Buying modern and contemporary leather furniture for your home is by no means an easy undertaking that can be taken lightly especially when substantial sums of money are potentially involved. Besides the cost factor, it is clear that styling, durability and functionality are the other main considerations influencing our final choice of leather furniture and with all these factors in mind, how then should we go about our search for the ultimate leather furniture showpiece for our homes?
How To Choose Leather Furniture The Proper Way?
Nothing frustrates us more than setting our eyes on an awesome piece or set of leather furniture only to quickly realize it may not be able to physically fit into the space that it was intended to occupy. Unless you can really do something about it like rearranging your existing stuff to accommodate it, then you just got to give it a miss and move on. Don’t just buy it first and decide to worry about placement later, it usually ends in failure.
Next, we have to consider the Styling and Taste but these are far too subjective for any good advice to be given here so individual preferences ought to prevail. Only you can be the best judge of what you like and what is best suited to your needs. So if you have fallen in love with that lovely leather furniture piece(s), then Go For It but provided the other considerations, in particular, durability are met.
There are several other things to look out for besides the type and quality of the leather such as the materials used for the frame, cushioning and seating etc. but your main focus should still ALWAYS be on the quality of the leather upholstery. Obvious Reason – The bulk of your leather furniture costs comes from the quality of leathers used.
Is it really that complicated?
How should we choose leather sofa or other contemporary leather furniture that offers the best value for money without compromising on quality? The answers are not so straightforward and raise issues that are not easily resolved.
For example, let’s say you have hyperactive young children and house pets (cats/dogs) living with you and you are on the lookout for a contemporary leather sofa set. Are you willing to pay extra dollars for the better or best quality leather sofas in the showroom knowing that your kids and furkids are likely to ruin it sooner or later? Wouldn’t it be more practical to get cheaper lower quality leather furniture instead but does that really present real costs savings in the long run?
To further complicate matters, in recent years, there have been numerous scandals globally involving the home furnishings/furniture industry where consumers paid top dollars for supposedly quality genuine leather furniture which eventually turned out to be “problematic leathers”. To better understand the problem, we first need to know what are the different types of leather upholstery used to manufacture home and office furniture.
Different Types of Leather Upholstery
You need to be reasonably knowledgeable in your understanding of the different types of leather upholstery before you step into a leather furniture showroom or you may put yourself at a disadvantage.
In a nutshell, leather upholstery can be placed into 3 broad categories, namely Unprotected (Unfinished), Protected (Finished) and Fake (Faux). More in-depth explanation can be found here in the Glossary of Leather Terms but for now it suffices to give a brief but concise summary of the various leathers available in each of the 3 categories.
Only the best quality full grain hide is used and because it is full grain leather, you can expect to see the original surface characteristics of the hide such as healed scar marks, brand marks and fat wrinkles etc. as they have not been removed by sanding or buffing. Usually there are only minimal flaws and imperfections in the best quality full grain hides and this is the hallmark of top quality leather at its maximum strength and durability.
Because organic aniline dyes had been used to colour the leather in order to produce the most natural looking leather available with natural color variations, that means it will easily absorb all liquids, body oils and dirt as there is no surface protection whatsoever. Hence, avoid this type of leather furniture if you have kids and furkids as removing stains, care and maintenance is an expensive nightmare.
Slightly lower quality full grain hides fall under this category. These full grain hides usually have slightly more surface imperfections than the best quality ones and hence a light surface coating of micro-pigments is applied to the hides to cover up the “defects” and to give it color consistency. Additional finishes may then be applied by hand or machinery to give an antiquated look or other special effects etc to the leather.
Lastly, the final application of either a matte or high gloss clear protective coating to the surface imparts some stain and fade resistance. This is called a Semi-Aniline finish and must be clearly listed in the furniture piece(s) sales brochure description. It offers some protection against stains, oil and dirt but still manages to retain many of the desirable characteristics of leather.
Top grain hides also come under this category. However, do take note that full grain leather is top grain leather but top grain leather is not necessarily full grain leather. Sounds confusing, right? But it is crucial to draw the distinction.
Top grain leather refers to hides that have their surface imperfections removed by sanding/buffing. They are then given a thicker surface coat of pigments and usually further embossed with an artificial leather grain pattern to give it a more natural look. This is known as a Pigmented finish and offers the best protection against stains, body oil and dirt but the leather is not as soft and supple as those given an Aniline or Semi-Aniline finish.
Split hides usually come under this category too. It is the lowest grade of real leather and is made from the bottom split of the hide. It is given a thicker surface polymer coating of pigments and embossed with an artificial leather grain pattern. However, it is really weak and used mainly in the sides, back and non seating areas of leather furniture in order to save costs. If the salesman or brochure tells you that the leather piece is made entirely from split leather, then you should promptly give it a miss.
Now you may have heard about Bonded leather during your furniture hunt but what is Bonded leather furniture? It is created by gluing lots of leather scraps together on a fiber sheet together with a layer of polyurethane and then embossed with an artificial leather grain pattern to give it the appearance of genuine leather. Furniture retailers and salesmen want you to believe it is real leather since it is made from leather scraps but it has none of the desired properties of real leather.
