Leather 101-301: What Are Leather Grades and Why Is It Important
Leather Buyer’s Guide
The Common Man’s Buyer's Guide for Quality Leather Goods
I’m going to explain this to you like I would to a 5th grader. No offense if you’re a 5th grader. I think 5th graders are really great. But it’s important you understand quality so you can buy quality sofas, briefcases or wallets and stop rewarding the companies who pedal low quality leather junk.
By learning what to look for and look out for, you’ll never again buy a leather briefcase, sofa or boots that goes from Ferrari to Sorry in 3.2 seconds. You'll learn: What grade of leather it is? Why it's priced like this? How you can know it will last?
I’ve broken this leather education down into three easy parts:
Understanding Leather and the 4 Leather Grades: Full Grain, Top Grain, Genuine and Bonded
Vegetable Tanned Versus Chrome Tanned Leather - Uses, Pros and Cons
How They Fool You and Other Quality Factors to be Aware of
Leather and the 4 Leather Grades - What is Full Grain, Top Grain, Genuine and Bonded Leather
Leather is like a roof. It covers and protects your things and keeps the water out. And there are different layers that make up a roof. They start by putting a layer of plywood onto the frame of the house. Then they put a layer of tar paper and then a layer of tough shingles to protect the wood from rain, sun, hail or from the random “ice meteors” that can drop out of airplanes. Seriously, it’s a thing.
If you looked at leather from the side through a microscope, you’d see that it’s made up of a whole bunch of little strings called fibers. The Bottom layer of fibers is called The Flesh. It isn’t very strong because the fibers are kind of just laying down flat next to each other. Imagine if you were playing Red Rover and you said, “Red Rover Red Rover send Dave right over”. I’d have a pretty easy time breaking through if your line of people were only holding hands by squeezing their straight fingers together.
The Middle Layer of the leather is called The Corium. It’s like the plywood of the roof and stronger than The Flesh because the fibers grew around each other more. In Red Rover, trying to break through that part of the leather, would be like trying to break through a line of people whose arms are locked at the elbow and then they’re holding their own hands together?
The Top Layer of the leather is what’s called The Grain. It’s like the hard tough shingles on the top of the roof. Without this part, the roof (or leather briefcase) would fall apart and need to be replaced pretty quickly. The Grain is the strongest and most water resistant part of the leather because the fibers are so tightly packed in and woven together. In Red Rover, imagine trying to break through the line if everyone were cheek to cheek with their arms and legs locked around each other’s wastes and chests and necks and were squeezing each other as hard as they could... and grunting. The Grain is the good stuff that gives leather its reputation for toughness.
Full Grain Leather
So, if the piece of leather has not had the top part sanded or shaved off to get rid of blemishes, then we call it Full Grain Leather. It’s expensive to make briefcases and wallets out of it because we cut around most of the scars, ranchers brands and bat bites and throw about 25% of the hide in the trash. But it’s worth it. It’s what Saddleback Leather and a number of other high quality companies build their briefcases out of.
Top Grain Leather
It’s common for lesser companies to save money by making their briefcases and backpacks with leather that had the scars and blemishes shaved off from the top of the hide. Now they don’t have to cut around those pesky natural scars or marks and throw all of that expensive leather into the trash. Almost every square inch of the hide can be used, but along with the scars, they shave off most of the tough grain. It’s like they removed most of the shingles from the roof. There’s still some strong roof there, but your briefcase is not going to last as long without the top layer. If they didn’t shave all of the grain off completely and some of the grain is still left, it’s called Top Grain Leather. It’s still pretty strong and way better than any nylon briefcase, but not as durable nor as water resistant as Full Grain Leather. If your briefcase or backpack is made of the lesser, yet pretty darn good, Top Grain Leather, it will not age with as much character nor develop as good looking of a patina.
Genuine Leather (Split Leather or Suede)
When they split the top half of the hide off (watch how they shave it here minute 6:30), along with all of the grain, the bottom part is called Genuine or Split Leather or Suede. I call it Neutered Leather. A leather backpack made with Neutered Leather is still way better than any junk nylon backpack for sure. It’s usually treated, painted and pressed smooth to look like full grain leather, but it falls apart after too much rubbing and bending. It will dry out or soak up water and stains easily and it can be really hard to get stains out of. This is the junk they use to manufacture the bulk of the disposable $250 leather backpacks, briefcases and wallets in stores today. It is weak and degrades quickly with use. Caveat Emptor baby. Let the buyer beware.
If they leave it kind of fuzzy, then that’s what's called Suede Leather. It’s great leather for decorative purposes and for using in areas that don't get stress, but Suede shouldn’t be considered for any stress point if you want your briefcase to be strong and durable. And Suede can get water spots quickly in the rain.
