There are so many incredible types of leather available. Each has it’s own unique qualities that will benefit different project types or working styles.
The types of leather available include full grain, top grain, genuine, bicast, and bonded. Leather finishes include aniline, semi-aniline, brush-colored, degrained, die-cut, embossed, embroidered, handworked, metallic, nappa, nubuck, oily, patent, pigmented, printed, split, suede, and waxy.
It’s important to choose the right leather for your project to help ensure a great result. Let’s get familiar with all the different types.
Types of Leather
Types of leather can be broken down into several different categories. We can look at the types of cuts, leather qualities, leather grades, leather finishes, types of leather by animal, types of leather with fur, even types of faux and vegan leather. There are some major differences between them.
Some of the variations are due to the manufacturing process. Some are due to the finishing process. Others are based on the type of animal hide, and yet others are how the leather is cut. We’ll dive into each of them in more detail.
The “5 Types of Leather”
While there are many types of leather, often, folks will be curious about the “5 types of leather”. What they are generally referring to are the volume and layers of the original hide that are still present in the end product. These are full grain, top grain, genuine, split grain, and bonded leather, and much detail about each will be shared.
The material quality and characteristics vary based on from where in the hide the finished leather comes from. Leather quality can also be influenced by many, many factors. These can include the breed of animal, climate they lived in, food they are fed, and amount of exercise they had. Hides are a natural material, and thus, highly impacted by the life of the animals that they come from.
Leather quality can also be affected by the meatpacking, tanning, and finishing processes utilized during production. Along with the leather grades consumers are familiar with, we’ll look into leather grades the tanners use when evaluating hides coming from the meatpackers.
What is a Leather Hide?
Great! Let’s start here. The leather hide is the skin removed from an animal. Since it is a natural substance, it has unique characteristics and qualities that help it serve a purpose for the animal it was a part of.
It usually forms a protective barrier. This keeps the internal parts of the animal safe. It also, along with hair or fur, guards from external elements such as sun, water, abrasions, and other things in daily life. Here is a cross-section image showing the layers of a leather hide.
It is made up of a few layers:
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.
When considering grades and quality of leather, it’s key to understand how the leather is prepared, cut, and finished. Let’s look at the most common methods.
Types of Leather Grades and Leather Qualities
These are the most common ways leather is “graded”. The names, in reality, refer more to the way the leather has been split and the surface treated, than they do to actual “grades”. Though these variations do impact the performance and overall quality of a leather piece.
Thus, folks commonly refer to them as “grades of leather”. After, we’ll explore the actual grades that meatpackers use when evaluating hides for sale to tanneries. For an even deeper look into grain leather, click here for an article I wrote on that.
Here is a great look into some of the most popular leather types:
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 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 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.
Genuine Leather (Corrected 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.
The process alters some of the preferred qualities of leather, so while not a top quality, it is often used for belts and similar goods.
Split Grain Leather
Split grain leather is a layered cut of leather from within the lower levels of the top grain area of the hide. It is usually a lower layer of the hide, above the flesh. Also, below the full grain and the best top grain cuts. Though, it still provides a useful leather material.
The natural surface of split grain leather is not as dense, tight, and useful as full grain and top grain. Thus, it is often used in finishes of leathers that are colored, embossed, and the surface altered in some significant way. This allows it to offer some of the helpful qualities of a leather material, while having a visually pleasing and often-functional surface beneficial for leather products.
Bonded Leather (Reconstituted Leather)
Bonded leather is like the scrapple or hot dogs of leather; it is made up of leather scraps that are finely shredded and bonded together using polyurethane or latex onto a fiber mesh or sheet. The amount of leather in the actual mix can vary greatly (from 10%-90%), and thus affect the functional and aesthetic properties of the finished product.
Bonded leather is often painted to give it color and could also be pressed/embossed to give it the appearance of a particular grain or leather style. For a deeper look, click here for my article about bonded leather.
Types of Leather Grades – For Raw Hides
When raw hides are produced by meatpackers, they immediately grade them. This grade is used to determine the quality of the raw hide, and enables accurate sales to tanneries. The tanneries will ultimately tan the hides, processing the raw material into a finished leather.
As such, it’s important to know exactly the qualities of leather they are receiving. This ensures they’ll have what’s needed to consistently produce quality finished leathers for the production of leather goods.
