It is important to know what quality of leather you’re working with on a project. Full grain leather is one of the best.
Grain leather is made from the strongest, most dense, part of the animal hide. Its qualities are superior to other types of leather. Top grain leather, and full grain leather, provide incredible durability and function. They look great over time and are used in virtually all types of leather goods.
Being so popular and versatile, let’s check out why grain leather is so good and how you can use it.
What is Grain Leather?
Grain leather is leather made from the outermost layers of animal hide. These outer layers are made of densely packed fibers, and are the strongest part of the hide. They generally served to protect the animal from the elements in day-to-day living. This included rains, wind, sun, abrasions, rubbing, and anything else it might come into contact with.
As such, it needed to be strong. When making leather, using grain leather from these outer layers of the hide will allow products to have some of the same qualities the original hide did. Here is a look at the common layers of a hide before splitting into thinner layers.
Closest to the surface are full grain leather, and top grain leather. Here’s some more detail about each.
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 leather 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 leather is looked upon as the highest quality leather available.
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.
What is Grain Leather Made Of?
Grain leather is made from the outer layers of the animal hide. These are generally the strongest layers, comprised of dense, collagen fibers. They also offer the most protection, and thus are an incredible choice for crafting leather goods. The good will retain most of this strength and durability, making them look great, perform well, and last a very long time when used.
To understand more about the layers of the hide and why they’re different, let’s look at each.
Leather Hide – The Grain
The grain is the outermost surface of the leather hide. It is comprised of tight, dense fibers. The grain is the layer that was exposed to the elements (air, rain, sun, etc.), and is usually very strong and smooth once the hair is removed.
Leather Hide – The Grain and Corium Junction
The grain and corium junction is where the tight, outer layer of the leather blends into the looser fibers of the corium. This junction is a mix of the very desirable grain layer, and the more fibrous and looser fibers of the corium layer.
Leather Hide – Corium
The corium is a layer within animal hides that is comprised mainly of collagen fibers. These are looser and more open than in the grain layer. Though, this layer is highly usable for producing leather. The corium is usually the thickest layer within an animal hide. Thus, after splitting a hide, parts of the corium might be present in either top grain or genuine leather products.
Leather Hide – Flesh
The flesh is the layer of the hide that consists mainly of muscle and fatty tissues. It is not very valuable for end leather uses. As such, leather is usually split to remove the layers above it, yielding useable material of different grades and qualities for the production of leather goods.
Common Grain Leather Questions
What is Real Grain Leather?
Real grain leather is made from the top layers of the animal hide. It is often referred to as full grain leather or top grain leather. They are both excellent for leather working and suitable for use in a wide range of leather goods.
How is Full Grain Leather made?
Full grain leather is made through a process called tanning. Tanning includes of up to 25 steps and can take from days to months depending on the process used. Often, full grain leathers are tanned using a vegetable tanning process that maintains much of the original color and look of the hide.
This produces a very visually appealing, and strong leather suitable for a range of leather goods including bags, belts, and shoes. Full grain leather, when unfinished, can develop a very nice patina over time. This patina is a natural darkening of the surface from exposure to the elements and everyday use. The look is often preferred, and a quality of full grain leather.
What is Better Top Grain or Full Grain Leather?
Full grain leather is better than top grain leather. Full grain leather is made from the outermost layer of the hide, and hasn’t been sanded to remove imperfections. Thus, it retains much of the original strength of the hide.
Top grain leather has been sanded to remove surface imperfections. This makes it more visually appealing in some cases, and somewhat softer as well. While not as high-performing as full grain leather, top grain leather is still a quality type of leather to work with.
Does Full Grain Leather Stretch?
Full grain leather has some flexibility, though does not stretch much over time. Full grain leather is made from the outermost surface layer of the hide, packed with dense fibers. These are bound tightly and do not stretch much.
Top grain leather, another type of grain leather, does stretch more over time. since the surface layer has been sanded off of top grain layer, it loses some strength from it’s beginnings as full grain leather. Top grain leather can be beneficial, as some applications benefit from added stretch and flexibility over time. These include shoes and wearable goods.
Is Full Grain Leather Waterproof?
No, full grain leather is not waterproof. Actually, water can stain unfinished full grain leather. So can oils from the hands, and anything dirty or grimy that gets into the fibers.
