Leather Facts

Nothing adds richness and beauty to a room like a gorgeous leather. It has been used all over the world for thousands of years in any number of applications. Leather is durable, cleanable, and long-lasting, and brings a raw natural beauty that manufactured products simply cannot match.

However, because it is such a prized commodity, the leather industry has been very creative in recent decades. A global market, enhancements in available technology, and the constant battle for lower prices have created a huge range in leather types and qualities. There are bonded leathers, split leathers, polyurethane "leathers," and vinyl look-alikes. Today, simply because something looks or even feels like leather, does not mean it is.

So how do you know what you are getting? At Smith Brothers, we only use top grain leather. We do not use split leather (the weaker, underside of the hide), and we never use leather-vinyl matches on our furniture. We also pay close attention to industry-standard tests to ensure each type of leather will meet the level of quality our customers have come to expect. Each hide is hand-inspected by our skilled specialists, and it is all cut, sewn, and upholstered at our own facility in Berne, Indiana.

What is Top Grain Leather?

A hide is actually much thicker than a finished upholstery leather. Before it is finished, a hide is split into layers. The layer closest to the surface is the Top Grain and includes the actual surface of the skin with all of its natural pores, wrinkles, and scars. It is the strongest part of the hide.

Top grain diagram

The Split Hide is everything that has been cut from the inner layer of the hide. It is used to make suede and other leather products. While some furniture manufacturers will use splits on sides and backs of furniture where you are less likely to touch it as much, it is typically found in cheaper products. Splits are 100% leather, but they are weaker and more susceptible to tearing, stretching, and fading.

Types of Leather

The first thing to keep in mind is that leather is a natural product. Each hide is just as unique as your fingerprints. The color, texture, and markings vary from hide to hide and even within a single hide. It is not unusual to see color differences, grain changes, and even scars or brand marks on a piece of furniture. Different types of leather display these characteristics in varying amounts, and it's up to you to determine what exactly you want from your leather furniture.

Aniline

Also called Pure Aniline or Full Aniline, this is the most natural type of leather. It does not have a protective coating nor any treatments that alter the natural feel of the hide. This gives it the most luxuriously soft feel of all the leather types, but leaves it susceptible to staining or soiling.

Choose this leather if: you love the soft feel of leather and truly appreciate the beauty of each hide's unique natural markings, but expect only light to moderate use of the furniture.

Semi-Aniline

This type is fairly natural. The hides are first aniline-dyed and then coated with a slightly protective topcoat that may or may not contain some additional color. You will see some natural markings through the topcoat and it can still stain or fade somewhat, but it is more protected than a pure aniline leather and the color is more uniform. This is the most common type of leather Smith Brothers sells.

Choose this leather if: you appreciate the softness and texture of leather but also expect to use your furniture regularly.

Pigmented/Protected

This type is the least natural. Smith Brothers' protected leather is still Top Grain leather, and dyed all the way through the hide, but the surface is coated with a heavy protective topcoat that has color added. Pigmented leather is usually buffed (sanded) to remove imperfections in the hide and then embossed with an artificial grain. The color and texture tend to be flatter, without the deep rich color or luxurious feel of an Aniline... but it is also the most durable and cleanable leather type.

Choose this leather if: you anticipate heavy use of your furniture, so you don't mind sacrificing softness and texture for higher durability.

Nubuck

This is a top grain leather that has been buffed (sanded) to soften the surface and give it a "suede-like" appearance. It is extremely soft and very luxurious, and also stronger than suede which is made from split hide. Like other anilines, nubuck leather is very susceptiable to fading and soiling, and will develop an aged patina over time.

Choose this leather if: you want to make a bold fashion statement with a luxurious and truly unique piece, and don't mind some maintenance and care.


Full Grain vs. Corrected Grain

Full grain leather is a top grain leather with all its natural texture (grain) intact. This grain is created by hair follicles, wrinkles, stretch marks, scars, brands, tick bites, and so on. Full grain leathers can show all of these characteristics.

Corrected grian leathers are still top grain, but have been lightly buffed (sanded) to remove the original texture and any imperfections. A faux grain is then embossed on the surface of the hide. This allows tanneries to take rough-looking top grain hides and turn them into beautiful pigmented leathers. Corrected grain leathers will be much more consistent in texture.

One is not better than the other—they are just different!

