There are many different types of leather available. Bonded leather is one option to have the look of leather at lower cost.
Bonded leather is a near-synthetic leather. It is made primarily of ground leather fibers, bonded together with a polyurethane (plastic) mixture, and attached to a paper or fiber backing. This type of leather is most often used in furniture upholstery, bookbinding, bags, and personal accessories.
There are some benefits to this material, which is what has made it so popular and commonplace. Let’s take a look at why.
What is Bonded Leather?
Bonded leather is a type of leather constructed from ground-up leather scraps. It allows smaller pieces and lower grades of leather to be utilized in finished goods. This can be a positive, as it reduces the amount of leather waste that is generated. It also can be an outlet through which older, worn leathers can be recycled into newer materials. This type of leather is sometimes referred to as reconstituted leather. Another term used is blended leather.
In a way, bonded leather is like the scrapple or hot dogs of leather; it is made up of leather scraps that are finely shredded and bonded together using polyurethane or latex onto a fiber/paper mesh or sheet. The amount of leather in the actual mix can vary greatly (from 10%-90%), and thus affect the functional and aesthetic properties of the finished product.
The surface is often stamped with a grain pattern to give it the appearance of a natural leather. An array of different, sometimes vivid, colors are applied to the surface providing many options for the color of the finished product. This makes it a material that is available in many styles, colors, and textures.
The durability of this leather is generally less than that of natural leather. The plastic used in its production ends up making the product not very flexible. Thus, it can wear and crack from just a few years of use.
A benefit, however, is cost. Since bonded leather utilizes leather scraps, and plastics, it can be produced at much less expense than fully natural leathers. Thus, it has found a market across a range of consumer goods. Generally, this leather has the look and smell of real leather, so while it lasts, it can be quite appealing and budget friendly.
What is Bonded Leather Used for?
Bonded leather is most commonly used in the manufacture of furniture upholstery. This can include sofas, sectionals, chairs, stools, couches, headboards, ottomans, lounge chairs, and others. Since the cost is much lower than natural leather, many furniture stores offer bonded leather goods as relatively low prices as a way to own “real leather”.
While this might be somewhat technically true, based on the varying amount of leather present, it can be misleading as the performance of this type of leather does not match that of natural leather. It is often an easy way to draw attention to leather goods, without always being transparent in what the final product really is.
Bonded leather is also used on books as covers. Since the material protects well and can be shaped with any texture, it offers a near-endless amount of options for bookbinding. It also can be available is most any color, so the applications here are both varied and cost effective.
Clothing also takes advantage of the this type of leather material. Some shoe and boot pieces might use it. So can the linings and even externally facing surfaces of clothes, jackets, pants, skirts, and hats.
For travel use, this leather is often found in briefcases, bags, some handbags, backpacks, protective cases, makeup bags, electronic device protectors, and portfolios. At home it might be found in media (CD and DVD) storage cases, diploma covers, folders, and other protective cases or bags.
In personal accessories, bonded leather is used for belts, straps, wallets, keychains, eyeglass cases, sunglass cases, jewelry boxes, key cases, credit card cases, and generally any small, useful applications. It can be used for most any product that would otherwise utilize natural leather.
How is Bonded Leather Made?
Leather scraps and fibers are ground up. These can come as the trimmings remaining from the production of natural leather goods. They can also come from lower grade hides that might not pass evaluation standards for finished goods, though can absolutely be utilized in a bonded leather application.
The shredded leather fibers are them mixed with a polyurethane plastic or latex plastic mixture. This binds them all together as the fibers are held together by the plastic mixture once it dries and solidifies. Often, this is referred to as bonded leather “pulp”, taking its name from the similar process used in paper production.
The exact elements in the mixture can vary widely based on the final intended use of the material. Some might be more dense, firm, strong, soft, or hard. Some of these mixtures are kept as trade secrets. They each contribute to the overall feel and performance of the the final leather good.
The bonded mixture, not yet dried, is then extruded onto a flat backing. The extrusion might be via gravity and pouring, or via machines that push the material out evenly onto the backing.
A backing is necessary as the bonded material needs a secure place to dry and adhere to to take the final shape. The backing is usually made of a paper or fiber (cotton, polyester, etc.). It can also be made of a fine mesh (fiber, plastic, metal). This mesh provided more gripping areas for the pulp to more easily adhere to the backing. Once the pulp is extruded onto the backing in an even layer, it is set to dry.
The backing selection is often based on the intended use of the finished product. For example, bookbinders might utilize bonded leather with a paper backing. Upholstery workers might use bonded leather on a fabric backing.
