Q: Why is leather worth repairing, reconditioning or recoloring?
A: You can extend your leather furniture or clothing’s life by many years, save money and prevent waste.
Q: Isn’t it expensive?
A: The cost of fixing leather is far less than the cost of replacing the leather or replacing the whole item. Leather is so strong and durable that in the lifetime of 1 leather sofa, you’d need 3 to 5 fabric sofas.
Leather repair, reconditioning and recoloring is about the same cost as buying good used furniture or clothing. By comparison, completely recovering furniture in new leather usually costs more than buying it new.
A: Limits of nature and labor-intensive processes:
Only 40 to 60% of each animal hide is usable for upholstery or clothing due to hide shape, natural variations in appearance and flaws like holes or scars. A recliner, for example, may require 2 to 6 separate hides and these must be matched in appearance. Manufacturing new leather (tanning and coloring) is a long, multi-stage, labor-intensive process. Reupholstering is labor-intensive custom handwork.
Q: What problems can be repaired?
A: Wear, damage and some effects of aging, including: stains, scuffs, scrapes, holes and tears, cat scratches, chew marks, fading, cracked, flaking or peeling color, stiffness, surface cracks in the leather, sagging, seam rupture, odors and indentations. Most of these problems can either be eliminated or improved so much that they are no longer obvious.
Q: What’s going on when there are common problems?
A: Common problems fall into 3 categories: 1. color coating, 2. the leather itself, and 3. the structure under the leather.
1. Color coating may wear off or be scraped/scratched off (pets, moving), it may become stained or spotted (paint, food, body oils, etc). With age, it will eventually look dull, crack and may even flake like paint. The solution is recoloring.
2. The leather itself may be worn, scuffed, scratched, dimpled, saggy, cut, torn, deteriorated with age or affected by body oils or chemicals. It can be cosmetically filled, patched, smoothed and even re-textured. Dimpled areas can be improved or returned to smoothness. Sagginess from leather stretching can be remedied with more padding. The color can be touched up so the repair is invisible or minimally noticeable.
However, large tears and advanced deterioration require replacing a section of the leather. Leather cannot return to original strength once cut or badly deteriorated. The size and location of a cut will determine whether patching is wise. The seat, backrest and arms need the greatest strength; therefore, patching is of more limited use in these locations.
3. The structure under the leather includes the padding, the seat support, the frame and the recliner mechanism.
- Padding may compact or shift, foam may deteriorate – all causing sagginess, lumpiness or deep creasing, as well as reduced comfort. Padding may absorb odors and it’s easiest to eliminate by replacing the padding. Where there are zippers to access inside, it’s easy to do. Other areas require upholstery work to access.
- The seat support may fail with age: springs, webbing, etc. This is standard upholstery work and very fixable.
- The frame may crack, break or separate. Recliner mechanisms may bend, break or lose screws or bolts. Many problems are fixable, but some are not.
Q: How is leather colored?
A: The original color of leather for upholstery or clothing is applied in 2 ways:
- Analine-dyed – Color soaks deep into the leather. Very limited possibilites to restore color.
- Finished (pigmented coating) – Color bonds to the surface like paint, but flexes and feels like leather. This is applied in recoloring both types. Plastic materials that imitate leather may be mistaken for this type.
1. “Analine-dyed” Leather: A dye soaks into the leather during the original tanning process, and colors it deeply, in effect, like dying cloth or staining wood.
This leather has the full natural feel of the leather (smooth or suede), but has open pores that lack protection from dirt, water, body oils and other stains. These soak in quickly and deeply, making them impossible to remove fully – similar to raw wood.
It has a thin clear coating over the dyed color. This protects a little, but wears thru quickly with use. Oils and water still soak in quickly through it, but some soil stays on the surface long enough to remove.
It has a microsuede texture and an antiqued or “distressed” look. Any pressure creates light-colored marks because the dye is chemically bound to the waxes and oils added in the tanning process, not to the leather itself. Pressure marks can be “erased” by gentle rubbing, which redistributes the color-laden oils and waxes.
Analine leathers are not practical with pets, children or very active use of the furniture. They cost more than other leathers because the hide surface is so visible it must be free of natural blemishes or variations in color. About 10% of furniture sold in the US is analine leather.
When this type of leather needs the color and clean look restored it’s usually due to stains, dryness and/or fading. Some fading can be recolored with a dye that refreshes the color. Some stains can be removed professionally. But usually it can never have the pristine original look again. To create an unblemished look, an opaque color coating is applied: the second color type.
2. “Finished” or “Pigmented” Leather: A thin, tough synthetic coating colored with pigment sits on the surface, very much like paint on wood or printed color on fabric.
It’s as flexible as the leather and lasts for many years – often 10 or more. High-use areas (seat cushion and armrests) crack, flake or get dull from wear first. In the long run. head and armrest areas often stain and crack or stiffen due to exposure to body oils, which chemically accelerate aging. Note: This can be easily prevented by wiping clean every few weeks with a leather-safe product.
This finish “breathes” enough to be very comfortable, yet it resists water and stains. Oils, water and some stains will migrate through in minutes or hours, but there’s usually time to clean before these soak through and into the leather. The finish may be clear, translucent or opaque. In the factory, it’s applied by airbrush as a coating of color and then a layer that’s clear. Most leather has some dyed color under this finish, which helps the manufacturer use the minimal amount of color coating.
