Types Of Leather – Leather 101

This page is here to demystify the often bewildering terminology used for the different types of leather – both real and faux, that’s used in everything from shoes to belts, wallets, handbags, furniture etc.

Unfortunately, as the price of good quality leather has increased over time, so has the desire of many manufacturers to use the cheapest possible material, so long as they can still get away with using the word ‘leather’ in the title.

Before I get any deeper into the various definitions of different types of real and fake leather, I need to explain something important.
A cow’s hide is thick – often 8mm or more. This is too thick for many leather products – imagine gloves made with that – even if they could be worn. it would be impossible to bend the fingers. That said, a few types of leather products do use the entire thickness of the hide – my Bridle Leather Belts for example. Most of the time though, the hide needs to be split horizontally into layers. Rather than using only the best (top) layer, tanneries and leather finishers have come up with ways of using the lower layers of the hide.

leather 101 - leather cross section

Let’s start at the bottom of the pile – materials such as ‘pleather‘ ‘vegan leather‘ or ‘faux leather‘.
These contain no leather whatsoever. They’re 100% synthetic, usually using pvc or polyurethane over a fabric backing layer & imprinted on the surface to mimic leather.

Next up from the bottom is ‘PU leather‘.
This is made from the lowest ‘split’ of the hide. This is the weakest part with the most loosely packed fibres. In order to make it appear better (& so the word ‘leather’ can be used) it has a layer of PU plastic bonded to its surface. This polyurethane is usually imprinted to give it a leather-like grain – sometimes even with an exotic look like that of crocodile, alligator or perhaps ostrich leather.

Now we come to ‘bonded leather‘.
Imagine a leather-bag factory, stamping out all the different panels needed to make a leather handbag or purse. A lot of leather waste gets produced in the form of all the off-cuts that are left over. If you were to take all these & grind them up into powder then mix them with glue to form a paste, spread it all out & press it into a sheet with an imprinted leather pattern, you’d have made yourself some bonded leather. It won’t last any longer than the ‘leathers’ that contain no actual leather but you’ll usually pay a higher price for it. Actually, you won’t because by the time you’ve read to the end of this, you’ll know better!

Next we come to ‘genuine leather‘.
Years ago, you could have trusted that a product labelled as ‘genuine leather’ was going to be of a fairly high quality. Nowadays though, that’s no longer the case. Almost all ‘genuine leather’ these days is made by taking the lower ‘split’ parts of the hide and treating them with chemicals and surface coatings to reproduce the appearance of full-grain leather. Sadly, they don’t have the strength, stability or durability of higher quality leathers so this gets compensated for in the manufacturing process by backing the material with cloth, paper or plastic to give it structure and support.

leather close-up - types of leather

Up next is ‘top grain leather‘.
This uses the best part of the hide – the top layer. This is where the fibres are most densely packed. When a manufacturer wants to use high quality leather but also needs it to be blemish-free, this is what they choose. The reason is that the uppermost layer is mechanically sanded away until any natural scars & scratches have gone, leaving a perfectly smooth surface. Unfortunately, this sanding does remove some of the strength but it’s still far superior to all the previously mentioned variations.

Finally we have the king (or queen) of leathers – ‘full grain leather‘.
This is the topmost layer of the hide but no sanding has taken place. This means that all of the strength and character remains. It may be left in it’s full thickness (like in my Firefighter Belts) or it may be split & the lower splits used in cheaper types of leather as described above. Full-grain leather might carry scars left from thorn bush scratches or insect bites etc but many people (myself included) see these not as imperfections but rather as marks of character.

To sum up, this time here are the different types of leather in order from best to worst…

  • Full Grain Leather – The Best!
  • Top Grain Leather – next-best if a perfect surface finish is important.
  • Genuine Leather – Avoid unless you’re penniless.
  • Bonded Leather – Blech!
  • PU Leather – Double Blech!
  • Faux Leather – As if the world doesn’t have enough plastic already!