My last post ventured into how most of the front page search results get the definiton of “Genuine Leather” mostly wrong by way of over-simplification. This post is going to take aim at the another part of the Full Grain/Top Grain/Genuine story that you’ll see repeated over and over on the net. I’ll hit top grain in another post (though I will mention it some here to show differences), but today, I’m going to go in-depth about “Full Grain” because many articles make statements that are totally wrong and many over-simplify.
If you’re reading this post you have probably heard the term full grain leather used before, so lets start with a little game:
One of the two leathers below is full grain the other is not; can you tell which is the full grain?
Now, many of you probably realized that the answer would be counter-intuitive and picked the brown, but if we’re honest, most people (including myself) would have picked the red leather as the full grain (because of all the natural marks). However, the brown leather is the full grain (it’s S.B. Foot’s Manitee Boulder) and red leather is not (its’ Horween’s Cherry Cavalier). I can’t even tell why the Cavalier tannage isn’t full grain, but Horween’s full tannage list doesn’t have it listed as a full grain leather. This just goes to highlight the huge variation you can have within the “full grain category.” Further down I’ve included a list with lots of pictures to show the variety you can find, but first lets talk about what full grain is and what it’s not.
I’ll say right off the bat, that a nice quality full grain hide is great; the best leather you can buy….but not all full gain leathers fall into that category, and for many it’s just become a marketing buzzword. The purpose of this post isn’t to downplay the value of high quality full grain leather, but to educate on what it actually is. I’d also like to show that in some cases the choice between full-grain leather and another not full grain leather is more a matter of taste.
What is “Full Grain” Leather?
Full Grain refers to leather that has had nothing done to remove or alter the outermost layer of the cowhide. The main disqualifier that makes something not full grain is: “snuffing”: aka sanding or buffing. It’s also pretty well accepted that embossing an artificial grain onto the leather also disqualifies it from being called full grain (repeated in many articles), though I’ve found at least one source that says that leather is still full grain if it’s only been embossed (but not sanded). While this makes a lot of sense, when you’re talking about a leather’s overall quality and durability. However, I can’t find any products being marketed as “full grain embossed leather”, so for this post at least, let’s toss embossed leathers into the “top grain” category. Though I have seen a few embossed leather products called “full grain”, to me descriptively it feels wrong to call an artificially applied (embossed) grain “full.”
The “fullest of the full grain”, would be hair-on cow hide, but it’s not often seen in small leather goods and is used much more for rugs, upholstery and occasionally handbags. The general descriptions you’ll find of will mention that full grain will have notable blemishes and imperfections, these are called “range marks.” Range marks can be as small as little healed scars, moles, fat wrinkles, vein marks, even mosquito bites, but you’ll also see large brand marks on most leather hides. These marks can be more visible on many full grain leathers but you can find blemishes on any “real” leather if you look closely, even corrected grain and suede (actually nubuck hides blemishes worse than many full grain leathers). Blemishes aren’t evidence that a leather is really full grain, as we’ll consider later, some defects can be almost completely covered in full grain and easily visible in some top grain leather.
When most people think of full grain, the words “natural look and feel” come to mind, but this is not always the case! There is a lot of variety within the full grain category of leather sometimes it can be indistinguishable from other kinds of leather even with close examination. Let’s get into a few examples all are fairly pricey high-quality leathers from Top-Tier Tanneries (except the hair-on):
Full Grain Examples (from fullest of the full on down):
Hair-On So this is “fullest of the full grain” and isn’t seen too often. Hair-on hides are usually tanned to be “soft” and you’ll see it in rugs and furniture and very occasionally in handbags (though I have experimented with a wallet or two).
Full Grain Suede. This leather is from C.F. Stead Tannery, a tannery in England know for “the best suede you can buy”. This tannage is called Janus Calf, it’s a “full grain suede” meaning that it’s a full grain leather that is tanned with the intention of having the suede side out and visible. It’s used in expensive suede shoes (I received a few different colors of this in a scrap buy from a high-end shoe company.) This leather is a great example of full grain because it lets us see to see what the top side of leather looks like with minimal processing to hide the imperfections (because it doesn’t really matter how the smooth side looks). It’s a very nude finish and no blemishes get covered by a finish or pigment, so you can see wrinkles and scars easily.
Horween Chromexcel (waxy finish with Pullup)
Chromexcel is a famous full grain leather made by the world famous Horween Tannery in Chicago. It’s “pullup” quality hides imperfections very well.
Horween Tumbled Essex (medium gloss finish with the tumbled texture)
Essex is a vegetable-tanned leather. In these examples the tumbling has created a pebble grain that hides many flaws.