The feel is smooth and supple; it smells lightly of leather, but it’s easy to tell apart from analine-dyed leather, which has a buttery or velvety smooth feel and a strong leathery smell. Approx 85% of leather upholstery sold in the U.S. is finished leather.
Both analine and finished leathers are made from the “top grain” or “full grain”– the strongest part of the leather. Most analine leather shows the natural surface that had hair attached in life, or it may be lightly sanded. Finished leathers have a very thin top layer removed to eliminate some irregularities, like scars. Some finished leathers have a texture pressed into the surface to conceal natural irregularities in otherwise good leather, and/or to create a texture for fashion.
Non-Leather Products (vinyl and similar plastics)
These masquerade as leather; some even have a little leather adhered to the backing, but what you see and touch is plastic; none have leather’s strength and durability.
Bi-cast / Bicast / Bycast and Bonded Leather
The furniture industry calls this material leather, but it really isn’t. It is to leather what particle board is to hardwood – only not so strong. There’s some leather there, but it’s from the discarded part, after the top grain was removed, and it’s more plastic than leather. This material can peel apart or split in as little as 3 to 6 months and commonly fails within 1 – 3 years. Very little repair is possible. It’s even less durable than most of the imitation leathers made from without any leather. There are better versions being developed, but it’s very hard to know what quality you are buying.
It’s made by laminating a thick colored sheet of polyurethane (or similar plastic) to a thin sheet contining some leather. This can be either a “split, “ the bottom layer (weakest part) of the hide that’s shaved off in a very thin sheet – much thinner than top grain – or it may a sheet of powdered leather mixed with a resin (“bonded” leather) like paper made from wood pulp. Either way, it has none of the strength of a leather hide – or any other leather-specific characteristic. It can be hard to tell bicast or bonded “leather” apart from finished leather (see below for how to tell what’s really leather). It may even be scented to smell a little like leather. Sometimes it’s called PU (for polyurethane); so some people in sales and advertising mistakenly call it “pull-up” leather, which only adds confusion when shopping.
In the US, both bicast and bonded leather can be legally labeled and advertised as “leather;” but it’s illegal to do so in the EU and New Zealand.
Imitation Leather (Pleather, Leatherette, Vinyl, Naugahide)
Imitation leather is a layer of vinyl (or similar plastic) with a fabric backing for strength. The color is mixed into the plastic. Another color layer may be applied on top for decorative effect. This wears off first, exposing the solid color underneath.
Functional differences from leather
Plastic doesn’t breathe, so it gets very clammy; bare skin sticks if sweaty. When the room is cool, it feels cold. It gets brittle as it ages and will crack, flake or split in very few years (or months) of use. Vinyl can be repaired and recolored and will look good when done, but will not be strong. Bicast and bonded leather are difficult or impossible to repair, even cosmetically. When plastics are cracked, flaking or split, the plastic is disintegrating. The solution is replacement – or duct tape and a slipcover.
Q: How can I tell if my furniture is leather?
A: The short answer is look inside at the reverse side. Real leather is suede.
Leather furniture is often made with a combination of leather on the parts you touch and vinyl everywhere else. This combination functions pretty well, looks great and allows the price to be much lower than if it was 100% leather. Vinyl panels in areas that do not flex (sides, back) may last as long as leather. Damaged vinyl on a leather/vinyl item is often worth repairing or replacing.
Look at the inside (reverse) surface to be sure. Some vinyls are very difficult to distinguish from “finished” leather just by feel.
Open a zipper: cushion back edge or bottom, ottoman underside, under a backrest cushion that flips up. Even seats that are attached often have a zipper down behind the back edge.
Look for raw edges underneath the furniture or the edges of any tears.
Leather will have a rough suede surface on the back and smell like leather. The raw edge looks dense, like the edge of a belt or purse strap, is a solid color about 1/8” thick and have an extremely thin coating of color on the surface – usually so thin it’s hardly visible from the side.
Vinyl is backed with a woven fabric (usually smooth, but can be nubby) or a white, fluffy, cottony material. A raw edge will look like those plus a paper-thin surface of color that’s easy to see from the side.
Where to find leather and vinyl when used together:
At minimum, leather is used on the parts that touch you when sitting on the furniture: Headrest, armrests, seat (top panel), backrest. Check these first.
- If any one of these is leather, all of these parts are leather, but the rest could be vinyl or leather.
- If any one of these parts is vinyl, the item is 100% vinyl.
When opening cushions, remember that the cushion side panels may be vinyl or leather, so look at the top panel to be sure. Sometimes a thick (1”+) layer of foam has been glued to the inside of either leather or vinyl, in which case look for a raw edge.
- · A matching ottoman or a recliner’s footrest can be leather, vinyl or a combo. If you find leather, on any part of these, then all the parts that touch you are leather, but the rest could be vinyl or leather. If you find vinyl, look elsewhere to be sure.
Vinyl may be found on the parts you don’t touch: Outer back and side panels, Sides of cushions / footrest / ottoman, Decorative piping / edging, Under the recliner footrest (camouflaging the underside when the footrest is up).
- · If any one of these parts is leather, the item is very probably 100% leather.
Copyright 2010 Barb’s Leather Repair and Recolor Service.