Full Grain Leather
Full-grain leather hides show their grain and all the natural marks and imperfections from the natural hide have not been sanded off. Layers of leather underneath haven’t been removed, so the leather is in a state as close to natural as possible. It can breathe and is very durable. Over time it develops a patina from interacting with the air. Full-grain leather is the most expensive to buy.
Top Grain Leather
Top grain is the most common kind of leather used in high-end items. It has had the split layer of the hide removed, so it is thinner and more flexible than full-grain leather. The resulting hide is sanded to create an even, smooth texture. If dyes are used, they are added after sanding, and then a finish coat is applied that helps the leather resist stains. This material offers the best feel and comfort along with the best color depth. While less expensive than full-grain, it is more resistant to stains.
Split leather is made from the layer of the hide that is left once the top-grain portion has been removed. Hides are shaved horizontally into different layers so a tannery gets several sheets of leather product from just one hide. The split portion of the hide has an artificial layer applied to it which is then embossed with a grain to simulate the look of top grain leather. It’s still leather, made from a real hide; but the cost drops even further, so it is often found on affordable leather items. Split leather is also used to create suede.
All real leathers have a suede back and are odd-shaped hides.
Good quality vinyl can feel very soft and look a lot like leather. It can really fool you. To tell the difference, look at the back of the material. If you see a woven fabric backing, it’s man-made. Vinyl is generally very water-resistant and easy to wipe clean, so it’s often used to upholster car and boat seats as well as budget-priced furniture. It is frequently embossed to simulate a leather grain or dyed with a pattern that looks like leather.
Bonded leather is neither leather nor vinyl. It starts out with tiny leather scraps that would normally become waste from tanneries. These are sent to a mill that grinds them into very small pieces. These pieces are then spray-glued onto the back of man-made material. They make the back of the material feel like suede. When bonded leather is made with good polyurethane material, it can be difficult to tell the difference between it and real leather.
A sure way to tell bonded leather - it does not come as a hide, but will be on a roll, 45-60” wide and sold by the yard. Only real leather is sold in hides. Bonded leather is far less expensive than real leather, but because of its real leather content, marketers can use the word leather in their descriptive materials. Some call it recycled leather or eco-friendly leather because the manufacturing process is more environmentally-friendly than leather production. But is it not leather. It is man-made and of much lesser quality than even vinyl.
Steer clear of Bonded Leather. I have reupholstered $300,000 motor homes after only 4 years with "leather" interiors because the bonded leather peeled off and leaves a hideous covering that looks like someone scraped it up. Bonded leather is being made cheaper every year and degrading very quickly.