When grading raw hides, the inspectors will look for issues including holes, deep cuts, scars, large abrasions, discolorations, machine damage (from the skinning machines), remaining hair, and grain inconsistencies.
It is important to keep in mind, too, that many large ranch operations brand their cattle to denote ownership. Branding involves permanently burning a unique pattern (usually letters or initials) into the skin of the animal. A metal brand in the form of the pattern is heated, then pressed into the animal to leave the pattern permanently burned into the hide. While common, the brand impact to the hide quality is also accounted for in the grading process.
The hides will generally be graded as follows:
Leather Hide Grade – Number One
Number one hides are top grade hides. They generally have no major surface imperfections, holes, or cuts. If there are holes approximately 3-4 inches from the edge of the hides, and they can be trimmed away, they won’t affect the overall grade. About 80% of hides shipped to tanners should be a number one grade.
Leather Hide Grade – Number Two
A number two hide is allowed to have up to four holes or cuts, as long as they are located in a generally straight line on the hide. This would allow them to be cut around later, still yielding a sizable area of usable hide.
Holes should usually be less than 5” to be considered acceptable within a number two grade hide. Grain defects should also be no larger than approximately 1 ft. sq. in coverage area. Approximately 15%-20% of hides shipped to tanners have a number two hide grade.
Leather Hide Grade – Number Three
Number three hides generally have five or more holes or large cuts within the hide, ideally within a generally straight line. This would allow them to be cut around later, still yielding a sizable area of usable hide.
A single cut or hole over 6” can be allowed. There might also be grain defects, or a series of closely-located smaller holes that comprise a surface area larger than 1 ft. sq. In general, number three graded hides should at least yield a 50% usable surface area.
Generally, number three grade hides are only purchased by tanners when they have specifically agreed to purchase this grade of hide.
Leather Hide Grade – Untannable
Hides that do not meet the quality standards of grades number one, two, or three are deemed untannable. They are not shipped to tanners, and enter another viable channel for use of the raw animal hide materials, outside of the leather industry.
Types of Leather Cuts
A finished leather hide has a fairly large amount of leather to choose from when deciding where to cut from the use pieces on a project. Based on the area of the hide in relation to the animal’s body, some pieces will be a little higher quality and a little easier to work with.
Finished leather can usually be purchased based on cut type. This can include the full hide, or specific areas within it. Based on the type of project you are working on and the performance characteristics you want in the finished piece, it can be helpful to know what the different available cuts are.
If you’re looking for exactly where get leather cuts or pieces for a project, click here to review the buying guide I’ve put together.
Whole Leather Cut
A whole leather hide encompasses the entire skinned and tanned hide from an animal. Since it includes the areas from all of the other related cuts, the leather available will range from softer areas with various stretch characteristics, to thicker, stiffer areas of the hide. The range of leather thickness and weight will vary across the entire hide.
Side Leather Cut
The side cut of a leather hide is a half of an entire hide, cut lengthwise along the middle. since this includes at least parts of areas from all related cuts, the leather available will range from softer areas with various stretch characteristics, to thicker, stiffer areas of the hide.
Shoulder Leather Cut
The shoulder cut of a leather hide comes from the shoulder area of the animals. This area generally has a firm, yet malleable and flexible feel to it. Shoulder cuts work well for tooling.
Double Shoulder Leather Cut
The double shoulder cut of a leather hide comes from the shoulder area of the animals. It is essentially the entire shoulder area from the hide. This area generally has a firm, yet malleable and flexible feel to it. Shoulder cuts work well for tooling.
Bend Leather Cut
The bend cut of a leather hide is from the area ranging from the spine towards the belly, towards the middle of the hide. This is some of the best leather available in a hide, the prime sections generally towards the hind side before the butt. It is best used for across a number of leather product applications.
Double Bend Leather Cut
The double bend cut of a leather hide is from the area ranging from the spine towards the belly, towards the middle of the hide. This is some of the best leather available in a hide, the prime sections generally towards the hind side before the butt. It is best used for across a number of leather product applications.
Butt Leather Cut
The butt cut of a leather hide is from the hind leg portion of the hide, running around the butt and up towards the spine. This is the thickest and firmest area of the hide. Butt cuts make a good leather for thicker items such as heavy belts.
