How to Choose and Maintain the Best Type of Leather Upholstery

Find out how to pick the right type of leather for your furniture and keep it looking great

Ashley Winn Design, original photo on Houzz

Leather is a popular option for furniture. It looks great, it’s easy to clean and it can endure a fair amount of abuse. But don’t be fooled: There are many products on the market that use the term leather that are actually an inferior product. Learn how to choose the best type of leather and how to keep it looking great for years to come.

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Cost of leather. Not sure if you should go with leather or fabric? Think about your budget. Quality leather upholstery often costs nearly twice as much as fabric. While there are low-grade and faux-leather options, it’s best to not cut corners. It’s better to get a piece covered in high-quality fabric than to purchase something in leather that won’t last. You’ll end up spending more in the end when you have to replace it when it falls apart. If you have your heart set on leather but can’t afford a full leather sofa, buy smaller pieces like a chair or ottoman.

Maintenance of leather. While leather seems easy to take care of because it can be wiped clean, it has other traits that mean it requires more maintenance than you might expect. For example, UV rays are not friendly to leather — they can cause it to dry out and possibly crack. While this can be prevented with regular conditioning and the application of a UV protectant (think sunscreen for your sofa), it’s an extra step that should be taken into consideration.

Another issue with leather is that it can get scratched. Some leathers scratch more easily than others, so it’s important to test a store swatch with your fingernail. You may be able to fix smaller scratches with a leather kit, but larger marks will require a professional. The good news is that leather repair companies can do a great job of fixing leather, so if you get a big scratch, all is not lost.

Sean Litchfield Photography, original photo on Houzz

Leather quality. Once you decide to go with leather, you’ll quickly discover that there are different types of leather and dyeing processes that affect its quality. Top-grain and full-grain leathers are the highest quality; they’re made from the outermost layer of the hide, which is the strongest part. Top-grain leather is smoothed to remove imperfections, while full-grain is not smoothed and features a natural grain with imperfections.

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Split leather. You may notice that some leather-upholstered pieces cost significantly less than others. They may be covered in lower-quality leathers that won’t last. Split leather is the term used for the lower layer of leather left after the top or full grain is removed. (Suede is split leather.) This product is still genuine leather, but it’s not as strong as top-grain or full-grain leather and may tear or stretch.

Collected Interiors, original photo on Houzz

Faux leathers. You may also come across the term bonded leather, which is somewhat misleading. Bonded leather is made of ground-up leather scraps and polyurethane, creating a product that looks like leather but doesn’t have its durability or feel. And then there’s vinyl, which is a leather look-alike that’s not leather at all. Vinyl may be used on the sides or backs of a piece of furniture that has leather on the seats or arms, allowing stores to market it as “made with leather.”

Dyed leather. Leather can be dyed and processed in several ways, affecting its performance and feel. Look for terms such as anilinesemi-aniline or nubuck. This will tell you that the dye permeated the whole hide, meaning that if it gets scratched, it won’t reveal a different color under the surface.

Larina Kase Interior Design, original photo on Houzz

Aniline. Pure-aniline or full-aniline leathers show the natural surface of the leather, imperfections and all. They do not have any additional pigments or protectants on the surface, so you’ll probably see variations in color. Because there’s no protective coating, this type of leather has the softest feel. But it’s also more susceptible to scratching, staining and fading.

Semi-aniline. Semi-anline or aniline plus pigments have a protective topcoat. There may also be additional pigments added on the surface of the leather, giving the piece a more uniform look. This type of leather is more durable than pure aniline, but not as soft.

Ritchie Construction Ltd, original photo on Houzz

Nubuck. Nubuck leather is made by buffing or sanding aniline leather. The result is a leather that has a soft, velvety feel and suede-like appearance. It’s stronger than suede (which, remember, is made from split leather), but it’s susceptible to fading and stains and will develop a patina over time. If you can embrace imperfections, this is the softest leather option.

Leather imperfections. Leather is a natural material and no two hides will be exactly the same. As a result, leathers may differ in color or thickness and can show scars and other imperfections. It’s very common for leather on your furniture to vary slightly from the swatch you see in a store.

The Stated Home, original photo on Houzz

Hair-on hide. Hair-on hide is becoming an increasingly popular material for furniture. This is a full cow hide, including the hair. It’s usually not dyed, so what you see is the natural color of the fur. It can vary widely in color and texture.

Pulling it all together. Leather is a great option for furniture because it can be easily wiped clean and won’t wear out as fast as fabric. When shopping for new leather furniture, watch out for deceptive terms and know the kind of leather and how it’s been dyed. This guarantees you’ll get a piece that matches your taste and lifestyle.

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