Color and Surface Variations

All leathers display a variety of unique natural markings and variations in color. It is virtually impossible to find two uncorrected hides, even within the same dye lot, that share identical surface characteristics and uniform coloration. Aniline and semi-aniline leathers will exhibit grain and color variation from hide to hide and even within the same hide!

Color Variation

Because leather is a natural product, it absorbs dyes and reacts differently to treatments from hide to hide. Even within a single hide, some areas of the skin may absorb more dye than another creating light and dark areas in the leather. This is most noticeable in pure aniline leathers. Sometimes color is purposefully applied in varying amounts to create a deep rich look.

  • Low: The color will be reasonably consistent within a hide and from hide to hide. Some dye lot variances will still be present.
  • Medium: There will be noticeable color variations within each hide and from hide to hide. There will be color variation on an upholstered piece that may not appear on a small sample.
  • High: There will be wide color variations on these leathers including color variations that may not appear on a small sample. Finished upholstery will display color variation. Most of our finest aniline leathers and some of our semi-aniline leathers carry this rating as the transparent nature of the aniline dyes does not cover the natural characteristics of leather.

Surface Variation

Because of the unique life of each animal, the natural texture of a leather varies from hide to hide.

  • Low: These leathers have been corrected which produces a surface with a reasonably consistent grain pattern and very few natural markings.
  • Medium: Natural markings including healed scars, insect bites, fat wrinkles and stretch marks will likely be present. The texture of the grain may change across the surface of the hide.
  • High: These leathers have not been corrected and have little or no finish on their surface. Therefore, this leather has a very soft hand and displays all of the natural markings in the hide. The grain may vary widely on a piece of furniture, even when cut from a single hide.

Variation and In-Store Samples

Color and surface variation are sometimes subtle enough that they are only visible in certain parts of a hide, or only when considering the entire hide (or large parts of it). For this reason, the leather samples available at your Smith Brothers dealer may not paint the whole picture. Each sample is labeled with that leather's color and surface variation rating to help provide more information about the leather beyond what the sample can show.

Surface variation in a hide

A full leather hide

The average hide is between 40-60 square feet, and are all irregularly shaped. Some have holes, scars, and brands to cut around. Most vary at least a little bit in color and texture.

Surface variation in a swatch

Smith Brothers samples

It is easy to see why a tiny sample cannot represent all of the characteristics in a hide! They are so small compared to a 40-60 sq. ft. hide. This is why we carefully label each sample for our dealers. It is important to review this information before selecting a leather so you are sure that your finished piece will not have any surprises.

Examples of Variations to Look For

  • Color variations Color Variations. Because leather is a natural, porous material, each hide’s proteins will absorb dyes and finishes to different degrees and in different ways. This means that even when two hides are finished in the exact same way and in the exact same vat of dye, they can still be different colors! Even multiple parts on a single hide can vary. Sometimes this is a desirable effect and is enhanced by hand-applying lighter and darker dyes in a process called sauvaging.
  • Grain variations Grain Variations. Grain on leather hides are as unique as fingerprints. No two hides will ever look the same. Just like the skin on our fingertips is different than the skin on our knuckles, the grain can change across the surface of a single hide. The area from the neck is soft and wrinkled and the area along the backbone is smoother. It is not unusual to find stretch marks, veins, and wrinkles in a hide. Any of these can show up in an upholstered piece of furniture.
  • Healed scars Healed Scars. Leather hide supplies are a byproduct of the beef industry. These cattle are out in the open with all the insects, barbed wire, and cattle horns. Scratches, bites, and brands all leave scars. In more rugged looking leathers, these markings are actually desirable. They will show up in all pure anilines and semi-anilines. They are less likely in pigmented leathers because those are usually corrected.
  • Special effects Special Effects. When a really rugged "bomber jacket" look is desired, tanneries take pure anilines and infuse them with wax or oils. This process creates a leather that "cracks" and bursts when pulled or scratched. Sometimes these marks can be rubbed out, but they will always show up again with use. Sometimes they will vacuum dry the leather which adds a shiny, sleek surface to the hide. Any leather like this is for the person who truly enjoys the natural beauty of leather.

Leather Furniture

Once you have determined the leather type you like, there are still a few other things to consider when matching up a leather with a piece of furniture.

Leather to Frame

Except for tufted styles (see below), you are free to choose any of our leathers for any of our leather furniture pieces. However, this does not mean that every leather will compliment every style of furniture.

