Leather Furniture Guide: Top Grain to Bonded Leather
1. Knowing What to Ask for
First and foremost, shopping for quality and value in home furnishings is about knowing exactly what you are paying for. With such a wide range of retail price points for living room furniture, it’s important to see past the commissioned salesman's jargon to know what you are getting for your dollar. Nowadays, cheaper manufacturers have found savvy ways to throw the word "leather" around while meaning something completely different. The best course of action is to find a furniture store near you and always to ask a salesperson directly about the construction, fabric, leather, and warranty. Before you buy, make sure you're getting the straight talk you deserve.
2. What Is Bonded Leather?
"Bonded leather" is a cheaper manufacturer’s first line of attack in selling you the look and feel of leather for a “great deal.” Unfortunately, bonded leather is hardly leather at all—by definition, it has to be only 17% leather. So leather is to bonded leather what chicken is to chicken McNuggets (or pressboard to wood, or dryer lint to fabric): In other words, it's processed beyond recognition.
When a leather cowhide is taken into manufacturing, cookie-cutter-like shapes are cut out of the hide to make panels that will eventually make the seat cushions, backs, arms, and sides of quality leather furniture. When you are cutting cookies, there will always be scraps outside the cuts of these panels that are too small to use whole. This is where bonded leather begins. These scraps are ground up in a machine into even smaller pieces that are laid out in a long, thin layer and then adhered together with a thicker layer of polyurethane (plastic).
While bonded leather, being merely a "leather product," prices out (foot for foot) similar to a fabric—and in the sense may be more economical—it is, unfortunately, used all too often in misleading customers, as retailers may try to pass it off as the real thing in order to inflate the perceived value of their product.
In reality, a person sitting on bonded leather is not sitting on leather at all, only plastic. And unlike real top-grain leather, the ground-up hide and plastic will never acclimate to your body temperature or get better with age.
3. What Is Bicast Leather?
Bicast leather (also known as bi-cast, bycast, or PU leather) is what most people consider the next step up in quality.
Before a hide is put into production, it is cut horizontally into layers. These layers consist of the top grain (the top layer that maintains the actual surface of the cow's hide where the pores and hair follicles used to be) and then every split below that.
Bicast leather is a layer of split which was too thin or flawed for normal use and that, like bonded leather, is completely sealed on top with a layer of polyurethane. Like bonded leather, no actual point of contact is possible between the natural leather and your skin and, therefore, bicast doesn’t demonstrate any of the same wear or comfort attributes of top-grain.
That being said, bicast can still serve as an economical alternative for people wanting the look of leather without the price. Another benefit might be that bicast and bonded leather wipe up easily (since they have plastic surfaces) and you won’t run into many of the food/drink stain issues you may experience with upholstered furniture.
4. What Is Split Leather?
As mentioned before, a split is merely the lower layers of a hide underneath the top-grain. A split is still 100% real leather but does not have all of the characteristics of top-grain due to processing differences.
When a split is made, it is initially light-colored and fuzzy or suede-like on both the top and bottom of the hide so that it won't look like top grain. On leather furniture, the traditional top-grain leather look is shiny and has natural variations in color (a hide is a natural product with variations in thickness and quality; therefore, it withstands dyes differently). It has a smooth and soft hand (or feel), and natural "pebbling" (the unique bumps that vary depending on from which part of the cow the hide was taken).
Because a split has none of these qualities, the split must be processed through various means to simulate the appearance and feel of top-grain leather. Although the result is still 100% leather, some softness is always lost through the processing procedures, and natural variations in color and pebbling are no longer evident as these hides are run through a uniform screen.
5. What Is Leather-Match?
Leather-matching is the practice of placing real, top-grain, 100% leather everywhere you touch on a piece of furniture (e.g., the seat, back cushions, and arms), but then filling the side panels, back panels, and the backs of the cushions with a non-leather.
Most leather-matches are vinyl on the back and sides, although, in some cases, you will see bicast or bonded on these parts. However, manufacturers who want to maintain the ability to say “all 100% leather” will use top-grain everywhere you touch, but then replace the sides and back with a split. Although this is a good, economical way to get 100% real leather on your furniture, there are many reasons (that I will address below) to support the benefits of putting the same product on all sides of the furniture.
6. What Is Top-Grain Leather?
As stated above, the top grain is the smoothest, supplest, most natural, and best kind of furniture leather your money can buy. Each hide is as individual and unique as a fingerprint. Real top-grain is comprised of about 12-14% water. For this reason, top-grain leather acclimates quickly to your body temperature. Leather is a natural product and thus breathes like one.
Top-grain comes in two different grades: aniline and semi-aniline. Aniline is the most natural and has no protective coatings or treatments that alter its natural feel. Because of this, it's the softest but also susceptible to stains, while semi-aniline may be coated with a protective topcoat.
Many people who have experienced “sweating” on leather and are therefore turned off by the idea of leather furniture are referring to a leather product like bonded leather or vinyl. This is especially true in car seats that sit in the sun for hours.
7. Leather's Natural Patina
The sun is harsh. Brutal UV rays can have a measurable effect on many natural products, and leather is no exception.
Think about it: leather is like skin, and it will age. Over time, direct sunlight will gradually change its hue—especially on parts that are more exposed than others. That being said, different materials patina at different rates. Top-grain leather will change colors differently than splits, splits differently than bicast leather, bicast differently than bonded, and bonded differently than vinyl.
For the true leather-lover, the patina is one of the most charming qualities of the material. However, if you buy anything less than top grain, you may be disappointed.
This is where the importance of steering clear of leather-match is evident. Because your furniture may be in your home for a long time, what started out as a subtle variation in color from the back and sides to front will eventually become an obvious mismatch.
8. Can Leather Dry out?
As mentioned before, top-grain leather is typically between 12-14% water. Over-exposure to sun or heat will increase the risk of your furniture drying out.
As a leather is porous, the water within the hide can dissipate and leave your furniture dry or even peeling. To avoid this, try to keep your furniture at room temperature, out of the sun, and condition it twice a year with a special leather conditioner.
9. Leather: Anticipating the Future
Before you buy and place your leather furniture in your home, try to envision the future. Although leather furniture is universal and timeless in many regards, keep in mind that it will require special care and placement. Keeping that leather sofa away from the window and the heater and instead finding the right accent lighting and a throw blanket may be the best bet. Find a good source for designer lamps and décor and plan your room long before you make your first purchase. You'll thank me in 20 years.
10. A Final Word
When buying leather furniture, it's important to ask the right questions and know what you’re talking about so that a commissioned salesperson won’t think they can pull one over on you! If you're in the market for leather furniture, you'll see a lot of faux leathers at stores like Ashley or Rooms-to-go, which is fine if you are looking for a more economical way to get the look and feel of leather, but even so, I'd check out a local furniture dealer with a good reputation.