As I started to research this post I realized, that as far as the internet is concerned, “top grain leather” was a term without many and sometimes contradictory definitions. I looked through at least ten “leather glossaries” from reputable sites and found that many lists of “leather terms” define top grain as leather that has been snuffed (sanded or buffed) to remove imperfections (in my mind called “corrected grain”), other sites then added that top grain “gets embossed with an artificial grain” to the definition, still other sites added that it gets also “heavily pigmented” but on the complete other end of things, many sites used “top grain” and “full grain” leather interchangeably. Believe it or not, I found two different glossaries with these two completely contradictory entries from two reputable leather related companies:
An over-used term commonly used to refer to corrected grain leather. See Corrected Grain.
- Full Grain: Leather that’s original grain surface has been unaltered. It is the most genuine type of leather. It can also be referred to as Top Grain.
So we got two different sources (both solid “leather related” companies IMO) defining top grain leather two opposite ways?!?!? What gives?
What is Top Grain Leather?
To keep it simple, the best definition for “Top Grain” is: “The grain split of a hide.”
In other words: the top side, the “not suede part”, the naturally smooth part, the part of the cow skin that faced outwards. This is the way I’ve always understood the term, but honestly the term (like “Genuine Leather”) is way too broad, encompassing many different, specific, types of leather.
But… I haven’t found a good alternative to calling it top grain, some sites simply call it “grain leather”, but that just seems like some vegan attempt to make leather from wheat. This simple definition for top grain: “top side of leather” would include even full grain leathers, it would also include corrected grain (sanded leathers), and also include embossed leathers (except embossed suede). This actually matches best with what lots of businesses that sell leather hides (not finished goods) say: many actually use top grain and full grain interchangeably. Here are two places that actually sell leather hides that do so: Maverick Leather and Hide House. Both of these are pretty major dealers in the leather business. Many other leather supply houses and tanneries just avoid term all together, because there are much better, more specific terms out there depending on what’s done to each hide.
So we could try to speculate as to why each different “leather business” has a different slant on “top grain” either in a positive or negative light, and why people selling actual hides keep tend to be more neutral, but the truth is probably a mixture of marketing and lack of knowledge. The best cure of both is a deeper dive into some of the different types of top grain and their uses.
Different types of top grain leather?
As we hit on before, even though full grain is a type of “top grain”, for simplicity, in this post, we’ll use the term top grain leather to refer to any leather that’s not full grain or a split (suede).
At the tannery, an embossed leather has an embossing plate or roller applied during the tanning process to add a texture that wasn’t part of the original full grain. Most sources and people who work with leather don’t consider leather that’s been embossed to be full grain. However, interestingly enough, one site does say that embossed leathers that have only been embossed are still full grain. While not generally accepted, this does lead us to a fact that people who insist full grain is “always the best” seem to leave out: leather that’s only been embossed will have the same durability as full grain, and, depending on the pattern, possibly show less wear over time.
Since texture is all that’s added to an embossed leather, the finish and wear will be almost identical to what you’d see if the same hide hadn’t been embossed.
Below are two very interesting pieces of scrap calf leather I came across. One is an Alpine Grain from a high end shoe company. The other is a pebble grain from one of the finest tanneries in Europe: H.A.A.S. in France. In both examples you can see where the embossing plate ended. You can notice that some of the fat wrinkles and other natural markings continue into the embossed part but are much less noticeable. I don’t think there’s any way to argue that the “smooth side” of these two pieces would be any less durable than the embossed side.
Reasons to use embossed leathers:
- Taste: Embossed leathers let you add variety to the look of an item. High-end bag makers love to use embossed leathers: Hermes uses embossed leathers in bags that cost thousands of dollars. Prada introduced the recognizable Saffiano embossed leather and now you see similar patterns in high-end bags and knock-offs alike. A classic pebble grain like Scotch grain or Alpine grain can change the look of a pair of boots or shoes. You can also emboss an exotic print like alligator or snake onto leather and get the exotic look without the “exotic” price tag.
