Identity crisis

15 April 2015



It is important to know the specifics about the material you’re buying in order to better maintain its longevity. Dinker Bajpai, leather technologist, consumer products services, Bureau Veritas India, explains the many different types of leather available and how one can easily differentiate between various types.


In order to properly determine a type of leather, there are a few tests that one can do.

  • Magnifying-glass test: looking at leather under a magnifying glass will show in detail the finish applied to the leather, or if there is a finish on the leather
  • Water-absorption test: this tests helps identify how easy your leather will be to clean and how effective the finish on it is
  • Visual test: looking at leather says a lot; are there any natural markings visible? What colour is it?
  • Touch test: feeling the leather for softness, smoothness and grain pattern also helps identify the leather type.

 

Unfinished leather (full-grain leather)

In this group are all leathers without a lacquered finish applied such as aniline, pull-up and oily/waxy pull-up, with a few exceptions, but the finish on these is so light the same identification procedures apply. Also, not included in this group are suede and nubuck. This is because their surfaces have been buffed to create a nap and make them unsuitable for cleaning.

 

What's different about these leathers?
Because they have either a very thin or no applied finish, it makes them very absorbent. Being absorbent means they stain and mark easily. Having no finish also means they can fade very easily; the majority of aniline is just dyed with no lacquered finish and so the leather doesn't have the greatest colour fastness. Pull-up leathers are a bit better than aniline but still need careful maintenance.

 

Finished leather (corrected grain leather)

This group includes all leathers with a lacquered finish such as semi-aniline (this is an exception as it is a full-grain leather); pigmented (also known as top coated or corrected grain); bi-cast; and rub-off (also known as antique finish).

 

All the above have a lacquered finish and so are very easy to clean and maintain; bi-cast has a plastic coating bonded to the finish and so falls into this category. The top coat lacquer of rub-off leather is very weak, this means when you clean it the black top coat may easily wear away exposing the brighter colour beneath. Be careful when dealing with this leather type.

 

Nubuck and suede

These leathers have a nap texture and no top-coat finish applied. This makes them stain very easily, and because these stains are absorbed, very difficult to clean.

 

Aniline leather

Leather that has been dyed by immersion in a dye bath and has not received any coating of pigmented finish. A natural or dyed leather finished by application of a coherent surface coating, clear or coloured with dye.

 

Aniline leathers generally have no surface finish; however, some anilines can be sprayed with a lacquer to make them more useable. This is just a thin coating of finish but makes aniline easier to care for. Identifying aniline leathers can be done via a number of tests.

 
ProsCons
Very naturalEasily soiled
Aesthetically pleasingHigh maintenance
PrestigiousColour variation
Visible full grain patternPoor light fastness
Good breathabilityVisible defects

The magnifying-glass test
Looking at aniline leather through a magnifying glass will almost certainly clarify that the leather is aniline as what you see is unlike most other leathers. The hair follicles show up so clearly on aniline and are not as apparent on other leathers. You will be able to see many small holes on the leather surface. The small holes are where the hair was removed from the hide. Seeing these holes indicates that no pigmented finish has been applied; if it had, these holes would have been filled in.

 

The absorption test
Drip a small amount of leather cleaner or water onto the aniline leather. You will notice that the leather has absorbed the cleaner, leaving a dark patch that will dry out. Aniline will completely absorb the liquid in about 30 seconds. If the aniline has been finished, the liquid will not be absorbed. Use the magnifying glass test to identify the leather in this case.

 

If the leather absorbs the water at speed, it means that it will also absorb stains easily and quickly. It is crucial to maintain this leather with regular applications of the leather protection cream. If your leather has faded, you will need the leather recolouring balm to restore the colour.

 

The touch test
Aniline leather feels very soft and natural and will lighten if scratched; finished aniline leathers will not lighten when scratched.

 

The visual test
The colour of aniline will not look as uniform as that of a pigmented leather, the full-grain pattern is visible and people with good sight may see the hair follicles. Natural scarring and bites will be visible on the surface if there are any.