S.B. Foot Manitee Boulder (more finished/pigmented full grain)
This is a leather used for boots and shoes, the underside is actually a much lighter color than the top. The top finish coat does a great job of hiding natural range marks.
Wickett & Craig Bridle Leather, Chile Color (veg-tan with heavily pigmented finish):
This is a custom color of English Bridle leather from a top USA tannery, the glossy bright color makes everything but the deeper scars harder to see.
Not all full grain leather is created/tanned equal:
The problem with saying that full grain leather is universally better is that there are lots of lower quality full grain leathers available. As an example: I was recently offered (in the words one of my suppliers), a “Full grain leather that usually sells at $2.50 per foot” at a substantial discount. Now, Horween Tannery’s price for their full grain tannages doesn’t drop much below $7 per foot even if you’re buying thousands of feet (Horween is probably the most well know of the American Tanneries). Now would there be a major difference between the $7+ Horween and this “Normally $2.50 per foot” odd lot? You better believe it! The cheap stuff wouldn’t be horrible but chances are that it’d have more blemishes, not feel as nice and a much heavier finish coat.
Speaking of leathers with a heavy finish, this leads me to the the two problems we’re beginning to see with marketing full grain leather products:
Problem # 1: Full Grain Leather can have a significant amount paint/finish/gloss applied to the surface and it’s still “Full Grain”
While lots of the articles you’ll find say that full grain feels “more natural” and is “breathable”, that it develops a wonderful patina, that is not necessarily the case, in fact you can find lots of examples of very glossy full grain leathers. Originally patent leather was a full grain leather that had loads of lacquer applied on top. There is no mention of sanding in the original process. Since the “official definition” of full grain only means nothing has been done to alter that outer grain, you can add plenty of finish to a leather and it would technically still be “full grain.” Not too long ago, there some negative discussion when a well know leather goods maker switched to a “new” leather that while still full grain (which they had bragged about incessantly), seemed to have a much more processed look and feel.
Why a heavy finish on full grain can sometimes be problematic:
The problem with a heavy finish is that it will always scratch in a more permanent way than a more nude or waxy finish. If you’ve polished shoes, you know that some scuffs can be buffed out and others can’t. Usually softer finishes are a bit more forgiving with scratches (the same is true if you’re painting a room or a vehicle when it comes to scratches and matte vs glossy). You see a lot of heavy-duty leather items like construction boots and nail aprons made of nubuck or even suede because after just a a day of hard use, a slick glossy finish would be trashed, whereas scuffs and scratches “blend” better in suede and nubuck. Also when people buy full grain, usually they expect a leather that will age and acquire a patina over time, which happens less as leather gets a heavier finish.
Heavy finish isn’t always bad; maybe you want a nice glossy calf skin for a pair of dress shoes, boots or a belt, because it’s more formal. The Wickett & Craig Bridle Leather pictured above have a pretty heavy and glossy finish and cost over $10 per foot. Also many leathers used in cars (especially leather on steering wheels) are have a very thick durable finish to hold up to heavy wear.
Full Grain Problem #2: An excuse for defects.
“The blemishes in full grain leather tell a story, blemishes authenticate an item as real leather, etc.” While it is true, that on any leather item of a decent size, you should be able to find a range mark that shows that it’s a “natural material”, I’ve seen “full grain has blemishes” used to let manufacturers include defects that many leatherworkers traditionally have worked around. The same maker I mentioned in the “problem #1” also has made a big deal about “not discriminating” and not cutting around most range marks. Although it is true that most defects don’t effect a leather’s durability, it takes a certain person/taste to want a bag or wallet with lots of scars, scratches, brands or range marks. Unless a product meant to look distressed, I try to put these marks on the inside of pockets or at least on the “back” of an items. When you see a maker say that ignore defects, it’s not because of some “wabi sabi” idea of “beauty in imperfection”, but generally because they want to get a better utilization of “rough” leather.
I love the rough and rugged look of this hat, but I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not for everybody, full grain doesn’t have to look like this. All those are “surface blemishes don’t hurt the structural integrity of the leather, but they do look pretty rough.
To me, full grain leather is like a beautiful natural wood piece of furniture with a clear coat that lets you see the natural wood underneath. You see the natural grain, a couple imperfections (knots, cracks, etc) but it doesn’t have to be a “rustic” piece with tons of “natural flaws.” You don’t usually cover a beautiful wood piece with a super thick coating of paint so that it looks like plastic (though that gets done). The same is true for full grain leather, to me, it needs to have a great look and feel, not just the name: full grain. Can it be distressed, with lots of character? Sure, but it doesn’t have to be.
