As someone who primarily focuses on bag making, the market is slightly different. Customers want a uniform color and finish, regardless of the tanning type. This has led me to use countless top grain hides, finding they can be as good as any other leather.
Top grain leather is any hide that has had a thin layer of its surface removed. Tanneries will cut away the imperfections and markings to create uniform hides. This can affect the durability of the leather and the potential thickness. Top grain leather costs $4–$12 per square foot.
Top grain leather can be perfect when making goods with little variance. Let’s explore how these leathers are made and when to use them.
What Is Top Grain Leather?
Top grain leather is a hide type altered to provide leather with fewer flaws. To do so, a tannery will cut away the surface of a hide to remove natural marks. This includes big bites, range marks, branding marks, and other potential flaws.
Removing the surface top grain leather often forfeits some durability and potential thickness. In exchange, manufacturers can salvage heavily flawed hides, turning them into a popular leather that rivals any other on the market.
What We’ll Explore
- Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
- History of Top Grain Leather
- Top Grain Leather Characteristics Quick Reference Table
- In-depth Characteristics of Top Grain Leather
- Pros of Top Grain Leather
- Cons of Top Grain Leather
- How Top Grain Leather is Made
- Production Stats for Top Grain Leather
- Cost of Top Grain Leather
- When You Might Leathercraft with Top Grain Leather
- Tips for Leather Crafting With Top Grain Leather
- Examples of Goods Made from Top Grain Leather
- My Personal Research on Top Grain Leather
- Top Grain Leather Care & Maintenance
- Helpful Insights on Top Grain Leather
- Key Takeaways
Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions
Seeing leather as “top grain” is enough for some to steer clear of a product. One of the biggest misconceptions about leather is how to judge quality. There is a guiding rule stating full grain is better than top grain. This simplifies their differences and fails to address potential quality differences.
Top grain leather is not automatically worse than full grain. The difference is between what a consumer values and the quality of the tannery. For many, the marks found along full grain hides are a detractor and are viewed as rustic.
On the other hand, top grain leather will be seen as refined and potentially better suited for luxury leather goods. Similarly, a full grain hide that has undergone a poor-quality tanning process will be less desirable than a top grain leather with a higher-quality tanning process.
History of Top Grain Leather
The use of various hides was found early throughout history, dating back to as early as 5000 BC. In Egypt, leather workers began expanding the different leather types used for production. By scraping off layers of the skin, they salvaged flawed leather hides, allowing them to expand their clientele and sell more garments to various levels of wealth.
Although top grain leather production has multiplied exponentially since then, the philosophy behind the material remains. By utilizing top grain leather, manufacturers can use leather that would otherwise be unfit for production, creating a less expensive alternative. This is a popular choice for mid-range leather products accessible to many more people than high-end leather.
Top Grain Leather Characteristics Quick Reference Table
|Natural or Synthetic||Natural|
|Available Thickness (oz/mm)||3 oz (1.2mm) to 12 oz (4.8mm)|
|Largest Workable Size||25 square feet|
|Ease of Maintenance (1–10)||9|
|How Long it Lasts (Daily Use)||25+ years|
|Cost per Square Foot ($)||$4–$12 per square foot|
|Ease of Crafting (1–10)||8|
|Rarity (Common or Exotic)||Common|
|Annual Production Volume||Over 7 billion square feet|
|Biggest Exporting Country||India|
|Biggest Importing Country||Germany|
In-depth Characteristics of Top Grain Leather
Natural or Synthetic
Although the topmost layer of leather is removed when producing top grain leather, it is still natural. Removing the layer is for visual appeal, but otherwise, the hide does not incorporate any synthetic materials, making top grain leather 100% animal hide much like the full leathers it is often compared to.
Many top grain leather hides are used in the fashion industry as they make the perfect material to apply various textures. The clear surface can be embossed with bumps, patterns, or other textures to simulate various types of animal hides. When top grain leather is left alone, it will have a smooth texture with very few changes throughout the hide.
