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Leather Quality

One of the first indicators of leather quality is the price. However, leather suffers from the same truism as just about every other purchase you might consider in that you do not always get what you pay for, although you should. Therefore, as a consumer or leather hobbyist, there are ways to get past the price and evaluate what you are actually buying.

Quality Definition

To determine the differences in leather quality, there are a few things to consider:

Type of Animal

The animal, bird, fish, or reptile from which the hide or skin is from makes a difference. Some leathers are more prized than others are. The exotic nature of the leather, durability, and its richness can be factors determining the demand for a hide.

Keep in mind that even within a prized category of hides, quality will vary. For example, not all ostrich is created equal.

Tanning Process

The tanning process is another factor that defines leather quality. As soon as a hide and its original owner (the animal) part company, the hide begins to deteriorate. This makes perfect sense if you consider that hide, like skin starts as living tissue.

How the hide is cared for immediately after it is removed from the animal and the process used to preserve it and prepare it can make a good hide better or sadly, a complete waste of time and money. Find out a little bit about your sources if you are buying hides. In this case, reputation does count but I will discuss this in more detail later on.

The finest leather quality is clear, supple, and clean, which is called “full-grain.” Lower leather quality has the surfaced altered. Additionally, lower leather quality will feel stiff, partly from the excessive coating needed to hide imperfections.

The best leather will need little or no treatment. You want to find leather that shows the grain variations. You should also be able to see and feel fat wrinkles where the hide naturally covered fatty areas of the animal. Therefore, when choosing leather, look for something that looks natural. You should also get that natural leather smell and it should feel soft and supple.

Leather Origins

When considering leather quality, an excellent place to start looking is where the hide came from. For origin, think of what the industry analysts are saying:

Asian Leather

Poorer quality hides come from Asia, although it is true that the Asian leather industry has been catching up to European standards which are considered the best in recent years. Asia is also the primary supplier of some skin types such as goat hide.

European Leather

Without a doubt, European leather is the finest you will find anywhere. Always proud of their work, you cannot go wrong when buying leather from this area.

North American Leather

Northern American hides are good leather quality and usually affordable.

Central and South America Leather

Leather hides from Central and South America are considered mediocre but usually reasonably priced.

Leather Odor

One excellent way to tell if the quality is good or bad is to smell it. If it has a rotten smell or smell of chemical, then it is not good quality. Poor quality leather will omit an odor from the processing chemicals such as formaldehyde. Even if you do not know what formaldehyde smells like, any chemical-like odor is a sign of a lower quality product. In some extreme cases, the leather will smell decayed or even retain the smell of manure.

Leather Grain

You want to look at the grain of the leather, which is the smooth side or the side that was closest to the hair or fur of the animal. Leather should be soft without being mushy and it should not be stiff like cardboard. For instance, when bending a good quality piece with the grain side up, the grain will be supple and not crack. If it does crack, you are looking at a product of lower quality.

Full-Grain / Full Top-Grain

When buying leather, look for the words “Full-grain” or “Full top-grain”. This is especially important if you are looking for strong pieces such as luggage or boots. Hides are sorted based on the number of and degree of imperfections that might include the errant butcher cut or tiny holes left by parasites carried by the animal. Expect to see brands and barb wired marks for North American cattle hides.

These imperfections, while naturally occurring or accidental, do reduce the graded quality of the hide. Once sorted, each individual hide is then mechanically separated into the different layers of skin. The top layer, closest to the hair or fur of the animal is called “top-grain” or “full-grain”, which is considered the best quality. The layers underneath are called splits.

Splits

In furniture, you will often see promotional items made out of splits versus full-grain. This does not mean that the leather quality is poor but simply that it is part of the grading system and jargon used by the industry to describe the hide. This helps consumers assess what they are paying for. However, for the consumer this goes back to pricing.

You would not want to pay the same price for an item made from a split layer as you would for a full-grain item. If you are not sure about what you are looking at or if the seller is giving you the entire story, ask to look at an unfinished edge if possible.

Pigmentation

On a piece of full top grain leather, you can see the fiber layer at the bottom as well as the grain layer on top, which is more compact. It will resemble a squished sponge. On a split, you will see even layers of fiber. If the split is pigmented, the layer of pigment will be on top.

Additionally, a pigment layer is very easy to tell apart from grain. With the pigmentation process, the leather surface is colored with opaque color. Because this process is so good, it is used for hiding imperfections.

A translucent aniline dye is used to color high quality leather. The result from this process is a variation of color. Because this particular process is used on unfinished, top-quality leather, a softer feel is achieved. Another process for color can be used on top-grain hides. For this process, semi-aniline is used, which produces a nice, uniform color.

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