The rich, earthy fragrance of full-grain leather touches your senses and envelops you. It's not overwhelming, but it does feel luxurious and expensive. Full-grain leather is the most costly, and it's the grain closest in character to the original hide. Top-grain leather, while also of excellent quality, has had the life scars of the animal sanded away, yielding a leather that is smooth and supple, but devoid of personality. Both leathers are the top choice for furniture upholstery, but their differences are notable.
Not all furniture is designed for the personality that full-grain leather imparts. When a hide is prepared for processing, the top is often scarred and marked by the rigors of life on the range. Full-grain leather includes the entire top layer of the hide, which earns it the designation full-grain. The character added by the scrapes, scars and even an occasional brand mark give life to the hide. As the furniture is used, the full-grain leather obtains a burnished shine, making it more beautiful as the years pass.
The second-most expensive piece of leather is top-grain. This layer of the hide is split from the very top, which shows the wear and tear of the life cycle of the animal, and processed by sanding and refinishing. The result is a hide that is strong and durable, but one that doesn't age as well as full-grain. The strong fibers have been sanded off, and the remaining fibers pull apart with heavy use. Top-grain leather doesn't develop the patina of full-grain.
Benefits of Full-Grain Leather
Since the hide of full-grain leather isn't sanded or buffed, its fibers remain intact and strong. It also has breathability, which prevents moisture from accumulating and makes the sitting experience more comfortable. Because the hide is thicker than top-grain leather, furniture using full-grain has a more rustic Western look. It's not as pliable, and the lack of an added topcoat eliminates the cold feeling you get when sitting on other types of leather.
More pliable than full-grain, top-grain has a softer look and feel. The thinner hide has a protective topcoat that conceals the fibers, making them less breathable. This results in a cold feeling when it touches the skin. An advantage is that the topcoat on the leather serves to prevent staining. Most furniture is crafted of top-grain leather since the thinner hide can be formed and shaped to almost any design.
Aniline and Semi-Aniline
Adding to the confusion of buying leather furniture are the terms aniline and semi-aniline. Aniline leather refers to top-grain leather that is soaked in a transparent, non-toxic dye that penetrates the hide. The dying treatment infuses the hide throughout, giving it color. No top oat is applied with aniline dyes. Semi-aniline has a topical pigment added at the end of the treatment that evens out the color, increasing the durability of the hide.