Determining Leather Quality

When choosing an EDC bag or gadget case leather is always a good option (if weight and long term water resistance are not at issue). Leather bags look cool, get better with age and, if chosen properly, are virtually indestructible.

That last part choosing properly is the real key. You may have noticed on your cheap pair of shoes, or your belt that is beginning to separate, the stamp “Genuine Leather”. Wow! Genuine! Sounds awesome, right? Wrong. Genuine leather is the shoddiest, crappiest, cheapest and most like plastic grade of leather. Next time you are looking to purchase a leather item, use this guide to make sure you pick out a winner.

TL;DR – What kind of leather should I buy?

Full grain leather. Everything else is second (or third, or worstest) class leather.

Types of Leather

There are three broad types of leather, in descending order of quality: full grain leather, top grain leather, and genuine leather.

Full Grain Leather

This is the highest quality and heaviest type of leather. You want everything that you own to be full grain leather, wherever possible. Full grain leather is a hide that has not been sanded, buffed or corrected to remove imperfection or marks. The “grain” of the leather remains attached to the hide, lending the piece structural integrity. The grain also permits the piece to absorb and evaporate water, permitting the piece to “breath.”

Full grain leather does not “wear out” in the way that cheap genuine leather belt you got from Macy’s does. Full grain leather will develop a patina, and may become more pliable and workable over time — i.e. your full grain leather jacket will begin to “form fit” to you, and your EDC bag will become softer with age.

Full grain leather can be further broken down in to two types — aniline and semi-aniline. Aniline leather is leather dyed with soluble dyes, but not “painted” with a topcoat. Semi-aniline has had some topcoat applied. Topcoat is used to correct imperfections and blemishes in a piece so, as you can imagine, full grain aniline leather is the most valuable as there is no room to hide damage.

Top Grain Leather

This is better than genuine leather, but second to full grain. Top grain leather has had part of the grain (the fuzzy side of a piece of leather) removed, typically in order to thin the piece out and enhance pliability. Top grain leather has almost always had its surface sanded and painted, which effectively seals the leather and ensures no patina will develop with age. Top grain leather also has a more synthetic feeling to its surface than full grain leather, owing to its painted layer.

Top grain leather may also be referred to as “corrected-grain” leather. Corrected grain leather is a material that has had an artificial grain painted on its surface, or etched in to the hide. Imagine a concrete slab floor that you paint or acid etch to resemble marble. Patent leather is, essentially, corrected grain leather. Patent leather is leather that has been given a high-gloss finish, like the wall in a cheap motel.

Genuine Leather

Also known as reconstituted leather, also known as garbage, “genuine leather” is neither genuine, no leather. Genuine leather is a commercial term for any material that technically contains leather fiber — in the same way that Froot Loops might technically contain fruit.

Most genuine leather is either bonded or reconstituted leather. Bonded leather is leather scraps from a tannery, ground up in to a paste, and mixed with polyurethane or latex. Any time you read “Genuine Leather” on a piece, replace “Leather” with “Latex” in your mind and decide if that belt is really a great bargain.

Some Deals

Looking for “full grain leather” is a good starting point for establishing the quality of a piece. Most people don’t know the difference between full grain and genuine leather and, indeed, may even think the latter is of higher quality. For this reason, there are often deals to be had on items that are of much higher quality than their price would suggest. As you would expect, however, a piece that is made of high quality material but with shoddy craftsmanship is not going to last you much longer than that genuine leather belt. Here are some best bets for hidden full grain leather gems:

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