6 Common Problems with Leather Furniture: Expert Tips on Prevention & Treatment
April 5, 2021
Let’s talk leather … the good, the bad, and the ugly!
Humans have gravitated towards leather throughout time and it has always been a valued commodity. What was once used as a basic source of warmth and comfort, is still a popular and highly desired material used to enhance the look and feel of modern-day furniture.
In fact, high-quality leather exudes class, luxury, and good taste. There is a reason why luxury hotels and restaurants are decorated with crisp leather furniture!
If you are considering purchasing a new leather sofa or chair, you are already aware that leather furniture is an investment. Buying an authentic leather sofa is significantly more expensive than fabric upholstery options.
At La-Z-Boy, we have over 90 years of experience furnishing homes. Before making an investment in leather furniture, many of our clients ask us about potential problems they may face with leather upholstery. Before pulling out their pocketbooks, clients want to know exactly what to expect.
This article will leave you with no surprises. Read on to learn about the 6 most common problems with leather furniture, as well as tips on prevention and treatment.
Benefits of Leather Furniture
Before diving into the problems with leather furniture, it is important to note that leather has many redeeming qualities.
There are several reasons why it is desired and enjoyed by so many furniture lovers!
Especially when it comes to the choice between fabric and leather, many opt for leather for the reasons listed below …
Leather is associated with top-of-the-line furniture products. The look, feel, and smell of authentic leather exudes class and luxury.
Leather is tough but flexible allowing it to last about four times longer than fabric upholstery. It naturally resists punctures, tears, and spills.
Leather provides superior comfort as it is soft to the touch and naturally adjusts to body temperature. In fact, as the leather wears and gets broken in with regular use, it only becomes more inviting.
Authentic leather gives off a rich and luxurious appearance. Each piece of leather is unique with its own natural markings, grains, and blemishes.
Leather is a great choice for those who suffer from allergies as leather doesn’t harbour dust mites, pet dander, and other allergens as easily as the fabric does.
Cleanable & Repairable
Finally, and most importantly, leather is easily cleanable and repairable. As you enjoy your furniture with regular use, it is going to be susceptible to wear, tear, and accidents.
A key difference between fabric and leather is that many of the problems that arise in leather are either reversible or solvable.
Let’s hear from a leather professional …
Peter Wason is a professional leather repairman with over 35 years of experience.
Throughout his career, Peter has serviced leather products for many reputable furniture retailers, such as La-Z-Boy. He also has freelance experience repairing leather.
With such extensive experience, Peter has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to leather.
The first thing that he wants customers to know is that “just because leather is expensive does not mean that it is bulletproof”.
According to Peter, the more authentic leather is to its original form the more susceptible it may be to certain forms of damage.
He explains that the most expensive leathers have not been processed because this causes you to lose the soft feel and luxuriousness of the original leather. With minimal processing and coating, the leather is less protected from external forces.
On the contrary, cheaper leathers are highly processed with fillers, sanding, coating, and dye. They have been highly transformed from their original form, losing many of the authentic qualities that leather has to offer. With that being said, this level of coating acts as protection.
As you do your research and shop for leather, here is a quick guide in terminology to help identify high-end leather from lower-end leather …
Words Used for Higher-End Leathers:
Words Used for Lower-End Leathers:
So, if you intend on buying a high-quality, authentic piece of luxurious leather furniture, some problems may arise over time. The good news is that there are ways to prevent and treat the following problems.
6 Common Problems with Leather Furniture
#1 Body Oil Damage
The most common problem to arise in leather furniture is colour loss or discoloration caused by body oil.
Leather absorbs body oils and perspiration from skin and hair. Over time this accumulation of oil can darken and discolour the leather upholstery. This can eventually lead to cracking and/or peeling of the leather.
Body oil damage is most predominant on skin touchpoints of the chair or sofa, such as the headrest or armrest. More specifically, body oil damage is more likely to occur on reclining leather products given that the neck is exposed when in a reclined position.
The more natural and authentic the leather is, the less processed it is and therefore the more vulnerable it is to absorb body oil.
As living and breathing humans, it is normal to produce natural body oils. With this, there is not much we can do to avoid exposing our leather furniture to body oil damage.
Nevertheless, tending to our leather furniture is much like tending to our skin. After a long sweaty workout, we wash our skin in the shower using soap and water to prevent a rash or skin blemishes.
Similarly, regular and gentle cleaning of your leather furniture can prevent the negative effects of exposure to body oil.
It is also important to remember that leather has a delicate balance between fat and water, according to Peter. If you remove one or the other, the balance is off.
When leather starts to dry out, due to lack of moisture, it will essentially want to be fed. So it will then begin to take the moisture from you in the form of body oil.
