Furniture stores often have great salespeople and marketing strategies. To the untrained eye, words like "Genuine leather" convey that the product is high quality, but not so fast. To make matters more confusing, those who have purchased accessories (e.g. handbags) have been exposed to leather definitions that are entirely different from those in the furniture industry.
Couches in particular can be incredibly expensive so let's help you make the right decision. We're going to dive into the minutiae of leathers used in furniture and outline the top options depending on what you're looking for.
For our list here, we're going to move from least to most expensive types of leather materials.
What is Faux Leather
As the name implies, this isn't real leather. It's a material that is constructed to resemble leather, but it generally consists of man-made synthetic plastic or rubber. However, just because it's not real leather doesn't mean it's an awful choice for furniture, you just need to weight the pros and cons. Faux Leather is often cheaper than real leather, it's animal friendly, and it can be produced in more variations of colors that you can't get from true leather.
There are two big downsides to consider here. The first is that a lot of people are buying leather with the intention of having it age and look better overtime. Faux leather doesn't develop a beautiful patina like real leather. The second is that faux leather doesn't breath like leather. Ever have that feeling of sitting on a couch and sweating? That can happen depending on how the faux leather is produced.
What is Bonded Leather
This the minimum baseline manufacturers try to meet before they start calling it "genuine leather", but it's very misleading. Bonded leathers can barely classify as leathers since they usually only contain about 17% actual leather and the rest other synthetic materials. The way this is made is by taking the scraps from a leather manufacturer, grinding it up, and then adding them back together with cheaper materials.
The tricky part here is that we haven't found many furniture retailers that will display their level of leather on their product information page. They usually just list it as "leather". You'll need to call the retailer directly and hopefully their sales reps will divulge that information.
If you're looking for a top quality leather, we recommend going up the chain a few levels, but there are scenarios where you might want bonded leather. In terms of durability, bonded-leather can really hold it's own. It's also very affordable and looks better than faux leather in most circumstances. Keep in mind that it won't age gracefully like other leathers.
What is Bicast leather
We're starting to get into types of leather that contain a significant amount of actual leather. If you didn't know already, leather is made up of a few different layers, but to simplify let's call it the top grain and then a secondary layer/grain. Full Grain leather (which we'll cover later on in this article) is the only one that encompasses the full spectrum. Bicast leather is a split layer of the secondary grain. Bicast was originally made for glossy shoes, but then was adopted by the furniture industry for high-shine couches. The split layer is mixed with an embossed layer of polyurethane or vinyl. Thus, when you're sitting on the couch, you won't be touching the actual leather.
Bicast leather is easy to clean and maintain because of it's top finish. It's also cheaper than higher levels of leather. However, you might still encounter some of the sweat issues that you can have with Faux/Bonded Leathers and it wont develop the patina of a top or full grain couch.
What is Split Grain Leather
Split grain leather on a couch means you're actually sitting on true 100% leather. As mentioned in the Bicast leather section, leather is composed of different layers. Split grain leather is that secondary layer and not the top grain. It's made mostly from the Corium of the hide. As such, it doesn't have the durability and suppleness of the highest quality leathers, but it is still better than the other types we covered. It's often embossed with a finish that's noticeable when compared to top and full grain leathers. In addition, split grain leather is used to make suede.
The pros of this are that it's cheaper than top and full grain leathers. It can breath and develop a patina like actual leather. The cons are that it's not quite a supple and not as durable.
What is Top Grain Leather
Top grain leather is the top layer of the hide (it's split from the secondary layer). This is usually the highest quality we see from normal furniture manufacturers (the highest level being full-grain leather). It's breathable, supple, and no two leathers are the same. This is the leather you're looking for when you you see those old couches that are works of art in their own right. The disadvantages here is usually the price.
When you get into this type of leather there are often two dying/processing styles that are referenced. See the semi-aniline and aniline sections below for a bit more info.
What is Full Grain Leather
100% true leather that is composed of the the full spectrum of the hide. It has all the layers and is often the priciest piece of leather furniture you can buy. The reason you don't see many manufacturers using this is because of it's cost, but also because it's a little more difficult to work with in the context of a couch. That being said, if you do see a full grain leather couch, it's probably the highest quality you can get.
Top Grain Leather processing
What is Semi-Aniline Leather
This is a listed "type" of leather you'll see from quite a few retailers, but semi-aniline isn't so much a type of leather as it is a process for producing leather. They take the leather and then they add a wax top coat to protect it. This is a great type of leather to look for if you have kids, pets, and other damaging factors on top of your couch.
It's often made from top grain leather, but you'll need to double check because sometime it will use other layers. This could be why you see a couch with semi-aniline listed cheaper than aniline or another top grain leather couch.
The reason you might not want this type of leather is if you're looking for that authentic leather patina. Semi-Aniline generally has a pigment applied to it. Don't get us wrong, this will still age beautifully, but just not quite with as much richness as the leather process we're going to mention next.
What is Full-Aniline (aka Aniline) Leather
Similar to semi-aniline, this is a process for selecting and processing the leather. It's usually a top grain leather with a translucent dye lathered on. As a result, you'll see the natural characteristics of the leather, color variations, and "burstings of color" in tighter parts of the leather. Products that list their leather as aniline will usually be very expensive, but you pay for what you get. It's durable, supple, and has some gorgeous aging qualities.
There are a few times you wouldn't want to buy this type of leather couch. Obviously the price is a factor, but the the other is that if you're worried about scuffing, staining, and fading overtime, you might want to look elsewhere. We wouldn't call this type of leather delicate, but we wouldn't recommend this with pets or kids around that might be having a pillow fight on top of it.
How to find leathers used in a couch?
A lot of times, retailers just list "leather". That could be a myriad of types and it's often hard to distinguish from the pictures on their e-commerce site or even in stores. Our recommendation is to give them a call and ask one of their sales reps directly. If they aren't able to give you an answer, it's probably a lesser quality leather.
Another alternative is to use our e-commerce search tool shopdeft.com. You can find couches with any type of leather that you're looking for just by typing it into the search bar.