If you’re shopping for leather products, it’s pretty easy to get confused (and even duped) by terms used in the leather industry to describe leather products. You’ll often see terms like “full-grain”, “top-grain”, “genuine” (corrected-grain), and “bonded” leather, among other terms.
While it’s pretty easy to guess that “bonded leather” is probably a low quality product—bonded leather is to real leather what particle board is to real wood, a reconstituted mess of leftovers—it’s not so easy to discern the differences between terms like “top-grain” and “genuine”.
As the terms are used in the U.S., however, the ranking of common leather types is as follows. Full-grain, which could be considered the “truest” leather, retains the full grain, strength, and breathability of leather and ages well; high end furniture, footwear, and premium luggage are made out of it.
Top-grain is made from the top layer split away from the hide, still good quality but less durable and breathable than full grain leather (after being sanded and having a finish applied), and it doesn’t develop a patina; the vast majority of department store quality leather products are made from top-grain leather.
Genuine (corrected-grain) leather is any leather that has had an artificial grain applied to its surface; it is used to make pigmented leather since the solid pigment helps hide the corrections or imperfections. The lowest grades of leather are bonded and bycast.
Bonded, as we noted above, is shredded leather fibers mixed together with polyurethane or latex and bonded to a fiber backing sheet. Bycast leather is, as the name implies, leather that has had a layer of polyurethane laminated to the surface and then been embossed. While neither bonded nor bycast leather is great if you’re looking for a true full-grain leather that will age well and develop a beautiful patina, they do have their uses, primarily in creating durable and easily cleaned leather that’s great for use on furniture in high traffic areas like commercial buildings.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.