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Bonded Leather Sofas vs. Genuine Leather - What's the Difference?

"Bonded" sounds impressive but the reality doesn't always match the first impression

Buying your first real piece of furniture is a true accomplishment.

Not that futon you used for both your bed and sofa, but your first actual grown-up piece of furniture. The one that looks pricier and has that touch of adult seriousness that your old furniture lacked.

Having a nice-looking sofa gives one a feeling of pride and accomplishment, as they move away from the collegiate type of furniture towards an actual living room set.

And nothing is a better example of a grown-up piece of furniture than a new spiffy leather couch or sectional.

But consumers should know that not all leather couches are created equal, and sofas made of bonded leather are a prime example of true furniture inequality.

What's the difference between bonded leather and genuine leather you ask?

It's bonded

Bonded leather -- sometimes called "reconstituted" leather or just plain "vinyl" -- is not the whole skin of an animal, but left-over pieces of hide blended together to form a seamless piece of leather material.

Genuine leather is made from entire pieces of animal hide and costs much more than items made with the bonded material. It's hard to tell the difference between the two, as once an item is made with bonded leather the appearance and smell are nearly identical.

However, genuine leather typically feels a bit harder to the touch, and if used for sofas, its cushions tend to have a little less give than a bonded leather cushion.

Manufacturers will also use many types of coats and permanent polishes to make bonded leather appear to be the real deal.

Bonded leather can be quite useful though. It gives books a fancier appearance, it makes cheap belts look expensive, and it adds a sophisticated touch to any piece of office furniture. The bad part is that bonded leather is horrible for home sofas. It's also inexpensive and is often made of recycled materials.

Plenty of consumers are attracted to the lower cost of a bonded leather couch and they're not scared away because bonded leather is in fact "real" leather, or at least it's made from small pieces of real leather. 

Durability difference

Many are sadly surprised when they realize the true difference between bonded and genuine leather is its durability, and plenty of retailers leave this important detail out just to close the sale.

On Value City Furniture's website, its "Grant Graphite Leather Sofa" looks great and goes for $999. In the listing for the $599 Mason Brown Leather Sofa, one bullet point gushes: "Bonded leather allows you to enjoy the look and feel of leather - at a phenomenal price!" 

But look carefully at the wording in the product description: "It's 100 percent leather everywhere the body touches." Sounds great, right? However, the bullet point below says "Perfectly coordinated bonded leather on the sides and back."

Although the entire couch isn't made of bonded material, one could easily mistake it for a sofa made completely of leather.

ConsumerAffairs contacted a leather and vinyl repair company called the Leather Clinic in Rockville, Md. We wanted to ask if it’s even worth buying a bonded leather sofa even though it costs less.

"No, no, no," said Donald a repair person, quite emphatically. "You're better off buying good leather furniture. I wouldn't buy one. It's vinyl not leather, and vinyl is material that's crushed up and doesn't last too long. Jennifer Furniture, Ashley Furniture and no-name furniture stores sell these things."

Many furniture companies fail to tell consumers their bonded leather sofas actually contain very small amounts of real leather, as the percentage of actual animal hide can differ depending on the retailer or manufacturer.

Consumer feedback

Many ConsumerAffairs readers say they have been duped by purchasing bonded leather furniture. There are numerous complaints about companies such as Bassett Furniture Direct, Jennifer Convertibles and Kane's Furniture, and many of the complaints contain stories of poorly-made bonded leather sofas.

"Bonded leather or reconstituted leather is not really a true leather but a man-made material," said Tami of Brooklyn, N.Y. in a ConsumerAffairs posting.

It's "composed of 90% to 100% leather fibers. Jennifer Convertibles should be made to use the words 'faux leather' for all furniture made with bonded leather so that the consumer is fully aware that what they are getting is not a true leather,” she said.

And couches that are made of bonded leather are harder and more expensive to repair. "After its torn you can't fix it and have to reupholster it again. That's expensive", said Donald.

Pat Oliver, of LP Oliver & Sons Inc., has been in the upholstery repair business for almost 50 years, and he agrees with Donald and says it may not be worth fixing a bonded leather sofa.

"Whatever you can do is minor and temporary, because you'll continue to sit on it and it'll always be a problem."

After asking Oliver how one can repair a bonded leather sofa if they really want to, he said "You can try to match the color [with other bonded leather materials]. That will cost somewhere in the $350 to $450 range."

Better to wait

If you're able to be patient and save the necessary funds for a genuine leather couch do so, especially if a leather sofa is what your heart truly desires.

But if a bonded leather sofa is what falls into your budget, you may not want to use it as your primary family couch, or the sofa in your home that has the most sitting traffic, as it will tear more quickly than the real thing. 

Of course, nobody said your couch has to be leather. Cloth has been around almost as long as animal skin and has many advantages. Most important, it's cheaper and many people find it cozier.  And, although the world's sheared sheep might disagree, no animals are harmed in its making.

Story provided by ConsumerAffairs.
Consumer Affairs

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