Leather comes in all types of shape and quality, and its quality depends on its source, processing, and many other factors. In one of our previous posts, we discussed the types of leather in general. Today, we will talk about what is full grain leather, how it is obtained, and why it is better than any other type of leather out there.
Let's get started.
What is full grain leather?
If you have shopped leather items online, you might have come across the term "full-grain leather" but never bothered to dig down and find out what it really is.
So what is full grain leather? Full grain leather is the highest quality leather obtained from the topmost part of the animal hide. It is called full grain because the original grain structure is not modified or altered during the tanning process and you can actually see the grainy surface where the animal hair was once attached.
Raw animal hide is very thick and is not practically useful without splitting into many layers. This splitting occurs in tanneries where a special splitting machine will divide the cross-section or corium layer into many layers. Each layer will result in a separate leather skin that will be used in producing final leather goods.
When the raw animal hide is split, the hide's topmost layer is the most important one. It's the part of the animal hide where the hair is attached. This part of the hide has an exceptional criss-cross arrangement of fibers, giving it tremendous strength and making it extremely wear-resistant.
Is full grain leather good?
Full grain leather is considered the best quality leather out there. It is extremely wear & tear resistant due to the criss-cross arrangement of leather fibers at top of the hide.
Full grain leather makes the most exquisite and long-lasting leather products and is generally used in high-end car dashboards, belts, leather wallets, purses, and wristwatch straps, etc. Our best leather wallets also use full grain leather.
One of the main characteristics of full grain leather is its display of natural imperfections. Since the full grain leather is obtained from the part of the hide that is exposed to the environment during the lifetime of the animal, it collects natural marks & cuts from other animals, insect bites, or even bruises from bushes and rocks.
These marks are there even after the hide is processed in tanneries and converted into final leather. For ardent fans of real leather products, these natural marks are desirable and give the leather product its unique character.
Full grain leather & natural patina
When we talk about full grain leather, we also talk about how it ages. Compared to other materials or even other types of leather, full grain leather ages very gracefully. Over time it develops a beautiful patina along the edges and curves.
If you are not a leather enthusiast, you might not be aware of patina So, what is patina? Patina is a dark uneven shade formed on the surface of full grain leather due to the natural oxidation of leather fibers in the presence of natural oil, dirt, moisture, and sunlight. Patina forms over time with regular use of the leather items.
Image credit: Blue Owl Workshop
People love gracefully aged leather because it shows the leather was of the highest quality. Patina is the proof of that graceful aging. It gets better and finer with time.
Every full grain leather product develops a different patina; that's what makes it unique and personalized. For example, if you are using a full-grain leather wallet, it gets tossed around, gets scratches from your keys in your pocket and absorbs all other kinds of 'abuses' and, as a result, develops a patina layer that is unique to that wallet only.
How can you tell if leather is full grain?
The question is, how to identify full grain leather when it's new. Of course, a properly aged leather can easily stand out due to its peculiar patina but it's not very easy to identify a full grain leather when it's new.
#1 Look for surface grains on the leather
Full-grain leather has 'grain' spots all over the surface. If you look closer, preferably with a magnifying glass if you have one, you can actually see the grain spots on your leather goods where the animal hair once used to attach to the skin. These spots are not in a set pattern and are fairly irregular.
Apart from the grain spots, you might also find curls, scratches, or other imperfections on the surface which are exclusive to the full grain leather. These imperfections are printed on the animal skin during site lifetime by various factors including insect bites etc.
These imperfections are sanded off or removed from other layers so you won't be able to see them on any other type of leather except the full grain leather. In a way, these imperfections make the full grain leather unique.
On most genuine or split hide leather, the surface grains are artificially embossed after the finish coat in the tanning process to make it 'look like' full grain leather. This can be easily detected by the very symmetrical patterns of the grains. Natural full-grain leather has uneven and unsymmetrical grains. Artificially embossed grains are very symmetrical.
#2 Look at the leather cross-section
Another way to check if the leather is full grain or not is to analyze the cross-section of the leather sample.
The fiber arrangement is quite dense at the very top and the arrangement rapidly changes immediately below the surface. Normal leather cross-sections are greater than 0.5mm so you can see a change in fiber density quite easily(see the image below)
If you see a very uniform cross-section from top to bottom, it's a sign that the leather is made from the middle or bottom layers of the skin and is not full grain. It is genuine leather obtained from middle and lower sections of split hides.
Is full grain leather vegan?
For people who do know some leather might think this is not a smart question to ask but we have got a lot of e-mails over the past 5 years people asking if our full grain leather also "vegan"?