Double Butt Leather Cut
The double butt cut of a leather hide is from the hind leg portion of the hide, running around the butt and up towards the spine, on both sides of the hide. This is the thickest and firmest area of the hide. Butt cuts make a good leather for thicker items such as heavy belts.
Belly Leather Cut
The belly cut of a leather hide is from the left or right edges of the hide. The belly of animals naturally expands and contracts as food and water are consumed. This makes the belly leather a little softer, and stretchier, than from other areas of the hide. While not considered prime leather, belly cut leather can be used for a variety of leather working uses.
Double Belly Leather Cut
The belly cut of a leather hide is from the left and right edges of the hide. The belly of animals naturally expands and contracts as food and water are consumed. This makes the belly leather a little softer, and stretchier, than from other areas of the hide. While not considered prime leather, belly cut leather can be used for a variety of leather working uses.
Types of Leather from Different Animal Hides
Leather can be produced from the skin of any animal. Throughout history many leathers have been made across times, regions, and through different methods.
The most common today are cow, sheep, goat, and pig. Though, most any type can be obtained if needed for a project. Let’s explore some of the more common, and less common types of leather below.
In general, when speaking about animal leathers, those from larger animals such as cattle are referred to as “hides”. Those from smaller animals such as rabbits or pigs are referred to as skins. Also in terms of volume, cattle leather makes up about 67% of the total annual leather production around the world.
Cattle – Bulls
Bulls are un-castrated male cattle. They have higher levels of testosterone and in general, thick, heavy hides. Bull leather is useful for thicker leather uses such as in heavy belts and show and boot soles. A low ratio number of male cattle are kept as bulls, to reproduce the breeds, so much lower amounts of bull leather are usually available than other types.
Cattle – Steers
Steers are castrated male cattle. They are one of the most popular types of animal leather sought. There are also many more steers kept than bulls, so steer leather is more widely available. It works well for leather applications such as saddlery, belts, some shoes, and other strap items.
Cattle – Cows
Cows are female cattle that have had calves. They are very common, and popular. Cow leather is a thick, soft leather that works well for most common leather needs.
Cattle – Heifers
Heifers are female cows that have not yet had a calf. This type of leather is generally soft and pliable, great for shoes, boots, and other similar leather applications.
Cattle – Dairy Cows
Dairy cows are female cattle that are bred primarily for the production of milk. Their hides are generally soft and thin. This makes it a great leather for lighter belts, wallets, clothing, upholstery, and straps.
Cattle – Calves
Calves are young male or female cattle. Their hides are generally very soft, thin, and supple. This makes it useful for finer leather applications such as wallets, watchbands, and smaller leather accessories including handbags.
Pig leather mostly is produced in China. It is used primarily in clothing, due to the breathability and lightness of the skins. Pig leather makes up about 10% of the total leather production around the world.
Sheep leather, also called sheep skin, is popular because it often has one side as leather and the other covered in wool. the wool naturally draws perspiration away from the wearer. This makes it an ideal leather for use in year-round seat upholstery, shoes, slippers, boots, and moccasins. Sheep leather, including lamb leather) makes up about 12% of the total leather production around the world.
Goat leather is a very soft, strong, and durable leather. It is used often in the production of shoes, boots, gloves, rugs, and bags. The skins are supple and flexible, making for a comfortable feel. Goat and kid (young goat) leather makes up about 11% of the total leather production around the world.
Horse leather is most commonly associated with the premium “cordovan” leather. It is made from the butt section of horses. Cordovan leather is very thick, smooth, and dense. It works excellently for fine shoes and gloves. Also, when compared to cattle hides, horse butts cover a relatively small surface area. This is why cordovan leather products are usually small items such as shoes, gloves, and small accessories.
Exotic Animal Leathers
Since leather can be made from any animal, there are often a variety of leather types available. They are often referred to as “exotic” leathers, since they’re less common and sometimes difficult to obtain, make, or find. Here is non-inclusive exotic leather list:
Types of Leather Used for Furs
Some animals have a desirable fur as part of their hide. They are used to make clothing and accessories that utilize the hair left on the hide, in the double face type of leather finishing. One face is finished leather, the other race is the animal fur. Here is a non-inclusive list of leathers used for furs:
Types of Leather Finishes – Finished Leathers
When leathers are made, they can be finished in many different ways. These methods yield leathers that can be used for a variety of different purposes. Variations can include texture, flexibility, color, and finish. Let’s explore some of the major types of finished leather.