Bonded leather is the PT Cruiser of the leather world. It's made from the scrap leather we throw away or the shavings of the grain that the tannery took off to get rid of those icky scars. They grind it up and mix it with glues and chemicals, along with a smidge of dog poop, and make the equivalent of leather vinyl out of it. It looks good in the driveway (debatable) but not good for high use or getting respect.
Little known fact:
Did you know that leather shavings are often used as filler in cheap dog food? The higher the percentage of shavings in the dog food, the lower the price and the bigger the piles in the backyard. And did you know that most of the cheap honey out of China is 80% corn syrup? And since we're talking about this, did you know that most Leather iPhone Cases are about 80% plastic and 20% leather?
Vegetable Tanned and Chrome Tanned Leather
Uses, Pros and Cons
The two main ways that leather is tanned today are Vegetable and Chrome tanning. They each have their own qualities that make them great and ideal for certain products. Both are really strong, long lasting and smell great. The worst leather bag in the world could still beat up the best nylon bag there is with one hand tied behind it’s back.
Vegetable Tanned Leather
Vegetable Tanning is the oldest and most natural way of tanning. It started in the Garden of Eden after that idiot, Adam, messed everything up. Now, they tumble the leather in water mixed with various chemicals and acids to get the hair off and expand the pores of the hide so they can accept the new natural materials. It then soaks for anywhere from two weeks to one year in pits mixed with water and tree materials like ground up bark, leaves or tree dust (tannin) etc. The longer it soaks (or feeds), the stronger and better the leather turns out. Most tanneries tumble the leather after the soaking to force feed the leather just in case it didn’t get full. A finish may or may not be applied and it’s ready to go.
Qualities and Common Uses of Vegetable Tanned Leather
Vegetable tanned leather is usually harder, stiffer and tends to have more body than Chrome tanned leather because its pores are filled with wood fibers. If it is soaked and dried, it will permanently take on the form that it dries in. That’s why it’s ideal for making saddles, gun holsters, belts, knife sheaths and shoe soles. Some use it for briefcases, wallets, backpacks and boots, but it’s not as common. Check out our super fascinating 9 Million Plus view video of how we form our vegetable tanned solid leather iPhone Case.
Pros of Vegetable Tanned Leather
It is more natural than Chrome. It is harder and so can be used for shoes and shields. It can also be bought thicker because it bloats for so long. Veg is stiffer and so can hold the indentations from artists who tool the leather with patterns or who stamp names on the backs of belts, like ROY. It can be formed into shapes around molds and then keeps that shape. Veg puts off a stronger leather smell and develops a rich patina sooner than Chrome does too. If it is cared for, it will last longer than you will.
Cons of Vegetable Tanned Leather
Vegetable tanned leather does not do well with water. If it gets rained on, then it gets spots easily unless protected. If it gets really wet, then it can get really stiff. It needs to be conditioned more often because it can dry out and crack. And when it’s old, larger pieces can get a little wavy if not conditioned. But Vegetable tanned leather is still a strong and dependable leather that make for quality briefcases, backpacks and duffle bags. It does not fold over sharply for smaller pieces like wallets and is generally not recommended to be used thinner than 1.5 mm. It is difficult to fold over and crease without it cracking on the fold. It is also difficult to get a wide range of colors and effects in the tanning process.
Chrome Tanned Leather
Chrome Tanning is really interesting. Watch our gross and disgusting actual video of how they make Chrome Tanned Leather here. The process was invented around 1840. It also starts off the same, by tumbling the leather with chemicals and acids to get the hair off and expand the pores of the hide. Then they tumble it with the natural element Chromium (Cr) to get it deep into the pores. Chromium III is considered an essential nutrient in humans for sugar, lipid metabolism and insulin.
At this point it is considered tanned and called “Wet Blue” because the Chromium gave it a light blue color. They start the finishing process by tumbling it a second time for anywhere from 8 to 20 hours, depending on thickness, with the same natural tannin and tree materials of veg tanned leather, along with pigment, oils and other ingredients to color all the way to the middle for desired effects. Once it is dried, waxes or colors are applied to the top of the hide.
Qualities and Common Uses of Chrome Tanned Leather
Chrome tanned leather smells great. It’s more pliable than veg and doesn’t easily hold or keep indentations. 95% of briefcases, jackets, furniture, backpacks, auto upholstery, and quality shoes and boots are made with Chrome.
Pros of Chrome Tanned Leather
Chrome is low maintenance and, like my friend Ryan said about his dating life, thrives on neglect. It doesn’t dry out easily and does really well in the sun. It’s great for wet rainy climates because it’s tanned with oils and Chromium, which is highly resistant to corrosion. It is the leather to be tanned if you want extreme colors. It folds over tightly without cracking and so is preferred when making most styles of wallets. It is far better to be used for very thin applications.
