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What kind of leather do my car seats have?

June 9, 2009

Welcome to my first blog post.  I wrote this because I get asked a lot of questions about car leather seats, and there is a lot of misinformation out there that I would like to clear up.

You probably have a pigmented/protected/top coated/painted type leather because this is the most common leather type and is used in over 95% of automotive interiors. This leather has a uniform appearance and color with a definite pattern (grain). You cannot see any natural leather markings through the top coatings because a pigmented leather paint coat is applied to the surface. It is then sealed with a durable finish. If properly maintained, this finish will provide years of durability.

Identifying characteristics of pigmented/painted leather: uniform color and grain patterns; will not scratch easily; water dropped onto the surface will not change the color of the leather.

Another kind of leather found in automotive interiors is aniline (Castano) leather found mostly on Ford King Ranch edition pickup seats. It is top quality natural leather in which the actual surface grain markings of the true leather (hide) are visible. This type of leather is not intended to remain pristine but rather rugged. These seats have no or very little protective treatments applied. They also require different cleaning procedures than protected leather due to its porous nature and are prone to sun fading.
Identifying characteristics: very easy to scratch, water dropped onto the surface will darken the color and then dry back to natural color.

Yet another kind of leather found in automotive interiors is nubuck leather found on some Lexus and Dodge Durango seats. These are natural aniline leathers that have been brushed creating a nap and leaving a texture similar to suede. Nubuck has a natural finish, but may have a light protective coat and a transparent leather dye for color. This process increases the leather’s surface exposure making it extremely absorbent to body oils and soil, also making it difficult to clean effectively.
Identifying characteristics: usually gray in color, very soft to the touch, will scratch or scuff very easily, water dropped onto the surface will darken the color and then dry back to natural color.

So now you know what kind of leather your car has, but you might be surprised to learn that the entire seat is not actually leather!  Most modern cars have leather seating surfaces while the rest of the seat is vinyl that is made to look like leather.  To the untrained eye it looks like the entire seat is leather, but in fact it is not.  Why do they do this?  Because vinyl is cheaper than leather of course.  “But I ordered leather seats when I bought my car!”, you may say.  To that I will say, “Read the fine print of the order sheet, it says ‘leather seating’ or something similar to that.” This is how the car manufacturers trick you into believing that the entire covering is leather.

So what?  So some of the surfaces are vinyl, does that matter?  Generally not except that the sides will wear out and crack well before the leather surfaces do.  At which time you take your car to an auto upholstery specialist and have them replace that cracked/torn vinyl panel with a real leather panel and you’re good to go.

What about leather conditioner?  This is where I really have to laugh at what’s going on in the public’s mind.  The use of leather conditioner on most automotive seats is vastly overrated.  I don’t mean it’s a waste of time, but it’s not as critical as many people believe and here’s why:  Remember that 95% of cars have the pigmented/protected/top coated/painted type of leather right?  That top coat seals out moisture and contaminents… so how well do you think that leather conditioner soaks past that protective copcoat and into the leather?  It doesn’t.  I hear all the arguements from car enthusiasts that it is critical for long lasting leather and to keep it from cracking.  I say this, keep your leather clean, (including in the seams where the stitching is) and keep it protected from UV rays (window tinting) and your leather will last a long time.  Going to the expense and trouble of applying leather conditioner on a regular basis isn’t a bad thing, in fact it shows that you’re willing to take care of your investment, just don’t lose any sleep over it.


  1. I have a Ford Expedition with King Ranch Leather. Like you said, it is prone to fading from sunlight. I now keep it in my garage most of the time, but the front seats in particular are faded. Can I darken the leather, and what products can I use to keep them with a little sheen instead of being flat?

    Comment by Burt Brown — August 26, 2011 @ 12:13 pm

  2. We have found that most leather dye products are temporary fixes at best. I would just keep them clean and let them age/wear naturally. If they’re too far gone then the leather has served its useful life and needs to be replaced.

    Comment by Jason Barker — August 26, 2011 @ 9:56 pm

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