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Leah A. Zeldes, Tribune Brand Publishing
Leather furniture comes in a wide range of styles and wide range of price points. Knowing the types can help you decide which is best for you. Like any other furnishings, construction makes a difference in quality cost,
but distinctions among the leather upholstery itself also determine the price and durability of the furnishings it covers.
Oddly enough, the most durable leather upholstery isn't necessarily the most expensive or the most uniform in appearance. The costliest full-grain
leathers are the least processed and most-looking natural leathers, according to Rick Marsh, a manager for Baer's, a collection of fine furniture stores with 15 locations throughout Florida.
This leather has the softest "hand," or feel, much like glove leather, and develops a beautiful patina as it ages. Yet this upholstery, sometimes called "natural" leather or "full-aniline" leather, can be very delicate and easily
soiled. Such leather can be cleaned, and minor scratches buffed away, but natural-leather furniture is best used in situations where it won't get heavy use.
It isn't very practical for family rooms, for instance, especially where there are young children and pets. "Glove leather is less durable and will pick up body oils," noted Helene Brown, a Baer's designer.
Full-aniline leather also typically shows some natural imperfections in the original hide, such as scars from insect bites, barbed-wire scratches and wrinkles, possibly even branding marks. However, only the very best hides are
finished this way, another factor in pricing.
With more processing and finishing, leather becomes stronger and more durable. Additional pigments and protective coatings applied to the surface make it hold up better to hard use. These "semi-aniline" and "protected" leathers will
also be more uniform to the touch.
Because the topcoats cover up blemishes in the leather, less perfect hides can be used. Along with stiffening the leather and making it more resilient, these heavy-duty coatings create a consistent color. Leather will also often be
uniformly embossed to resemble natural leather graining, but without the variations that make full-aniline hides unique.
Finally, the leather scraps are "mulched up," as Marsh puts it, and combined with synthetic materials and put on the back of a piece of vinyl or vinyl-like material to create bonded leather. "It's less expensive," he said, "but it has
a much harder feel to it. Water won't penetrate. You won't get that leather feel."
"I would never recommend what's called 'bonded leather,'" Brown said.
Here are the major types of leather used for upholstery:
Full-grain: The most costly, highest quality and most natural. When the tanners split the skin to make it thin and supple enough for upholstery, this forms the uppermost layer of the hide, the side from which the hair has been removed.
It's cured, tanned and dyed, but otherwise little processed. Full-grain leather shows all the natural variations in coloring and grain, making each piece unique.
Top-grain: "'Top grain' is the same top layer, only they may have had to sand it down," said Molly Tracy, marketing manager for furniture makers American Leather. Tanners do that to remove imperfections in the hides. Afterward, they
typically add protective coatings and emboss the exterior with leather graining or another pattern.
Split: Used more often in shoes than as upholstery, then split is the bottom layer of the hide. Left with its natural texture, it's "suede," — not very practical for upholstery — but it can be processed to smoothness. However, splits
are more fragile than full- or top-grain leathers.
Bonded or blended: As little as 17% or less leather can go into this product, according to Marsh. "Bonded" leather is made of ground leather scraps mixed with or sprayed onto the back of man-made materials such as polyurethane or vinyl.
It doesn't breathe or feel the way leather does, although it may be stamped to look like leather. You don’t touch, feel, smell or get the durability of leather with bonded.
Bicast: Bicast can be vinyl or leather backed with a very heavy finish put on the face. A fine furniture manufacturer wouldn’t try to pass off bonded leather as leather and a fine furniture store would only sell it as a leather match product.
Leather with split hides: A sofa or chair may be a combination of full- or top-grain leather and another material, such as split leather or a dyed-to-match synthetic, If split leather is used, the item may be labeled "100% leather."
Typically, the less expensive upholstery is used for the back and sides of the piece, in order to cut costs.
Vinyl match: Vinyl that has the pattern and color of leather found on another portion of the piece of furniture. It’s normally found on the outside backs and arms of a chair or couch.
No matter what kind of leather furniture you’re seeking, Baer’s Furniture has an expansive selection of top brands suitable for any room in your home.
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