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Leather vs Vinyl Myth Buster

Many times I have customers ask about their leather car seats or leather furniture. They say its a few years old and peeling, cracking or splitting and can it be repaired. They say it is hard and brittle. It is very common for the general public to be fooled into thinking they have purchased leather – it can be hard to tell the difference and sometimes the seller is not as clear as they could be or can be confused themselves. The hard truth is; if this is happening after a few years, you do not have leather. Leather is the best of the best, some more exotic than others with cowhide being the most common and therefore the best price for leathers. At a much higher price are the exotic leathers such as ostrich, alligator, crocodile, etc. that are less common, but much softer and more interesting.


There is nothing wrong with using vinyl. There are many beautiful choices being made in colors and designs that are difficult or too expensive to get in leather. A good vinyl will last 10-20 years depending on the use.


Just make sure you know what you’re getting. Here are the truths:

  • Leather gets softer over time – vinyl gets harder
  • Leather breathes so it stays cool in summer and warm in winter – vinyl does not breathe and is cold in winter and hot in summer
  • Leather has a suede-like back – vinyl has cloth or foam of some sort
  • Leather comes as a hide (odd-shaped depending on the animal) – vinyl is on a roll (anything on a roll is NOT leather)
  • Leather is very strong and durable, lasting 30+ years – good vinyl will last 10-15 years (depending on the use) – low-grade vinyl will become hard and begin to crack after just a few years.
  • Leather has a distinct smell. Vinyl does not.
  • In the cold, vinyl gets hard and stiff. Leather stays soft and supple.

Listed below are descriptions of leather and vinyl, in order of most expensive to least. Bear in mind, real leather could cost 10+ times more than your average vinyl, so when deciding what to buy, you must consider your budget, personal preference, application, and how long you expect the item to last. Good automotive vinyl in a classic car, protected from the sun can last 20+ years and is the most common choice for cars. High priced vinyl such as a product called “Luxor Leather” (don’t be fooled by the name – it’s still vinyl) looks and feels like real leather but is ½ the price of leather but much more than vinyl. “Ultra Leather” (again, that’s a brand name for vinyl) will cost the same as leather – so why not just get leather?

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

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

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.

So, knowing all this, how do you tell the difference?

If you’re having something upholstered and your pieces are being cut from a hide, you can be sure it’s leather. If it’s on a roll– no matter if it has a fabric, foam or suede-like back, it’s most definitely man-made.


If you’re buying a new car or furniture, it’s more difficult to tell. Check the tags first. If its real leather the tag will proudly state whether it’s full-grain, top-grain or split leather.


Remember – Luxor Leather, Ultra Leather, etc. are brand names of man-made products – not real leather. There are many, many "like leather" names out there. Does it smell like leather? Turn the piece over and find a spot where you can look at the backside of the fabric. Is it suede or a fabric/foam back? What’s the price tag? My Chrysler Sebring was sold as having leather seats – the only piece of leather I could find was a small piece of a suede insert in the middle of the seat – the rest is vinyl and after 7 years and only 55,000 KM’s the vinyl pieces were hard and cracking.


I recently upholstered a 1960 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud that had been used for 20 years as a farm vehicle. The original leather covers were still on it – much of the leather still in decent shape after 53 years.

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