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.
Rita on January 27, 2020:
What is non-bonded leather?
Prakash on July 21, 2019:
Great and Useful information. I'm came through this site while searching for furniture. https://www.furnituremagik.com/
Jill on November 16, 2018:
Thank you very much! I've been confused about the different types of leather and now can shop with knowledge about what I'm actually buying.
firstname.lastname@example.org on September 30, 2018:
Leslie on May 24, 2018:
I've been doing quite a bit of online research about leather furniture and found this article most helpful. Thank you for explaining it so well!
Barb on March 04, 2018:
I bought what I was told was leather by the salesman, is not. The dog likes to lick the chairs and it changed Color where she licked. It also changed Color from places where my head touches or my hands have been. What kind of leather can I buy that won’t do this? I really would like to stop this happening in my next couch. Thanks
AV on December 29, 2016:
Thx to all for your comments! I'm looking to purchase a leather sofa and I found this info educational indeed. I've found aniline sofa at IKEA of all places..it so soft. Most of my furniture is dark, is dark aniline colored through and through as good as naturally tan? Some of the materials used are fiberboard and particleboard. I'm not sold on this at all. Otherwise I will return to Macy's home furnishings . I bought a recliner there 7 years ago and it's just the w/ some nice patina. Thx again for all your help
topsite on October 11, 2016:
Great and useful information.
Lynn on July 23, 2016:
Have a 13 year old leather sofa by Chateau D,Ax and apart from the number my cats have done on it for the past 13 years it is in great shape. I am wanting to purchase a new sofa and looked at a Broyhil. It has the zipper seat cushions and is Top grain leather. Not sure about the frame. Does anyone have experience with this company. Also believe it is manufactured in USA.
Adam on February 08, 2016:
Finished leather is colored with the same aniline dye as unfinished leather however these hides go through a secondary coloring process.I bought a sofa for my room from PC Richard and sons. Because I had no idea about that thing and made mistake of buying an unfinished leather sofa set. People at PC Richards were not professional enough to inform me about this difference and now I am the one who has to suffer since they have denied taking any responsibility for my wrong purchase.
ArtZon on December 04, 2015:
I think most of the data given is wrong, these are mostly assumptions. For example, you say " bonded leather is hardly leather at all—by definition, it has to be only 17% leather." however the correct ratio in Europe is 50% and in the US minimum is 60% and some regions require 90% real "high quality" leather, and high end companies generally maintain 95% leather. Bonded leather is very close to the real leather products, since the real leather products are not as natural as people think, they are heavily processed with chemical and in my opinion a good quality bonded leather products are healthier than average full grain leather products.
Carol on June 02, 2015:
I'm surprised you recommended Palliser after I just finished reading numerous complaints on the inferior quality of the furniture especially since the manufacturer moved their company to Mexico. Complaints from 2015 back to 2010.
email@example.com on March 11, 2015:
Thank's for the information,It has been very useful. Have you heard anything negative from this Canadian company, Novo furniture? They have a whole line of all leather furniture besides the othe kinds of faux leathers too, mentioned in the article.
Mrs. Huff on October 20, 2014:
We bought a "leather" sectional from Ashley Furniture. It is now peeling off. When I looked on the internet, many others are experiencing the same issue with their "Bonded Leather" couch from Ashley Furniture. I will NEVER EVER purchase anything from that store again. I was mislead and deceived. I have a set of four pieces of leather furniture that I purchased from Sam's club 14 years ago. It is in beautiful shape after years of wear and use. It must be "top-grain." I wish I had read this article years ago.
Blue sky on September 15, 2014:
Great and useful information. Thanks:) I have leather coach from Adriana Furniture (polish company) and it’s really the best piece of furniture in my house. Greetings from Poland:)
Johnc648 on September 06, 2014:
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steve on July 22, 2014:
What about Barcalounger?
Palliser leather is processed with formaldehyde like most companies. Barcalounger says their has no formaldehyde.
The frame is also hardwood on the Barcalounger but pressed wood (again with formaldehyde) on the Palliser.
