Dear Straight Dope:
What does "full grain leather" mean?
SDStaff Jillgat replies:
I used to sell hiking boots, and I remembered that full grain leather was the full thickness of the animal hide (minus the epidermis, or top layer) as opposed to split grain leather, in which the hide or skin is divided horizontally into two or more layers. Thought I’d call a few people and check the Web to refresh my memory. I found some sites under “Heavy Leather.” Whoa there, cowboy! Answered some other questions for me, but not the one at hand.
I found a website that confirmed what I thought I knew: “Leather World.” (Site now defunct.) Full grain leather has the original grain surface exposed by removal of the epidermis, with none of the grain surface removed by various corrections: buffing, splitting, etc. Full grain leather is heavier and less flexible than split grain, so it’s appropriate for furniture, horse tackle, belts, tough shoes and boots (the ones where the salesperson says, “they’ll be great, once you break them in.” Not me. I always said, “if they don’t feel great, don’t buy them, no matter what rating they got in Outside magazine or how butch the stitching looks”).
Also see this site: Full grain and top grain
Says SDStaff Melissa who used to work at Tandy Leather, tooling leather has to be full grained, since you are slicing, pounding, and pushing in a design in the skin. You need as many layers as you can get to keep the design, and still have a piece of leather that won’t tear on you.
Full grain leather can be treated chemically or with oils to be softer and more pliable, but it sometimes weakens the leather.
In the old days a hide was reduced in thickness (split grain, as opposed to full grain) by shaving after tanning. I used to watch my Uncle Emerson in Fort Stockton, Texas do this. Nowadays they use a splitting machine. According to Leather World, leather loses between 18 and 42.5 percent of its strength because of splitting, but sometimes strength isn’t what you’re after, anyway. Leather is finished, processed, and/or chemically treated in dozens of ways.
SDStaff Jillgat, Straight Dope Science Advisory Board
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