How To Buy And Care For Leather Furniture — Local Experts Talk About How To Select The Right Sofa Or Recliner, Then Maintain It For Years Of Pleasure
By Elizabeth Rhodes Seattle Times Staff Reporter
You’re itching to buy a new piece of upholstered furniture, and a deliciously supple, richly colored leather has caught your eye. With a significant purchase price riding on the answer, what kind of leather is going to be best for your household?
Or perhaps you’ve already bought that leather recliner or sofa – only to see your cat use the arms as a scratching post or your kid airmail a greasy glob of peanut butter onto the seat.
Yes, it’s cardiac time, but usually the patient can be saved, say a trio of leather doctors who’ve carved out careers as possibly the only leather-furniture repair specialists in the area. (There are others who repair leather garments and auto interiors.)
Talk to the three – Marc Allan, Jim Boutcher and John Andersen of European Leather Repair in Bothell – and they can also give you tips on buying, then maintaining leather furniture. These are all topics of increasing interest as leather furniture generates more than $15 billion a year in sales and shows every sign of growing even more popular.
Once considered the province of men’s clubs and expensive office interiors, leather furniture began going mainstream a decade ago, especially after Natuzzi, an Italian manufacturer, began offering casual styling at affordable prices. Other manufacturers joined in, taking leather beyond the traditional stiff styling and black, brown and burgundy palate to a rainbow of pastel shades and casual comfort.
Where leather made up 12 percent of the upholstered furniture market in 1992, it’s projected to command 19 percent of that same market next year, according to “Furniture Today,” a trade publication, which points out that every percentage point means millions of dollars in sales. Furniture-industry analyst Jerry Epperson, of Richmond, Va., credits leather’s rising popularity to several factors: its affordability combined with its image as a luxury item, new tanning techniques that allow manufacturers to use less-than-perfect hides, and its versatility in decorating.
Because leather furniture is a single color, Epperson says a big selling point is that “it’s easy to decorate around, unlike multicolored upholstered furniture where you have a hard time matching it to the wallpaper.” A change in lifestyles also has added to leather’s appeal – particularly the advent of home entertainment centers. Hide-upholstered recliners and sofas with pop-out footrests are particularly popular, Epperson notes. And leather is also attracting a following among allergy sufferers.
The American Lung Association’s allergy specialist, Dr. Linda Ford, recommends leather (as well as wood and vinyl) because unlike fabric upholstery it doesn’t harbor problem-causing dust mites. Learning your leathers While leather in general is more rugged than fabric upholstery and can last for years, there are real differences in tanning processes that affect the product’s durability. According to Marc Allan, most leather furniture is made of cowhide; the best upholstery-grade cowhide comes from the sides and back of the animal.
After being cleaned and prepared, the cowhide is treated to either an aniline or pigmented finish – or both. “When a tanner looks at a hide, the first thing he looks for is flaws and blemishes,” Allan says. “If it’s relatively flawless he’ll do an aniline job because aniline dyes affect color, but don’t cover up flaws.” — Aniline finish. Aniline, an old chemical used for leather and wood dyes, has the deeper, richer colors “making aniline visually the most beautiful of all leathers.”
It also gives the leather a softer, suppler hand than a pigmented finish, and because it breathes, it feels warm in winter, cool in summer. As a result of all this, aniline leather furniture generally is more expensive than its pigmented counterpart, Allan says. But aniline also is more sensitive to stains, spots, dirt and fading. As a result, it’s probably best suited to an adult home, or as Allan offers, “once the kids are gone and you teach the dog to stay off the furniture, then it’s time to buy aniline because it’s higher quality.” — Pigmented finish.
Cowhides that have noticeable imperfections generally are treated to a pigmented finish. If they’re going to be used in higher quality furniture, this treatment usually goes on top of aniline; in lesser quality furniture the pigmented finish is applied directly to the leather. A pigmented finish can be sprayed, brushed, sponged or even rolled on, Allan says. Then it’s sealed with a clear, hard finish. Pigmented techniques can be used to camouflage poor-quality hides.
