What You Need to Know Before Buying or Upholstering Leather Furniture

Picture of leather upholstered antique chair for Hollis Newton
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Berkley Peazer, leather upholstery specialist and co-owner of Burkcraft Furniture Company Ltd., in Scarborough, Ontario sees this scenario play out in his shop at least once a week. Customer-X enters the shop asking what’s the charge to repair their peeling leather: a) sofa, b) sofa-cushion or c) chair.

Upon a quick assessment, Berkley just shakes his head and says to the Customer-X, “I regret to inform you that this is not leather. Incredulously, Customer-X insists that: a) “leather” was written in the advertisement, b) the helpful salesperson said it was leather or c) it felt and looked like “leather”. Berkley just nods empathetically.


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Customer-X isn’t entirely at fault. After all, some manufacturers and retailers have blurred the lines with their leather furniture products. Unlike the United Kingdom and New Zealand, Canada and the United States do not have legislations mandating that “bi-cast” and “bonded” not be marketed as leather. As a result, unsuspecting consumers are continually misled to believe they’re buying something that they’re not. A consumer’s best defense is knowledge.

To start, most upholstery leather is made from cowhides. Leather upholstered furniture is made using many different types of leather that are created by different processes. This is what accounts for the different looks, feel and quality of leather. Here’s a quick guide to help you when purchasing or upholstering leather furniture.

Comfy vintage leather and chrome armchair
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Bi-Cast Leather
Sometimes referred to as PU or Polyurethane leather, bi-cast is essentially a man-made synthetic material that was originally made for shoe manufacturers and later adopted by the furniture industry. Bi-cast is made by gluing a sheet of polyurethane or latex to a thin layer of a leather hide (see split leather below) or composite leather material. It’s then embossed or finished with a leather-like texture. Bi-cast does not age well and may crack and peel with wear. Also, any small puncture or tear may worsen quickly as this big-box retail customer found out within a week of their purchase.

Bonded Leather
Also called reconstituted leather or blended leather, bonded leather is made with leather scraps and fibres which are pulped then bonded together with adhesives. A polyurethane coating is applied then it’s embossed or finished with a leather-like texture. Because the fibres are stuck together rather than interwoven, bonded leather lacks the flexibility and durability of real leather. The actual leather content of bonded leather varies depending on the manufacturer but can contain as little as 10 percent leather fibres. Like bi-cast, bonded leather does not age well and within a short time may crack and peel with wear.

A mid-century modern love seat against a wall
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Split leather
In thick hides, layers can be separated multiple times until the thickness cannot be split further. Split leather is the lower split half of a hide which has a polyurethane layer applied to its surface before being embossed with a faux leather texture (see bi-cast above). Split leather on its own is not very durable and will damage easily if not handled properly. This type of leather is also used in making a lower-grade suede.

Top-Grain Leather
Also known as corrected grain or full-grain pigmented, top-grain leather refers to the outer layer which is considered to be a higher quality type of leather since a cowhide is typically strongest at its surface. The hide is sanded and buffed to remove any imperfections from the surface. Some top-grain hides are stamped with an imitation leather grain and dyed for a more uniform look. Top-grain leather is typically more expensive but will be soft to the touch and is very durable making it ideal for furniture upholstery. If cared for properly, top-grain leather upholstery should last indefinitely.

Butterfly chair in Nubuck leather
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Nubuck Leather
This is the top layer of the leather hide that has been sanded or buffed on the outer side, giving it an appearance similar to suede. Its velvet-like texture is due to the slight nap of short fibres that remain on the hide. Nubuck is often treated with chemicals to improve its resistance to stains and water since it will mark easily, however, some inherent imperfections and wear add to the character and patina of nubuck leather.

Full-Grain Leather
Imperfections and all, full-grain leather is the entire hide without any processed sanding or buffing beyond hair removal. Imperfections can include branding, scars and even insect bites. Full-grain leather is known for its durability and is considered one of the highest quality leathers used in upholstery. This leather will develop a rich patina over time and will last indefinitely if cared for properly.

Rear view of Hollis Newton's Russell Chair example of hair-on-hide leather
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Other Commonly Used Terms:
Hair-on-Hide: Refers to cowhides on which the hair has been left on the hide.
Embossed Leather: Leather that has been stamped with an artificial texture under high pressure. Common embossments are alligator, python and ostrich.
Aniline Dyed: Leather that is coloured all the way through with a transparent dye. Because the dye is transparent, some of the natural grain of the hide shows through.
Semi-Aniline: Aniline leather that has a matching pigment layer added to even out the colour as well as protect it.
Vegetable Dyed or Tanned: A method of colouring the hide with organic materials such as bark, branches, leaves or even some fruits instead of the traditional chemicals.
Distressed: A process of colouring where multiple dyes are overlayed to give the appearance of aged leather. Also known as antiqued leather.
Patina: The desirable appearance that leather acquires through age and wear.
Genuine Leather: Beware, this label is purposely ambiguous and is intended to mislead the consumer. Usually consists of the lower split of the hide.

This list is by no means exhaustive, however, it should give you enough knowledge to purchase or upholster leather furniture confidently and not be swayed by marketing terms that can be misleading. My hope is that consumers permanently turn away from bi-cast and bonded “leather” furniture, both of which become disposable items after its limited useful life. Leather, when traditionally processed with quality and durability in mind, is an exceptional upholstery material and its returns on investment are immediate and long lasting if cared for properly.

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