Top grain leather is typically sold in hides from 3–12 ounces (1.2mm–4.8mm), meaning the leather is offered in a large variety. It’s useful for thin projects like wallets and thicker ones such as belts.
Although the leather can be fairly thick, it does not have the same potential thickness as others. During manufacturing, the hide’s top layer is removed, which may greatly reduce the thickness depending on how much material is removed.
Largest Workable Size
Hides for top grain leather can be found in sizes up to 25 square feet. This is a common size for large leather pieces made from cow hides. Large top grain pieces are great for bags, clothing, or upholstery. Removing the surface layer does not impact the size of top grain leather hides, just the thickness.
Although flexibility between different top grain leather hides will differ, most will be more flexible than other leather types. This is due to the firm outer layer of the leather being removed when making top grain leather, reducing the density of the material and making it more supple. In addition, top grain leather is often tanned using chromium, which will also help break down the leather’s fibers.
Top grain leather is average when it comes to softness. While removing the top layer does help make the leather more supple, the tanning process plays the largest role. Therefore, it is not uncommon to find soft and firm top grain leather.
Top grain leather has good sewability and should feel familiar to those who have worked with other leathers. The leather is slightly more supple, allowing needles to pass through easily, while maintaining an average density to hold its shape when sewing. Textured or thin top grain leather may be slightly more difficult to sew.
The durability of top grain leather often comes into question due to removing the densest part of the leather. This causes the surface to experience damage more easily and may result in holes developing more quickly. Therefore, the leather is best suited for low-wear items. Despite these potential negatives, the leather presents respectable durability, creating products that can last for decades.
Ease of Maintenance
One benefit that makes top grain leather a choice for many is its ease of maintenance. Top grain leather often has a durable protective coating added to help stabilize the grain, preventing wear. Top grain leather does not scratch easily and is not impacted by the sunlight as much as other leathers.
Lifespan with Daily Use
Although the durability of top grain leather impacts its performance when used on high-wear leather items, most projects should last decades. Like all other leather types, top grain greatly benefits from being well-kept. In an optimal setting, top grain leather’s lifespan may be compared to its full grain counterpart.
Another great benefit of top grain leather is its wide variety of colors. Top grain leather excels at color, unlike most leathers that stick to earth tones, offering various patterns, colors, tones, and prints.
Top grain leather is not waterproof but has some water resistance. The manufacturing method determines how water-resistant the leather will be. Generally speaking, however, short exposure will not cause damage. On the other hand, long exposure or complete saturation may cause the leather to become discolored or misshapen.
The hides chosen for top grain leather are typically unsuitable for other leathers. By utilizing these hides, top grain leather can produce a quality product at a lower cost. The leather costs, on average, $4–$12 per square foot, making it a solid choice for most leather projects.
Ease of Crafting
Top grain leather is a great leather to work with. The leather is often firm enough to allow for easy cutting and sewing while being soft enough for use with various leather projects. The only area that may make top grain leather difficult to work with is if the leather has a texture added to it. Since many top grain leathers have added texture, keeping a blade straight or punching through a bumpy surface may be difficult.
Rarity (Common or Exotic)
Top grain leather is a popular way to salvage hides. It is estimated that over 7 billion square feet of top grain leather is produced annually. This leather is both manufactured and utilized worldwide as it is a lower-cost material without sacrificing many desirable leather qualities.
This lower cost makes the leather more accessible to a wide range of those looking for leather products. As a result, the material is a highly popular choice for manufacturers of mid-range leather goods.
Pros of Top Grain Leather
Top-grain leather is a high-quality material with several advantages, making it a popular choice for various products. Here are some of the pros of top-grain leather:
- Offed in a variety of textures and colors
- Has a more uniform surface
- Easy to work with
- Lower cost
- Easily accessible
To get a better look at areas where top grain leather excels, check out this helpful video by Buffalo Jackson Trading Co.
