Playing the name game with leather furniture

  • Article by: JOHN EWOLDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 11, 2010 - 11:25 AM

There are more options than ever for buyers - and at lower prices - but what does all the jargon mean?

Lane leather chair

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When I was 10, a carnival barker tried to get me to spend money in her shooting gallery by tempting me with a "gen-u-ine imitation leather" prize. Even as a preteen, I laughed at her honesty.

I missed such honesty when I shopped recently for a leather sofa. I can understand a label that describes faux or imitation leather, but what the heck are bonded, bi-cast, Durahide and reconstituted? These were all phrases on labels at furniture stores in the Twin Cities. I don't know of anyone who wants to buy "reconstituted leather."

Even the salesman grimaced when I asked what it meant. After checking, he said it was the same as bonded leather, like a fabric. Right. Like gen-u-ine imitation leather.

Despite the obfuscation, there is an upside for leather furniture buyers these days.

What used to be a luxury item is now within nearly anyone's price range. Leather sofas under $1,000 are as common as an "everything's on sale" sale. Most leather sofas at Odds & Ends Furniture Gallery in St. Louis Park sell for $800 to $900, Dock 86 in Fridley sells many models for $700 to $900, and Ikea's Sater leather sofa is only $399.

On the other hand, it's just as easy to find $2,000 leather sofas at Gabberts, Macy's Home Store, Thomasville and Ethan Allen.

That leaves shoppers to wonder, is it all the real thing?

Yes and no. Just as a chef might say that a hot dog is "meat parts" rather than meat, leather labeled "bonded" is made from "reconstituted" leather scraps that are glued to a fabric backing, said Nancy Newcomb of Odds & Ends. "It's for people on the cusp between vinyl and leather," she said.

The trouble with some of the leather-like furniture, she said, is that consumers get even more confused about how much to pay. A bonded leather sofa should cost about $600, because the cost of bonded leather is as cheap as a low-grade fabric.

"It's the biggest fake of all time," said Dean Fossum, a buyer at Hom Furniture.

Some might say that the confusion felt by buyers is the furniture stores' fault, but consumers deserve blame, too. Many of us want to upgrade our taste without spending more money. Now many of us can afford leather furniture, even it isn't 100 percent top grain (the strongest top layer of the hide) and aniline dyed (color saturation not just on top).

Maybe we should just quit reading the labels. Does it really matter if the leather is made from the top layer of the hide or from scraps that have been pulverized and sprayed onto a padded frame?

No, what matters is that the furniture is comfortable and that the price is right -- as long as its wearability and other factors meet your needs (see tips below).

After I looked at dozens of leather sofas and chairs, I found more than a few polyurethane fabrics that fooled me at a fraction of the price. Meanwhile, some real leathers felt coarse and brittle.

Furniture stores don't do a good job of explaining leather, maybe because it's difficult to keep up with the slicing and dicing of textile technology.

There will always be the customer who must have 100 percent premium leather. The rest will just smile when someone asks if their bonded-leather sofa is real.

I might be thinking, "If you have to ask, it's not," but all I'll say is, "It's 100 percent gen-u-ine."

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633 or jewoldt@startribune.com. If you spot a deal, share it at www.startribune.com/blogs/dealspotter.

  • LEATHER FURNITURE TIPS

    Know what you're buying. Ask a salesperson to confirm what type of leather you're purchasing. Bonded or bi-cast leather should cost much less than top-grain aniline leather.

    Be practical. The softest, smoothest leather might feel desirable but is impractical for anyone except empty nesters without pets. Finished leather with a shiny coating feels less soft but offers more protection against spills and dirt.

    Consider function. The headrests and armrests of leather motion furniture are susceptible to dark stains from skin and hair oils that are nearly impossible to remove. Use fabric covers for those areas.

    Expect fading in direct sunlight. Finished leather that feels "slick" due to protective coatings might fade less. Lighter colors also fade less.

    Get professional help. Check with a professional leather cleaner if you want to keep leather looking its best, or ask for a cleaning kit from the furniture store at the time of purchase. Leather specialists also can repair and re-dye.

    Be careful when cleaning. Blot stains with distilled water on a soft, clean cloth and feather out. Avoid abrasive cleansers, ammonia or detergents. Bonded and bi-cast leather treatment can be more aggressive.

    Study up. Gabberts' offers a leather-buying class from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Jan. 20 with tips from expert Mark Nunemacher. Call 952-928-3123 or go to www.gabberts.com to register.

    Sources: Todd Earle of ColorGlo International leather cleaning (www.thatleatherguy.com, 952-835-0084 ); Dean Fossum for Hom Furniture.

    LEATHER GLOSSARY

    Aniline dyed: Top-grain leather immersed in a dye bath, so that a scratch won't show a different color beneath.

    Faux (or imitation): Vinyl.

    Bi-cast: A split leather (the layer under the top layer of the hide) that is sprayed with a polyurethane top coat .

    Bonded: A leather-like product made from leather scraps that are glued onto polyurethane and cotton layers; leather byproducts make up less than 20 percent of the fabric composition.

    Durahide: A brand name for bonded leather.

    Reconstituted: A manufacturer's term for bonded leather.

    Split grain: A second layer sliced from beneath the top grain layer; usually requires more embossing and surface treatment to duplicate the top grain.

    Top grain: The top layer of the hide or skin, which might be full (left natural) or embossed (a patterned or pebbled surface); stronger and more flexible than split grain.

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