- Embossing also makes flaws less visible and leather more uniform. Imagine an item that uses a large piece of leather, like a leather sofa or large tote bag, a really large piece of leather is more likely to have a small wrinkle, pock mark, or other flaw that will be very noticeable in the center of an otherwise “clean” section of the leather. Depending on the look you want for an expensive handbag or couch, embossing the leather will make small flaws much less noticeable. This is the reason that many furniture companies talk about “top grain” with a more positive slant than people who make small goods using “only full grain”, this is because most upholstery leather is embossed top grain.
Types of Embossings
Some of the examples below have just been embossed others may have been sanded first. The best way to guess is by the amount of “gloss” or finish a leather has, the more finish, the more likely they’re covering a buffed surface.
- Hair Cell: This type of embossing can actually look more “natural” than full grain leather. With a hair cell embossing very fine “pores” are embossed into the the leather. In general this gives the leather a more uniform appearance. This type of embossing can be very fine (so the leather looks smooth unless you look really close). Because it’s basically a bunch of tiny dots, minor flaws are less visible. It like to use it in my chain wallets and other more “tough” looking items.
- Pebble Grain: There are many types of pebble grain embossed leathers, they can be “hard” or “soft” leathers. The pattern can be very small and subtle like the Alpine Grain pictured below, to a larger Scotch Grain, to anything in between. This doesn’t mean that all pebble grain is an embossed pattern but on “soft” items it’s extremely hard to tell, the only real clue is that the pattern is “too consistent” on embossed things.
- Exotics: If you’ve even seen a really large snake or python handbag, it’s probably not really python, snakes just don’t get big enough for most of the larger style bags that are so popular. You’ll also find embossed faux alligator, croc, lizard, ostrich, elephant and many others. Maybe it’s your budget, maybe you wouldn’t feel right carrying around, say, an elephant wallet, maybe it’s the size of the item, but in any case an embossed exotic might be the way to go.
- “Man-made” Embossings: Besides the “natural embossings” like animal prints and pebble grain, manufactures have done all sorts of other embossings to add something different to their products. Saffiano Leather, famous in Italian handbags, has a cross-hatch look to it. I’ve also seen basket weave, western print, floral, and many other man-made embossings, that, depending on the look you’re going for, can add some interest to a piece.
Sanded Leathers (Corrected Grain):
Now we get into the leathers that roughly fit into the oft-repeated definition of top grain leather: Leather that have been sanded or buffed. The amount of sanding actually can vary quite a bit depending what the tannery is trying to accomplish. First lets cover the “least treated” of these sanded leathers “nubuck.”
Most people are familiar with nubuck. Close your eyes and imagine a pair of “construction boots”, the image you have in your head is probably a nubuck yellow-tan pair of boots with a matte finish:
Google Image Search Results for “Construction Boots”
Nubuck is a leather that’s been sanded and buffed to give it a matte finish and a slightly “fuzzy” feel. The nap isn’t as pronounced and “hairy” as suede. These leathers are great because they tend to show scratches a little less than a more finished leather, plus they don’t tend to crack the way more finished leathers do when they get wet and dry out repeatedly. If you scrap a pair of nubuck shoes on the curb, you can probably use a brush and make the scrap almost unnoticeable. If you were to do the same with a shiny pair of calf leather shoes, you may not be able to buff out the damage. Nubuck will be more absorbent and less stain resistant than a “traditional leather”. Unlike the popular opinion of corrected grain leathers, nubuck actually doesn’t hide scars or other imperfections in the leather very well.
Crazy Horse leather, isn’t really a big category like the other leathers in this post, but it’s gained a lot of popularity so here’s a good time to cover what it is.
From what I’ve read, Crazy Horse leather has been buffed and then had special waxes applied. This buffing, means it’s technically not “full grain.” This buffing with wax gives it a matte finish with the characteristic pullup (color changing where stressed) effect.
It’s a really cool leather, and extremely popular. Copper Rough and Tough is a good example of a “Crazy Horse” Leather.