After the pulp has dried onto the backer, the leather can be colored. This is usually a surface treatment that does not penetrate deeply into the material. While natural leather usually has dye penetrate fully, bonded leather color only goes on the surface (and does not penetrate through the synthetic plastic). Virtually any color can be added via dyeing or painting to treat the surface.
Once colored, the bonded leather can have a surface texture applied. This can be utilized to make it look like the natural grain of a natural leather. It can also be used to imprint a preferred design that is visually appealing.
While stamping natural leather is sometimes used to cover surface imperfections, stamping bonded leather is purely cosmetic for finishing reasons. The bonded leather surface is generally even due to the bonding and extrusion processes.
Various textures might be preferred in a final product, depending on what type of goods it will be used for. Since this is a mostly synthetic material, bonded leather offers an opportunity to easily introduce stylish and functional textures.
Once stamped/embossed, bonded leather can be finished. This is usually done with a synthetic surface protectant. It can provide a shiny appearance to the leather. The surface finish can also provide a layer that protects the material underneath. Generally, these finishes are a transparent polymer that resists water and scratches/abrasions. Finishes can also include scents that help make the bonded leather smell just like more natural leather.
Bonded Leather Pros & Cons
|• Less expensive than most other types of leather||• Isn’t very flexible|
|• Available in many colors||• Cracks in just a few years|
|• Available in many surface textures||• More difficult than natural leather to fix tears and scratches|
|• Can be used in many types of leather goods||• Doesn’t last as long as more natural leathers|
|• Can be made in very large sheets for large applications (such as furniture)||• Has a different feel than more natural leathers|
|• Looks and smells like natural leather||• Usually gets worse with age (whereas some natural leathers look/feel better with age and care)|
Leather Content of Bonded Leather
Since bonded leather is a composite of leather and plastic, it can be made utilizing various formulas and amounts, depending on the goal of the final product. This can be a benefit, as leather can be reused in bonded applications for future life. It can also be confusing to customer, as it isn’t always clear exactly how much leather is used in the making of each bonded leather piece.
In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) provides a Leather Guide which provides guidance around how bonded leather should be marketed. Generally, the % of leather and non leather materials should be made clear to the consumer The guide states, under section 16 CFR Part §24.2(f). Click here to view the full guide and text.
“(f) Ground, pulverized, shredded, reconstituted, or bonded leather. A material in an industry product that contains ground, pulverized, shredded, reconstituted, or bonded leather and thus is not wholly the hide of an animal should not be represented, directly or by implication, as being leather. This provision does not preclude an accurate representation as to the ground, pulverized, shredded, reconstituted, or bonded leather content of the material. However, if the material appears to be leather, it should be accompanied by either:
(1) An adequate disclosure as described by paragraph (a) of this section; or
(2) If the terms “ground leather,” “pulverized leather,” “shredded leather,” “reconstituted leather,” or “bonded leather” are used, a disclosure of the percentage of leather fibers and the percentage of non-leather substances contained in the material. For example: An industry product made of a composition material consisting of 60% shredded leather fibers may be described as: Bonded Leather Containing 60% Leather Fibers and 40% Non-leather Substances.”
-FTC Leather Guide
The European Committee for Standardization (CEN) has also developed a standard when referring to bonded leather material. Under CEN/TC 289 > EN 15987:2015, Click here to view on their website.
The 2011 version of the standard mentioned:
“The minimum amount of 50% in weight of dry leather is needed to use the term ‘bonded leather’.”
-European Committee for Standardization
Standards continue to evolve over time. It is valuable to have a mutually agreeable understanding, at least across different commercial regions, what the term “bonded leather” should mean.
Bonded Leather Durability
Bonded leather is generally not as durable as natural leather. Due to it being mixed with plastic, the fibers are generally inaccessible for conditioning and treatment. Over time, the surface begins to wear, the plastic deteriorates, and the material begins to crack.
Usually, this happens over just a few years. Natural leather, when well-cared for, can last hundreds of years. However, since it is plastic-based, bonded leather can easily withstand moisture and spills along with general abrasions and use. Though once it starts to break down, it breaks down pretty quickly and is tough to repair, usually about 2-3 years.
Bonded Leather Peeling
Since bonded leather is plastic-based, it isn’t as flexible as natural leather. Also, since the natural fibers are not exposed, this type of leather cannot be treated and conditioned like natural leather.