So, Is full grain leather vegan? No. Full grain leather is obtained from the skin of animals so, by definition, it is not vegan. Vegan leather is obtained from plant extracts and technically is not real leather.
How long does full grain leather last?
Since we discuss that full grain leather is the best quality leather you can use to make any product, you wonder how long does full grain leather lasts?
Full grain leather, if taken care of properly, can last as long as 10 years or even longer. But for the full grain leather product to last long, you have to nurture it like a living thing and not just a piece of dead animal skin. It needs care and love to age gracefully. You will have to clean the leather surface regularly and restore its natural oil via periodic conditioning.
If taken great care of, you can expect your full grain leather product to last a very long time. If you go on auction sites, you will often find full grain leather products (vintage briefcases, wallets, purses etc.) that were manufactured more than 50 years ago and are still in great shape.
That's the beauty of full grain leather. If you take care of it, it will take care of you.
How to care for full grain leather?
After reading the last section above, you might now be wondering what you can do to take "great care" of your full grain leather. Here are some best practices you can adopt to be a great owner of a great product.
#1 Don't abuse it
This is a no-brainer. If you use anything the way it shouldn't be used, it will break down sooner than it should.
This is true for any leather product.
Any leather in general and full grain leather in specific is pretty resistant to scratches when rubbed with hard and rough surfaces (like brushing against a wall with your leather jacket on) but if you do this occasionally and with your full might, it will eventually get scratched. Surface scratches are like a dent in a protective layer. Once developed, they would act as a stress concentration point and can be a gateway to future wear & tear.
If you have a leather purse or wallet made from full grain leather, make sure you don't rub it hard against rough surfaces, sit on it with your full body weight or put it in pocket with sharp metal objects (keys, knives, blades etc.).
#2 Avoid moisture
Moisture is leather killer. Period.
If your full grain leather item gets wet in the rain or by dropping in water, that's not good. If it is not treated properly afterwards, it will be the end of your leather item.
First of all, avoid contact with water at all cost. But if, due to some unfortunate incident, your wallet or any other leather item gets wet, follow the following instructions:
- Clean excessive moisture with the help of soft towel or cloth.
- Do not put your wet leather item in direct sunlight or near a heat source (electric heater etc.)
- Wrap it in a dry towel and leave it on a well ventilated space for up to 24 hours so that the water can evaporate slowly under room temperature.
- Once fully dry, apply any good leather conditioner to restore the lost oils in the fibers and your wallet will be good as new.
If you put your wet leather item directly in the sun or near a heat source to get the water out quickly, it will eventually crack beyond repair. Once that happen, there is no going back. It's damaged beyond repair. So, dry it slowly away from sun and heat.
Follow this guide to properly clean your leather item if they get dirty.
#3 Avoid sun & heat
Leather fibers have natural oils that keep it supple and fresh. If you put your leather item under direct sunlight or heat, the oils will eventually evaporeate and the leather will dry out. If that happens, the dry leather will start cracking up at places and eventually will be damaged beyond repair.
Never leave your full grain leather item in the sun for long. but for some products, it's unavoidable like your hiking shoes or leather jacket.
For such items, you can restore the lost oils periodically by using any good wax-based leather conditioner.
What is full grain leather used for?
Like we discussed, full grain leather is the highest quality leather you can find in the market. Its tough, flexible, and long-lasting which makes it perfect for a variety of uses. Some of them are below.
Full grain leather Bags
A well crafted full grain leather bag is an absolute style icon specially for men who are classic in their ways.
The best part of owning a full grain leather bag is that it gets better and better with time. The more you use it, the better it looks.
You can expect your bag to last a life time (no exaggeration) if you take good care of it.
Full grain leather wallets
Wallets are usually made from lower grade leather like top grain or genuine. But if you want something truly unique, you should definitely look for a leather wallet that has been crafted from full grain leather.
Wallet & purses go through daily use & abuse and if you want yours to last, it should be made from the toughest available leather i-e full grain. It's expensive compared to other lower grade products but truly worth the extra price.
At Aurochs, all our mens & women's wallets are made from the highest quality full-grain Pakistani leather - among the best in the world.
Full grain leather shoes
Another good utilization of full grain leather is high end shoes. Shoe making is an entirely different art than wallets and bags. It require unique skills and tools. When these skills are applied to shoe making along with a good quality full grain leather, the result is some thing amazing.
Full grain leather shoes sell for thousands of dollars and in this modern era of mass production, they are kind of a novelty.
Its impossible to list all the uses of full grain leather here but a few of them at the top of my mind are below:
- Sofa covers
- Car dashboard & seats
- Wearables (Apple watch straps etc.)
- Leather jackets
- Mobile phone covers
- Classic book covers
- Tool holders
- Gun holsters