leather types top graphic

Information on the web regarding the care of leather is scarce, often contradictory, misleading, or simply wrong. Mis-information can lead to inadvertent damage to your leather articles. Our goal is to present clear, concise, accurate information. Before you can learn how to care for your leather, you should know the type of leather you have.

If you already know your leather type, click on the appropriate choice for care information. If you aren’t sure, learn more by reading the details below.

Finished (coated) Unfinished (raw)
Top-Grain or Full Grain Top-grain aniline-dyed (no coating)
Corrected Top-grain Pull-up, waxed (distressed)
Split Suede
Bicast Nubuck (brushed/distressed)

First, here is some base-line information about leather to help you better understand its properties.

Leather is a natural product. It comes from animal skins which have been chemically processed (tanned) to preserve them. A properly tanned hide (or skin) creates strong, flexible leather, resistant to decay.

Most leather is tanned cow hide. Cow hides are about 1/4 to 3/8 inches thick, which is too heavy for general upholstery application. Therefore, hides are split laterally, rendering an upper and lower cut.

The upper portion is the top-grain, or full-grain. The lower portion is the split. This cutting process creates different “faces” to the leather. The outside face of the top- or full-grain shows the natural grain characteristics, but is otherwise smooth, whereas, the underside appears as suede.

Now let’s determine what type of leather you have. There are two basic categories: Finished or Unfinished. Briefly, finished leather is first dyed via immersion in an aniline dye solution, and then the outside face of the hide is coated with a pigmented resin, and then a subsequent clear-coating. Unfinished leather processing stops at the first dyeing process, without any resin coating. Finished leather is protected by the color-coating and clear-coating, and unfinished is unprotected, not having either of these subsequent coatings applied.

The following table depicts comparative features.

Feature Finished Unfinished
Color - Pigment color coating on the leather's surface Aniline dye color in the leather
Stain Protection - Color coating protects against staining Absorbs liquid - prone to staining
Fading - Pigment coating is fade resistant Dyes fade from light exposure (UV)
Color Richness - Color coating is flat, lacking depth Coloring is rich, accentuating natural beauty of the leather
Feel (or Hand) - Leather feels harder, colder, stiffer Buttery soft, warms quickly, inviting

So, simply put, finished leather color is from a pigment coating on the leather, whereas unfinished is from a dye in the leather. Finished leather is stain and fade resistant but lacks deep richness in color, and tends to be stiffer. Unfinished leather is soft and natural-looking but fades and stains readily. Unfinished leather tends to be more expensive. This graphic depicts the difference between finished and unfinished.

cross-section of leather illustrating leather types

Note that the topical coating can range from thin to thick. If there is a very light color or clear coat on top of aniline-dyed leather, it is often referred to as “semi-aniline.” Semi-aniline leather offers modest protection while retaining much of the aesthetic beauty of an unfinished aniline-dyed leather.

If this information is sufficient for you to be sure of your type of leather, then click on the appropriate category below to get the specifics of how to care for your leather.

Finished (coated) Unfinished (raw)
Top-Grain or Full Grain Top-grain aniline-dyed (no coating)
Corrected Top-grain Pull-up, waxed (distressed)
Split Suede
Bicast Nubuck (brushed)

If you're still not sure, or want to learn more then see below for a detailed description of finished and unfinished leathers, as well as links to specific details about their corresponding sub-categories.

Finished : The leather has a topical pigment coat applied. One of the most common coatings consists of a soft acrylic color coating under a urethane clear coating (for durability). These resins create a film that bonds to the surface of the leather. It's primary goal is to protect the leather, providing wear, stain, and fade resistance.

Finished leather will resist staining by water- or oil-based agents (if a drop of water is put directly on the leather surface, the water bead remains on the surface, and does not soak in and darken the material.) The clear coating mentioned above determines the final reflective value of the leather surface (ranging from high gloss, all the way down to a matte or dull finish, depending how much dulling agent is added to the clear coat resin before application), so sheen is not necessarily a help in determining leather type. Generally, finished leathers do not have that "buttery soft" leather feel (or hand) associated with raw leather. Also note, finished leathers can be described as aniline-dyed, and still have a topical pigment applied. Finished leathers are much less susceptible to fading. For specific details about the different types of finished leather, click here.

Unfinished : The leather does not have a topical pigment applied, or has a minimal resin coating to retain the hand of raw leather. The color is achieved by immersing hides in aniline dyes that are absorbed into the leather, accentuating the natural beauty of the hide. Because leather's absorption characteristics are not uniform, variations in color are common. The water drop test will result in the drop transferring into the leather, darkening or staining the area. Because unfinished leathers are colored using organic aniline dyes, they are much more susceptible to fading (caused by UV exposure). For specific details about the different types of unfinished leather, click here.

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