One of the most common comments I hear from customers when selecting different kinds of leather is that they did not know what questions to ask. They are often working with a salesperson who is in the business of selling furniture not understanding leather.
Understanding leather is knowing that when a hide is first tanned it is actually quite thick. In order to get a thinner, softer hide, the original hide is split into 2 or 3 mirror hides. The first or top piece is the top grain hide and the only piece that has any strength. All the strength of the skin is in the out layer. The under skins are called split skins and have limited use and little strength. So when buying leather it is critical that you get leather that is top grain.
Leather hides are graded like diamonds, the fewer the flaws (by flaws I mean scars and skin imperfections) the higher the price. By purchasing a more expensive leather you are not necessarily getting better, just a more flawless hide. With a high grade hide the tanners generally do very little to the hide except vat dye and soften it. So you end up with an incredibly buttery soft hide but very little durability. If you want luxury this is it. If you want durability go for the lower, less expensive hides.
Understanding how your leather will perform is very important when you are selecting furniture. Anilines are very delicate and do not perform in everyday use as well as finished leather. Nubuck leather is luxurious but is in the same catagory as silk. Do you have 3 kids and dog and cat and want a sofa for the family room? Getting the right leather that will look good and stand up to spills for years will be the top grain finished leather.
Aniline leather is amazing stuff. It is certainly top grain and has been softened with oils to get that buttery feel. Most of the time, the thing that sells this gorgeous stuff is the hand (a term in the leather world for the feel). It is usually dyed all the way through with color and is completely raw on the top. You just can’t beat the look or the feel
there is the durability factor.
This type of leather tends to be on the extremely delicate side. If you are putting your furniture in the living room where traffic is very light, this may the a good fit. But, for the family room, with the kids, the dogs, etc, you may want to explore some other finished leathers.
They also can fade quite easily. Even with indirect lighting the colors can change quite significantly. Keeping them out of direct sunlight would be imperative. Avoiding light from a very bright window is strongly suggested.
The low durability factor means that basically it cannot be cleaned. It will also mark and stain rather easily. An easy way to determine if leather is too delicate is to take your fingernail and run it across the leather and see if it leaves a trace mark.
Finished leather is the leather that will give you the look and amazing durability. On the technical side, this type of leather actually has a color coating that protects the leather from staining and marking easily. Often people will say not to get the plastic coated leather. They obviously are not familiar with the vast array of options available. The color coating can be extremely soft and flexible. Sometimes it can feel almost exactly like the aniline. It lends greatly to a look that will last for many years and provides extended durability. This type of leather is used in almost every leather application, automobile interiors, aircraft interiors, commercial and residential furniture, and wall and floor panels. This leather will give you years of durability and wears very well in high traffic areas.
Bi-cast leather is a relative new comer to the leather market. Most people do not even think twice when someone talks about bi-cast because it contains the work leather. Actually it is a product that definitely has manufactured component to it. It can be one of two types of processes. One process, using a split skin and gluing a sheet of polyurethane color to it. The other process starts with a layer of material composed of reconstituted leather and then gluing a layer of polyurethane color to it. Either way you have a material which is illegal to sell in the UK or New Zealand as leather.
My experience has been, in general, not good at all. Except that it does repair fairly well. Now mind you I only get called when there is a problem. I had one customer that bought a large sectional sofa covered in bi-cast. He purchased it at a major department store clearance center. They had a no return policy. After one week of 3 kids and a dog, the seat cushions were splitting. And I mean big splits. He called me in to repair the problem. I was able to repair the splits but assured him that he would probable see more problems in the near future
Most of the leather furniture that you find at major discount chains will be bi-cast. IF you don’t mind buying throw away furniture, buy it. Your best bet is to stay with top grain leather.
Top grain refers to the upper section of a hide that previously contained the epidermis and hair, but were removed from the hide/skin. This is where all the strength of the hide is. Once you slice off under layers of the hide those slices of leather ( a mirror of the original hide) these split skins have little or no strength or durability. When selecting leather for upholstery it is important to make sure that you are getting the best part of the leather. Bi-cast leather is not made from top grain. In this day and age when the fakes are becoming so good if the tag says top you are on the right track.