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What is Nubuck Leather?

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"To be soft is to be powerful". Here Rupi Kaur is not talking about leather but about people, yet I think no quote better expresses why nubuck is so popular.

Nubuck is a variety of leather known worldwide for its softness to the touch. It is so soft that some people think it is velvet, others think nubuck is a material in its own right. But don't be fooled by its velvety appearance, it is leather. Asking what the difference is between leather and nubuck is like asking what the difference is between a dog and a labrador. 🐕

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What is nubuck leather?

Originally, nubuck was a special leather finish where the surface of the hide was scraped with very fine sandpaper. Today, just as aniline leather is named after its finish, nubuck is the name given to the finished product. It is a leather often from bovines that has been worked on the grain side, i.e. the outside. The advantage of being sanded on the grain side is that the leather will be more resistant because the outside of the hide has been in contact with many elements during the animal's lifetime. This part of the hide is stronger and denser and therefore more resistant and durable. 💪

It is often compared or even confused with suede (the leather not the country). Both leathers have a similar appearance, a slight downiness and sensitivity to water. But nubuck is stronger and more durable because of the reason I explained. 

Another feature of nubuck is that the hide can have imperfections that show up on the finished product. You can see this as a quality for the character and authenticity of the leather or as a flaw for the lack of uniformity. For those who fall into the second category, don't worry, most manufacturers often dye and colour the nubuck to make it uniform.

Nubuck has the advantage of being quite breathable, like any real leather. Breathability prevents moisture and reduces the growth of bacteria and moulds that often cause bad odours. Compared to other leathers, it is also easy to maintain. 

Unfortunately, even the best materials have their faults. It is not advisable to expose your nubuck accessory to mud or dirt, so walks in the mountains are best done in trainers or hiking boots! This leather is also quite sensitive to water, it will temporarily change colour if it gets wet but don't worry, if you let it dry for a few hours it will be fine.

It is also one of the few leathers that does not have a patina (aging process). Some might see this as a quality, but leather is one of the few materials to have a prized patina rather than the opposite. Unfortunately, nubuck does not have this beautiful aging process.👶👨👴

But I think you have already guessed its main disadvantage: its price. The qualities of nubuck far outweigh the disadvantages, but these qualities come at a price. It's a material that's more for the privileged few unless you see your purchase as a long term investment. 

I don't know about you, but I think nubuck has a nice ring to it. It's a catchy name with a vague origin.  

Where does the term Nubuck come from?

No one knows for sure where the term "nubuck" came from, but there is a credible theory. 

Originally, before nubuck existed, suede leather was already popular. It was once made from buckskin. One of the names for suede was "buckskin", the theory being that nubuck is a contraction of "new" + "buck" or "buckskin". This theory is unproven but is probably the most plausible.

Which hides are used to make Nubuck leather?

Originally, nubuck leather was made from deer, elk, buckskin or moose hide. These animals were hunted for their meat and hides, two valuable resources. The meat was used for food, while the hide was used as leather for clothing, shelter or finishing other materials. 

Nubuck leather was not an immediate success when it arrived on the American market in the 1930s.  But when the Duke of Windsor, Edward VIII travelled to the United States with a pair of Oxfords made from nubuck, the material boomed in popularity. 👑

Today, most of the species I mentioned are protected because of intensive hunting. Bovine, sheep and goat skins are the most common uses for leather.  

But it's not the origin of the hide that makes nubuck so special, it's the way it is made. 

How is nubuck leather made?

The process of making nubuck leather starts the same way as for other leathers. The hide is removed from the animal to be tanned. Tanning is a process that will turn the hide into leather. 🐄👉👞

There are different tanning methods (vegetable tanning, tree bark tanning, smoke tanning etc.) depending on the leather but the principle is the same. The tanning can depend on the hide used (cattle, sheep, cactus, etc.), the product that is going to be made (backpack, sofa, shoes, etc.) and of course which leather (nubuck, suede, crazy horse, etc.).

As you know by now, nubuck leather is made on the grain side, a characteristic it shares with many other leathers. What it does not share with many other leathers is that it is made from top grain leather, which ensures that it is always of good quality.  Then the hide is sanded and polished with very fine sandpaper to give the famous soft, velvety look. 

Some flaws may still remain, and manufacturers may decide to dye and colour their products to hide the marks and change the colour. This step is not systematic, some nubuck keep their " flaws " to give them character. Only the outer surface of the leather is affected by the treatment, which is why it is more resistant and durable than suede. 

Now you know how this formidable leather is made. However, do you know what are the most common objects associated with nubuck leather? 

What are the most common ways of using Nubuck leather?

Nubuck leather is now one of the most popular and well-known leathers. Nubuck leather is mainly used in the clothing industry, but also in the interior furniture and automotive industries. 

It's hard not to mention the use of nubuck without mentioning Timberland and its iconic boots. It is probably the most well known nubuck product to the general public. 