Cons of Top Grain Leather
Whether top-grain leather is the right choice for you depends on your specific needs and preferences. While top-grain leather has many advantages, it also has some potential drawbacks to consider:
- Limited thickness
- Does not patina
- Less scratch resistance
- More prone to dryness
- Less durable
Tanneries will cut away the imperfections and markings to create uniform hides. This can affect the durability of the leather and the potential thickness.
How Top Grain Leather is Made
Top grain leather starts as animal hides that are salted for preservation and shipped to various tanneries. At the tannery, they wash the hides before beginning to treat them. Typically, only the hair is removed from the surface of the leather. When making top grain leather, the hides are shaved slightly deeper, removing the top of the flesh to provide a more blemish-free surface.
This step may also include light sanding or buffing to target any flaws remaining on the hide. Once the leather has been cut down, it is added to a tanning vat, penetrating the hide with various tannins, preserving, preparing, and softening the material simultaneously.
Once the leather has been tanned, it may have a texture imprinted on it, or dye may be added to it to provide a color, depending on the manufacturer. After completing these steps, the leather can have a finishing coat added before shipping.
Production Statistics of Top Grain Leather
- Volume per year – Over 7 billion square feet
- Key countries where it is produced – India, Vietnam, and Germany
- Biggest exporting country – India
- Biggest importing country – Germany
Cost of Top Grain Leather
- Square Foot – $4–$12 per square foot
- ½ Hide – $40–$120
- Full Hide – $80–$240
When You Might Leathercraft With Top Grain Leather
Top-grain leather is a versatile and popular choice for leathercraft projects due to its balance of durability, appearance, and affordability. Here are some common leathercraft projects where top-grain leather is often used:
- When making a project a project that requires a uniform surface
- When needing to use quality leather at a lower cost when compared to other leathers
- When looking for versatile leather with a large variety of colors and textures
Tips for Leathercrafting With Top Grain Leather
Leathercrafting with top-grain leather can be a rewarding and enjoyable hobby or profession. To help you get the best results, here are some tips for working with top-grain leather:
- Take special care not to scratch the surface during crafting as it may not be able to be removed.
- Always use sharp tools to ensure the cleanest cuts or holes are made in the leather.
- Cut and punch from the backside to avoid bumps when working with textured top grain leather.
Some Examples of Items Made From Top Grain Leather
Top-grain leather is a versatile material used to create a wide range of items due to its durability, attractive appearance, and comfortable texture. Here are some examples of items commonly made from top-grain leather:
- Watch straps
- Journal covers
My Personal Research on Top Grain Leather
Top grain leather is used in many leather items in stores, so a common question is, “What is the best way to maintain them?” As someone who has worked with and owns various top grain leather hides, there are a few key differences to always keep in mind when compared to treating other leathers.
Soaps and Scrubbing
Most top grain leather hides will have a texture added to them that can make it easy for a lot of debris to get trapped in. While the cleaning process of the leather is the same as others, it is good to know how the leather reacts. Unlike other hides, top grain leather is fairly resistant to discoloration. Building up a lather on an item can be a great option for tough stains, as long as the leather does not become soaked.
On the other hand, top grain leather does not do well with scratches and other markings. A cloth with any abrasion is likely to mark the leather. Cotton is often the best choice for this process. Alternatively, our hands make solid tools to rub the leather clean. Although messy, it is a great way to clean top grain leather without damage.
I have seen many top grain leather products crack from dryness. When asked about their leather conditioning techniques, many will often have a solid process. This often leads to both confusion and frustration. While top grain leather still has pores, getting the product to seep into the leather is much more difficult when excessively dry.
I compared the speed of full grain leather and top grain leather by placing a drop of conditioner on both hides. Within minutes, the full grain leather was soaking in the product, taking a little over 10 minutes to penetrate the leather completely with no assistance. The top grain leather, on the other hand, was much slower.