If the hide is severely flawed, it may first be sanded down, then sprayed with a pigment, then stamped with an artificial grain. This is variously called “corrected” or “embossed” leather. Because the pigmenting process fills in leather’s pores, it generally gives a shinier appearance than does aniline. It’s also better at resisting staining, soiling and sun damage. However, depending on its quality, pigmented leather can have a plastic look and feel cold in the winter, warm in the summer.
In stores, leather that’s been treated with the aniline process is usually referred to as aniline leather; leather with a pigmented finish is referred to as “top grain” leather. While aniline generally looks and feels softer and often is less light-reflective than pigmented leather, it’s not always possible, in a store, to immediately tell the difference.
Obviously a knowledgeable sales clerk will know. One other way is to turn over a seat cushion and in a small place where it won’t show, put a tiny drop of water on the leather. Water will stay on the surface of pigmented leather; it will soak in then disappear on an aniline hide. Caring for leather Some retailers now offer insurance policies against leather damage, and many routinely treat leather with a protective spray coating before it leaves the store.
Still, how long any piece lasts depends in good measure on how it’s cared for. “Many of the problems we see are due to lack of maintenance or incorrect maintenance,” says Jim Boutcher. Like his partners, Allan and Andersen, he learned leather repair in Europe. Boutcher says that for the first several years after purchase the best care is a gentle wipe with a damp cloth – just enough to remove body oils that can penetrate and discolor leather.
Alas, some of his clients haven’t stopped there. In his Bothell repair shop, Boutcher displays a badly cracked and split armrest – victim of a general-purpose household cleaner. But Boutcher says the absolute worst product to use on leather is saddle soap because it’s too alkaline, and will cause the leather to dry out and eventually crack. Alkalinity, in fact, is the problem with all soaps because leather has an acid pH. To keep leather conditioned, the leather pros recommend only one product. Called Lexol, it’s found in many shoe repair shops and has the correct pH.
But even it shouldn’t be used on aniline leather, only on pigmented. So what do you use on aniline? “You use precaution,” Boutcher says. Leather repair When it comes to damage, Allan says the top culprits are animals (particularly cat scratches), oil-based stains, moving dings and sometimes sunlight, which will fade some leathers. Heat from reading lamps whose bulbs are within roughly 9 inches of the furniture, can over time cause the leather to crack and turn hard.
However forced air heating generally causes no problems, even for furniture near heat vents, Allan says. Using German dyes they custom blend themselves and techniques they mastered working in Europe, Boutcher and his partners say they can repair most damage, either camouflaging it so a repair is undetectable or removing problems like pen marks via special solvents. They routinely fix holes up to the size of a quarter and repair cuts and tears.
The secret is a thermoplastic adhesive process, combined with a technique that reapplies a natural grain pattern over the fix. Then the area is recolored. When an area can’t be repaired because the problem is too large or is located in an area of high wear – like the center of a seat cushion – Allan or his partners will recover it with new leather, then dye it to match. They also recondition and recolor older pieces, like the 7-foot sofa in his Bothell shop this month.
Completely coloring it a creamy beige cost $500. (Allan’s base charge is $85 an hour for house calls; $70 an hour if the furniture is brought to him.) “A lot of times you look at a sofa and it can be in good condition except the seat cushion leather is messed up, so all you have to do is recover and recolor it,” Allan says. He estimates it costs between a third and a half as much to have a piece fully restored as it would to replace it altogether. “Sometimes it’s even better than a new piece because of the inner construction,” adds Boutcher.
Sitting next to him are a pair of newly refurbished leather, chrome and wood chairs that prove the point. A couple of decades old, they’re a timeless design by renowned artist Jackson Pollock. With their leather backs again a rich carmel, they look brand new.
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