba. That phrase alone conjures images of almost decadent luxury and the highest quality.
Unfortunately, Montalban’s Corinthian leather was essentially just a marketing device, but that isn’t to say that there are differing degrees of quality when it comes to leather. In fact, there are enough kinds of leather to cause some confusion among buyers who want a certain level of quality but are not sure what they are getting.
Leather can come from different sources, such as lambs and goats, but most of us are most familiar with cowhide which can be generally divided into the outer grain and the inner corium. From there, leather can be split into 4 types: Full Grain, Top Grain, Corrected Grain, and Suede.
When we discuss full-grain leather, we are referring to the entire outer layer of the cowhide, without the hair. The term grain is used to describe dense vertical and horizontal fibers which are responsible for providing strength and durability, as well as water resistance. Top grain leather will retain the imperfections present on the skin. These may be the result of cuts or scratches, bites from insects, stretch marks, and other sources of injury.
To achieve what is known as top grain, the full-grain leather will be buffed or sanded. This has the effect of removing the imperfections present in full-grain leather. When the leather is buffed or sanded down to the corium juncture, the result is nubuck. This leather is not quite as soft as suede but retains more durability.
Corrected grain is another form of top-grain leather that has been sanded and buffed to remove imperfections. Once this is done, it is then embossed or stamped to imprint an artificial grain. This provides it with a uniform look. It is often coated with a pigmented dye.
Suede is made from the underside of the cowhide and has a nap, or fuzzy, finish. It is used for jackets, shoes, gloves, and more. Soft and pliable, it is not as durable as other types of leather.
You may have also heard of bonded leather, which is sometimes referred to as reconstituted leather or blended leather. This is a material made from bits of real and artificial leather. The scraps and fibers leftover from processing genuine leather are combined with a polyurethane binder. This mixture is extruded onto and bonded with a cloth or paper backing (hence the name). Some manufacturers add another coating of polyurethane to the bonded leather and emboss it to give it a texture resembling real leather. Although some manufacturers will market bonded leather as real leather, it typically only contains 10-20% genuine leather.
Top Grain Leather vs Bonded Leather
Bonded leather furniture can look nice. Many buyers will find a piece of furniture that is attractive to them and selling at a low price. This seems like a great bargain for them. Unfortunately, it won’t seem that way for very long, as bonded leather doesn’t offer much in the way of longevity.
Within only a few years—perhaps three or five—that lovely piece of furniture will likely become an ugly mess. Friction from clothing slowly causes the leather to flake as you sit on it. You might initially think you have a small tear, but soon after, hole sections of the leather will peel away, exposing the fabric underneath.
You might attempt to repair it when it first begins to flake, but since bonded leather is not real leather, it requires several layers of polish to give it the appearance of real leather. As that polish wears away with time and use, it is almost impossible to replace.
Real leather, on the other hand, will endure. Top grain leather will resist cracking, peeling, and tearing when cared for. It is entirely possible that your real leather furniture will last not years, but decades. As the years go by it will retain its appearance, staying as attractive as the day you bought it. Many will say it becomes better over time as it is “broken in.” Real leather will develop a patina—a soft sheen that develops with use over time. This patina provides character to the material, making your piece unique. It is a sign of its high quality that sets real leather apart from cheaper imitations.
How to Spot Top Grain Leather vs Bonded Leather
When shopping for leather furniture, you may encounter manufacturers who present bonded leather as genuine leather. To avoid an unpleasant surprise, being able to differentiate between top grain leather and bonded leather can save you from disappointment.
Cost is the initial factor to consider; bonded leather will be significantly cheaper. Real leather will always be higher in price, but the upside is that you won’t be looking to replace it in three years.
Bonded leather is also going to feel thinner than top grain leather and may feel synthetic to the touch. Bonded leather may smell like real leather but take time to examine it closely; real leather will retain some imperfections that give it character. Bonded leather will have a more consistent texture, as it has been artificially made.
Although the initial outlay for top grain leather is higher, you can rest easy knowing that you are receiving a superior product that will be more comfortable, more durable, and more attractive. It is an investment that will more than pay you back in the years to come.
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