Smooth Corrected Grain Leathers
Lastly lets hit on the most maligned of the corrected grain leathers: Leathers that have been buffed to remove imperfections and then heavily finished to give them a super-smooth, glass-like, “unnatural” appearance. While it is true that smooth corrected grain leathers won’t wear the same as true full grain, but they do have a place in leatherwork.
Very formal shoes and belts are almost always corrected grain leather because of the uniformity and glossy appearance. Corrected grain is also very useful if you need to emboss a detail emblem or insignia onto a leather badge or case. “Flight Badges” used on all sorts of uniforms must be made from smooth corrected grain.
As you can see, in many cases the choice between top grain and full grain will have much more to do with taste and usage than quality/durability. Some of the leathers I have in pictured cross categories; some are both embossed and nubuck; some of the embossed leathers that have been sanded and also embossed. Also some leathers aren’t considered “full grain” and most people wouldn’t be able to recognize the difference. Horween’s Cavalier tannage is my favorite example of this. It’s one of the most beautiful leathers I’ve ever seen but it’s top grain. Why?…I’m guessing it’s been very lightly buffed?
As with this entire series of posts, the idea isn’t to give easy answers as to how to find quality but to dispel some myths and correct some errors. There aren’t really any easy short cuts for judging leather quality, especially in this world of marketing and buzzwords. Since I started these, some of you readers have asked, how can I tell if something is made from quality leather? Someday soon, I promise I’ll do a more complete post about how to identify quality, but for now, here a few tips:
- The best advice I can give: Touch, look and smell, trust your senses, you can usually tell quality leather by the feel.
- When buying online, look into the manufacturer: Does he know what he’s talking about? Does the website read like a marketing guy wrote it or like a craftsman did? Do they show some of their manufacturing process on their website or social media? Shoot them an email: Who answers the email? How do they sound, like a salesman or a craftsman (or craftswoman)?
- Look at price, it’s not everything, but a $10 wallet will probably not last a long time. Look at the country of manufacture, though good stuff can come from anywhere, you’ll have a better hit/miss ratio if you stick to USA and Europe and other developed countries.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my series on genuine, full Grain, and top grain Leathers. If you haven’t read the other two posts, I’d suggest you give them a look. Also Let me know what I should cover next. I have a few ideas but nothing as in-depth as these posts.
7 thoughts on “Top Grain Leather: Full Grain’s under-rated and misunderstood little brother”
hi there! this is such a good post. i really liked reading this and will share it further too.
I have also written a post based on the types of leather used to make leather shoes, with some info. about leather shoes and its manufacturing. here is the link for it https://babloopandey.wordpress.com/2017/10/11/know-your-leather-shoes/
I hope you will like this as well.
Either way, keep up the good work. cheers!
Not a bad start…you can go quite down a rabbit hole with all the types of leather actually used in shoes. You’ve also got suede, other embossed grains besides scotch, plus all the tons of different varieties of cowhide, like nubuck and oil tan leathers.
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thanks, mate. will keep that in mind
Thank you for being literally the only site that gets these things honestly right. I own a crazy horse leather (Gaucho from Acadia) bag. LOVE the bag but found out that it isn’t full grain but corrected grain. And I initially thought it was full grain because every other article on crazy horse leather said that crazy horse leather is full grain until I came across yours (it also looks indistinguishable from full grain!). I really hate articles misleading tongs public like this!
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Crazy horse can be an awesome leather, not being full grain is no big deal. I’ve not posted it here but literally the most “famous” leather out there Horween’s Chromexcel was recently revealed to be lightly corrected!
Yeah I read about the Horween Chromexcel too! And I also adore the Horween Cavalier. Certainly no big deal but I just don’t like being told untruths for marketing purposes. Especially since there will be lots of sellers who’d use cheap true full grain leathers and then would tell you to just accept all the faults on the leather because “hey it’s full grain! So you should just accept all the flaws!” Like that’s just BS. I got an Italian leather bag (hand made in Italy no less) that has scratches on it and the seller kept wanting to push the “that’s just natural leather variations!” BS on me and I’m like, “dude, I can tell the difference between a scratch and a variation ok? The edges around these scratches are pilling!”