Birkenstock is also quite popular for its nubuck sandals and sneakers. Other big brands like Hugo Boss or Ugg use this leather quite frequently. As you can see, nubuck leather is mainly used for making shoes. However, it can be found in a wide variety of products: 

  • Shoes, boots, sandals, sneakers 
  • Travel bags, luggage, handbags 💼
  • Key rings, wallets, pouches, briefcases 
  • Sofas, armchairs, couches 
  • Car upholstery, furniture upholstery
  • etc. 

How do I care for nubuck leather?

Fortunately for nubuck lovers, it is one of the easiest leathers to clean. The main reason is that unlike many leathers, it does not need to be waxed or buffed. This is a considerable time saver. ⏳

Nubuck is also easy to maintain because it requires very little special equipment. In most cases, a special nubuck brush and a waterproofing product are enough. I know it's obvious but I'll say it anyway, don't put your nubuck accessory away if it's very dirty, the sooner you react the better

  1. Before cleaning, remove the laces if you are cleaning shoes, remove the stuff from the bag if you are cleaning a bag etc.  
  2. Now you need to dust your product. It is important to get a soft bristle brush as nubuck is fragile so make sure you have a nubuck brush. If you just want to give your shoes a quick wipe down, you're done. 
  3. For a bigger wash, moisten your brush in warm water and soap (the gentler the better). Gently scrub the area to be cleaned and then dry. 🧼
  4. (optional) If a large stain persists, you can use a suede leather eraser but be careful not to damage your leather, go gently. 
  5. To dry the product, do not stick your leather accessory to a heat source, you will damage it. The best thing to do is to gently wipe your accessory with a microfiber cloth and then let it dry for 24 hours. If you are cleaning shoes, you can use your cloth to clean the soles and edges if it is damp. 
  6. Finally, I advise you to waterproof your nubuck with a nubuck waterproofing product of your choice. 2 to 3 times a year should be enough but you can do more if you use it often. 

As with waterproofing, if your leather becomes stiff, you can nourish and soften it with a specialist product of your choice. As for the frequency of cleaning, there is no real rule, the frequency will depend on the amount of use.

If your product darkens during washing, don't worry, it's completely normal. The water darkens the nubuck but this is only temporary, the leather will return to its original colour as it dries. It is not advisable to wear your nubuck leather accessory if it is still wet. 💧

Difference between nubuck and other leathers 

There are many different types of leather and not all are equal. Some are tough, some are soft, while another will be cheaper. Is nubuck leather really the leather for you? To find out, it may be worth comparing it to the most common leather and faux leather. 

To keep this section relatively short, I will only talk about the most common leathers. I should also point out that there may be differences between some of the leathers in the same category, depending on the quality of the hide, which animal the leather comes from etc. 

Suede or " daim ":

Nubuck leather is often compared to suede for its many similarities. Are they really that similar? 🤔

  • Resistance: Nubuck is stronger because it is made on the grain side, the toughest part, whereas suede is made on the flesh side (inside). In addition, nubuck is often made from higher quality leather than suede. 
  • Durability/Patina: Nubuck is more durable than suede for the same reasons, neither leather is desired for its patina. 
  • Feel: Both leathers have a very comparable soft and velvety feel.
  • Flexibility: Both leathers are very flexible, the hide used or the age of the product will have more impact on the flexibility of the leather than anything else.
  • Breathability: The sanding of nubuck is lighter than that of other suede leathers, it is more breathable than suede even if both leathers are very breathable. 
  • Care: These are two of the easiest leathers to care for, and it is quite common to see care products for suede and nubuck (except for the brush)
  • Price: Nubuck is more expensive than suede in the vast majority of cases, if you find nubuck at a very low price be careful, it is probably fake or very bad leather. 

Crazy horse leather :

Crazy horse leather is not well known to the general public but it is one of the best examples of full grain leather currently available. 

  • Resistance: Crazy horse and full grain leathers in general are extremely resistant. It is more resistant to scratches but also to humidity and sunlight.  
  • Durability/ patina: In addition to being stronger, it is more durable. Both leathers are extremely durable with good maintenance but full grain is the more durable leather. The patina of a crazy horse is also very desirable. 
  • Feel: The feel of a crazy horse is very different from nubuck. Nubuck has a velvety feel to it, whereas crazy horse has a more conventional feel for leather. Nubuck is the softer of the two.
  • Flexibility: As with suede, the hide used or the age of the product will impact more on the suppleness of the leather. 
  • Breathability: Both leathers are comparable in terms of breathability. Adding an extra layer to either one could impact breathability. 
  • Care: Nubuck is known to be one of the easiest leathers to maintain for a reason, daily maintenance is much easier.
  • Price: Both leathers are very expensive, either one will be an investment. 

Aniline or "Nappa" leather:

  • Resistance: Both leathers are very sensitive to the same things, moisture, sun, scratches etc. 
  • Durability/ patina: Aniline is very durable but not much more so than nubuck. The big difference is that the patina of aniline is very desirable. 
  • Feel: Nubuck is known for its softness, but so is aniline... It is difficult to tell the softest soft leather from the softest velvet leather. Just remember that they feel different. 
  • Flexibility: Aniline is one of the most flexible leathers, if not the most flexible leather. 
  • Breathability: It is hard to find a more breathable leather than aniline, the lack of a protective layer and coating makes it sensitive but extremely breathable.
  • Care: Not only is nubuck easier to care for than other leathers, but aniline is harder to care for than other leathers. No doubt about it, nubuck is easy to maintain. 
  • Price: Nubuck is a very expensive leather, but aniline is even more expensive because of the extremely demanding hide selection process.  

