Primer in Leather (Furniture)

Discussion in 'Fine Living, Home, Design & Auto' started by Insight, Jul 9, 2011.

  1. Insight

    Insight Senior member

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    Apr 7, 2009
    Since it seems there isn't an equivalent forum to furniture like SF is to clothes, I thought I would post this here. Partially inspired by this thread:

    which was one of the first hits to come up on Google when I searched for "forum furniture leather couch".

    It just occurred to me I may not have ever made a post about some leather tips you need to know when you buy leather. Here's a few, and they apply to every maker for the most part:

    Leather Grade: This is a Pricing Grade, not a Quality Grade. Perhaps the most oft confused element when looking at swatches. Its what the furniture maker has to pay for the hides. I'm often asked if a Grade 1 hide is good enough quality to last and the answer is YES, it is. The more expensive Grade 4 or Grade 5 hide is no more durable or longer lasting, its just more expensive. What affects the price? Everything from softness and suppleness of the hide to currency valuations and transport costs. As a rule European hides are the most costly not only because the Euro vs Dollar, but their hides tend to be much finer as they don't use barbed wire or have as biting bug problem. Least expensive hides will come from China and South America.

    Leather Color: Does it vary from the swatch? Heck yes! I'm amused when customers take leather swatches from my handle and take them up to the window to determine color accuracy, because they might see a 5% difference from at the sales counter to the window, and in reality a 20 % color difference between the swatch and actual hide is not unusual. Best way to look at a leather sample is to put it on a piece of furniture and back up about eight to ten feet, not at the window. We have a saying in the trade "If you want a consistent color, buy vinyl." Anilines will vary more than Finished leathers because they are dipped in a dye, whereas the color is sprayed on a Finished hide. Its much easier to control the color when its applied on the top rather than soaked into the leather (remember, cows have different color skins just like people, and vat dying colors what is already there).

    Leather Thickness: Another element that confuses buyers. I'll let you in on a little secret, the thickness of the hide varies from where that sample was taken. A cow does not have the same thickness of hide at all parts of its body. Its not really much of an issue, as I've never seen anyone wear through a leather hide on a piece of upholstery - ever.

    Quality of the Sample: Leather manufacturers will always try to economize. Those samples you see on the rack or ring are cut from the scrap, or waste when they make a piece up. Prime leather goes on the furniture, the scraps become samples for the dealers! So all rough pieces, sections with wrinkly belly or neck leather, become the swatch. Your ordered product will be better than what you see on the samples. So when you look at swatches, average out the appearance and texture among several in the line. H&M Document has 25 colorways for example. On a typical handle at least half of them will be rough or heavily wrinkled. Look at all the colors in a series and average them out in your mind.

    Take the Spill Test: If you have samples of leather from your dealer, take them into the kitchen and spill things on them! See what stains and what doesn't. This will aid you greatly in your selection. You'll probably be amazed at what an 'unprotected' leather can sluff off in a typical kitchen spill. Dealers pay nothing for sample swatches (unless they are very large), so don't be worried about ruining one. Choosing a leather is very much influenced by your lifestyle and what is or is not going to be taken to the sofa.

    Cowhide or Steer Hide?: Cowhide is from the female cow, and it stretches. Its found on the cheaper furniture. Steer hide is what the better companies use, and the best is Grade A. Companies like Hancock and Moore and Leathercraft only use Grade A Steerhide.

    Cutting For Approval: Because of texture and color variances most companies allow you to ask for a CFA (Cutting For Approval) where you can see the actual leather to be used on your furniture. While this may seem like a good idea, it will slow your order down by at least one month. Your order must be submitted by the dealer with the CFA requirement, and a sample cut and mailed to the dealer, who then must mail it to you for approval. Your order is NOT scheduled for production until you approve the sample. And if you don't like it, there is not a second batch of leather to fall back upon, you have to either wait a few months until more comes in, or select another hide. CFA's should always be used when ordering an ottoman to match an older chair, etc., but on all-new orders I don't recommend it because of the lengthy delay.

