The different characteristics of leather types make each preferable for certain projects and leather goods. Nubuck leather is surprisingly soft, strong, and has a unique texture.
Nubuck leather is a type of leather made from the Top Grain of the hide. It has a surface of small, raised fibers that are velvety-soft to the touch. Nubuck is often dyed various colors, and used in a variety of leather goods including jackets, shoes, gloves. and personal accessories.
The surface texture on Nubuck leather makes it quite a unique material that stands out. Let’s see how that’s done and what leather goods it can be great for.
What is Nubuck Leather?
Nubuck leather is a type of leather that has a velvety-soft texture on the surface. It is a quality leather, made from the Top Grain of the hide. What makes it noticeably different than most leathers is that the surface is made up of many small raised leather fibers. It is almost “fuzzy”, though with very compact and short fibers that feel smooth.
The Top Grain leather used in Nubuck is generally the second strongest type of leather available. This is second to Full Grain, which retains the outer hide surface that is very compact, dense, and strong. Since the fibers would not be visible in the Full Grain, the outer grain is sanded away to reveal the Top Grain below. Removal of the Top Grain also removes seem strength from the leather, though it also exposed the fibers below. For a detailed look at grain leather in an article that I wrote, click here.
These fibers are sanded in such a way as to separate and raise them, resulting in a “fuzzy”, velvety surface on the leather. Lets look at the different layers of leather and exactly where Nubuck comes from. Since these fibers are from the top grain of the hide, they are relatively durable and resistant to wear.
What is Nubuck Leather Made of?
Nubuck leather is made from the outer layer of the animal hide, the Top Grain. This is generally one of the strongest layers (only Full Grain is stronger), comprised of dense, collagen fibers. 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.
Why Nubuck Leather is Made from Top Grain
Generally, the hide layers closest to the surface have the tightest, densest grain. This is because the animal’s skin closest to the surface served to protect it. This could be from sun, wind, rain, and abrasions encountered in daily living.
As one goes down to the deeper layers, the skin accommodated more within it such as fatty tissue, and other organic substances. As such, the collagen fibers were looser to fit all of these substances in. The leather from these layers, such as Split Leather, is not as strong as Top Grain and Full Grain leather, simply because the fibers are less dense.
In Nubuck leather, the material is made by taking a Top Grain piece, and sanding the outer surface (the “grain side”) of dense fibers to produce the raised-fiber, textured side. Because it’s Top Grain and the fibers are very close together, when sanded and raised, they make a very even, smooth, texture.
Also, it’s worth to note, the outer-facing side (grain side) is what’s sanded to make Nubuck. This is because the closer to the original surface of the hide the leather is, the tighter the fibers. Thus, Nubuck utilizes the outer surface. This is different than in suede, a similar material. In suede, the inner surface (“flesh side”) is sanded. The fibers are looser there, and thus the finished suede has a more open texture to it. It is still soft, just not as tight as Nubuck.
Nubuck leather generally costs more than suede. This is because the tighter grain of Nubuck is a bit stronger and more durable. It also looks a bit smoother. Thus, these preferred qualities also reflect in a higher price.
How is Nubuck Leather Made?
Nubuck 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, Nubuck leathers are tanned using a chromium tanning process that takes only a few days. Chromium tanning is known for producing leathers that are soft and flexible.
Chromium tanning also yields leathers that take and hold colored dye relatively well. This produces a very visually appealing, and soft leather suitable for a range of leather goods including bags, gloves, purses,wallets, and a number of fine leather goods and personal accessories. Nubuck leathers also come in many colors making then both physically soft and visually stunning.
Nubuck leather is also often dyed using soluble dyes. These dyes color the leather, penetrating and coloring the fibers without altering the surface. While some leathers have marred or blemished surfaces and covering them with a layer of dye or color hides it, part of the appeal of Nubuck is that the surface is natural, with nothing hidden.
The soluble dyes allow all of the natural surface to show, so the quality of the Nubuck leather can be enjoyed. Leathers dyed with soluble dyes are often called Aniline leather. So, one can refer to Nubuck as an aniline leather with a soft, velvety surface.
Embossed Nubuck Leather
The main appeal of Nubuck is the soft feel of the natural surface of the leather. However, for aesthetic and design preferences, a surface pattern might also be applied or embossed to Nubuck leather. This might be simulated grain, random pattern, geometric pattern, or even a design that reflects a specific brand.
The surface will still have the velvety-soft feel, there will just also be a pattern applied to the surface as well. While generally less common than unembossed Nubuck, embossed Nubuck leather is certainly an option. It, too, is available in a wide range of colors.
What Hides are Made Into Nubuck Leather?
Originally, deer, elk, and moose hides were the most common. These wild animals were often hunted for food and the use of their natural materials. Hides were a very valuable material, used for making tools, clothing, and housing. The hides would be scraped and finished, some having the softer feel common today in Nubuck leather.
Most commonly today, it comes from the hides of cows (calves), sheep, and goats. However, it can be made from most any hide, including the previously popular deer, elk, and moose.
Why is it Called Nubuck?
It is proposed that the term “Nubuck” developed as a derivative of “buckskin”. Bucks are male deer. Their skins, or hides, would be referred to as buck skins, or “buckskin”. The theory is the words “new + buckskin” were shortened to become “Nubuck”. This isn’t a hardened and proven original, so more research would be needed to confirm the term’s origin.
That said, Nubuck is a commonly understood term that refers to velvety leather made from top grain.
What is Nubuck Leather Used For?