When the material is exposed to frequent flexing, as from sitting and moving around furniture, the bonded leather begins to separate from it’s backing. Over time, it begins to flake and peel away. This creates a visually unappealing piece, as literal pieces of the upholstery fall off. The color of the surface is no longer uniform, and the underlying layers of the material become exposed.
Bonded Leather Quality
Bonded leathers a generally lower-quality leather. This is mostly since it is not a natural leather material, instead it is a synthetic leather material with some natural leather grains and fibers mixed in.
Over a relatively short period of time (about 2-4 years), bonded leather begins to crack, flake, and break down. When considering furniture or personal accessories, this is a relatively short time to have a piece or leather good.
As a balance, bonded leather goods are generally lower cost than natural leather goods. It mainly comes down to preference and budget. A less expensive bonded leather item can be repurchased every few years, or a more expensive natural leather item can be purchased once and last for decades.
Bonded Leather Vs Other Leather Types
When making a decision about what type of leather item to buy, let’s take a look at how others compare.
Bonded Leather vs Genuine Leather
Genuine leather can come from any layer of the hide, and undergoes treatment to the surface to provide a more uniform, “corrected”, appearance. It can be sanded or buffed to remove surface imperfections, then dyed (or spray painted) or stamped/embossed to give it a final surface appearance.
The process alters some of the preferred qualities of leather, so while not a top quality, it is often used for belts and similar goods. Since genuine leather is still a solid layer of natural hide, it will perform better and last longer than bonded leather.
Bonded Leather vs Full Grain Leather
This cut of leather contains the outer layout of the hide, referred to as the “grain”; it hasn’t been sanded or buffed to remove any imperfections. Generally, only the hair is removed on full grain leathers. The grain generally has densely packed fibers that are finer; this results in a surface that is very strong, durable, and can withstand tough use.
Because it undergoes no sanding, the surface can have minor imperfections. These might be from where a cow rubbed up against a fence, a small cut they might have received, or scrapes from everyday life. Full grain hides without many blemishes are the most prized, as they are least common and are the most visually appealing.
Those surface fibers are also what give it the most strength of any leather type. This makes it good for saddlery, footwear, and furniture. Since the outer layer isn’t removed, it develops a patina (a surface color change from use) over time that can be pleasing to the eye. The outer layer also provides some water-resistance qualities as well. Full Grain is looked upon as the highest quality leather available.
Bonded leather will not perform as well, or last as long as full grain leather.
Bonded Leather vs Top Grain Leather
This cut is very similar to full-grain, except that it has had the very top layer sanded and/or buffed to remove imperfections and irregularities in the finish. This makes the leather softer and more pliable, with various dyes and finished applied to it.
While this sanding makes it more visually appealing, it also removes a lot of the strength and some water-repellent qualities of full grain leather. This we begin to see a tradeoff between leather strength, and leather look and softness.
Given its softness and flexibility, top grain leather is often used in high end leather goods, including handbags, wallets, and shoes.
Bonded leather will begin to crack and flake within a few years, and not perform as well as top grain leather.
Bonded Leather vs Faux Leather
Faux leather is a type of synthetic leather made generally of polyurethane or vinyl. Faux leather is intended to look like real leather yet cost significantly less. It is used often in the furniture industry and has the benefits of being inexpensive (compared to real leather), durable, and easy to clean.
It does however not reflect real leather qualities such as wearing better over time, having natural stretchability, breathability, and resistance to cuts and other abrasions, and a unique natural look/feel.
Since faux leather is generally has a consistent makeup of its material, it will not flake and crack over time like bonded leather will. Bonded leather will have slightly more of a leather look and smell early on. Click here to learn more about faux leather in an article I wrote.
Bonded Leather vs Imitation Leather
Imitation leather is another term used to describe faux leather. As described above, faux leather will generally not flake and crack over time like bonded leather will. Bonded leather will have slightly more of a leather look and smell early on, though wear out much faster.
Bonded Leather vs Vinyl
Vinyl leather is another term used to describe faux leather. As described above, faux leather will generally not flake and crack over time like bonded leather will. Bonded leather will have slightly more of a leather look and smell early on, though wear out much faster.
Bonded Leather vs PU Leather
PU leather is another term used to describe faux leather. As described above, faux leather will generally not flake and crack over time like bonded leather will. Bonded leather will have slightly more of a leather look and smell early on, though wear out much faster.
Bonded Leather vs Leather Bound
When considering book bindings, one might choose between these two leather types. Generally, natural leather will be more durable, last longer, and feel better when used. Bonded leather will be less expensive, provide less protection to the book, and wear out more quickly.
