Ever gazed longingly through the shop window at that new leather handbag? You know its leather but what is it made of? Is it good quality leather? Is it cow leather or something more exotic? Oh look at that croc wallet next to it! Is it real? How do they make that? Let’s take a look at some of the common leather types and finishes.
Leather is a byproduct of other industries, for example the meat industry, where the skins are a secondary in value to the meat. This is an important distinction between the fur industry where the fur is the primary material sought, with the meat of lesser value as a byproduct.
Leather is animal skins or hides that have undergone one or more tanning processes. Applying this definition, rawhide is not technically leather although it is usually lumped in with the other forms. Rawhide is made by scraping the skin, soaking it in lime then stretching it while it dries. Rawhide is brittle and stiff and is used for drum heads where it does need to flex significantly, its also great for dog chews.
In general, leather is sold in four forms; full grain leather, top grain leather, corrected grain leather and split leather.
Full Grain Leather is considered the highest quality leather, undergoing minimal treatment in the tanning process. This leather has had the epidermis layer and or hair removed which is then dyed. The result is a natural grain finish without diminishing the strength of the leather. Skins used to produce leather often have many imperfections in the way of scare damage from run-ins with other animals, skin diseases or marks from biting insects such as mites or ticks. Since any imperfections, defects, abrasions cannot be corrected to qualify as full grain leather, the highest quality skins must used to produce full grain leather products.
Top-grain leather has had the "split" layer removed, making it thinner and more pliable than full grain. The surface is sanded and a finishing coat is applied and has greater resistance to stains than full-grain leather, so long as the finish remains unbroken. With less breathability, top grain leather will not develop a natural patina and is typically less expensive than full grain leather. Both full grain and top grain leathers preserve the original grain of the leather and is used to product leather products that showcase the natural look texture, look and feel of the hide.
Corrected-grain is leather that has had artificial grain applied to its surface. The hides used to create corrected leather are of lesser quality than full or top grain suitable skins and have had the imperfections corrected or sanded off with an artificial grain added the surface. Most pigmented leather is corrected-grain leather as the solid pigment helps hide or smooth out the imperfections.
As the name implies, Split leather is leather created from splitting the hide. During the splitting operation, the top grain and split are separated. The splits can be further split into multiple layers until the thickness prevents any further splitting. Split leather then has an artificial layer applied to the surface and is embossed with a leather grain, also known as bicast leather. Splits can also used to create suede. The strongest suede is usually made from full grain splits.