The leather conditioner slowly spread across the surface before it was thin enough to go through. It took over double the time, 27 minutes before it fully sank into the leather. This demonstrates the difference when applying a leather conditioner to top grain items. Patience is key to ensuring the leather truly benefits from the added conditioner.
Another common issue I find people have with top grain leather is poor storage, leading to a misshapen item. Luckily, the leather can be restored quite well when dampened. Although top grain leather does not mold as easily, it can still help in most situations. The best option is to dampen the leather before stuffing it with newspaper to hold the shape in place.
Using paper will absorb the moisture, preventing the leather from cracking. Once the item has been stuffed, it should be set aside to dry overnight. When dried, the leather must be conditioned, and the stuffing should be removed. The item will likely remain in the desired shape. This process may be repeated as necessary, with extra care to not oversaturate the leather.
Although top grain leather is a readily available choice seen everywhere, most information regarding leather care is tailored to full grain leather. While the same principles may apply to top grain leather, these adjustments can help tailor maintenance to the leather, allowing anyone who owns top grain leather to keep their hides as pristine as possible.
Top Grain Leather Care and Maintenance
How To Clean Top Grain Leather
The first step in cleaning top grain leather is to use a horsehair brush to remove as much stuck-on debris as possible. Top grain leather may mark easily, so it is key to be gentle during this process. Using a clean soft cloth, a leather soap can be applied to hides to remove stains. While the leather will not darken as easily, testing any products on small hidden areas before covering an item is always best.
How To Condition Top Grain Leather
Top grain leather produces less natural oils since the surface of it has been removed. As a result, conditioning the leather is vital to prevent it from cracking. To do so, a leather conditioner should be applied to the surface periodically using a clean, soft cloth. Conditioning should also be done after any cleaning or if an item encounters excess exposure to water.
How To Store Top Grain Leather
Although top grain leather is more resistant to color changes, it can still fade if left in sunlight. The best way to store top grain leather is in a dust bag, away from sunlight, and in a controlled environment. If an item is to be set aside for a while it may be ideal to condition it before placing it in storage.
Betty Feather, a clothing and textile specialist from the University of Missouri in Columbia, Missouri, describes the proper way to maintain top grain leather. She details daily maintenance, storage, and practices to avoid when trying to get the most out of a leather item.
Helpful Insights on Top Grain Leather
Is top grain leather good quality?
The quality of top grain leather depends on the manufacturing process. There are plenty of both high and low-quality top grain leather hides. However, in general, top grain leathers are a solid choice, offering a great balance between affordability and cost.
Which is better top grain or full grain leather?
There is no definite answer to which one of these leather types is better. They both have unique qualities, and their quality can greatly vary during manufacturing. Researching the tannery where the leather was produced is more important to determine quality.
Is top grain leather the same as 100% leather?
Top grain leather is still 100% leather despite having some of its surface removed. There are no filler products used when making top grain leather. Therefore, the term may be used when describing these hides.
What are the advantages of top grain leather?
The biggest advantage of top grain leather is the ability of tanneries to create a uniform surface. Full grain leather often has markings left on the hide. In addition, top grain hides are slightly more supple and cost-efficient.
Is 100% top grain leather good?
Generally speaking, 100% top grain leather is fairly good quality leather. While there can be a wide range of quality between various manufacturers of top grain leather, it is still all-natural. Those still determining the leather quality they are purchasing should research the tannery when possible to get a better look at the leather being sold.
- Top grain leather removes a thin layer from the hide’s surface to create a more uniform look.
- The quality of top grain leather depends on the tannery that produces it more than anything else.
- Top grain leather is a versatile, affordable leather with many options.
Although many crafters have come to love the perfect imperfections that appear on leather hides, it is still important to have a variety. For many, leather is seen as a luxury product, and the ability to create uniform hides with a wide variety benefits the craft, giving both crafters and consumers more options when searching for high-quality leather goods.
