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Types of Leather: Genuine Leather vs Top Grain Leather

Types of Leather: Genuine Leather vs Top Grain Leather

If you’ve ever shopped for leather items, such as holsters, gun belts, and other accessories, you may have seen designations such as genuine or grain. These terms refer to the type and quality of the leather materials used.

The two most common types of leather on the market are genuine leather and top grain leather. Discover the differences between the two, how they compare to other types of leather, and which is most suitable for leather accessories.

Genuine Leather

If you’re unfamiliar with leather terminology, you may be tempted to think that a genuine leather designation is a positive and desirable trait.

Genuine leather articles are typically favorably compared to products made of artificial leather, such as pleather or materials made of vinyl or polyurethane, because they are made from a real animal hide. However, the genuine leather designation is not an indicator of high quality. It refers to the lowest grade of leather products on the market.

Genuine leather is the leftover material that leather manufacturers obtain after separating the higher-quality layers of leather from a tanned hide. This material is mainly composed of corium, the part of the hide closest to the animal’s flesh. 

Corium, better known as split or suede, is the same material used in suede shoes and jackets. It is notable for being softer and more malleable than grain, making it easier to work with and reshape into accessories.

However, this softness also means that suede deforms and tears more easily than grain leather. This low durability is the primary reason why genuine leather is at the bottom of the leather quality ladder.

Although genuine leather products are typically far less expensive than those made of top grain or full grain leather, they simply don’t compare in quality and durability. A typical genuine leather belt rarely lasts over five years of daily use and will quickly develop signs of wear and tear.

Poor Quality Genuine Leather: Flaking Bonded Leather

Example of poor quality "Genuine Leather" in the form of Bonded Leather

Another example of genuine leather is called "bonded leather." Bonded leather typically contains only 10% to 20% leather (but can contain up to 50%) and is made from shredded or particlized leather powder left over from other leather production processes. This powder is mixed with a plastic such as vinyl and sprayed onto a cloth base. After a while, this type of "genuine leather" will begin to flake apart from light wear and tear. Bonded leather is most commonly found in car interiors, fashion accessories, and furniture. 

Top Grain Leather

Top grain leather is one of the two types of grain leather on the market; the other is full grain. Top grain leather is composed almost entirely of grain, the most durable part of an animal’s hide.

Top grain leather is made from the top half of an animal’s hide but with the outermost layer sanded down to remove any natural blemishes and imperfections. Items made of this type of leather are known for their smooth and uniform look.

Top Grain Leather

Example of Top Grain leather

Products made of top grain leather are typically high-quality and long-lasting. Examples include hats, jackets, boots, luggage, belts, and gun holsters. The most popular animal hides for turning into top grain leather objects are cowhide and buffalo.

If you can choose between top grain and genuine leather made from the same animal, the top grain item is guaranteed to be a better-made item. The price tag also reflects the quality difference; top grain leather is significantly more expensive, second only to full grain.

What is Leather Patina?

Over time and with extended use, top grain leather will not tear or fall apart. Instead, it develops a patina, giving the item a unique character. If you’ve ever noticed a slight sheen on well-worn leather objects, you have seen the patina.

Patina develops as a leather object receives continued, extended exposure to heat, sunlight, rain, moisture, friction, and other causes of general wear and tear. Leather develops its patina almost identically to copper, with similar protective properties. If you’ve ever wondered why the Statue of Liberty is green instead of orange-ish, it’s because the statue has a layer of patina protecting it.

Patina is not harmful to leather; leather enthusiasts even consider it desirable. Compared to new or slightly-used objects, leather products covered in patina look a little darker and more textured. They also feel softer and more pleasant to the touch.

A heavy patina can even increase your leather item’s durability, acting as a natural protective layer and enhancing the leather’s resistance to the elements.

What About Other Types of Leather?

While browsing leather products, you may have also seen items described as full grain leather or corrected-grain leather. Here’s how they differ from genuine and top grain leather.

Full grain leather

Full grain leather is similar to top grain leather in that they are both made from the outermost layer of an animal’s hide. However, the primary difference between full grain and top grain is the treatment received after separation from the bottom layer.

Unlike top grain leather, the outermost layer of the hide does not receive sanding, preserving its natural imperfections and giving it a distinctive look and feel. Full grain leather is the toughest and most durable of all leather types, even more so than top grain.

The Independence Leather Holster, hand-crafted from full grain leather

The Independence leather holster hand-crafted from full grain leather

This extra durability makes it even more resistant to moisture and the elements, making it a natural choice for everyday carry gun belts and IWB gun holsters. Like top grain, full grain leather products will develop a patina over time.

Corrected-grain leather

Each hide features varying amounts of cracks, tears, discolorations, and other markings, reflecting the life and personality of the animal of origin. Consequently, the leather quality and appearance vary considerably.

If a significant number of natural imperfections remain after tanning and processing a specific hide, the manufacturer may select it for producing corrected-grain leather instead of scrapping it.

Corrected-grain leather is leather made from a well-worn hide that has been processed and sanded to remove the natural imperfections. The process involves smoothing out the entirety of the natural grain until most of the cracks and scars have been buffed out. 

The hide is then given an artificial grain through a stamping or embossing process, then dipped into aniline or pigmented dye to recreate a natural-like appearance.

Although corrected-grain leather is usually as durable as top grain, the leather industry considers it a mid-grade leather, above genuine leather but lower quality than true top grain.

Corrected-grain leather is less breathable and flexible than top grain leather, making it prone to developing cracks and tears with daily use. In addition, the artificial treatments prevent this type of leather from developing a patina. These traits mean that corrected grain cannot last as long as top grain or full grain.

Top Grain vs. Full Grain Leather: Which Type Should I Choose?

Whether you’re shopping for leather clothes or accessories (e.g., gun belts, holsters), you should avoid any product with a genuine leather label.

Instead, consider top grain or full grain leather products because they are more durable and last longer. With proper care, both types of leather can last for a lifetime.


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