Most people have heard the terms Full Grain and Top Grain when it comes to describing leather. These are probably two of the most misused terms in the leather industry in North America. You will often here people referring to Full Grain as being “better” quality leather than Top Grain. The reality is that they are referring to the same part or type of leather, but are helping to define two different things.
Most standard upholstery leather is 0.9-1mm thick. In order to get the leather to this thickness the hide goes through what is referred to as splitting. Splitting shaves or cuts layers off of the raw hide. Raw hides can often start off in upwards of 5mm thick. The upper most layer of the hide which has the skin part attached to it is what is referred to as the “Top” grain as it is the Top layer of the hide. The layers that have been shaved or cut from the Top layer are referred to as “Splits” as they have been split from the Top layer.
The term Top Grain is simply letting you know that that hide of leather has been made from the top layer of the raw hide. This is important as the top layer is what contains all the natural characteristics that make leather the superior material it is.
The term “Full” Grain is referring to the actual surface of the hide. Most upholstery leather comes from cows. The environment and conditions that a cow was raised in will have an impact on the quality of the raw hide. The hides can be marked or scared as a result of many factors, the badly marked or scared hides need to be corrected in order to make them suitable for use. What “Full” grain lets you know is that the raw hide did not require any correction to fix blemishes. These are the cleanest hides. Correction can be minor or major, but as soon as the surface of the hide has been altered in anyway it can no longer be referred to as “Full” grain and must be referred to as “Corrected”.
The level of correction a hide needs will have an impact on the quality and performance of a hide, but even a corrected leather is made from “Top” grain. Full Grain leather is seen as the “best” type of leather as only the cleanest hides are left unaltered and turned into Aniline or Semi-Aniline leather. So Full grain has less to do with performance and more to do with look. Top grain has everything to do with performance as only the top layer has the strength and durability that leather is known for.