I didn’t know much about leather grades other than hearing the terms “top-grain” and “full-grain” thrown around in YouTube videos. I’ve also seen the words “Genuine Leather” on wallets sold in malls and department stores and was curious about the difference between all these grades. This article will discuss how to determine which leather grade to go for.
Leather grades are the subjective evaluation of quality applied to describe a particular piece of leather. Tannery Grades (A, B, C, and TR) are applied by the tannery. Full-grain, top-grain, split-grain, genuine leather, and bonded leather are actually layered cuts of the hide, each having unique physical properties. They are commonly, though incorrectly, referred to as leather grades.
I have done the research and taken a dive into understanding these differences, which can be helpful when purchasing leather or planning the type for your next project. Let’s explore!
What Are Leather Grades?
Leather grades allow leathercrafters to have some idea what quality leather they are getting in raw material or a finished product. It is critical to understand that the measures for leather quality (and “grades”) are subjective and vary by the tannery, region, and even person evaluating the leather.
Knowing what kind of quality leather they are getting in a product is helpful. Believe it or not, all leather is not the same (and this goes beyond just color and texture). Different leather grades and layer cuts will have various characteristics that make some more durable — and to some, better quality — than others.
Though the term “grade” can subliminally influence leathercrafters always searching for the best quality material, grade and quality are easily conflated. This is something to pay attention to, as grade refers not necessarily to the leather quality but the specific cut of the leather, as we’ll see in more detail below.
Having a deeper knowledge of leather grading will allow leathercrafters to make better-informed decisions about the leather they buy instead of having somewhat misguided notions about the quality that results from a particular grade (or cut) of leather.
We generally have leather layer cuts, qualities, and grades. Let’s take a closer look into each:
Leather Layer Cut
The leather hide is sometimes a thick material with several layers of substance. This hide is often cut into sheets and made into tanned and finished leather material. The particular cut layers determine what it is called. These layer cuts are commonly referred to as full-grain, top-grain, split-grain, genuine, and bonded leather.
Yes, we’ll generally see folks referring to these as “grades,” and while not totally accurate, here’s why: the different layer cuts typically have different physical properties, some of which are stronger or look better than others. Hence, it is easy to relate it to “quality.”
In general, full-grain has a very high quality, followed by top-grain, split-grain, genuine leather, and bonded leather (which is more of a mix of leather particles and other substances mixed to “bond” it together. However, let’s examine why that might not always be the case.
Leather quality is a subjective determination often by the grader at the tannery. And tanneries all over the world have different processes and standards for production. Think about any similar product we use day-to-day.
Some manufacturers make a superior product, and some make a relatively inferior one. So an “A” grade full-grain leather hide from Tannery #1 might be of very different “quality” than an “A” grade full-grain leather hide from Tannery #2.
When purchasing hides of pieces of leather material, it can be very common to see “A”, “B”, “C”, “D,” and “TR” (tannery run) grade hides. These grades refer to tannery grades applied by the tanner, and it’s important to know the distinction between leather layer cuts and tannery grades.
The letter grades that tanneries give their leather refer to something like the number of blemishes, brands, cuts, and marks on the hide. Furthermore, different tanneries may have different percentage thresholds for each grade!
Some tanneries take the best 2% of their hides and label those “A” grade. Some have a more generous distribution, considering up to 20% of their hides “A” grade, 50% “B” grade, and the rest “C” grade or utility grade.
This kind of grading can make more of a difference to leatherworkers considering hides to use in their projects. While it may be nice to hear that a leather good is made with top-grain or full-grain leather, knowing the tannery grading can allow the leatherworker to decide if the hide they’re purchasing will be worth what they’re paying.
For instance, if the project requires a large surface area of pristine leather, buying a higher tannery grade hide will generally lead to fewer blemishes, particularly in the middle of the hide. The layers of the hide the leather is cut from — if it’s full-grain, top-grain, etc. — would not be able to serve alone as a guide to knowing this kind of information.
History of Leather Grades
As local leather trading became more popular and turned into a more global leather industry, leather grading evolved as the need to have some reference for predictable quality developed for buying and selling. Ironically, grades’ actual reference to quality may vary from decade to decade, person to person, and tannery to tannery. Therefore, the history of leather grading should track the development of leather splitting and processing techniques.
During the earliest instances of leather crafting, it is likely that most of the leather used was full-grain. Splitting leather was likely not as common due to how time-consuming it must have been without splitting machines, and therefore, it would have been less common to see split-grain leathers.
Once industrialization occurred in the leather industry, and different techniques arose to maximize profits, leather grades like genuine leather and bonded leather appeared to make the most out of each hide.
Different grades of leather will have different characteristics that make some more durable — and to some, better quality — than others.
The Leather Grading Process
The way that leather is graded is fairly straightforward. The skin is removed from the leather hide, leaving behind the leather surface. The leather’s imperfections are then removed before the leather is tanned at the tannery, and once the leather is removed from the tanning drum, a leather grader grades the leather.