Aniline leather is a type of leather dyed only with soluble dyes. They allow the natural surface of the leather to show through (blemishes, cuts, etc.). Generally only higher quality leathers are used since they have nice, even surfaces.
It is then finished with a thin protective coating to help prevent fast wear of the leather, or any other staying or discoloration from showing up on the surface.This can be a visually appealing dye approach, since it does allow the original surface of the leather to show through.
Semi Aniline Leather
Semi-aniline leather is a type of leather that is dyed only with soluble dyes. It is similar to aniline leather, though it is only slightly pigmented. Semi-aniline leathers allow the natural surface of the leather to show through (blemishes, cuts, etc.).
It is then finished with a thin protective coating to help prevent fast wear of the leather, or any other staying or discoloration from showing up on the surface.Generally only higher quality leathers are used since they have nice, even surfaces. This can be a visually appealing dye approach, since it does allow the original surface of the leather to show through.
Antique Grain Leather
Antique grain is a type of leather that has been treated with a surface affect to give an aged and worn appearance. It might involve several tones of finish, or a rubbed patten to mimic wear over time. Antique grain leather allows one to utilize an aged look in their finished product, without requiring the leather to be very old or worn out.
Bicast is a type of leather made with a split leather backing and an embossed/impressed layer of polyurethane or vinyl on the top. This gives the appearance of a patterned/shiny leather, without the cost of a true top or full grain leather piece.
Brush Colored Leather
Brush colored leather is a type of leather that has pigment applied via a brush. This creates a unique pattern of color on each piece. The variations might be in gradient, blending, or overall tone. Bruch colored leather is nice for finished pieces that seek a distinct and creative visual appeal.
Degrained leather is a type of leather that has had the grain layer removed. This generally occurs towards the end of the production process. Benefits of degrained leather include a smooth, consistent surface that looks quite nice. However, removing the grain also weakens the outer surface of the layer, making it more susceptible to wear and moisture penetration.
Double Face Leather (Double Sided Leather)
Double face leather, also referred to as double sided leather, is a type of leather that has two uniquely finished sides. Some examples include sheep skins, where one side is finished leather and the other is wool. Another is leather that might have different embossed surfaces, one on each side. It could also relate to color, with each side being a unique color or variation of colors.
Embossed leather is a type of leather created by producing raised patterns on the finished hide. This can be done by stamping, pressing, rolling, moulding, or forming the leather. the embossed elements can be designs, lettering, or any visual enhancement to the leather’s surface.
Embroidered leather is a type of leather that has had embroidery applied to it. Embroidery is the craft of embellishing materials with needle and thread. The pattern of the thread is usually placed in such a way as to result in a decorative pattern or motif that is now part of the embroidered material. this is done mainly for visual or aesthetic reasons.
Faux leather is a type of synthetic leather made generally of polyurethane or vinyl. Faux leather is intended to look like real leather yet cost significantly less. It is used often in the furniture industry and has the benefits of being inexpensive (compared to real leather), durable, and easy to clean.
It does however not reflect real leather qualities such as wearing better over time, having natural stretchability, breathability, and resistance to cuts and other abrasions, and a unique natural look/feel.
Faux leather can be referred to by a number of names, which can include:
- Faux Leather
- PU Leather
- Vinyl Leather
- Vegan Leather
For a detailed look at this type of material, click here for my article about synthetic leather and how it’s made.
Hand Worked Leather
Handworked Leather is a type of leather created by the manual application of leather tools. This can result in leather with tooled, stamped, etched, or embossed surfaces. The results can look quite stunning as the craft of hand working leather is an art in itself.
Interwoven Leather is a type of leather that has been braided together. Often seen in belts, the weave of the leather laces or strips creates a unique looking , textured piece. Weaving leather can be used for straps or belts, as well as small bags and pouches, depending on the skill of the weaver.
Metallic Leather is a type of leather that has had a metal layer of material added to it during the finishing process. This layer creates a metallic, shiny, reflective look to the finished leather. It provides a finishing option that is most often used in clothing, accessories, and handbags.