    Finished Leather: There are several names for Finished leather that is used interchangeably. You will find them referred to as Pigmented, Painted, and Protected as well as the term Finished. When hide "crusts" come into a tannery, they are graded. Those that have too many imperfections to become an Aniline will then be heavily sanded to remove the flaws in preparation for tanning. Sanding will destroy the natural grain pattern as well as all 'marks of the trail' including fat wrinkles, scars, etc. The grain pattern is embossed back into the hide and then a pigmented, or painted, topcoat is applied along with a protective sealer coat. These leathers will look perfect upon first glance but can be 'over-processed' in appearance and most people who like fine leather will not buy in this category. However they are more resistant to sunlight fade and oily/acid spills than the anilines.

    Aniline Leather: Only 2% of hides worldwide are fine enough to become pure aniline leathers. They require little or no sanding, and are vat-dipped in color rather than sprayed. All natural markings are left intact including healed scars, fat wrinkles, bug bites, manure stains, and whatever else that cow encountered during its life. They are very soft and supple, but will fade rapidly in direct sunlight. Some stains will soak in with potential to ruin the leather, including heavy oils, acids like vinegar and ammonia, and the like. They will be more costly than Finished leathers, and often develop a wonderful patina over time.

    Semi-Aniline Leather: A hybrid that uses the dipping of the Aniline dye with the protective topcoat of the Finished leather. Will perform like a Protected leather, but lacks the feel and plushness of the pure aniline.

    By-Cast or Bi-Cast Leather: This is not real leather, and in most countries outside the USA it cannot be sold as 'leather'. This is a product made of leather scrap, which is chemically melted into a slurry (breaks the cellulose bond of real leather and hence the strength), then this leather slurry is applied over a polypropylene sheet then embossed and painted like finished leather. Unlike real leathers, it comes not as hides, but on a bolt like fabric. Not recommended, it lacks the strength of real leather. I throw out all Bi-Cast leather samples from suppliers and will not sell it.

    "Pull-Up" Leather: A hide with a waxy topcoat surface that is designed to lighten up where its pulled tight to the piece. Makes for some very interesting effects on furniture. The tightened area will appear lighter than the loose areas of the chair. With use, the piece develops into several pleasing shade variations of a color. Recommended for those that like 'real' leather.

    Which leather should I choose for maximum lifespan? The answer here is one you might not expect! It's not the type or cost of hide that determines the lifespan, its YOU and how often you are willing to clean your leather. There are two main elements in leather care. 1) Do not have the piece in direct sunlight. There is nothing that can stand up to the direct rays of the sun over time. If the piece has to be in the sun part of the day, look into applying a solar film to your windows in the house, or get a sunblock spray from Leather Magic (SPF 80). 2) Establish a cleaning regimen and adhere to it. I do the leather in my home when the clocks change back and forth to daylight savings time. Its every 6 months, a constant reminder, and always on a Sunday. If you fail to keep your leather clean, the accumulation of body and hair oils, and dirt, will build up on the piece. The first sign that you are behind on your cleaning is a darkening of the hide usually where the head contacts the back cushion and tops of the arms. If you fail to clean it, the dirt and oils will attack the tannins and the leather will crack, then split. Leather that is never cleaned can crack in as little as six to seven years. With cleaning and conditioning it will last a lifetime. My oldest leather piece in my home is a Hancock and Moore Recliner purchased in 1987 and its still in great shape and perfectly presentable.

    How do I clean the leather? You don't need anything exotic. A clean rag with club soda will do. Wipe it down! Or a bar of plain Ivory soap on a clean rag, then come back with a rinse rag and get the soap off. Not too much water, and not too much soap. You can also use recommended cleaning and conditioning kits that are approved by the furniture maker. If you choose to use leather products not recommended by the maker you run the risk of damaging your leather! Some leather cleaning products will be incompatible with the coating on the leather and attack it. But you will not see this right away, it manifests in about 9 to 12 months later in the form of a 'peeling' of the leather like the skin from an onion. If your leather delaminates like this, no maker will replace the hide if you used unapproved cleaning products and methods.

  2. akatsuki

    akatsuki Senior member

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    Apr 5, 2008
    Brooklyn, SF, Tokyo
    I think Gardenweb gets reasonably serious about some of this stuff.

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