With leather grades like split-grain leather and bonded leather, a different grading process occurs due to the nature of those grades. Split-grain leather comes from the bottom layer of the leather closest to the animal’s flesh, so grading a piece of split-grain leather would have to include this.
Bonded leather is the leather scraps, and dust left over from the process of producing other leather grains mixed with some bonding solution and processed and embossed to resemble something like a top-grain or full-grain leather.
Here’s a helpful video on leather grading to better understand the differences between leather grades and leather quality.
As mentioned earlier, there’s a bit of a different process for producing the tannery grade. The tannery grade generally means something like this: the “A” grade hide is the best quality hide that the tannery has at the time. This is judged when the leather has been processed and then determined based on the number of blemishes and where the blemishes are located.
What this means practically for the consumer is that you could be getting a “full-grain leather” that is “C” grade quality — meaning a much smaller surface area of the leather would be usable for leathercrafting. You might think having a single grader is concerning (despite the suggestion that it’s as consistent as it’ll be).
After all, who knows how good of a job can be done after looking at hundreds — even thousands — of hides? A 2016 paper published in the IEEE by Jawahar et al. suggests a procedure that could be even more accurate than what is on offer.
Compressed leather surface images make automation for the leather grading system achievable. In other words, taking pictures of a leather surface, shrinking the file size, and putting it through machine learning software can produce highly accurate and consistent results for leather grading.
A few things are worth keeping in mind when choosing a grade of leather. One factor is the balance between aesthetics and cost.
List of Leather Layer Cuts
So, what are the specific leather grades? Typically, there are five common grades:
- Full-grain leather – generally considered the best quality part of the leather hide. Full-grain leather is the least processed grade of leather since it leaves the full grain of the hide intact, which means that it comes with some natural scarring and blemishes. This leather grade is often used in high-quality leather goods.
- Top-grain leather – a step below full-grain leather in terms of how much processing has been done, the top-grain grade of leather refers to leather that has been buffed, sanded, and/or pigmented to produce a smoother, more uniform surface. This kind of leather is often easier to work with as a leatherworker since its uniformity lends itself to making clean leather goods.
- Split-grain leather – split-grain leather comes from the bottom of the leather hide and, thus, has some different characteristics from full-grain and top-grain grade leathers. Since split-grain leather is split from the hide’s surface, it is often a bit weaker than full-grain or top-grain leather, and the most common kind of split-grain leather (for reference) is suede.
- Genuine leather – though it sounds nice, genuine leather comes from an intermediate section of the leather hide. This means it lacks the full-grain leather’s character and the split-grain leather’s softness. It often undergoes much processing to be usable in leather goods.
- Bonded leather – perhaps this is the lowest quality leather grade. Bonded leather is formed through a mix of leather dust, scraps, and glue (along with some other materials) that then gets bonded through the introduction of a bonding solution. This kind of leather is the weakest of the five common grades and is often used in inexpensive or less prominently featured leather goods.
What to Consider When Choosing a Grade of Leather
A few things are worth keeping in mind when choosing a grade of leather. One factor is the balance between aesthetics and cost. Though full-grain leather has a certain appeal owing to how little processing it undergoes and the prospect of a rich patina developing over time, it can be a bit more expensive.
It can also be a bit harder to work with since the blemishes can cause a leatherworker to need to be a bit more discerning with what pieces to use when crafting. A 2015 paper in the Journal of Forensic Identification by Xiaochun Zheng, KangLi, Jingyang Xu, and ZhenLin also mentions how different grades of leather have various amounts of fingermark visualization, which can be something to consider for certain leather goods, like wallets and bags.
Another aspect to consider when choosing a leather grade is the use of the leather. If the leather product isn’t something that is going to be very visible, there really isn’t a need (beyond aesthetics) to use a higher leather grade.
Strength will also play a role in considering how the leather will be used. If it is going to be used in an item that will see excessive wear, then using full-grain or top-grain leather will give your item the best chance to endure and develop a patina over time.
Costs and Layer Cuts of Leather
To better understand how cost correlates with leather layer cuts, I think it will be helpful to include a chart of the different grades and a sense of the average costs per grade. Here is the research and the results:
|Leather Layer Cuts||Price|
|Full-grain leather||$16 – $45 per sq. ft.|
|Top-grain leather||$10 – $30 per sq. ft.|
|Split-grain leather (suede)||$5 – $10 per sq. ft.|
|Genuine leather||$5 – $10 per sq. ft.|
|Bonded leather||$1.50 – $2 per sq. ft.|
Ultimately, the leather grade does matter when quality is a concern. However, how that quality is defined can vary. Sometimes, using genuine leather may be a legitimate quality move if the goal is to provide a leather product using top-grain leather elsewhere and genuine leather in the less visible parts to provide a competitive price.
These considerations should all be factored in when considering which leather grade is right for you. Knowing the difference between the grades should allow you to make an informed decision about which leather to purchase for your next project.
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