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A Guide to Leather

The Shoe Snob

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I didn't see anything like this, maybe in some larger thread but thought it might help newbies out there understand the terminologies and differences between what they see and read about.



There are many different types of leathers that are used on footwear these days. And many different styles to the same type of leather so allow me to break down the most common options and tell you a bit about each, sharing what their plus and minuses, myths and all of the other opinions I might have on each.


Calfskin – Saying calfskin is like saying the word ‘car.’ It’s the general type of leather used to produce many of the subtypes, like ‘crust’ or ‘box’ (aka box calf, aka box ‘calfskin’ --- see what I am saying?). It simply means that the leather came from calf, as opposed to a full grown cow (which in reality is the case most of the leather used in the high-end shoe industry). Cow leather is simply not that great. Think about your 18-year-old skin versus your 60-year-old skin (no offense, but it’s a reality). That’s the difference between calfskin and cowskin.



The most common type of calfskins found in dress shoes are the following:

1. Crust Calf – Crust calf is untreated (read as not dyed) leather. It is left intentionally natural in color in order to allow for a coloring process after the fact (i.e. not in the tannery, but rather by the shoe factory, a patina artist or some other 3rd party). A lot of what is on offer these days is crust calf and that is because a lot of people want a patina/aged/burnished look and doing this on Crust calf is best and easiest. Italians and the French have been the ones to really pioneer the use of Crust calf with their history of colorful shoes.


Crust calf, not having been in the drum for dyeing, is usually softer than the other types of Calfskins. However, in some cases, this softness can result in heavier creasing so do beware of that. Everything comes with a trade-off. Also, because it is left untreated, it means that the leathers’ defects (scars/scratches/bites etc) are usually more prominent as they are not hidden by the dyeing process of the drums and finishing of the tanneries.



2. Box Calf (aniline) – Box calf is the most traditional and commonly used leather there is. It is simply a pre-dyed leather, like 99% of all black calf leather. Most likely any shoe that has a uniform finish is going to be made from Box calf. The English shoemakers have traditionally stuck with Box calf as they never got so much into patina and making Green/Blue/Red shoes (although this is changing . Some notable tanneries producing Box calf are Weinheimer for Black calf, Du Puy and Annonay for everything else.

Box calf will always be stiffer due to the dyeing process. And Black box calf will traditionally be the most rigid. Something about the black dye makes it harder than the rest. For creasing, well this will depend on the quality of the skin as I have seen Box calf hardly crease at all and then some that creased worse than anything else. In this department, there is no true rhyme or reason. But it is also generally thought of as being more resistant and durable with respects to its crust counterpart.



3. Bookbinder Calf – This is somewhat of a contradiction in itself but it’s common in the industry so let’s discuss it. Bookbinder/Polished/Shined calf is simply a way to take cheap leather and give it a top acrylic coating that hides all blemishes and leaves this plastic like look. It allows the shoemaker to buy cheap and sell high, tricking customers into believing that it is top quality calfskin when it is not. Italian brands have been doing this for years. Nearly all designer brands use this type of leather, quite frequently as it is a GREAT way to increase your profit margins. The lower priced welted English brands have been using this too for quite some time although I presume that their ideas for doing so might be more functional for the following reasons.

Bookbinder is durable. Its top coating makes it nearly impenetrable. So if you live in a wet environment, then bookbinder leather can be a good option for you in order to not have your shoes so easily ruined or requiring constant upkeep. The downside is that it is extremely rigid which means it cracks easily, particularly in the vamp where the shoe creases during each step. And once it cracks, that’s it. There is no coming back from that. And it also scuffs easily and you can’t shine those scuffs out as it is in the acrylic, not the leather.



Suede – Suede is leather. Don’t be mistaken. It’s the underside of the hide i.e. the part that is inside the calf. For its long hair like textured appearance it has been loved and hated by many for years for various reasons. Let’s discuss the different types of suede and the pros and cons of each.

1. Full Grain Suede – Full grain suede is simply the premium uncut suede that you typically find in the very high end, expensive shoes. You can tell that suede is full grain when it is super soft and when you rub your fingers over it, it drastically changes from light to dark depending on which way the hair is laying. The hairs of the suede will always be quite long on a full grain suede. It will also have a shimmery sheen to it. It’s hard to explain but is more vibrant than the other suedes.

2. Split Grain Suede – Split suede is like bookbinder in a manner of speaking. They shave off the top layer of the suede, most likely as a way to hide less-premium cuts that have more noticeable blemishes were they to leave the suede uncut. Split suede is cheaper and more often than not seen as inferior. Its texture is not nearly as plush as full-grain suede and does not have as much of a contrast between light and dark when rubbing your fingers across the suede. Its hairs are naturally shorter.

