Leather types & styles used in furniture production
When it comes to leather it's quite a lot of mysteries and inconsistencies floating around. We want to spread some light on it and be somewhat clear on a topic, so you have a better understanding of what those types of leather generally mean. Bonded leather, faux leather, top grain, bycast, PVC, PU, vinyl - what all of these mean? We'll make it clear so you can use this as a reference.
There is some brilliant knowledge online about how leather is made, what processes are typically included; what are historic references on leather production and usage, drying techniques, tanning details and so on - so we won't stop on that.
What we'd like to point out very shortly is that leather has been a part of human life for a very-very long time and it's still considered one of the best materials for a lot of products we use, including the product that interests us the most: furniture. Let's leave shoes and bags for another time.
Types of Leather
Ok, first thing to understand about natural authentic leather - it consists of layers. Layers on the hide are somewhat uneven, but typically, a leather cut would look something like this:
Full leather is top layer, followed by top grain, followed by split
Animal skin typically followed by grain layer, followed by thin corium junction tissue, then corium. Now, with the above picture in mind, we'll go towards leather grades - from very top and expensive ones to more affordable leather choices widely used in industry today. Now, let's start with how typical real authentic leather is split and what parts are used in furniture production.
Very top portion of leather cutoff. The most expensive leather part (depends on part where it's taken from too) but this leather type is quite rarely used in furniture production in pure form. Has all grain in it. Very challenging to work with. Typically used for saddlebags - and most expensive type of leather of all. A lot of imperfections - as with any real leather.
This is second grade of leather, typically the best you can meet in furniture. If product says - top grain - just buy it if the price is fine. More flexible and smooth than full grain, less imperfections. Other two subtypes of leather namely nubuck and suede are made from this leather. These two types of leather are in fact done by sanding.
In furniture split is typically used for sides and backs - since it's not as expensive as top grain and generally harder type of leather, not very suitable for seating parts. It's taken from a deeper leather surface mostly from the corium part as you can see in the picture.
Despite popular belief Bonded leather is 100% authentic leather too, it's just made from cuts, leftovers, dust of the hide. Typically, it's bonded together using polyurethane and then painted. In most cases manufacturers wouldn't disclose a percentage of leather used in bonded leather and sometimes it is quite impossible to determine. However, it's genuine leather as well, just the least expensive type.
No, it's not some kind of French leather as you might think. It's just another name for Bonded leather, which is the same thing. Many companies tend to love the word and use it descriptions all over the place.
This is not a leather type but rather a term. Leather match typically means the seating parts are done in top grain leather, and non-seating parts (side/back) in either PVC, split, bonded or any other more affordable variant. Leather match doesn't mean product is cheap or bad, it means it's manufactured with price in mind, so it won't be as expensive as 100% top grain product.
Ok, now to more affordable leather types.
Bycast or Bicast Leather
This is a leather type manufactured by mixing parts of split and colored polyurethane. This allows furniture to look like top grain leather but due to the manufacturing process bycast leather products are much cheaper. Bycast is very durable and affordable, but similar to bonded leather it's not quite there where you compare ultimate quality and comfort of top grain products.
This type of leather has nothing from a real animal in it and is a very popular choice if you're an animal lover. Very strong, very durable, can sustain stains easily and can last for years - and typically quite affordable. Of course, it can't compare to top-of-the-line top grain products but isn't meant to. This type of leather is also less prone to peels, cracks and typically requires no maintenance at all.
PVC and PU
Quite often you might find a PVC (polyvinyl chloride) or PU (polyurethane) abbreviatures in the product description. It's considered to be part of the leather furniture family, but those things are quite different. PU is typically made with polyurethane and bycast, while PVC has no real leather components in it at all. Both are very durable and long-lasting.
PU better adapts to body temperature and is typically 'more breathable'. PVC is typically very resistant to sunlight, cleaners, chemistry and flame. PU on the other hand is more sensible, but generally more natural. PU is commonly more expensive.
PVC products sometimes are referred to as 'vinyl' products which is literally the same thing. This is probably the most affordable leather type product of all. PVC also typically uses more layers to it is more durable.
Leather grade can differ
How to spot / figure out real leather easily?
Lastly, we just want to quickly share how to determine real leather. Fortunately, it's quite easy.
Product Cost. First very important metric. Real leather products are not cheap and will never be cheap. You can't get a good leather couch for $300, it's impossible.
Smell. Real leather always has some certain distinctive leather smell to it.
Texture. Real leather is made from a real animal hide, no hide is perfect. You can always see and feel some minor imperfections. Re-processed (bycast, bonded) or fully artificial (PVC) leather will always be uniform.
Elasticity. Real thing will always be more elastic - quickly returning to a form if pressed or stretched. The more unnatural leather is, the slower it will react.
Warmth. Again, no comparison there. When you touch real leather, it will keep and share your warmth.
Water. Good if you're experimental type of person - you can do a very simple water test. Leather absorbs moisture to a certain degree, while processed / artificial leather does not absorb it at all. There's also a fire test, but we won't mention it. By now you should be able to tell if it's top grain leather or not.
Edges. PVC, PU, Bycast and all other processed leathers have smooth even edges. With real leather it's impossible - since layers of leathers are used, plus over time those edges become uneven. If you feel rough, uneven edges - it's a top-quality real leather product that you will enjoy for years to come.