Some leather materials are a combination of natural leather and plastic. PU leather is one of these leather types that offers some qualities of both.
PU leather is a part-synthetic leather. It is made of a split natural leather base, with a polyurethane (PU plastic) mixture layered on top. The PU layer is usually stamped with a grain pattern to simulate the look of real leather. It is often used in upholstery, bags, clothing, and shoes.
PU leather can look great, and be much less expensive that all natural leather. Let’s explore what makes this possible and what it’s useful for.
What is PU Leather?
PU leather is a partially synthetic leather material, composed of a plastic surface layered onto a natural, split leather base. The PU surface layer is often stamped to look like natural leather, resulting in a material that looks great and is far less expensive than full grain leather.
Split leather is made when a natural leather hide is literally split into thinner layers. Some of these might have cosmetic blemishes or visually unattractive surfaces, though still have all the positive characteristics and performance qualities of real leather.
Polyurethane (PU) plastic is a substance that be dyed most any color and stamped with a variety of textures or surface patterns. As such, it can be applied to the top of split leathers, resulting in a visually appealing material that can be used like leather.
The durability of PU 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. However, it can be produced at less expense than fully natural leathers. Thus, it has found a market across a range of consumer goods. Generally, PU leather has the look and sometimes smell of real leather, so while it lasts, it can be quite appealing and budget friendly.
How is PU Leather Made?
The natural leather hides are split into thinner layers. In this way, each original hide natural leather can be used to make several hides worth of PU leather.
The PU material is then mixed. 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.
Also, a wide variety of colors can be mixed in at this phase. Virtually any color dye can be mixed in. At this point, other additives might be included. For example, these might be UV protectants or fire retardants.
The PU mixture, not yet dried, is then extruded onto the split leather. The extrusion might be via gravity and pouring, or via machines that push the material out evenly onto the split leather backing.
Once extruded, the PU 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 PU leather is purely cosmetic for finishing reasons. 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, PU leather offers an opportunity to easily introduce stylish and functional textures.
Once stamped/embossed, PU 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.
PU Leather Pros & Cons
|Less expensive than most other types of leather||Isn’t very flexible|
|Available in many colors||Can Crack in just a few years|
|Available in many surface textures||Has a different feel than more natural leathers|
|Can be used in many types of leather goods||Doesn’t last as long as more natural leathers|
|Has some leather content||Usually gets worse with age (whereas some natural leathers look/feel better with age and care)|
|Can Look and smell like natural leather||More difficult than natural leather to fix tears and scratches|
|Can be water resistant||Not very breathable|
|In composed of some natural leather||Might stick to the skin|
What is PU Leather Used For?
PU 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 pure, natural leather, many furniture stores offer PU leather goods as relatively low prices as a way to own “real leather”.
While this might be somewhat technically true, it can be misleading as the performance of PU 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.
Clothing also takes advantage of the bonded leather material. As does luggage. Some shoe and boot pieces might use it. So can the linings and even externally facing surfaces of clothes, jackets, pants, skirts, and hats.
PU leather can also be found in shoes, boots, and a range of footwear. It can be quite a creative and versatile material.
PU Leather Durability
PU leathers are generally a lower-quality leather. This is mostly since it is not a natural leather material, instead it is a synthetic leather material with a natural leather base.
Over a relatively short period of time (about 2-4 years), PU leather can begin to crack, flake, and break down. Also, the surface can become dull and worn out. When considering furniture or personal accessories, this is a relatively short time to have a piece or leather good.
As a balance, PU leather goods are generally lower cost than natural leather goods. It mainly comes down to preference and budget. A less expensive PU leather item can be repurchased every few years, or a more expensive natural leather item can be purchased once and last for decades.
PU Leather Peeling, Cracking, & Flaking
Since PU 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 PU plastic surface begins to separate from it’s split leather backing. Over time, it begins to crack, 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.
PU Leather vs Faux Leather
PU leather can be considered a type of faux leather. Many faux leathers are made 100% from synthetic materials, often plastic. Some are also made with no animal products or by-products in the production process.
Since PU leather has a split leather base, it is part a natural leather material. It also has the PU plastic surface layer, and so is part faux leather. When comparing their benefits, faux leather is generally very flexible, soft, and less expensive than PU.
PU leather is usually a little stronger, more durable, and more expensive than common faux leather. However, since it has the split leather backing, it can crack and peel over time. Faux leather is generally a consistent-density plastic material, and not prone to cracking and peeling.
For a detailed look at faux leather, click here for an article I wrote.
PU Leather Meaning
PU leather is a term that refers to split leather that has a layer of PU (polyurethane plastic) applied to the top of it. When someone is talking about different synthetic, or partially-synthetic, leather materials, PU is a popular one.
It usually means a leather that is not very breathable, or flexible. Over time it can peel and crack. PU leather also means a leather that is inexpensive, can look great for a few years, and be used in places where real leather can’t. When considering leather options, the PU leather meaning is one that is low-cost, versatile, and available in a variety of textures and colors.
PVC leather is another term used to describe leather that has been coated with a layer of plastic. While PU leather has a polyurethane plastic layer on top, PVC leather has a layer of polyvinyl chloride plastic on it. PVC is a little stronger and more durable than PU. PU is a little softer, and more flexible than PVC. So while they’re not exactly the same, you might encounter PVC leather when looking for or working with PU leather.
PU Referred to as BiCast Leather
PU leather is sometimes referred to as bicast leather. This is mainly because PU leather is made from two (bi) layers of material joined (cast) together. These are the split leather base and the PU plastic surface layer. It’s more commonly called PU leather, though helpful to know it might be called bicast leather if you come across that too.
PU Leather Care & Maintenance
If handled well, maintained properly, cleaned often, and story properly, PU leather can look great and wear well for a few years.
How to Clean PU Leather
Due to it’s finished surface, PU 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 PU 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 PU Leather
Since PU 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 PU Leather
Fixing a scratch on a PU leather piece is usually as easy as applying a leather repair kit. Since PU has a plastic surface, 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 PU Leather
Tears in PU are harder to fix than scratches. Since PU leather has a plastic surface, 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 on 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 PU Leather
PU 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 PU clothing or accessories, storing them in a closet or drawer works great. Keeping them away from extreme moisture, and sunlight, are key.
PU leather is a leather-based material that provides some benefits afforded by its plastic surface layer. If you’re looking for a material that looks and smells like natural leather, for lower cost (though less durability), PU leather might be an option worth considering.
Is PU leather real leather?
Technically, no, PU leather is not real leather. It has a natural, split leather base, however, the surface is plastic. The real leather grain is covered and the main material that is touched and seen is plastic. PU leather is mostly a faux leather.
Is PU leather waterproof?
Generally, yes, PU leather is waterproof. The natural split leather base in PU leather is covered with the PU plastic layer, and protective finishes. Since these cover the leather, and the plastic is waterproof, PU leather is generally waterproof.