Like most leathers, some uses for full grain leather involve being exposed to the elements, including rain and water. There are many options available for waterproofing it. They range from natural waxes to synthetic polymers.
How Can You Tell if it’s Real Leather?
Generally, there are a few ways to use the sense to help determine is leather is real leather. Here are a few things to look at that might help.
Since real leather is natural, it often has a somewhat varied grain pattern on the surface. Imitation leathers are produced by machines, so they could look extremely smooth and even. Also, if stamped with a grain pattern, faux leather grain pattern will usually look consistent and repetitive.
Sometimes, faux leather will have a plastic or chemical smell. This is due to the plastics and chemicals that are used to make them. Real leather will have a natural “leather” smell. One can become familiar with it by smelling various natural leather goods.
Faux leather might feel a bit rubbery, plastic-y, or synthetic. Real leather has a more “natural”, fiber feel to it. Imitation leather sometimes is very smooth and slick.
If possible to cut into a piece of leather, seeing the composition of the inside can help. If it’s made from multiple layers, it might be a type of faux leather. Higher quality leathers such as grain leather generally only have one consistent layer to their composition (all leather fibers).
Edges When Cut
Check out the edges of a cut piece of leather. Real leather tends to leave a “hairy” edge with some of the natural fibers sticking out. Faux leather generally will have a smooth, even, clean edge. This is because the synthetic leather material cuts very cleanly and evenly.
What is Full Grain Leather Used For?
Full grain leather is used for a wide rage of leather goods. Some more popular uses include:
- Travel Bags
- Notebook Covers
- Saddlery and Tack
Does Real Leather Burn?
Yes, real leather does burn. However, since it is made from natural fibers, it will burn and char and crumble away like ash. It will also have a distinct smell, like that of burnt hair.
When comparing it to faux leather, which is made from plastic, faux leather will generally melt and smell like burning plastic.
Is Full Grain Leather Genuine Leather?
No, full grain leather is better than 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.
Full grain leather contains the outer layout of the hide, referred to as the “grain”; it hasn’t been sanded or buffed to remove any imperfections.
How Long Does Genuine Leather Last?
Genuine leather, when cared for and maintained properly, can last decades. Some pieces even last for hundreds of years. Since leather is a natural fiber, it requires frequent conditioning to restore oils into the fibers. If kept away from extreme moisture and maintained well, these fibers have a very long usable life and will perform very well.
Leather Working with Full Grain Leather
Choosing and working with full grain leather (and top grain leather) is one of the most pleasurable types of leather to work with. It is sturdy, durable, and responds well to many leather working types. These includes sewing, stamping, embossing, tooling, carving, moulding, cutting, and riveting. It’s quite a versatile material, and is used in some of the highest quality leather goods. For a detailed look into all great types of leather, click here for a guide I put together.
Full Grain Leather Care & Maintenance
It is important to properly clean and maintain all leather goods, especially natural full grain leather and top grain leather. Since they are comprised of natural fibers, keeping the surfaces clean and restoring/conditioning them with oils will help them stay strong and looking great.
One thing to keep in mind: for any step in leather care, generally test on a small area to ensure the cleaner or finish that you are applying will not react poorly with the material. Once you know it’s safe, clean away 🙂
Full grain leather is especially sensitive to cleaners. Even large drops of water can darken the material.
How to Clean Full Grain Leather
Full grain leather (and top grain leather) can be cleaned generally by rubbing a moist, lint-free cloth over the surface. It’s a tricky balance between having the cloth too wet and staining the leather, vs. too dry that it won’t penetrate and remove dirt, dust, and grime.
Some of the moisture will air-dry from the surface, so while it might sound like any water equals instant stain, it usually takes more than a damp cloth to leave any visible traces.
If the dirt is deeper, it has difficult stains, or you want to thoroughly clean the leather, a dedicated leather cleaner might be a helpful choice. Saddle soap is a popular choice. It is intended for saddlery and similar full grain leather and top grain leather..
Lexol is another leather cleaner that is formulated to be very gentle on leather while removing dirt and grime.
How to Condition Full Grain Leather
Since full grain leather (and top grain leather) might not have surface finishes applied, the leather fibers dry out more quickly than on other types of leather. Thus, it is important to more frequently condition full grain leather.
