What is Bonded Leather?


Leather Sofa

 

The term “bonded leather” seems to get thrown around lately when describing a variety of upholstered furniture. The prices of bonded leather furniture seem way too good to be true as is reflected in commercials and print media ads from a variety of furniture stores. So, what exactly is this “bonded leather”? Is it genuine/natural leather? Will it last as long as genuine leather products?

The introduction of bonded leather to the home furnishings industry started around 2008. Before that, bicast leather was the preferred, inexpensive alternative to genuine leather, but it seems that bicast leather has somewhat faded (no pun intended). Bicast leather, sometimes also referred to as PU leather, is basically a split leather backing and the surface which you sit on is polyurethane/vinyl which is glued to it.

The look and feel of bonded leather has improved drastically ever since its introduction but the actual leather content still remains the same. No change there. As the economy is slowly recovering, many retailers are still offering this “leather” as an upholstery choice and unfortunately it looks like this trend won’t stop. This is especially true with certain big box furniture stores in Tri-State area (New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut) which are sometimes know to sell a lesser quality product. But to each his own…

Characteristics of Genuine Leather

Leather is nature’s material that is useful and distinctly beautiful. There is nothing else like it. The use of leather seating can be traced back to ancient Egyptians and Romans. For centuries, leather has offered its luxurious character and enduring style to people’s homes throughout the world. When it comes to furniture, soft and supple, smooth or textured, leather is favored over other upholstery materials because of its strong wear characteristics and enduring resilience. Leather accentuates the elegant contours of sofas, loveseats, chairs, or sectionals, creating a look suited from classic to more contemporary settings. Whether you want to add texture or spectacular color to just about anything from ottomans to chaises, it can be done with leather.

 

Leathers

 

Fully-Aniline Leathers

Fully-aniline, top-grain leathers feature hides that have been dyed with aniline (transparent stain that doesn’t completely coat the dye) and are mostly left in their natural state, resulting in shade variations within each hide and between hides. In other words, each of these types of hides will have its own unique characteristics. Even when several of these hides are used to upholster a sofa, for example, there will be variations in grain and color as well as natural markings. One other inherent trait is the development of patina over time. All of these attributes are expected and contribute to a delightfully natural tapestry.

Pigmented/Protected Leathers

Protected or pigmented leathers feature a dye consisting of pigment particles that fully penetrate the hide resulting in an opaque finish. Unlike with fully-aniline leathers, the color is consistent. There are no color variations. These leathers are also known to feature corrected grain patterns which means that an artificial grain is applied to the surface to hide imperfections. These are top grain leathers that are easier to maintain because of their inherent resistance to sunlight fading, soiling, and everyday wear. As a result, they are great for families with kids and/or pets compared to fully-aniline leathers.

Bonded Leathers

All of the leathers described above are genuine leathers. Bonded leather, on the other hand, is not “genuine” leather. So, what is it exactly?

When cutting a pattern from a hide to upholster a sofa, sectional, or a chair, for example, there will be left over scraps (trimmings) that are discarded by the tanneries. Instead of discarding the scraps, they are collected, ground up, bonded together with latex binders, and pressed into a sheet. These sheets are then dried in order to reduce the moisture. This is the backing. You read that last sentence correctly!

A layer of vinyl or polyurethane is then applied to this “backing”. The surface of this material is then embossed to give it appearance as leather. That’s right. You are sitting on vinyl or polyurethane surface and not “leather”. The “leather”, if that’s what you want to call it, is the backing. As far as overall appearance, it looks and feels like genuine leather. For years it has been used as covers for books, especially Bibles. Recently though, it started to be used in furniture upholstery. The only reason it’s even called a leather is because it contains 10-20% of leather, grounded up leather, that is.

If you want to learn more, here’s a more in-depth article about faux leathers such as bonded and bi-cast leathers.

What Are the Advantages of Bonded Leather?