- Types of Leather: All Qualities, Grades, Finishes, & Cuts
- Corinthian Leather – The Material with a Surprising Story
- The Amazing Strength and Durability of Kangaroo Leather
- A Look into The Rare and Popular Yak Leather
- Saffiano Leather – The Designer Handbag Icon
- Why Vachetta Leather Looks Great & Gets Better with Age
- Epi Leather – Luxurious, Durable, & a Louis Vuitton Classic
- Bonded Leather – The Truth on Quality, Cost, & Durability
- Buffalo Leather – A Bison Leather with Endless Uses
- Suede Leather – Why It’s Great, Soft, and So Fuzzy
- Perforated Leather – When To Use It for Projects and Crafting
- Quilon Leather – Why It’s a Classic and Where to Get It
- Vegan Leather – An Animal Friendly Alternative
- Pebbled Leather – Texture with Style and Durability
- Patent Leather – How It’s So Shiny, Waterproof, & Versatile
- Debossed Leather – Aesthetic and Functional Impressions
- Elk Hide – Large, Durable Leather for Clothing and Accessories
- Hair-on Cowhide Leather – Its Qualities and When To Use It
- Cowhide Leather – A Classic, Durable, Crafting Leather
- Genuine Leather – A Medium Grade of Natural Leather
- Embossed Leather – Raised Elements for Style and Function
- Tooling Leather – Choosing the Proper Type for Great Results
- Pull Up Leather – When to Use This Brightly Colored Option
- Aniline Leather – When to Use this Bright, Colorful Leather
- Stingray Leather – When to Use This Flexible, Durable Leather
- Alligator Leather – When To Use This Exotic Leather
- Lambskin Leather – Learn When to Use This Soft Leather
- Ostrich Leather – An Exotic Option with a Unique Pattern
- Napa Leather – What Makes it So Soft and Smooth
- Latigo Leather – When to Use This Flexible, Durable Leather
- Kudu Leather – The Benefits of This Strong and Unique Leather
- Beaver Tail Leather – Small, Unique, and Very Stylish
- Semi Aniline Leather – When to Use This Colored Leather
- Fish Leather – Benefits of Working with this Unique Leather
- Shell Cordovan – What Makes It Special and When To Use It
- Bicast Leather – An Economical Option for Leather Appearance
- Buffalo Hide – Textured, Durable and Great for Many Projects
- Goat Leather – Popular, Strong, Durable, and Very Useful
- Nubuck Leather – Surprisingly Soft and Strong
- Crocodile Leather – When to Use this Durable, Exotic Leather
- Grain Leather – Full Grain, Top Grain, You’ll Know the Best
- Vegetable Tanned Leather – A Classic with Infinite Uses
- Crossgrain Leather – A Corrected Leather With Many Uses
- Distressed Leather – Unique Strength, Style, and Durability
- Italian Leather – The Valuable Uses of This Global Favorite
- Oiled Leather – Strong, Durable, and Great for Crafting
- Pearlized Leather – When to Choose for Style and Function
- Pig Leather – When to Use This Strong and Versatile Leather
- Studded Leather – What Makes It Unique and When To Use It
- Recycled Leather – Making Leather Sustainable
- Veg Tan Leather – Heritage, Qualities, and When To Use It
- Chap Leather – What To Look For To Get Great Results
- White Leather – Benefits, When To Use, and Crafting Tips
- Horween Leather – Why It’s Among the Best in the World
- Nappa Leather – Soft, Flexible, Textured Great for Projects
- Peccary Leather – Speciality Leather Prized for Softness
- Llama Leather – A Unique, Dense, Durable Crafting Option
- Chrome Tanned Leather – Flexible, Colorful, and Popular
- Soft Leather – Popular Types and What Makes It Soft
- Full Grain Leather – What Makes It Desired and Durable
- Bonded Leather – The Truth About This Leather and Rubber Mix