Here are a few of my opinions on the matter of suede and the differences between full grain and split suede. Split suede is often bad-mouthed but in reality, most makers are using it and let me explain why. First of all, Full Grain is insanely expensive, nearly double (if not more) the cost of split suede. Of course, it is nicer to feel but it is not better in terms of durability and I believe that is why it is not used as much. You don’t get double the lifespan from it and it is often more expensive than premium calfskins. It doesn’t age as well either as when those beautiful long hairs of the suede start to get worn down from wear and tear it simply does not look as nice anymore. It shows more so it’s wear and tear. Split suede, on the other hand, is not nearly as plush and elegant looking but it is durable and holds up well to wear and tear.

I once wore my snuff suede chukka boots (split suede) on a scooter in Paris and got caught in a hailstorm downpour. I got so wet that the shoes turned black. But when they dried, they dried just fine, evenly and the snuff went back to its original color. And that’s the beauty of split suede. When it comes from a good tannery, then its quality is still high and it wears very well. And on top of that, to be honest, it takes rain better and this myth that suede isn’t good for rain is simply garbage. Cheap suede is not good for rain. Sand suede is not good for rain. But Snuff suede and darker takes bad weather like a charm and in fact, I prefer to wear my suede on wet days than my leather. The only thing one must do is remember to steam and brush your suede once it has dried. Do that and you will forever have good suede.



Grain Leather – Grain leather is simply a stamped calfskin. Its look is not natural and is created by the tannery. You buy leather in different thicknesses when buying from the tannery and I want to say that Grain leather is typically a touch thicker than your traditional calfskins as it needs to be when having that texture finish to it. You tend to find grain leathers on models that are more for adverse weather as its textured finish usually hides wear and tear better than a smooth surface does. Some of the more notable grain leather is the dress shoe industry are:

1. Pebble Grain – This is quite the prominent grain and is often used on boots and/or shoe models like full brogues. This is the grain that really takes the weather well as its thick pebble like finish allows for the ultimate beat up without showing too much wear and tear. The English shoemakers are quite fond of using this type of grain to combat that rainy environment and particularly for those that live in the countryside, want to dress smart and maintain a good pair of shoes. A country brogue or boot is nearly always grained.

2. Pin Grain – Somewhat like the pebble grain in look, the pin grain is simply a much smaller design of grain, that looks like it could have been made by pin dots. For some reason its finish is often more shiny and I never knew why where as pebble is always matte. You tend to find pin grain in the higher end shoemakers as it is a more fine grain and truth be told, not so sure as how it holds up to the adverse weather as I have never had a pair. But its nice for having something different than calfskin and still being able to maintain elegance through its subtle appearance.



3. Hatch Grain – This grain has taken the industry by storm in the last 10 years. It’s a softer grain all around and much more subtle than it’s pebble like counterparts. Due to this softer nature, I personally find it more dressy or at least the ability to wear it with more dress attire whereas for me, I see pebble grain as casual and hence why you often find that on boots or full brogues. But good old Hatch grain is found on all models, even smart oxfords or dressy loafers. It’s the new age grain that many customers seek but that is still somewhat rare to find as it has not fully caught on to being always on offer by all of the tanneries


There are many more variants of leather used in the industry, like Cordovan and a million other types of grain, but the ones in this post make up the majority of what is found on the dress shoes of today.

Knowing the differences will help you make informed decisions about your purchases.

I hope that you have all enjoyed this post. Please share to spread the knowledge!

Justin FitzPatrick

https://www.theshoesnobblog.com/
 

Testudo_Aubreii

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Super useful, Justin! After reading this, members might like to move on to reading VegTan's thread "Leather Quality and Properties." This post is a good foundation for understanding that thread.

Couldn't we just call full-grain suede calfskin "reverse (full-grain) calf?" And what about nubuck and patent leather finishes? These are both common finishes that are distinct from the ones you mention. Couldn't they be treated along with bookbinder under the larger category of "corrected grain calfskins?"
 

The Shoe Snob

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Great thread! I wonder if we could learn about the leather used for lining.
That's an interesting idea, will see about getting the info

Thanks for sharing your knowledge, Justin, always appreciated. What do you use to steam your suede shoes? Would the same process work for suede jackets?
Thanks! and my pleasure. I use a steam iron typically, one that has the button that allows you to control the steaming...not sure about the suede jackets but worth a try!
 

DWFII

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Super useful, Justin! After reading this, members might like to move on to reading VegTan's thread "Leather Quality and Properties." This post is a good foundation for understanding that thread.