Cons of Chrome Tanned Leather
It is not as natural as veg tanned leather. Chrome needs to be pressed with heat for indentations to be permanent. It can’t be wet formed and dried into a permanent shape.
Little known fact:
Using brain and pigeon poop to cook won’t win you any blue ribbons, but it will tan you some pretty nice leather. Every creature has enough brain matter to tan its own hide and pigeon poop is still used to tan leather in Morocco. Seriously, it’s a thing.
Which Leather is Better?
It’s interesting to read what Vegetable tanneries and companies who only make things with Vegetable tanned leather, say about Chrome tanned leather and those who use it. Obviously, they want to sell their leather or leather goods, so they need to make a case for you to pick theirs instead of someone else’s. But instead of telling you the benefits of their leather, which are many, they only tear down the competitors. They’re like typical politicians. Instead of telling you all of the great reasons you should vote for them, they just tell you all the reasons you should not vote for the other guy. There is a better way and I hope you are reading this. Here’s what they say:
“But Veg is more expensive” inferring it must be higher quality. Imagine two excellent bakers both make high quality delicious pies. Their ingredients cost about the same and their ovens are of equal size. One baker can make 90 tasty pies a month. The other baker can only make 30 equally delicious pies a month because her pies are specialty pies that require a slower baking time. To stay in business, the specialty pie maker must sell hers for more money because there’s just not the same demand for her pies because they have different qualities.
“But Veg is healthier for humans” inferring that Chrome is unhealthy. Veg is almost 100% natural and so who can argue with that. But the element Chromium (Cr) is actually considered an essential nutrient for humans for insulin, lipid metabolism and sugars. It is added to foods for preterm infants, diabetes patients and into athletic performance supplements. Our body needs it.
Imagine yourself wearing a skin-tight chrome tanned leather body suit everyday for years. The only damage to you would be emotional. Physically, you’d be sweaty but fine. Now, if you were to use Chrome tanned leather instead of tortillas for your Mexican food everyday for years, you would not only have strong jaws, but you'd be as unhealthy as you would if you were eating artificial sweeteners or a bowl of ice cream everyday. Everything in moderation.
“But Veg is better for the environment” inferring that Chrome is not. Vegetable tanned leather is better for the environment ONLY because most tanneries in third world countries dump their tanning waters straight into the rivers. That’s the only reason. If the tannery making Chrome tanned leather is a good and responsible one, like the Gold and Silver rated ones we use for our briefcases and backpacks, then there is no environmental impact since they have their own million dollar water treatment plants to filter the tanning water. Chrome and Vegetable leathers are both as safe as can be. When they dump Chromium tanned water in massive amounts into the rivers, it gets into the fish, irrigated crops, animals and eventually into people at higher levels than what is recommended. On rare occasions, Chromium III morphs into Chromium VI in the tanning process. And that is really no bueno. But the money hungry tanneries in China and India sometimes sell it anyways instead of processing it over again because they don’t want to waste money.
Both leathers are solid and long-lasting and will do the job for longer than you’ll need. You can’t go wrong with either one. Just choose the one that is better than the other for its specific application.
How They Fool You With Cheap Leather and Other Low Quality Tricks
I bought a recliner once made “WITH” full grain leather. Sadly, as the sun through the window hit it day by day, the vinyl parts faded. We discovered that only a few parts were made of real leather and the rest was made of vinyl that looked like leather. And I wondered how they could sell it for so cheap. Technically, the manufacturer wasn't lying when they put on the tag, "Made ‘with’ Full Grain leather".
Here are the best ways to tell if it’s full grain, top grain, genuine, bonded or vinyl.
Look at the price tag. Keystone pricing is how retail generally works. Everybody doubles their price. If a sofa costs the company $700 to make, then they wholesale it to the store for $1400. The store then hangs a $2800 price tag on it for you. High prices are not just a marketing thing. To sell it for $1000 means they have to wholesale it to the store for $500 which means the factory had to make it for $250. A sofa requires at least 5 hides to upholster it. If it’s under $2000 dollars, then it’s hard for me to believe it is a quality full leather sofa. We sell our briefcases for around $600 and it’s pretty much the same story. So the question isn’t why are our briefcases so expensive, but rather, why are theirs so cheap. I’ve seen knock offs of my briefcases for sale for just the same cost of my raw materials.
If the back of the sofa is made of several smaller pieces of leather, then that’s good. If it’s one solid piece, that’s bad. They don’t make cows that big and so it must be vinyl or a sheet of bonded leather. If that’s the case, then the parts in the front are probably junk leather too because most don’t mix quality with junk very often. Cars are the main exception; leather where you touch and vinyl where you don’t.