The best example of this would be a bustle back style like the 311 Sofa or 705 Recliner. These styles are best in a soft, supple leather that is usually thinner. If you were to select a thick, stiff leather, it would take a long time for the leather to "break in." They would not be as soft and the tailoring would not be quite as clean around the pleats. We will still make it, but please be aware that thick, stiff, and sometimes rustic leathers are best on styles with straighter lines or tight backs unless you don't mind waiting for the leather to soften.

Along those lines, a thick leather is not necessarily more durable or longer lasting than a thin leather. They each have pros and cons, and we make sure that all of our leathers pass industry standard testing for durability.

The only styles that we cannot upholster in thick stiff leathers are the button tufted pieces. All of the folds and contouring in the tufts require soft, supple leathers to create a well-tailored finished product.

Seams

We cut leather differently than fabric, so there will be more seams on the leather version of a style than on the fabric version of the same style. We do this for two reasons:

  • Leather hides are irregularly shaped and only so big, whereas fabric comes in rolls of consistent width and effectively unlimited length. This means that it is often simply impossible for one hide to yield single pieces of leather that are large enough for certain parts of the furniture, so they have to be cut into sections and sewn together.
  • Just as importantly, though, these seams add an attractive level of detail breaking up the monotony of a solid color.

Every piece of leather furniture will be done with the same seams regardless of the type of leather, so please refer to any product photography or in-store samples of the leather piece to see how it will be seamed. Do not rely on the fabric version of a piece as an example of how it will look in leather, because they are actually quite different!


Grades

All Smith Brothers leathers are assigned a grade number, but grade does not equal quality! The grades are merely a product of the leather's price, which can vary with supply and demand.

In fact, it is usually the more natural leathers that have the higher price, even though they are treated with fewer processes and chemicals (and are therefore less expensive to produce). These pure anilines, even though they are more susceptible to staining and fading over time, are considered the most desirable among leather connoisseurs, so they have a higher price. It is actually the more protected and pigmented leathers that tend to be lower grades, even though they are more durable and cleanable.

It really depends on your expectations of the leather to determine which is right for you.

Styles

As a general rule, lighter colored leathers with low surface and color variation tend to be considered more transitional or contemporary. The darker leathers with more color and surface variations tend to be considered more traditional.


Of course, this rule is not set in stone, so feel free to be creative with your leather to frame application!

Leather Seat Cushions

Unlike with fabric, it is impossible to make a reversible leather cushion. This is because leather does not breathe, so any air inside the cushion cannot escape when you sit on it. This would be very uncomfortable, so we use a special breathable fabric on the underside of our leather cushions (as well as on the backs of our leather back cushions). For that reason, the cushions cannot be flipped around like they can in fabric.

Interior of leather vs. fabric cushion

Depending on the design of the furniture, it may be possible to rearrange the location of the seat cushions (e.g. swap the left and right cushions), but they cannot be flipped upside down.

Care and Cleaning

In spite of the durability of certain types of leather, it is NOT invincible. It is a natural product, and it can stretch, scar, wrinkle, stain, and show scratches. The tanning process can only protect hides to a certain extent.

It takes preventative measures to ensure that your furniture will last a lifetime. Use the following cleaning methods to keep your leather furniture looking its best for many years to come.

  • Placement of leather furniture is key. Keep leather out of direct sunlight. The UV rays will cause fading eventually, no matter how well the leather is protected. Make sure the piece is not too close to a heating vent or fireplace. Changes in temperature and humidity may cause leather to dry out and crack.
  • Regularly dust and/or vacuum the furniture to keep it free of dust and grime that can build up over time.
  • If a spill occurs, immediately soak up any liquids with an absorbent cloth. Do not dry it with a hair dryer! If necessary, gently dab with a damp cloth. Use distilled water on the cloth instead of tap water.
  • Do not use wax, polish, saddle soaps, or oil leather cleaners as these may remove the finish and/or color on the leather or discolor it. Be careful when cleaning other furnishings next to the leather. For example, make sure that wood polish does not overspray onto the leather. It may weaken the finish.
  • In the event that the leather becomes damaged beyond what cleaning can fix, contact a local leather professional to clean or repair it.

A word of caution: the finish on leather furniture can wear off from prolonged contact with chemicals of any kind—including chemicals found in hair gels, hairsprays, skin lotion, and even certain dyes used in clothing. Be careful about anything that has regular, repeated contact with your leather furniture.