Lastly let’s bust some Full Grain Leather Myths:
- Full Grain does not mean “Full Thickness”!
I’ve found this repeated on a lot of sites, here’s a direct quote that encompasses what’s usually said when describing “Top Grain Leather”:
“Top grain leather is the second highest grade of leather, and has the outermost layer of the hide removed. This difference makes the leather thinner and more workable for the manufacturer, which is reflected in the price compared to full grain leather.”
Leather when comes off the cow can be incredibly thick. Tandy’s guide of leather thicknesses stops at 16oz leather which is 1/4″ thick (though I’ve seen thicker). As an example take my normal 8 pocket bifold, it has 4 thicknesses of leather (8 when folded), that means using “full-thickness” leather, you’d be sitting on 2″ of leather before adding cards and cash. Below is my standard bifold with the pieces cut from an English Bridle Leather (thick, but still not full thickness).
This means that all leather used in small leather goods from wallets to shoes, has been thinned down at the tannery. The only exceptions would be heavy work belts and horse tack.
This myth is so absurd that I’m going to call out the websites that are spreading it (send them an email let ’em know):
Heddels also repeated this nonsense, although they have lots of good info elsewhere on their site, including where they talk about splitting in the process of making leather.
- Full Grain is not always more expensive than other leathers
I have to buy a very specific corrected grain leather to make “flight badges” that go on uniforms. It’s a black smooth corrected grain leather (corrected grain is necessary because they get embossed with a very detailed insignia and a name). This corrected grain leather costs me significantly more than most of the full grain leathers I buy. Depending on what processes are applied and the tannery a leather comes from, the cost difference isn’t as cut and dry as is sometimes indicated.
- Full Grain is not always more “breathable”
Because full grain can have varying amounts of finish applied to the top, it can be just as “sealed in” as any other leather. Also, in the case of sanded leathers that don’t have much finish applied, like nubuck, how would removing some of the grain make it “less breathable”?
Full grain can also be so heavily waxed/oiled that it’s completely impermeable : You’ll find plenty of shoes and boots made from these kind of leathers (Horween’s Kudu, a CXL variant, is amazingly water proof, and feels super greasy).
- Full Grain is not significantly stronger than other leathers
While yes, technically there is tiny bit more of the outer grain on full grain leather than a minimally sanded top grain leather, this difference does not make a difference as to how long a leather bag or wallet lasts. Smooth full grain is not any stronger than other leathers that have just been embossed. The type of tannage and the finish have 100 times more to do with how the product will wear with time than if it is full grain or not. To say full grain is stronger than corrected grain is like saying that a board that’s been sanded is weaker than one that hasn’t: while theoretically true, it won’t make a bit of a difference in any of the “normal” applications of the material like if you’re framing a house or building a table.
- Full Grain Leather is not always superior to other leathers (depending on your needs and taste).
As I’ve already said, low quality full grain leather exists, so a high quality corrected grain leather from a tannery like Horween or S.B. Foot will be as good or better than a “cheap” full grain leather.
Another thing to consider is: “different strokes for different folks”, many times the choice between top grain and full grain is a matter of taste, not quality/durability:
- Do you want a stiffer leather with a pebble grain for a shoe or handbag? Well, the natural way to get a “pebble texture” usually results in a soft tannage, so if you’re looking at a stiff leather that has some texture, it’s probably an embossed leather.
- Have you heard great things about shell cordovan, one of the most expensive leathers you can find? Guess what? It’s not full grain (it’s a different beast entirely).
- What if you’re looking for a nice “formal” or modern looking couch? Well, because there are large areas to cover, it’s impossible to hide all the defects, this means that full grain upholstery leathers tend to be pull up or distressed leathers where blemishes are part of the look. If you want a formal/modern looking piece of furniture, it’s probably going to be an embossed top grain or corrected grain so you get a nice “clean look” across the wider areas.
- I once had a customer ask me to make a “rattlesnake skin” briefcase, and I had to respond: “sir they don’t make rattlesnakes that big”. I can do a rattlesnake accent on a large piece but you simply can’t cover a large area with rattlesnake skin without it becoming a patchwork monstrosity. Sometimes the item you want is just bigger than it’s practical to make with an exotic leather like a large purse, briefcase or even furniture. At times there are other good reasons to use an embossed leather instead of an exotic: size, cost, durability or even ethical reasons.
I love full grain. I just hate marketing buzzwords and the oversimplification that gets done with leather and leather terms. In my next post I’m going to show some of the many types of top grain leather and get into how many of them are every bit as durable as full grain.