In this case, Peter suggests regular conditioning of your leather furniture in addition to regular and gentle cleaning. This will restore the balance of fat and water in your leather, giving you a better chance of preventing body oil damage.
According to Peter, once body oil damage has occurred it is next to impossible to reverse or repair. Once the oil has been absorbed by the leather, it is very difficult, but not possible to get it all out.
However, applying new dye to the product can be successful in providing a temporary fix. Unfortunately, the dye will not permanently solve the discolouration problem because the body oil prevents the proper bonding of the new dye.
Imagine trying to stick a bandaid onto an oily arm. It may stick for an hour or so, but eventually, it will slide right off.
#2 Colour Fading
Another common problem with leather furniture is colour fading.
When you first purchase a piece of leather furniture, the pigment of the leather is deep and rich-looking. Unfortunately, like all fabrics, leather is guaranteed to fade over time when exposed to ultraviolet light or a heat source.
The most common source of fading in leather is exposed to direct sunlight. Additionally, close proximity to a fireplace and/or furnace can also cause fading and colour change in your leather upholstery.
To avoid the fading of your leather upholstery, or slow down the inevitable, it is a good idea not to place your sofa in direct sunlight. Refrain from choosing a leather sofa for a sunroom.
It is also recommended not to place your leather furniture next to a fireplace or furnace.
If your leather sofa is placed in a room that has occasional sun exposure, consider repositioning your furniture every couple of months. This will ensure that any level of fading will be equally distributed instead of confined to one area. It is also a good idea to cover your windows or close your blinds when possible.
Colour fading in leather is repairable. With this, Peter said that the potential for repair is dependent on the leather and its finish.
If the leather is pigmented, fading is 100% repairable.
If you are dealing with aniline leather, leather that is soluble dyed, repairing fading is more difficult. Peter says that if the aniline leather has lost more than 30% of its colour, chances are that you will not be able to restore the colour to its original dark pigmentation.
Cracking is another problem that may occur in leather furniture. The cracking of leather occurs when there are extreme fluctuations of temperature and moisture levels.
Much like skin, natural leather has to adapt to its environment. Just like our hands and lips get dry and crack as we adjust to seasons and weather fluctuations, leather does the same.
The contrast of harsh winter air and humid summer smog, can eventually dry out leather upholstery and lead to cracking. Cracking can lead to peeling and pilling.
Although all leather is susceptible to cracking, it is more common in combination leathers, specifically leather and vinyl. In this case, the sit points are typically made of leather, and the outside, back, and side panels of the chair are made with vinyl. The vinyl will likely crack more easily while the authentic leather will not.
To avoid the drying and cracking of your leather furniture, it is recommended to keep your furniture away from a window and/or heat source.
Peter also suggests regular conditioning of your leather to prevent dryness and cracking.
When it comes to repairing cracks in the leather, there is potential for repair. Once again, the effectiveness of the repair depends on the type of leather.
Aniline leather can be repaired only by re-dying the cracks. This does not completely remedy the problem, but it can help in restoring the look of the piece.
If the leather is pigmented, on the other hand, cracks can be filled with synthetics and re-died, often bringing the leather back to its original look and feel.
Filling cracks of any kind can be tedious. If your leather upholstery has suffered from a lot of cracking, Peter says it may not be practical, nor worthwhile, to get numerous cracks repaired.
Peeling can occur due to one of two things, either external influences or internal influences.
As previously mentioned, peeling can occur once the leather has been damaged by body oil and/or cracking. Once the leather has either worn down or cracked, friction on these areas will cause the upholstery to lift up and peel off.
Alternatively, leather can also experience peeling as a result of improper processing.
In both cases, peeling is more common in highly processed leather such as faux and combination leathers. The heavy coating on these leathers can more easily delaminate and peel away from the base of the leather.
Peeling can be prevented the same way that body oil damage and cracking can be prevented.
By regularly cleaning your leather upholstery and keeping it away from windows and/or heat sources, you should be able to avoid peeling.
To prevent peeling, Peter also suggests regular conditioning of your leather.
Much like a nasty sunburn, once leather begins peeling, there is no real end to it.
Unfortunately, there is no way to repair a bad case of peeling leather. Instead, you may consider leather reupholstery.
Leather is known to have a distinct smell, especially when first purchased.
The smell of leather is a product of the tanning process. Within this process, the smell of leather can come from one of two things. Brace yourself because one of them isn’t so pretty.
Essentially, the act of tanning is performed to stop the rotting of the hide. If the leather has not been properly tanned, this may mean there is still some rotting occurring, which could indicate certain smells. Although this can occur, it is unlikely.
In most cases, the unique smell of leather comes from the perfumes and chemicals used in leather tanneries.
