You see the term bonded leather advertised a lot. You’ll also see terms like “genuine bonded leather”, “100% bonded leather”, and “real bonded leather”. All of those phrases are intended to blur the line between bonded leather and top grain leather. So, what is bonded leather?
BONDED LEATHER IS NOT REAL LEATHER.
The surface that you see and feel is actually very nice polyurethane. Good quality bonded leather can look and feel a lot like real leather. It is durable, cleanable, and less expensive on furniture than top grain leather. So, where does the term “bonded leather” come from? Take a look at the photo below.
During manufacturing, ground up bits of real leather is glued to the back of the polyurethane. It gives it a rough look and is somewhat similar in appearance to suede. By “bonding” the leather to the back of the urethane, it makes the material thicker, more durable, and better to upholster. It is also a recycled material since the leather is simply ground up scraps of leather left over from the manufacturing process. Although bonded leather is relatively new to furniture, it’s been used for other items for years - especially simulated leather bibles.
When you hear the term “top grain leather” what does “top grain” mean? Literally, top grain is the outside of the cow. Leather is thick enough that is can be split into two thinner layers. The outside portion is “top grain”, the inner portion is referred to as a leather splits. The splits have to be stamped to give it a leather-like grain to appear more like top grain. Leather splits are often used to upholster the parts of furniture that you rarely touch – like the sides and outside back of a recliner. Top grain leather is used to cover all the parts that you touch when seated (like the back cushion, seat cushion, arms, and ottoman).
Bonded leather is a good substitute for top grain leather if you are on a budget and don’t want to pay extra for the real thing. In the past, cheaper bonded leathers had problems with peeling where the color literally flaked off. That is rare with today’s furniture.
So now you know the difference between bonded leather, top grain leather, and leather splits. I hope this helps you the next time you are considering a “leather” furniture purchase.