ICS Magazine

Leather 101: How to Properly ID it

April 1, 2012

Business owners are always looking for the next "low-cost, high-return" investment. This could be tile and stone cleaning, area rug cleaning or air duct cleaning. However, none of these have a lower cost entry point than leather cleaning.

Business owners are always looking for the next “low-cost, high-return” investment. This could be tile and stone cleaning, area rug cleaning or air duct cleaning. These, and many other services, can be great add-ons for your core business. However, none of them have a lower cost entry point than leather cleaning.

Leather is everywhere, yet there are very few service providers for consumers to turn to when they need help. If you Google “carpet cleaner,” how many come up in your area? How about “tile and stone cleaning?” Or “Persian rug cleaner?”

Now, try “leather cleaning.” Not too many.

There’s the opportunity! In fact, leather cleaning really only consists of a simple kit, the right products, some basic tools (which you probably already carry) and education.

As with everything in the cleaning industry, you have to understand the different materials you will be cleaning, their characteristics and the customer expectations. It’s all about using the right tool for the job. Contrary to popular opinion, there is no such thing as one cleaner for everything, nor is it true some leathers can’t be cleaned.

There are essentially three types of leather: “A,” or Aniline, “P,” or Pigmented or Protected and “N,” or Nubuck. All three present unique opportunities for you.

For example, if a customer has a Nubuck chair, it probably has never been cleaned before you came into the picture. It most likely looks dirtier than it actually is because nap has been laid down and it may have absorbed body oil. This can be an easy fix with a basic cleaner, horse hair brush, hair drier and a Nubuck cloth (or high-grit sandpaper).

What you have going for you is that most companies who claim to clean leather, but lack formal leather training and education, will say “this can’t be cleaned.” This is great for you because, (1) The customer now has fewer choices in service providers, and (2) When you come along and can educate the customer on Nubuck and its characteristics, you look like a true professional. A final benefit is that Nubuck is expensive, even as far as leather goes, so the customer is going to pay a premium for the cleaning. (Imagine collecting $200 for one hour of work that costs $10 in product. Not Bad!)

Caring for leather all starts with identifying it.

Type A Leather

  • Aniline: Aniline leathers are colored with transparent dyes, meaning that you are able to see the actual surface grain and markings. No pigment has been applied to the surface of Aniline leathers. These leathers have very little or no protective treatments applied to them. Characteristics/Expectations: Color variations; healed scars, wrinkles, stretch marks, brands and scratches are visible; a rich patina develops with time enhancing the appearance of the leather; requires a very high degree of maintenance; easily fades in sunlight.
  • Aniline Pull-Up: These are impregnated with natural oils and waxes, and not heavily coated with paints and pigments, which give it a “pull-up” characteristic, which is enhanced as the leather is stretched and pulled during the upholstery process. This process allows the scars, scratches and wrinkles that occur naturally on the leather hides to show through the finish. Characteristics/Expectations: Coloration varies throughout the hide; fading can occur if exposed to direct sunlight; never use detergents, soaps or chemicals to clean the surface, as they will tend to remove the natural oils in the leather.
  • Semi-Aniline: Any leather that receives color from aniline dyes and/or a light application of pigment to even color appearance. Natural markings and characteristics are exhibited.  A clear sealant topcoat is applied for additional protection. Characteristics/Expectations: Healed scars and scratches are slightly visible within the hides; soft and supple hand similar to pure Anilines; hides wear well with time and use; very serviceable, cleanable leather; cleaning and protecting ensures the finish will remain intact.


Type P Leather

  • Protected: These leathers are the most common and combine the best aspects of a natural product and tannery technology to create leather more uniform in appearance and color due to pigments that are applied to the surface. Characteristics/Expectations: Coloration is consistent throughout the hide; healed scars and scratches should be used in less visible areas (outer backs and arms); due to the pigmented topcoat, serviceability, durability and clean-ability are very good; wear consistently with time; more resistant to fading.
  • BiCast: Split hides that have laminated layers of polyurethane film applied to the surface. There are limited colors, primarily brown and black. The hand of the leather is stiff and plastic-like. It is glossy in nature. Characteristics/Expectations: No visible natural markings; stiffest, softest of all leathers; glossy look often wears; serviceable, cleanable; light scratches can be repaired with a heat iron.

Type N Leather

  • Nubuck: These are actually Aniline leathers on which the surface has been brushed or sanded, with a texture similar to velvet. Characteristics/Expectations: Varied coloration; healed scars and scratches are unique characteristics; luxurious hand; fades easily; requires a high degree of preventative maintenance.

Identification Tips and Tricks

Sometimes, just knowing the differentiating characteristics of leather isn’t enough. And there are certain dangers involved with cleaning a piece of leather that you may have mistakenly identified. For example, if you clean an Aniline (Type A) piece with a very strong cleaner that might be made for a Type P piece, you would likely see dye transfer onto your towel when you wiped the product off.  Now, the customer’s perception is that you have ruined their furniture. Have you? Not really, but we can cover that another time. Point is, just as in cleaning fabric or carpet, there are risks associated with using the wrong product on a misidentified piece of leather. These may include the likes of dye loss, matting the nap of a Nubuck, watermarking, ink spreading (when trying to remove ink) and breaking the finish.

That’s where the following steps come into play (see Figure 1). They can help ensure that you’re properly identifying the leather, so, in turn, you can properly care for it:

  1. Scratch Test: Lightly scratch the leather. If no mark shows, you have a Type P leather. If a mark shows, continue onto the…
  2. Tactile Test: Feel the leather and look for a nap. If present, it’s a Type N Nubuck. If no nap is present, it’s a Type A Aniline. If inconclusive, conduct the...
  3. Water Test: Lightly wet and press a small drop of denatured water into the leather, then dry it with a hair dryer. If the area dries and stays dark, the leather is Type N Nubuck. If it dries clear and disappears, it’s a Type A Aniline.

Once you understand the steps involved and can identify the leather, you have a great opportunity to “wow” the customer with your vast knowledge of the characteristics and properties of their piece. Remember, people love their leather! It’s usually more expensive and gets better over time. So compliment them on their choice of furniture and let them know that like all investments, it should be managed carefully by a professional.

 Just like cleaning carpet, tile or fabric upholstery, you need to understand and properly identify the material you are cleaning. And then use the right tool in the tool box! Once you have taken a leather cleaning class and purchased some basic products, you are ready to go. It’s hard turn down such a low cost, high return investment!