Johny on June 25, 2014:
Not a bad summary of leather. I am a buyer in the industry and leather is a frequent topic. Very confusing with all that is our there. Palliser manufactures most leather in Mexico though. Not that it matter where it is made, they use good leather and no splits.
firstname.lastname@example.org on January 15, 2014:
we are first time leather furniture buyers We live in Florida in the winter and when we returned this year our strata loungers have al peeled and are just a mess We did buy a leather couch and that seems fine. The chairs say bonded and the furniture company will not back the product that we have had only 2 years really one since we do not use them year round It does get up to 90 degrees in our home in the summer but we have a humidify that takes the humidity out of the house. Will this also ruin our real leather couch.
ROBBULL on January 09, 2014:
Very informative for the novice purchaser. Most of your typical furniture stores haven't much selection in the showroom when it goes to viewing the top grain leather sofas for example. An average salesman knows nothing of split,
Bycast and so on. People want it now and usually settle for the split not being able tell convince themselves that paying the
Extra for leather sofa that looks and feels
Like top grain leather furniture.
It does pay to invest the extra for the real
I have a sofa, ottoman and chair all top
Grain leather. I've had these pieces 17 years now and you'd never know it.
It's top grain so it is the whole thickness of
The cows hide . Cleans up wonderfully with just distilled water provided the stain
Hasn't set to long.
Needless to say after 17 years and 6 thousand dollars for the furniture in 1997.
It will definitely last a other 17 years easily.
Another thing to watch when buying furniture is the Weight.
A finely made piece of furniture will
Weigh much more than something
Made with fiberboard or similar materials. A good piece of furniture may
Weigh twice as much as the cheap furniture. A lot of people don't sit down slowly on there furniture. I see most just
Plop, or drop into there seat even slight
Leap. Cheap furniture doesn't withstand
That type of abuse.
So when buying furniture Check the weigh safely. Perhaps try a slight body push, lean on it.
Don't try picking it up.
Ask the salesman how much it weighs.
They have that info in there catalogs.
That's the best way.
Audrey Coutts on October 16, 2013:
the colour has peeled off the back of the chair shortly after it was delivered we were told if we had used throws or rug over it this would not have happened yet our previous chair was ten years old and this had never happened.The manager of the shop said nothing wrong with the leather its our fault.
joy on August 01, 2013:
What can you tell me about SBL leather? Is it from Bejing China?
catcastle on April 18, 2013:
Appreciate the education in leather. I was surprised that you didn't mention Hancock and Moore or American Leather. Pricey I know, but from my research on the web, these brands are some of the best quality. I will look into Omnia. I have looked at Bradington-Young. I believe they are not quite as good as Hancock and Moore, but slightly less expensive. Believe me, I am no expert. Just checking out numerous blogs and such. I am still confused about full grain vs. top grain. I understand full grain is better? Must research this some more.
Forgali SEO on March 22, 2013:
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ignugent17 on December 20, 2012:
Thanks for the useful information. :-)
guest on September 03, 2012:
Is it even possible to buy true leather funiture anymore?
nick on July 07, 2012:
Top 10 things to look for when looking for an expert.
Palliser does not manufacture in the United States. They manufacture in Canada, Mexico and, gasp, China. Just because something is made in China does not relegate it to inferior quality.
Robinson and Robinson was out of business in about 2010, maybe earlier. They were not known for their quality, but rather their value. They made reasonably priced goods of reasonable quality. They commonly used all of the "inferior" materials described in this article.
It boils down to you should find out what you are buying and whether or not that suits your needs. One type of leather isn't "better" than another, they are just different. If you like the look of leather, but don't or can't pay big bucks, try the Bonded, Bicast and Splits. They are only not worth the money when you think you are buying Top Grain.
email@example.com on June 09, 2012:
Does anyone have an answer to why one of my leather armchairs is showing black marks in the back on a ruched
panel. the suit is green, and we cannot think of apparent reason for this.
Beth Arch from Pearl of the Orient Seas on December 19, 2010:
Thanks for this info, never knew these types of leather. At least I know now what to look for in a leather and what to ask to a sales person.