Price is a great advantage, for one thing. Price seems to be the main lure for this product. It’s priced similar to its fabric counterparts. Compared to genuine leather, the cost can be two to three times less. Retailers should thoroughly explain to consumers the reasons why there is such a drastic price difference between the two products so that the consumer can make an educated purchase. Just like the real thing, it’s available in a variety of finishes and colors. It’s considered “green” because it’s a recycled product. Because it doesn’t experience typical chemical tanning processes, it has very low levels of environmentally hazardous formaldehyde. Those customers who suffer from allergies will appreciate this attribute.

What Are the Disadvantages of Bonded Leather?

Technically it is a “leather” product even though it only contains 10-20% of genuine leather material. One of the characteristics of natural leather is its ability to flex or “give”. This is not the case with bonded leather. Due to its construction, bonded leather is a non-elastic material. When it’s stretched to the limit, the vinyl or polyurethane has a tendency to peel from the actual backing.

Will Bonded Leather Stand the Test of Time?

The old saying that “you get what you pay for” holds true in this instance. It’s probably more durable than many fabrics out there, however it’s not as durable as genuine leather due to its non-elastic nature. How long will it hold up? It depends on its use as well as manufacturing. Just like with anything else, there are quality manufacturers and then there are those which take shortcuts.

 

Bonded Leather Sofa Peeling
Bonded Leather Peeling

 

Generally, it does have a tendency to peel from the backing due to usage. When will it start to peel? It depends on the quality of the bonded leather, but it’s only a matter of time. It could be a few months to a few years but because of its non-elastic characteristics, it will eventually peel. Ask yourself if you want to sweep this product from your floors or carpets once it starts to peel, or better yet, if you want to eventually sit on a peeling sofa.

If price point is one of your major concerns, then go for it. If you want the look and feel of real leather but not the price, it’s a lower cost alternative to the real thing. We, however, would recommend that you spend a bit more and get the real thing. It will last you much longer and no headaches to deal with.

Is It a Substitute for Actual Leather?

As the leather ages, development of a patina is an anticipated feature, especially with certain leathers such as those with fully aniline dyes. Patina gives a sofa or a sectional character over time. Bonded leather, on the other hand, will never develop a patina no matter how much it ages. It can’t. It’s not a natural material.

Just like fine wine that gets better with age, as the years go by, leather gets better with age and becomes softer and suppler. Other upholstery materials do not age as well as leather, such as bonded leather. If leather is maintained properly, it can last for at least a decade or more.

Select fine leathers will feature natural markings/scars such as insect bites, veins, stretch mark, and wrinkles. These markings give it character. Bonded leather has an artificial grain that is stamped to resemble real leather so it will never have any of these natural markings. The grain patter is uniform with bonded leathers.

The intoxicating aroma is another trait of real leather. It has a unique, musty aroma. Bonded leather or any other synthetic leather can never replicate that genuine leather aroma. They smell more like plastics. Genuine leather is a skin from an animal and it will smell like skin, whereas anything synthetic will smell like a synthetic product. You can always use the “smell test” to determine if it’s the real thing. If you’re not sure what the real thing smells like, you can always go to a store which sells actual leather products and put your nose to the test.

Fine leathers will adopt to your body temperature because the pores allow it to “breathe”, bonded leathers will not. It’s a common misconception that leather is cold in winter and warm in summer. It will always be the same temperature as the room where it’s located because it “breathes”. It will adjust to the room temperature. However, once you sit on it, it will feel cool in the summer and warmer in the winter. Bonded leather can not “breathe” so it will, in fact, be warmer in the summer and cooler in the winter.

Real leather furniture can last the test of time if you take care of it properly. In a way, if you think about it, it’s an investment. Bonded leather will not last as we’ve discussed previously.

So, is it a substitute for the real thing? For the price and look, yes, otherwise it is not and it can never be for the reasons mentioned above.

Where Can I Buy Fine Leather Furniture?

If you’d like to check out a variety of leathers, including top-grain, full-grain, fully-aniline, semi-aniline, and more, that we offer, have a look at our leather living room collections. Many can be custom ordered in over 100 upholstery options. We also offer designs that are lively and relaxed, simple and fresh. We even offer a choice of leg finishes in most of our upholstery collections for that final touch.