Couldn't we just call full-grain suede calfskin "reverse (full-grain) calf?" And what about nubuck and patent leather finishes? These are both common finishes that are distinct from the ones you mention. Couldn't they be treated along with bookbinder under the larger category of "corrected grain calfskins?"
Not about to hijack Justin's Thread but FWIW, most every shoe/bootmaker I know calls 'full grain suede' reverse calf. Most of the leather dealers do, as well.

And 'rough-out' is so non-specific it usually applies to any 'suede'--reverse calf or split. Although in common usage (even among shoemakers) rough-out is most generally used when speaking about lower grade, older animals, and splits.

Nubuc is generally a calf or cow that has been 'snuffed' (sanded) on the grain side.

As for 'corrected grain' leather...technically, any leather that has had a process applied to improve or alter the grain surface is 'corrected." So yes, patent is corrected. Modern patent is, AFAIK, a bonding of a plastic or vinyl sheet to the surface of the leather--much like some CG.

Pebble grained (Scotch grain) leathers are technically corrected. Hatch grain (Russia calf--esp. modern iterations) are corrected. If you want to get right down to it, even leathers that have a fairly heavy, opaque, top coat can be called 'corrected.'

[Parenthetically, the reason most leathers are snuffed, textured, or top finished is to cover up imperfections in the grain surface--thus a #2 grade calf becomes a #1 nubuc; or a #4 old cowhide becomes a #1 'shrunken shoulder (AKA 'bullhide') ] .

If it doesn't come off the animal looking like that, it's been corrected...by definition.
 
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vmss

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Not about to hijack Justin's Thread but FWIW, most every shoe/bootmaker I know calls 'full grain suede' reverse calf. Most of the leather dealers do, as well.

And 'rough-out' is so non-specific it usually applies to any 'suede'--reverse calf or split. Although in common usage (even among shoemakers) rough-out is most generally used when speaking about lower grade, older animals, and splits.

Nubuc is generally a calf or cow that has been 'snuffed' (sanded) on the grain side.

As for 'corrected grain' leather...technically, any leather that has had a process applied to improve or alter the grain surface is 'corrected." So yes, patent is corrected. Modern patent is, AFAIK, a bonding of a plastic or vinyl sheet to the surface of the leather--much like some CG.

Pebble grained (Scotch grain) leathers are technically corrected. Hatch grain (Russia calf--esp. modern iterations) are corrected. If you want to get right down to it, even leathers that have a fairly heavy, opaque, top coat can be called 'corrected.' [Parenthetically] the reason most leathers are snuffed, textured, or top finished is to cover up imperfections in the grain surface--thus a #2 grade calf becomes a #1 nubuc; or a #4 old cowhide becomes a #1 'shrunken shoulder (AKA 'bullhide').

If it doesn't come off the animal looking like that, it's been corrected...by definition.
Good info like always. Would you call tumbled leather also corrected?
 

DWFII

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Yes. I would - - tumbling alters both the natural surface and the temper/'hand' of the leather.
 

bamgrinus

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Yes. I would - - tumbling alters both the natural surface and the temper/'hand' of the leather.
It seems like there's a big difference between that and something that's had an acrylic coating added to it, though. Is there better terminology to distinguish those things?
 

DWFII

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It seems like there's a big difference between that and something that's had an acrylic coating added to it, though. Is there better terminology to distinguish those things?
There is a big difference. Although tumbling is probably more common than we know or realize. Tumbling will soften the 'hand' and add a bit of extra stretch to the leather. It is esp. important for veg tan leathers--most of my veg tanned linings are tumbled. On upper leathers, the grain will often pick up a 'texture' that right off the animal or right out of the vats, it did not have.

Putting an acrylic finish on a leather is pretty common. Often it is just a 'clear coat'. But think about a black or dk. brown...or any pigmented...acrylic finish. Such treatment fits the definition of 'corrected' almost to a 'T' simply because, unlike the clear coat, a heavily pigmented finish will cover scars, warble holes and scratches, etc., on the leather. That's part of the assumed purpose of an acrylic finish.

By contrast, even when a leather is dyed a dark colour, the pigmented acrylic finish is not really needed. The premium leather for making shoes and other high end leather goods is an aniline dyed leather with a wax or clear coat finish (preferably wax).

For example, on a brandy or buttercup coloured aniline calf, variations in the colour impart a 'depth' which quite literally allows you to look into the leather--it appears almost three dimensional. But, of course, the variations in dye strike, scars, hard follicles, etc., are right in your face. Which means the leather has to be a bona fide #1 before tanning and finishing, to really be premium.

Bottom line...covering those scars or discolourations is correcting the grain surface.
 
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DapperAndy

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Thanks for the clarifications, Justin. Especially with all the nuanced terms for grain shoes being so on-trend right now, it's good to see some pics and distinguish between them.
 

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