A jeweler can tell an emerald is fake if it doesn’t have any flaws. You can tell it’s not full grain if there are NO scars or bug bites or blemishes on the hide. Unless it’s a hide from the Japanese Tajima-gyu cow that grows up indoors and is given beer before meals and gets daily Sake massages and listens to classical music while it eats (Seriously, it’s to produce Kobe beef), then it’s going to get scarred and marked up through life. It’s tough and expensive for companies, like Saddleback Leather, to produce and sell high quality full grain leather briefcases. Everybody wants full grain leather because it’s the strongest, longest lasting and the most water resistant, but not everybody is willing to accept an occasional bug bite or tiny scar. Obviously, we cut out where the bull had been bitten by coyotes or gored by another bull or where there was a high concentration of scars or bug bites and throw that leather away. We usually throw away about 25% of the hide. We save the cool scars and rancher’s brands with cool initials or shapes for special briefcases.
Generally, the more seams on a leather sofa or duffle bag, the lower the quality it is. We made a video about this subject with a leather duffle bag I found in the market and counted how many pieces were sewn together to make it. There were 85 pieces and about 97 total linear feet of seams with about 9500 sewing machine holes as opposed to our equal sized duffle bag that is made of one solid piece and only has 5.1 linear seam feet with 409 holes. It’s acceptable for the body of a quality duffle bag to be made out of up to 5 or 6 pieces of leather. Nothing wrong with that. But there’s no excuse to make the outside of a wallet out of more than just one piece of leather. What they’re doing is saving on leather by using only small little pieces of scrap instead of large solid pieces. The reason it’s bad is because a sewing machine is really a perforation machine. Each needle hole is the start of a tear. So the fewer holes, the better. You want as few seams as possible.
If the backpack or sofa looks like it got a bad paint job, that’s a sign. It’s really hard to make unnatural leather look natural and is a sure sign you’ll be embarrassed and donating it to a good cause in no time.
If there is a repeating pattern on leather that has a lot of texture to it, like pebbly or deep veiny leather, then that would probably be Genuine or Bonded Leather that was pressed to look like Full Grain Leather. (Watch how they do it in our video here at minute 9:58). Same with exotic skins like Alligator Skin and Ostrich Skin.
If there isn’t much variation in the small or large grain pebbles, then it means that it is also pressed junk leather.
Watch out for leather that’s blue in the middle. It has technically been tanned, but the second finish tanning process was shortened. Lesser tanneries only tumble the leather for an hour or two instead of eight to ten hours like they’re supposed to. So the oils, colors and extra preservatives don’t make it all the way to the middle of the leather. To cover up the blue they either fold over the edges on the duffle bag, paint them or sew a lining over them so you can’t see them. Of course, the way one designs the edges of the briefcase is a choice of style and not always a sign that the leather was not tanned well. Check out corners and edges carefully to see if they missed a spot and you see blue.
How Do Tanneries Cheat?
Shortening the Second Tanning Time
A big tanning drum usually costs well over $100,000 USD, so smaller tanneries don't have as many of them as they need. In order to put out more leather, they cut the tumbling time by up to 90%. This is a big money maker because not only do they get to process more leather in the drums, but they don't have to use as much oil, dyes or preservatives. They only have to buy enough of the liquids to do the second tanning for 10% of the mass of the leather instead of 100% all the way to the center.
Use Cheaper Tanning Materials
Also, the quality and highly refined oils, dyes and preservatives are really expensive. By using cheap liquids to tan leather, even if they do tumble it long enough, they can save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Also, if the tannery uses cheap dyes and colors, your leather will fade with too much sunlight. We use only the expensive hypoallergenic detergents, solvents and highly highly refined oils. Our waxes for the Chestnut leather was refined 7 times. Some places use old refined motor oil to tan with. If your leather smells like fish, then that’s also cheap tanning materials. A large company can save millions of dollars a year buying cheap leather or by buying leather backpacks and briefcases made with cheap leather.
Leather is one of our Keys to Quality
Saddleback's great leather is a huge part of our success. I found a few of the highest quality tanneries in the Western Hemisphere. Arguably the best. They’re the same tanneries that Hartmann, Tony Lama, Justin Boots, Gucci and other big names use. You can almost eat off the floor. We are very pleased with the excellent leather they deliver every single time.
Obviously, our hope at Saddleback Leather is that you join our tight-knit leather family and community of owners. But our even greater hope is that you join our quality revolution against cheap, short lived, disposable, engineered-obsolescence crap and spread the word yourself. It happens through education. There are many reasons why you need to buy quality in all areas of your life. The truth, buy nice or buy twice, is one of them.
The difference between a briefcase made with high and low grade leather is like the difference between a Toyota Land Cruiser and a PT Cruiser. They both look nice and shiny. but it won’t take much time to tell which one is the most reliable and durable one in the world and which one was a big huge all around mistake.