 

Pull-up leather

A leather that by design lightens in colour when stretched. There are a number of tests to identify normal and waxy pull-up leathers.

 
ProsCons
Very naturalQuite difficult to maintain
Lived-in lookCan become distressed easily
Natural grain patternCan attract dust if very tacky (waxy pull-up)
Visible markingsPotential oil and colour transfer problems

The magnifying-glass test
Under a magnifying glass, pull-up leather looks cracked. Due to the nature of the finish, the lighter colour shows through all the natural creases and cracks in the leather making them very evident when magnified. For waxy pull-up leather, the hair follicles are slightly visible and are generally a darker colour where they have absorbed the oil or wax. A lighter colour will also show through the grain.

 

The absorption test
For normal, drip a small amount of leather cleaner or water onto pull-up leather and it will absorb it within about 15 seconds. As pull-up leathers are generally quite dark, the water stain shows as more of a matt area rather than a darker area.

 

For waxy, if you drip a small amount of leather cleaner or water onto the surface of an oily/waxy pull-up leather it will absorb it instantly - within a matter of seconds. The leather will slightly darken and then return to normal quite quickly.

 

If the leather absorbs the water at speed, it means that it will also absorb stains easily and quickly. It is crucial to maintain this leather with regular applications of the protection cream. If your leather has faded, you will need the leather recolouring balm to restore the colour.

 

The touch test
Pull-up leather feels very soft and natural; when stretched, it will lighten in colour. It scratches quite easily as well, again to a lighter colour.

 

An oily/waxy pull-up feels very natural, with a slightly waxy feel to it. It scratches extremely easy and changes to a lighter shade when stretched.

 

The visual test
The colour of pull-up leather is quite uniform; however, as the leather ages and the lighter colour shows through, it can look quite distressed. It looks very natural as it only has a slight finish applied. If your leather has faded and scratched, you will need the leather recolouring balm to restore the colour.

 

Rub-off leather

This is a leather with a rub-off finish. There are two colours visible in rub-off leathers, a base colour (bright shade) and a top colour (dark shade). The way in which these leathers are made allows the base colour to show through the dark top colour creating an antique look.

 
ProsCons
DurableReduced breathability
Defects maskedGrain hidden or corrected
Antique lookThe rub-off finish can be hard to maintain

The magnifying-glass test
Under a magnifying glass, rub-off leather has the same painted-on look as a pigmented leather. However, you will notice small amounts of the brighter colour showing through the leather's grain.

 

The absorption test
Rub-off behaves just like pigmented leather with the drip test. Drip a small amount of leather cleaner or water onto the leather. It will sit on the surface so dab it with a piece of cloth to absorb the liquid. You will notice that no cleaner will be absorbed by the leather.

 

The touch test
Touching a rub-off leather shows the exact same characteristics of a pigmented leather. A pigmented leather feels as though it is coated; if an artificial grain pattern has been embossed, you will also be able to feel this on the surface. A rub-off leather will not scratch easily.

 

The visual test
This is where rub off differs from a standard pigmented leather. The colour looks old and worn. You will be able to see parts of the bright colour showing through the dark top coat, which creates the antique effect. Rub-off leathers often have a high-gloss finish.

 

If you do not maintain the leather using the protection cream, the top coat of colour can wear off in high-use areas. To make the leather last longer, apply the protection cream once every three months to reduce friction and stop the colour wearing away as quickly.

 

If the colour does wear away, you will need an antique-finish kit to fix it.

 

Semi-aniline leather

A leather in which the base coat contains a finish, but later coats contain only dye, or contrasting pigment, to give a two-tone appearance, designed to imitate aniline leather.

 
ProsCons
Natural in appearance if produced wellLess natural than aniline
PrestigiousCommercially difficult to produce well
Imitates anilineTwo-tone colour can wear away in high-use areas
Improved maintainability 
Improved light fastness 
Less colour variation 

The magnifying-glass test
Semi-aniline leather through a magnifying glass will look quite similar to aniline. The hair follicle holes are slightly visible (as indentations) but you will notice a thin pigmented coating covering them. Some semi-anilines have thicker coatings than others and the holes may not always be identifiable.