Nubuck leather is used to make a wide range of leather goods. Commonly, these include:
- Travel Bags
- Automobile Upholstery
- Furniture Upholstery
- Notebook Covers
- Mobile Electronic Device Covers and Cases
Common Nubuck Leather Questions
When determining if this material is right for a future purchase of a finished good, or if you’re planning to leather craft something with Nubuck, here are a few things that might be helpful to know.
Is Nubuck Leather?
Yes, Nubuck is leather. it is made from a quality part of the hide, and is generally quite strong and durable. It is a natural leather, and often dyed with pigments that allow the natural surface grain of the leather to show through. The natural grain is part of the preferred aesthetic of Nubuck leather.
What is the Difference Between Leather and Nubuck?
Nubuck is a type of leather that has been sanded to yield a raised-fiber nap on the outer surface. So while leather is a general term that can refer to a variety of types and qualities of the material, Nubuck refers to a specific group of leather that has been processed in a particular way. Nubuck leather is certainly real leather.
While leather in general can have different treatments done that alter it’s surface, Nubuck is usually colored or dyed. Additionally, it can be waterproofed if preferred.
Is Nubuck Leather Water Resistant?
Generally, no, Nubuck leather is not water resistant. Additionally, the raised fibers help it attract and retain more water once wet. That said, as a natural fiber, Nubuck leather can get wet and not usually lead to permanent damage. Generally, the color will darken once wet. When allowed to dry, the leather will lighten in color and return nearly to it’s original state.
If desired, finishes can be applied to Nubuck leather to make them water resistant, and in some cases, water proof. However, covering the desirable surface of Nubuck takes away some of the feel from the raised fibers, as well as making it more difficult to condition the leather after it has had a strong finish applied.
Does Nubuck leather scratch easily?
Yes, Nubuck leather scratches easily. Since it is a natural leather, often with the grain exposed, scratches will leave marks in Nubuck. Since the surface is composed of many tiny raised fibers, it is possible to make the scratch less visible by brushing the fibers in such a way that it masks the scratch. While not as smooth as unscratched Nubuck, it is normal to experience scratches in this material resulting from everyday wear and use.
Popular Brands That Use Nubuck Leather
Leather goods made from Nubuck have become relatively popular in the commercial market. For example, Timberland makes a very popular work boot style that is made from Nubuck. It was designed to withstand the harsh weather up in the New England states of the USA.
Birkenstock is a popular handle maker, with many of their models offered in a Nubuck leather. The New Balance sneaker company makes some models with Nubuck leather accents. Burberry, Hugo Boss, Allen Edmonds, and Ugg also make footwear with Nubuck.
Is Nubuck leather expensive?
Nubuck leather is a bit less expensive than vegetable tanned leather. For example, a 20 sq. ft. high-quality vegetable tanned cowhide might cost around $150, while the same quantity of Nubuck leather would cost around $85.
Nubuck Leather Care & Maintenance
It is important to properly clean and maintain all leather goods, including Nubuck 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 🙂
Nubuck leather, if unfinished, is especially sensitive to cleaners. Even large drops of water can darken the material, though not usually permanently.
How to Clean Nubuck Leather
Nubuck leather can be cleaned generally by rubbing a moist, lint-free cloth over the surface. It’s best to do this in straight motions in varying directions. Since there is a nap of raised fibers, this will help move dirt and debris away, and while not grinding it deeper into the fibers.
Some of the moisture from the damp cloth might darken the leather material temporarily, and will air-dry from the surface. While it might seem 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. Check for a leather soap intended for very soft leathers, particularly Nubuck, to ensure it is gentle enough to clean without doing damage.
How to Condition Nubuck Leather
If the Nubuck leather has no surface finishes applied, the leather fibers dry out more quickly than on other types of leather. Thus, it is important to more frequently condition unfinished Nubuck 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. Similar to when cleaning it, apply the conditioner in straight motions across the surface, in varying directions. Since the surface is a nap of raised fibers, this will help more evenly distribute the conditioner, and not concentrate it too deeply in any one area.
Once the surface has been thoroughly cleaned, the conditioner can be applied using an applicator or soft cloth or brush. Ensure the brush is very soft and intended for applications on nubuck leather. The excess conditioner can 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 that help make the surface water resistant.
How to Waterproof Nubuck Leather
If you’ve purchased a Nubuck 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 it.
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 finishes, acrylics or synthetic protectants can be applied to the leather 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 Nubuck Leather
There are a few ways to fix and repair scratches in leather. Generally, you’ll try a simpler method 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 that doesn’t work, try brushing the leather fibers (with a soft, nubuck-safe leather brush). It might adjust the fibers enough that it covers the scratch a bit, or possibly even fully.
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 Tears in Nubuck Leather
Tears in Nubuck leather can often be fixed 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 Nubuck 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. If nubuck shoes or boots are wet, ensure they have had ample time (sometimes 24 hours or more) to fully dry out before storing.
A good place to store Nubuck 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.
Nubuck leather is a unique type of leather in that its surface is soft and velvety. When considering the preferences for a leather project or purchase of a new leather good, nubuck provides a surface that will look great, feel great, and can last for years. If your project might involve leather often exposed to moisture, click here to learn more in my article about artificial leather and it’s water-resistant benefits.
Is Nubuck leather real leather?
Yes, Nubuck leather is real leather. It is made from the top grain of the hide, sanded on the outer surface to produce a raised nap of leather fibers. It is a high quality material, the velvety-feel a matter of preferences when choosing it for use.
Can you wax Nubuck leather?
Yes, Nubuck leather can be waxed. While naturally durable, Nubuck weather is not waterproof. If you plan to use a Nubuck leather good in wet conditions, a surface treatment can be applied that will help. Often, this is a type of protective wax.