What Kind of Leather Is the Best for Sofas?

Choosing the right leather sofa -- one that fits your family's needs and pocketbook -- means understanding the many different types of leather used to make furniture. How the leather transitions from an animal's hide to your living room is defined by the grade it's given. The most expensive and the best quality leather may not be the ideal choice for an active family, while an inexpensive, leather-like upholstery may prove to be a good short-term solution.

Modern Room Interior
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A white leather sofa in a modern living room.

Grades of Leather

Red leather
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Close-up of a red leather sofa cushion.

Just as furniture is made with different varieties of wood, there are grades of leather covering that furniture. The one to select depends on how much you want to spend and how long you want the sofa to last. Shop at a reputable furniture store that deals in quality more than quantity for the best information when you're buying a leather sofa.

Full Grain Leather

Brown leather texture
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Close-up of a piece of full grain leather.

Full grain leather has tiny holes where the animal's hair follicles were, and scars accrued during the life of the cow. It's composed of tightly knit fibers, making it the toughest part of the hide. The application of aniline vegetable dye from surface to surface during the tanning process is the only treatment full grain leather undergoes. It's porous and scars easily, especially if it's unfinished, -- meaning not treated with a protective coating. Yet, it also develops a personality through the years, as oil and dirt accumulate to create a unique patina. Full grain leather is the most expensive of the leather grades.

Top Grain Leather

red fabric texture
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Close-up of a piece of red top grain leather.

Top grain, found just under the full grain of a hide, is made of grains that grow both horizontally and vertically. It's the toughest type of leather used to make furniture. Buffing removes the imperfections found on the surface of full grain leather. It's dyed, and either finished with a coating or left in its natural, unfinished state. Top grain leather is soft and long lasting. It is also more expensive than lower grades of leather.

Split Grain Leather

brown leather XXL size
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Close-up of a piece of split grain leather.

Split grain leather comes from the layer that's been cut away from the underside of the top grain. While it is 100 percent leather, it's of a lesser quality. Split grain is subject to tearing, stretching and fading; therefore it's often used for the sides and backs of sofas because those parts don't experience the wear and tear that the rest of the sofa does.You can expect a life span of about five years with a split grain sofa.

Genuine Leather

leather shoes
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Close-up of shoes made of genuine leather.

Yes, it's leather and made from a cow hide -- but genuine leather, crafted from the bottom layer of the hide, has no grain. A pattern is stamped onto the hide, simulating the texture of an animal's skin, and it's painted several times, creating a finish that is either mottled or smooth. Genuine leather is more often used on shoes than on sofas.

Bonded Leather

shoe factory
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Close-up of a craftsman's hands measuring and cutting pieces of bonded leather.

When a tannery shaves off the very top layer of a hide, removing the bits that have pores and scratches, those shavings are used to create bonded leather -- it's similar to particleboard wood. The shavings are mixed with chemicals, dyes and bonding agents to create what appears to be leather, and then pressed with a grain pattern. Bonded leather is not considered leather, consequently it's the least expensive leather-like fabric found on sofas. Bonded leather tears more easily than top grain or genuine leather and is harder to repair; dye matches are inconsistent and it is harder to the touch. But it's safe for those with leather allergies.

The Leather Test

Leather sofa and chaise longue in living room
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A leather sofa and chaise lounge in a modern living room.

Poke the seat back or seat of a leather sofa with your finger. If several small rivulets emanate out from the finger's indent, it's leather. Do the same on the back and sides of the sofa. Non-leather won't create thedr radiating indentations.