 

The absorption test
Drip a small amount of leather cleaner or water on to the semi-aniline leather. It will sit on the surface so dab it with a piece of cloth to absorb the liquid. You will notice that the leather will absorb a very small amount of this liquid, this is shown by a slightly darker patch. It can take three to four minutes for semi-aniline to absorb a drop of cleaner.

 

The touch test
Semi-aniline feels quite natural and soft to the touch. The finish is often smooth and you can feel the lacquered surface, which makes the leather semi-slippery compared with an aniline.

 

The visual test
The colour of semi-aniline will look quite uniform; not as varied as aniline and not as uniform as pigmented. The grain pattern will be natural-looking as only a thin pigmented coating is applied. You may be able to see natural markings, but you will have to look closely to spot them. A semi-aniline is often two-toned, but this effect can sometimes be very slight and hard to spot.

 

If you do not maintain the leather using the protection cream, the top coat of colour can wear off in high-use areas. To make the leather last longer, apply the protection cream once every three months to reduce friction and stop the colour wearing away as quickly.

 

Pigmented leather

A leather to which the grain-surface finish containing fine pigmented particles in a binder has been applied.

 
ProsCons
Very uniform surfacePlastic-like appearance if too heavily coated
Easy to maintainGrain hidden or corrected
DurableReduced breathability
Uniform colour 
Good light fastness 
Defects masked 

The magnifying-glass test
Looking at a pigmented leather through a magnifying glass will show a sound uniform coating. There will be no difference in shade or colour and if embossed, the grain will also look very uniform.

 

The absorption test
Drip a small amount of leather cleaner or water onto the pigmented leather. It will sit on the surface so dab it with a piece of cloth to absorb the liquid. You will notice that no cleaner will be absorbed by the leather. Pigmented leathers are well finished and are non-absorbent.

 

The touch test
Pigmented leather feels as though it is coated; if an artificial grain pattern has been embossed, you will also be able to feel this on the surface. Pigmented leather will not scratch easily.

 

 

The visual test
The colour of a pigmented leather is 100% uniform; there will be no alterations in colour or shade. Scarring and other visual defects should be hidden by the pigment or have been buffed away and the coating should have a totally uniform pattern.

 

Finished split
This is a similar type of leather to pigmented leather, the only difference is that in a finished split the pigment is applied to the split of the leather, whereas a standard pigmented leather has had the pigment applied to the grain. This type of leather is cheaper to produce so is commonly used on the backs and sides of upholstery.

 

Bi-cast leather

This is either a finished split or coated leather, which has had a polyurethane film bonded to the surface.

 
ProsCons
Very uniform surfacePlastic-like appearance
Very easy to maintainNo grain surface
Uniform colourReduced breathability
Good light fastnessPossible flex problems
Defects maskedStiff plastic feel


The magnifying-glass test
Looking at bi-cast leather through a magnifying glass will show a sound uniform coating. There will be no difference in shade or colour. Depending upon whether the leather is a split or top grain, you may or may not see hair follicles.

 

The absorption test
Drip a small amount of leather cleaner onto bi-cast. It will sit on the surface so dab it with a piece of cloth to absorb the liquid. You will notice that no cleaner will be absorbed by the bi-cast - this is due to the plastic film on surface.

 

The touch test
Bi-cast feels like plastic; to the touch it is smooth and quite slippery. It will not scratch easily.

 

The visual test
The colour of bi-cast is 100% uniform; there will be no alterations in colour. The same applies to the grain pattern; this will be uniform throughout the whole surface as it is artificial. Bi-cast also looks very glossy and plastic; this is a way to identify the leather as it shines a lot more than any other leather type.

Aniline leather can be used on upholstery.
A pull-up leather double-compartment laptop case.
Rub-off leather artwork.
Coloured semi-aniline leather.
Pigmented leather is used in automotive finishes.
Finished bi-cast leather.


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