An Overview Guide to Leather Grades

“Genuine Leather” sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? The dictionary definition of genuine is “actually having the reputed or apparent qualities or character.” But you might be surprised to learn that “genuine leather” is actually some of the worst you can buy.

The term “genuine leather” just means that it contains some piece of a cow or whatever other animal’s hide in it. But whether that’s 1 or 100 percent leather is entirely up to the manufacturer, and the rest is usually plasticky bonding goo or even paperboard fillers. Instead of whether some piece of it is genuine or not, look for the leather grade, which is covered by five, somewhat unintuitive terms.

Although the below list does not include every last kind of leathers, it features the different quality grades every consumer should know before making a purchase. There are many different and conflicting definitions of leather grades, but below is what we feel is the most sensible way to classify leather as a modern consumer.

Full-Grain Leather

OPUS by Accel Company ‘Full-Grain Cowhide’ Mini Wallet. Available for $171 from Corlection.

First, understand that leather has layers. What’s up top there at the surface of the skin below the hair, that’s the expensive primo stuff. It’s where the fibers are the densest, so it’s the strongest and most durable and it will develop a nice patina and age gracefully.

Grades of Leather: Full Grain vs Top Grain vs Genuine

Leather including all that top goodness is called “full grain”, meaning it has all the grain of the leather. If you’ve ever seen our Fade Friday leather features that have all this beautiful aging and coloration on them, that’s likely full grain.

Only the highest quality apparel, accessories, and footwear often features full-grain leather, and it develops a beautiful patina over time.

Top-Grain Leather

Top-grain leather via MercerLeathers on Etsy.

Below “Full Grain”, both in the literal and qualitative sense, is “Top Grain.” Now this doesn’t make any sense because it doesn’t include the actual top of the grain. Because full grain is at the top of the skin, it also has all the scars and nicks and other potentially undesirable stuff on it. Like if a cow wandered into a cactus patch, it’s gonna show up on the full grain leather.

To make a more uniform finish, Top Grain leather shaves or sands off that very top layer so it all looks the same and usually has a finish applied to it. While this finish takes away most breathability, it prevents stains that would otherwise sink into full-grain leather. You often see this in luxury products because it’s more consistent. But the downside is it won’t patina and age like a full grain leather and it’s also less durable as it’s had the densest and strongest part of the skin removed.

Suede / Split Leather


Snuff suede on a pair of Alden x Clutch Cafe Ranger Mocs.

Further down the leather ladder is “Split Leather”, which is the looser kind of hairy fibers that get split away from the tighter surface grain. Suede is the most common split leather, which is not necessarily bad, it’s just thinner and not as strong.

This can be further divided, or sanded down to reach the appropriate thickness. There are a variety of techniques to create suede (different splits, sanding, etc.), but its signature is its textured feel. Cow leather has a rougher feel, so lamb, goat, calf, and deerskin are commonly used instead.

Easymoc Whipstitch Special Suede available for $375 from American Trench.

Although suede feels great, it’s less durable because it is thinner and absorbs liquid easily due to its porous surface. Similar to suede but generally regarded as being more durable, nubuck is top-grain cow hide leather that has been lightly sanded on the outside. This creates a very short nap, giving the leather its signature velvety feel.

Further down the leather ladder is “Split Leather”, which is the looser kind of hairy fibers that get split away from the tighter surface grain. Suede is the most common split leather, which is not necessarily bad, it’s just thinner and not as strong.

Corrected-Grain Leather

Genuine Leather via BestLeather.

Manufacturers can also dress up a split leather to look like something of higher quality. They take the thinner pieces and apply a plasticky vinyl coating over the top and stamp in an artificial pattern to make it look like full grain. This is called “Corrected Grain” leather and is usually best avoided.

Bonded Leather

An Overview Guide to Leather Grades

Image c/o Wikipedia.

And then at the very bottom of the pyramid is “Bonded Leather”, which uses leftover scrap pieces of leather that are shredded to a near-pulp. These shreds are then bonded together using polyurethane or latex slurry on top of a fiber sheet. It’s basically chicken nuggets in leather form.

There’s no way of telling the level of organic leather material versus chemical, unless the manufacturer tells you (very unlikely). It’s obviously very cheap, so it is popular in furniture upholstery and other commercial uses. While we admire the “use every part of the animal” aspect, this stuff is super brittle, usually thin, and cracks and wears out easily while managing to look like cheap plastic in the process.

Beware “Genuine Leather”

Craftool / Ivan 3 D LEATHERWORKER Leather Stamp Tools - 4 Variations | eBay

Remember, literally everything on this list can legally be sold as “Genuine Leather”, so when you see something labeled “genuine” with no other qualifiers, it’s safest to just assume it’s of relatively low quality.

But if you want to know more about actual quality leather, check out our articles on Common Shoe Leathers to Know and our full rundown on the “king of leathers” Shell Cordovan.