Generally speaking, leather is divided into five different grades: Top-grain leather, full-grain leather, split-grain leather, genuine leather and bonded leather.
Grades of leather
The grades of leather are used to describe not just the quality of the leather, but how the leather is treated.
Full-grain leather is considered the highest quality, and is left in the most natural state: It is not split at all, and consists of the entire top layer of the leather. It is durable, and maintains many of the natural characteristics and inconsistencies of the leather.
Top-grain leather is also the top layer of the leather, but it has been sanded or otherwise treated to create a smooth, nearly perfect finish and texture. Because of that, it is slightly less durable than full-grain leather, and also less expensive. Many leather items are made out of full-grain leather; because it is thinner than top-grain leather, it can be easier to work with.
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Split-grain leather is the bottom layer of the leather, and is often suede. It has the top layer of the leather removed, and is generally thin and flexible. It should be treated carefully, as suede can be damaged if exposed to moisture and often cannot be treated with traditional leather care products like Leather Honey.
Genuine leather is a catch-all phrase to refer to all types of real leather, but it is also used to refer to the bottom layer of leather that is processed to be thin and smooth and is not suede. Top-grain, full-grain and split-grain leather are higher quality than genuine leather.
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Finally, bonded leather is a man-made material that is a mix of genuine leather scraps and faux leather like polyurethane. It is often primarily faux leather and contains very little real leather, which means it cannot absorb a leather conditioner. Bonded leather is known to break, crack and peel over time, and it not high-quality or long-lasting. It is a very inexpensive form of leather, however, and is often used to make affordable furniture.
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What is the difference in the leather grades?
The major differences in the leather grades come down to how they are treated from the animal hide, price, quality and longevity. Full-grain leather is going to cost the most but will last the longest — items made with full-grain leather can often be passed down from generation to generation. Following that, top-grain is the highest quality.