Some clients complain about the smell of leather upholstery, specifically natural leather.
One’s sensitivity to the smell of leather varies from person to person. Some people are bothered by the smell while others greatly appreciate the smell of natural leather.
In most cases, the smell of leather should not be considered a defect nor a problem. In fact, the smell is considered normal for certain types of leathers. With this, some smell of leather is difficult to prevent.
If you are someone who doesn’t fancy the smell of leather, not to worry, because this smell will fade over time.
By opening windows and airing out the room with leather upholstery, the smell will likely fade faster.
When you first purchase leather furniture, the leather is tightly pulled and nicely hugs the seat cushions. But as a natural material, leather has some give to it. The leather will slowly break in and soften with regular use of your furniture.
With this, some clients experience their leather upholstery loosening over time. While the leather slowly loosens, the foam in the seat cushions also softens and loses its original shape.
A combination of the leather loosening and the foam losing its shape can result in what we refer to as “puddling”. Puddling is when the top of the seat doesn’t appear as tight and pulled as it did when purchased.
In addition to puddling, the loosening of leather can result in wrinkles in your leather upholstery.
Unfortunately, you cannot prevent the loosening of leather over time. If anything, puddling and wrinkles are a good indicator that you are getting good use out of your furniture.
With this being said, Peter explains that the more solid the foundation encased by the leather, the less stretching will occur. There is a chance that a denser seat cushion could prevent or slow down the eventual effects of leather loosening.
There are some ways to remedy loose leather.
If you are experiencing puddling in the seat, you may consider re-stuffing or replacing the foam. With the cushion returning to its original shape, the leather will likely tighten up.
Additionally, some have found that wrinkles in leather can be treated with a heat gun or hairdryer. By gently running hot air over the wrinkle, you can essentially iron them out. If you intend to use the method of heat, proceed with caution!
In Peter’s experience, you cannot always control the way your leather will react to the heat, nor the way it will shrink. There is a chance that when exposed to direct heat, your leather will distort in the way that it shrinks. This is completely irreversible and you may end up missing the winkles after all!
Otherwise, reupholstery is a viable option if you wish to eliminate all signs of loosening and restore the tightness of the leather.
Leather Care: Cleaning & Conditioning
Leather is very comparable to human skin, and so is the way to care for it!
Just like skin, many problems that arise in leather furniture, such as oil accumulation, dryness, or cracking, can be prevented with proper care.
Peter wants to remind leather owners that proper leather care is much like taking Vitamin C.
While Vitamin C can be effective in enhancing our immune system, it doesn’t always protect us from those nasty colds. Similarly, regular leather care can help avoid common leather problems, but it cannot guarantee that they will not occur.
Leather can be cleaned with gentle dusting, wiping, and vacuuming
For weekly dusting, use a clean, soft, lint-free cloth slightly dampened with distilled water and wipe the area gently.
To avoid build-up of oil accumulation, use a clean damp cloth with distilled water and mild soap such as Neutrogena, Dove, or Ivory regularly.
When it comes to vacuuming, use a small crevice tool to ensure that you are getting into the seams.
Peter recommends using conditioning cream on your leather upholstery every 6 months. Be sure not to condition too often as this can marinate and eventually destroy your leather.
In fact, over conditioning leather can completely disintegrate the hide. In this case, it is best not to condition at all rather than over condition.
Peter also notes that it is important to clean and condition as individual steps and to stay away from using ‘two in one’ leather care products. He suggests leather care in this order: clean, rinse, condition.
Ensure that the conditioner you are using is of good quality and is effective for the specific type of leather that you own, according to Peter.
It is important to keep in mind that not all leather products should be treated the same. Each manufacturer of leather furniture has their own specific recommendations when it comes to cleaning and conditioning their leather products.
Be sure to seek the manufacturer’s specific instructors when caring for your leather products.
So there you have it: the good, the bad, and the ugly of leather furniture! You are now aware of the most common problems to occur in leather furniture, as well as leather’s redeeming qualities.
If you haven’t been scared off, there are some things to keep in mind as you move forward in your hunt for the perfect piece of leather furniture.
Be sure to know what type or grade of leather is being used. This will affect features like price, durability, flexibility, breathability, and comfort. It will also impact how you might prevent and treat the problems mentioned within this article.
At La-Z-Boy, we sell a variety of premium-grade leather. We offer three leather types: Authentic, Nubuck, and Performance. With the help of our skilled consultants, you can be sure that we will find the perfect match for your needs.
We would be happy to answer any of your questions regarding our leather products at any one of our La-Z-Boy locations in the Ottawa and Kingston area.
We also provide complimentary design services to help ensure that your new luxurious leather sofa or chair fits seamlessly into your home decor.