Generally, this involves applying a wax, oil, or cream onto the surface and letting the leather absorb it in. When conditioned, the leather is more supple, flexible, resistant to scratches, and feels better in the hand. For an in-depth read on leather oil, click here for my article covering all the types and uses.
Once the surface has been thoroughly cleaned, the conditioner can be applied using an applicator or soft cloth. Conditioner is generally applied in small circles, allowed to soak in, then the excess wiped off with a clean, lint-free cloth.
A protective finish can be applied at this stage, if preferred. The benefit is it will help the leather be a bit more water and scratch resistant. The potential downside is that it will introduce a layer on the leather surface that hides some of the desirable look and feel of natural leather. Protective finishes are usually natural waxes or synthetic waxes/acrylics such as resolene.
Usually, a well-cleaned and conditioned full grain leather piece is best, without a finish applied.
How to Waterproof Full Grain Leather
If you’ve purchased a leather good that you plan to use in very wet conditions, or created a piece that you’d like to protect from the elements, it is possible to waterproof full grain leather (and top grain leather).
A wax protectant can be added to it to help make it water resistant. Once cleaned and conditioned, the wax can be applied to the leather thoroughly. After a few minutes, the wax is generally buffed out and leaves the leather with a surface that is smooth and has a pleasant shine. It also provides a barrier that helps repel water.
For more lasting, and durable finished, acrylics can be applied to the leather surface. An example is a resolene, which essentially leaves a thin, transparent plastic coating over the leather’s surface. However, the stronger the layer of water proofing (often a type of wax), the more difficult it is to later reach, clean, and condition the leather underneath.
How to Fix a Scratch on Full Grain Leather
There are a few ways to fix and repair scratches in leather. Generally, you’ll try one before moving on to the next, depending on how large and deep the scratch is. Since natural leather has many fibers in it, and originally had oils in the skin, adding oils back into it is usually a first step to try in fixing a scratch.
For small scratches, rub your finger over it to try and buff it out. If the scratch is deeper, try applying some leather conditioner to the scratch and surrounding area, then buff it out after a short while.
If the scratch is very large or deep, you might need to try a leather filler kit. They usually have a substance that can be squeezed into leather cracks/cuts to fill them in. The substance generally has color matching options available so it’s a close visual look to the existing leather. Follow the specific instructions on the kit, though usually once it’s dried the surface can be smoothed and conditioned.
How to Fix a Tear in Full Grain Leather
Tears in full grain leather (and top grain leather) can often be repaired by sewing. The fixed tear will usually never look as smooth/finished as the original piece (those joined fibers actually made up the original hide), though ripped or torn leather can definitely be joined back together. Usually a fine, strong thread can be used to sew through small holes, and mend the tear.
For smaller tears, leather glue can be used. It will join the two torn areas. If a glue is selected in a color that is near the original leather color, it will be less noticeable. If the glue available is very different in color, once dried, the glue can be painted with an acrylic paint that closely matches the leather color. Acrylic paint is beneficial as it will have some flexibility to it, usually helpful if applied onto a leather good.
How to Store Full Grain Leather
Most leather should be stored in a cool, dry, dust-free location. Generally, leather products benefit from low-average humidity environments. Air flow is also beneficial, as it allows the natural fibers of the leather to “breathe”.
If kept in a sealed environment, the humidity might rise and the leather start to deteriorate, and mold. In an environment with too-low humidity, the leather can start to dry and that could lead to cracking and weakening of the fibers.
A good place to store full grain leather (and top grain leather) is a dressing room or closet that has an average livable temperature, humidity level, and frequent airflow. Some leather goods come with storage bags. They’re usually a breathable fabric that helps keep cut off. Storing it in one of these can be a great choice if available.
When considering full grain leather or top grain leather for your next project or product purchase, it’s easy to add to the short list. As a material, they are strong, durable, look great, and perform very well over time.
Is full grain leather good?
Yes, full grain leather is very good. It is the highest-quality leather available, made from the outer layout of the hide. It hasn’t been sanded or buffed to remove any imperfections. Generally, only the hair is removed on full grain leathers.
Does full grain leather peel?
No, full grain leather does not peel. It is made up of tiny, compact fibers. With frequent abrasion, these might begin to wear down or away over time. However, due to its composition, full grain leather won’t peel like some faux leathers do.