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June 14, 2019

What is Nappa Leather and How Do You Care For It?

Nappa leather. We hear it a lot these days. What was once reserved for high-end vehicles like Porsche and Rolls-Royce has now made it more to mainstream vehicles and with that, the tendency to overquote them in product literatures and press releases. But what exactly is Nappa leather and how does it differ from regular leather?

The term Nappa leather isn’t new. The term actually refers to the place, in this case, Napa, California where it originated in 1875. The term is attributed to Emanuel Manasse who coined the term when he was working for the Sawyer Tanning Company.

In those days, the process of making Nappa leather was very specific. It entailed vegetable tanning agents and alum salts. Today, the tanning process hasn’t changed much. Manufacturers still use salts such as chromium and aluminum sulfate while dyes are applied using water-soluble colorants.

Surprisingly, there’s no standard or characterization test used to classify leather as Nappa leather. Because of this ambiguity, the term often pops up in advertising to simply imply that a leather is soft, smooth, and supple. Having said that, carmakers often differentiate regular leather and Nappa leather by having the latter be made of full-grain or natural-grain leather.

Full-grain leather is the highest quality leather because it comes from the top layer of the hide and includes the animal’s full-grain. Because only animals (typically cows, but it can also be from lambs, goats, or calves) with clean hides (few blemishes) could be used, it’s more expensive and more difficult to work with. Yet, the result is a leather with more densely packed fibers making more durable yet still extremely soft and supple to the touch. It’s also very breathable (perfect for Manila’s relentless heat); it absorbs less moisture and dries easily despite prolonged exposure to moisture, too.

On the other hand, top-grain leather starts its life as full-grain leather, except the outermost layer is removed by sanding and buffing to reduce or eliminate imperfections. A step down from that is corrected-grain leather, the more commonly used leather in cars. It takes top-grain leather (with lots of imperfections) and sands or buffs them down, while also adding a stamped or embossed artificial grain to make it more visually appealing. Both top-grain and corrected-grain leather don’t have the same dense fibrous qualities of full-grain and is, therefore, not as soft. However, it’s also thinner and more pliable.

It’s worth noting though that while Nappa leather is easier to clean than other types of leather (it’s usually just a wipe clean affair), it also doesn’t take to heavy abuse as much as industrially-processed leather. For instance, if Nappa leather seats come in contact with oil, grease, or anything containing alcohol (like hand sanitizer), it needs to be cleaned off immediately. It’s also good practice to apply the appropriate conditioner twice a year to keep them in pristine condition for decades to come.

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