Patent leather :

  • Resistance: Patent leather is scratch and water resistant and is more durable than nubuck. 
  • Durability/Patina: Patent leather loses its shape more quickly than other leathers, its durability will of course vary with the quality and origin of the hide but nubuck is often more durable. 
  • Feel: The feel of nubuck and patent leather is so different that the comparison is irrelevant. Simply put, nubuck is softer, patent leather is smoother. 
  • Flexibility: Patent leather is not particularly flexible, which is why there are variants such as retro patent, for example, which is much more elastic. Nubuck is therefore more flexible. 
  • Breathability: Patent limits the breathability of leather. It is still more breathable than most other materials, but compared to other leathers it will almost always be a little less breathable. 
  • Care: Despite nubuck's reputation for being easy to maintain, patent leather is probably even easier to maintain.  
  • Price: The price will depend on the quality of the leather behind the patent, you can find very cheap patent leather as well as very high quality.

PU leather :

  • Resistance: PU (polyurethane) is more resistant to moisture and tearing than nubuck since it is made mainly of plastic. But it is not extremely durable because of the lower quality of the product. 
  • Durability/ patina: PU leather is not very durable, it will never live as long as nubuck. 
  • Feel: Nubuck is much softer than PU, which has an imitation leather feel. 
  • Flexibility: Plastic is quite soft, a little less so than genuine leathers like nubuck, but this is not their most striking difference. 
  • Breathability: Unlike leather, plastic is not porous, it breathes very badly compared to any leather. 
  • Care: The advantage of plastic is that it is very easy to maintain, probably even more so than nubuck. 
  • Price: Since PU is not really leather, it is much cheaper than nubuck leather. In fact, it is much cheaper than any leather. 

Cactus leather: 

Cactus leather is not well known yet because of its newness. I include it in the comparisons to have a quality faux leather. It also has the advantage over all other leathers that it is 100% vegan.  

  • Resistance: Cactus leather is surprisingly resistant, probably more so than nubuck which is quite fragile. 
  • Durability/ patina: According to DESSERTO (the inventors of cactus leather) their leather lives for 10 years. This is a lot of time for a faux leather, but less than nubuck if it is well cared for. 
  • Feel: Cactus leather is described as very soft. Probably not as soft as nubuck which has the advantage of being velvet-like.
  • Flexibility: Cactus leather is very flexible. I haven't had a chance to get my hands on it so it's hard for me to tell you which one is softer but both leathers stand out in this area.  
  • Breathability: Cactus is extremely porous, so cactus leather is probably the most breathable. 
  • Care: As cactus leather is a very new material, I have no information about its maintenance.  
  • Price: The price of cactus leather is comparable to that of nubuck leather. The brand or quality of the product will determine which is more expensive. 

Pros & Cons of Nubuck Leather

Pros:

  • ✔ The most obvious quality of nubuck leather is its softness. Its softness makes it particularly comfortable to wear. If this product is compared to velvet it is for a good reason!
  • ✔ This leather is beautiful! If it is so popular in the fashion industry it is for a good reason, it is an aesthetically pleasing material. 
  • Nubuck is low maintenance compared to other leathers. Most of the time, a quick brush and it will be as good as new. 
  • ✔ Like all quality leather, nubuck is durable. Not as durable as full grain but your nubuck accessory will have a long life. Because it is made from top grain leather, it is very durable, especially for the low maintenance it requires. 
  • ✔ Compared to many faux leathers that lack breathability, leather is a very breathable material and nubuck is no exception. The breathability is very important to reduce moisture, bacteria and mould. 

Cons:

  • ✖️ Nubuck is leather, so it tends to be quite expensive
  • ✖️ Nubuck is susceptible to scratches, moisture, dirt, oil stains etc. With care you should be fine, especially with my great care tips but it is a sensitive material. 
  • ✖️ Nubuck does not develop a patina like most other leathers. For some this is not a flaw but leather is one of the few materials that is coveted for its patina while ageing is often fought against. 

To Wrap up

Nubuck is the best kind of velvety leather. Very appreciated for its qualities but also for having few flaws. This leather excels in cities or at work, but should be avoided for walks in parks or in the mountains. It is a compromise that many are willing to make even away from the big cities. Whether you like nubuck or prefer another leather, tell us why in the comments! 😉

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📫Related Blog Posts:

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📌  What is Bonded Leather? A Controversial Alternative to Real Leather

📌  What are Aniline Leather & Semi-Aniline Leather?

📌  Vegan Leather | A Realistic Alternative to Real Leather

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auteur

Author: Felix

Felix is a very curious person who is always looking to learn and explore. Always in search of the unknown, he hopes through this blog to share with you his passion for adventure and vintage objects

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