Bonded Leather vs Leather Gel
Leather Gel is a material sold by King Textiles, is a synthetic leather with a “breathable” backing. This makes it useful for applications such as upholstery and clothing where air flow can aid in comfort of the user experience.
Since it is a synthetic leather, with high abrasion tolerance, it will generally perform better than bonded leather. The bonded leather will wear crack, and peel more quickly.
Bonded Leather vs Polyurethane
Polyurethane (PU) leather is another term used to describe faux leather. As described above, faux leather will generally not flake and crack over time like bonded leather will. Bonded leather will have slightly more of a leather look and smell early on, though wear out much faster.
Bonded Leather Care & Maintenance
If handled well, maintained properly, cleaned often, and story properly, bonded leather can look nice and smell great for a few years.
How to Clean Bonded Leather
Due to it’s finished surface, bonded leather can be cleaned gently with a wet cloth. Ensure the cloth doesn’t have loose fibers and lint that could transfer to the surface. A microfiber cloth could work well. Also, test in a small area first to make sure the cloth will not transfer any color to the items surface (couch, sofa, bag, purse, etc.)
If the item needs additional cleaning, a very soft brush can be used to help loosen dirt and grime. Wet it slightly and work it over the leather, being careful not to press to hard. The bristles of the brush should be doing most of the work. After this step, going over it with a damp cloth can help clean off any remaining dirt/dust. Let the item dry off before using or storing.
If what you are trying to clean goes beyond dust/grime, and is a stain from something, additional care might be needed. First, consider what type of stain it is. Knowing the substance can help determine what the best method to clean it is. If it is something common, and gentle cleaner might work.
If it’s something more significant, look into cleaners made specifically for bonded leather. They will be made to treat the stain while helping to maintain the surface finish. As with most cleaners, always test in a small, non-noticeable spot first to ensure it will not discolor the bag. Definitely don’t want to make a second stain while trying to clean the first 🙂
How to Condition Bonded Leather
Since bonded leather has a protective surface finish, it doesn’t need to be conditioned. And functionally, it really can’t. The surface finish protects the leather underneath. It also serves as a barrier that conditioner can not penetrate.
Thankfully though, the protective surface makes it’s very easy to clean with a damp cloth. This is an easy way to always keep bonded leather products looking great. If the surface layer begins to wear away, additional protectant can be applied to help restore it.
Some of these products will be applied with a cloth or applicator, and others sprayed on and wiped off. Make sure to read the instructions on any finish you plan to apply, and test on a small area first (to make sure it will not discolor the surface) before applying to the entire item.
How to Fix a Scratch on Bonded Leather
Fixing a scratch on a bonded leather piece is usually as easy as applying a leather repeat kit. Since bonded leather is a leather/plastic mix, it will require replacement of the material that was scratched away.
Typically, leather repair kits have color-matched liquid that is poured into the crack. It might need to be evened, heat pressed, a grain pattern applied, and/or allowed to dry, and then the scratch should be filled.
How to Fix Tears in Bonded Leather
Tears in bonded leather are harder to fix than scratches. Since bonded leather is a leather/plastic blend, fixing tears might require a repair kit that includes a filler. The space created by the tear will need to be filled.
Depending on the size of the tear, this can be done with fabric, flexible glue, or the color-matched liquid that comes in the repair kit. Since the item will likely be sat or or used and need to flex, the material used as a filler will need to be flexible once dry too.
Once the tear is filled, just fix the remaining scratch that is visible above it. Pour the color-matched liquid that is poured into the crack. It might need to be evened, heat pressed, a grain pattern applied, and/or allowed to dry, and then the scratch should be filled.
How to Store Bonded Leather
Bonded leather should be stored in a cool, dry place. Keeping it out of direct sunlight is key, as the sun can discolor the protective finish. Most furniture is kept indoors, and thus a great place for them.
If you have bonded leather clothing or accessories, storing them in a closet or drawer works great. Keeping them away from extreme moisture, and sunlight, are key.
Bonded leather offers some benefits in price, and closeness to the look/smell of real leather. If considering a purchase or material for a new project, this type of leather is an option that can be explored.
Is bonded leather as good as real leather?
No, bonded leather is not as good as real leather. It is made primarily of ground leather fibers, bonded together with a polyurethane (plastic) mixture, and lasts only a few years. Real leather will look better, perform better, and last much longer.
Is bonded leather durable?
No, bonded leather is not very durable. It is a blend of leather and plastic and flexibility is limited. Over time it will begin to crack, peel, and flake. While new, the surface resists moisture and abrasions, though wears out in roughly 2-3 years.