Napa is type of leather this is more a general marketing term for a soft, smooth, full grain leather. Some napa comes from genuine leather and isn’t the highest of quality; the term itself isn’t a clear identifier of quality or material. Moreso, it can be used to connote a smooth, soft leather. The history and more details on nubck are available in my Napa leather article here.
Nubuck is a type of leather that is a top-grain leather that has has the surface sanded in such a way as to leave the surface with a slight nap of short protein fibers. This produces a soft, velvet-like surface that is pleasing to touch, and also has a unique visual appearance. Nubuck leather is often used in jackets, gloves, and accessories. More details are available in my nubuck-specific article here.
Oil Leather (Pull-Up Leather, Waxy Leather, Waxed Leather)
Oil Leather, also known as pull-up leather, waxy leather, and waxed leather, is a type of leather that has a larger volume than average amount of oils and waxes in the surface finish. When the leather pieces are flexed and moved, the surface catches the light in different ways, do to the reflections on the oils and waxes. This provides for a varied look across surface tones, which could be quite visually appealing.
Patent leather is a type of leather that has a high-gloss finish applied via a coating, generally linseed oil. It was developed in 1818 (by inventor Seth Boyden in Newark, New Jersey). Patent leather finishing is often very noticeable with a highly-reflective finish. More modern patent leather replaces the linseed oil finish with a plastic coating finish. Click here for my detailed article on patent leather.
Pearlized Leather is a type of leather that has had a liquid layer of color added to the surface during finishing. It provides for a soft, subtle shine and reflection to the leather. While not as reflective as metallic leather, pearlized leather is a subtler implementation of the same concept. It is popularly used on clothing, accessories, and handbags.
Pigmented leather is a type of leather that is finished with a top coat of pigment (or paint). That pigment helps both provide an even surface on the leather, and also a protective coating. Pigmented leather is often coated with a clear protective sealer, to help protect the pigment layer.
Printed Leather is a type of leather that has has the surface texture printer, to stamped into it. This creates various leather surface types that might serve both functional and aesthetic purposed. Functional purposes might include helping make the leather surface more scratch and abrasion resistant. Aesthetic purposes might include making it look uniformly pebbled or nubbed. The textures of printed leathers can feel preferable as well. Saffiano leather is an example of a printed leather. For a deeper look into pebbled leather, click here to check out my article with more details.
Quilon is a tyle of leather produced by the Doc Martens footwear comapny. It is a unique style of smooth leather that is finished with a “haircell” pattern; a fine, textured print that gives the surface a stylish look. Quilon leather was developed in 2007, based on the now-vintage Doc Marten leather from the 1970s. For a detailed look, click here for my article about quilon leather.
Stretch Leather is a type of leather that is usually a composite leather made to be able to stretch when used. It can use a processed leather surface mixed with a synthetic under layer that allows the material to stretch yet still retain a uniform look with most of the usual performance qualities. Stretch leathers are often used in clothing and leather goods that will be worn and flex with human movement.
Suede is a type of leather made using a similar approach as Nubuck, where the surface is sanded in such a way as to leave the surface with a slight nap of short protein fibers. Though, instead of being made from full grain leather, suede is made from split grain leather. Here is my article that dives deeply into suede.
Washable Leather is a type of leather that is better suited to cleaning. While leather should not be roughly cleaned often (and likely shouldn’t if well-cared for), special leather washing methods are available. For items that have an expected use requiring frequent cleaning, such as some clothes, a washable leather can be used to help ensure the items last longer and stay in great shape.
There are so many types of leather available, suitable for a range of needs. If you’re curious what thicknesses of leather would work well for your next project, click here to read my guide on leather weights. Depending on the type of project you’re working on, or preference for leather qualities, you’ll likely find a great leather that will help make some incredible leather goods. If you’d like to learn more about becoming a leatherworker, click here for my article on the leatherworker career path.
What is the best leather?
The best leather is generally full grain leather. It is smooth, dense, flexible, and wears very well over time. That said, the best leather is dependent on the type of project it will be used for, and personal preference in leather characteristics.
What is the strongest type of leather?
The strongest leather is generally full grain leather. it hasn’t been sanded or buffed to remove imperfections. The grain has densely packed fibers that are finer. This results in a surface that is strong, durable, and can withstand tough use.
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