Because of the manufacturing process, some Bonded leather furniture are surprisingly more durable than lower quality real leather furniture but the overwhelming majority are vastly inferior in all respects to real leather furniture of all grades. Hence, avoid them altogether as the quality varies greatly and you cannot be absolutely certain that you are getting the better quality ones.
Another notorious fake leather that is widely promoted as real leather to unsuspecting consumers in the home furniture industry is Bi-Cast (Bycast) leather which is also infamously known as PU leather. It is made using the lowest and thinnest grade of split leather and similarly having a polyurethane (PU) layer applied to its surface followed by embossing with an artificial grain pattern.
Even under normal use, the polyurethane layer will inevitably crack and split free of its split leather backing and/or start to peel off in large strips and/or start flaking within 6 to 9 months resulting in large unsightly marks. It is impossible to repair or recondition these defects and they are usually discarded in under a year.
Now, you may come across terms like Eco-Leather, Leather Plus, Pleather and Leatherette and wondering what they all really mean. Well, these 4 terms have been used loosely and interchangeably to refer to Bi-Cast (Bycast) and PU leather, Bonded Leather and all other forms of synthetic leathers. They all share one thing in common and hence come under the category of Fake Leathers.
You are also likely to come across the term Leather Match. It refers to the leather furniture industry practice of installing real top-grain leather everywhere on a piece of furniture that come into contact with your body (seat, back, cushions, arms rests), but then installing the back panels, side panels, and backsides of the back cushions with vinyl, Bi-cast (PU), Bonded or Synthetic Leather.
However, manufacturers would often use Split leather for all these non-contact areas whenever they want to market contemporary leather furniture as being 100% leather. This is an economical and practical way to get 100% real leather on your contemporary furniture. But I would usually not recommend choosing these types of furniture because as time goes by, your leather furniture will take on different colour tones especially if your furniture receives a fair amount of sunlight. You must not forget that Vinyl, Bonded leather, By-cast, split and top grain leathers are entirely different materials altogether and will aged differently from each other.
Should We Go For The Cheap Faux Leather Sofa then?
If you are on a tight budget and have been eyeing that nice looking Bonded leather Sofa or Bonded Leather Recliner Sofas set ever since you step into the furniture showroom, then you should at the very least ask the retailer or salesman to show you a sample piece of the bonded leather so that you can examine it closeup.
Ask them for the test sample reports showing the results for Light Fastness, Abrasion (Resistance), Flammability and Crocking (Color Transfer Test). Even if you are unable to interpret or fully understand the test results, the very fact that they are able to produce a report would at least indicate to you that this is probably a somewhat better quality Bonded Leather Sofa Recliner.
But whatever you do, you will be doing yourself a huge favour by staying far away from that Bi-Cast/Bycast/PU faux leather sofa that is calling out to you in that corner of the showroom, enticing you with its visually alluring fake leather appearance to part with your hard earned money to bring it home with you.
DO NOT FALL FOR THE SCAM! Don’t even bother to ask questions like “Does PU Leather Last?”, “Does Anybody Know PU leather?” “What Does PU Leather Mean?” Just stay away from these awful fake leather stuff that cost as little as US$1 PER METER!
What if you’re only interested in real leather furniture?
Now, if you are only interested in real leather furniture and are giving all the fake ones a wide berth, you would be hard pressed to be able to distinguish a real one from a fake as even professional leather experts are not able to correctly identify real leather visually most of the time.
How then can you be certain you are getting the real deal when you are just an ordinary consumer with only layman knowledge and no expertise? Well, there is one layman method that can be used to tell right away if you are looking at a fake leather furniture but the main drawback though is that you will still not be able to confirm conclusively it is real leather.
The Common Sense Test
If the particular design that you fancy has exceptionally large panels or come across as a single large continuous piece, then it is highly unlikely to be real leather as there are no bovine animals in existence that are big enough to yield such large usable hides. Although the average maximum length of the largest hides are around 90-99 inches, the average usable length is only around 72 inches (52″ W x 72″ L) because of its irregular shape and resulting wastage.
Also, single large pieces cost significantly more than smaller cut pieces, so if the retail price on display is nothing out of the ordinary, that should set off alarm bells ringing in your head. This method is ineffective if the design of the furniture piece does not utilize unusually large panels that would put you on the alert.
The Fingernail Test
This is one other quick and handy method to check if you have real leather in front of you. If you pressed the edge of your fingernails into your arm or thighs, you will see a temporary imprint on your skin the moment you lift your fingers off. Likewise, if it is real leather, you will see a similar temporary imprint of your fingernail on the leather surface. Unfortunately, this test does nothing to alert you about the quality or type of leather.
Ultimately, what you want is to get the most bang for the buck and you need to do your own in-depth research and not rush into any hasty buying decisions that you might regret later.
ALWAYS Remember – INFORMATION/KNOWLEDGE IS POWER! And once you have armed yourself with all the requisite knowledge to make a well informed decision, you will then be fast on your way to owning that dream set of contemporary Leather Furniture hassle free.