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Leather Boots Buying Guide: How to Identify the Different Types of Leather and Its Quality

Is your closet in need of a new pair of leather boots?

Genuine boots make an excellent addition to virtually any outfit. Yet given the wide range of options out there, it can be challenging to find a high-quality pair.

What you put on your feet matters, especially when it comes to leather boots. We don't want you to waste your time with low-quality leather footwear!

For that reason, we've compiled your ultimate guide to determining leather quality.

In this post, we walk every well-dressed man through the different types of leather used for crafting boots. We'll help you separate quality from sub-par. We'll even give you pointers for finding those boots you won't want to part with anytime soon.

Different Types of Leather

Leather is a natural material derived from tanned animal skins and hides. The most common leathers come from cattle hides.

We use leather all over the world in all kinds of manufacture, including belts, bags, and shoes. As a durable, flexible material, it's especially ideal for footwear. In fact, humans have been making leather footwear for thousands of years -- the oldest leather shoe is 5,500 years old!

It's also possible to purchase footwear crafted of faux leather. Such footwear may have the look and texture of real leather, but ultimately, it's synthetic. It won't last as long as a genuine leather boot.

That being said, just because something's made of leather doesn't guarantee its longevity. There are different types of leather out there, and some are of higher quality than others.

When it comes to boots, the two general types of leather are suede and smooth leather. Both are beautiful additions to any urban man's closet!

What you choose will come down to occasion, however, and intended use.

Smooth Leather

This is arguably the most common type of leather used in boot manufacture. With smooth leather boots, the "visible" part of the leather is the natural grain of the hide itself (after it has been de-haired). When it comes to animal skins, this part is always smoother to the touch. Natural colors include teak, brown, black, and tan.

Manufacturers may also call embossed or coated split leather "smooth leather." This is because these treated leathers are designed to look like genuinely smooth leathers.

In general, smooth leather can hold a polish a lot better than other grains. Most men will wear smooth leather boots in professional or formal settings.

In the world of smooth leathers, there's a wide range of grades and grains.

Corrected Grain Leather

Corrected grain leather is a lower grain leather. Hides used to make it often have blemishes that need correcting before the leather meets manufacturing standards. Hence the name: it has to be "corrected" to achieve its smooth grain look.

What does "correcting" mean? Manufacturers typically sand down hides rigorously to get rid of any blemishes.

They then chemically treat the leather to correct imperfections. This is how pigmented leather boots are made. Because they have been corrected, CG leather boots are often sold at a lower price than other types of leather footwear.

Full-Grain Leather

Full-grain leather is widely recognized as the best type of leather out there. It is also the highest quality, giving wearers the ultimate flexibility and durability. In fact, it's what we use in crafting our popular Declan boot, constructed out of supple Balthazar leather.

Unlike corrected grain leather, full-grain leather does not need to be buffed or sanded to remove any blemishes. It is minimally processed to preserve that original grain look as much as possible.

Not all animal hides are imperfection-free. Full-grain leather boot manufacturers thus must source these hides from specific parts of the animal. Here at Helm Boots, we use full-grain side cow leather. This means that we select only the best part of each hide when creating our high-quality boots.

Because it hasn't been chemically corrected in any way, full-grain leather is more receptive to polishes. Full-grain leather boots can retain their shine a lot better than other shoes. Over time, they will develop a luxurious patina, unique to each pair of shoe.

Top-Grain Leather

Top-grain leather is a step below full-grain leather in terms of quality. It does not have to undergo as much processing as corrected grain leather.

But manufacturers do sand and buff the surface to remove imperfections. They also may apply a finish coat to improve the leather's breathability. This coat is designed to resist stains and boost durability over time.

During the tanning process, manufacturers remove the top layer of the hide's grain. This top layer is preserved only in full-grain leather production. For this reason, top-grain leather can also be referred to as "split leather."

Genuine Leather

Genuine leather has a misleading title. When we see the word "genuine" we automatically assume "authentic." But genuine leather is the lowest quality leather out there.

It is still crafted from real animal hides! Yet genuine leather products are made from "leftover" leather scraps. These are often made from the lower layers of an animal hide. Remember that full-grain leather preserves the top layer of a hide and top-grain leather removes the top layer.

Genuine leather comes from the layers below these top two.

Genuine leather boots will still look like leather, especially if a manufacturer chemically treats it to have that identifiable shine. But they will not feel as soft or flexible as full-grain leather. They also lack the durability of higher-quality leathers, lasting wearers a year or two at best.

Pull-Up Leather

Pull-up leather is a type of full-grain leather used in boot manufacture. It's simply called "pull-up" because of a general lightening that occurs when you apply pressure to it.

This is not the result of any chemical correcting or artificial coating. It's simply due to waxes and oils in the hide. You may hear pull-up leather also referred to as "waxed" or "oiled" leather as a result.

Side Leather

Side leather comes from an adult cow. It's called "side" leather because the hide is split into two halves directly along the cow's backbone.

In general, side leather is more consistent and thick than leather sourced from other parts of the animal. That's why we use side leather here at Helm Boots in the production of all of our footwear, including our Lou natural boot, which is actually lined with natural leather.


Suede is indeed a leather product. Its difference from smooth leather lies in what part of the hide is outside-facing. With smooth leather, the grain, or layer underneath the animal's hair, is visible. With suede, the opposite is the case.

In suede products, the inner layer of the skin is visible. Manufacturers can treat this inner layer of skin as they see fit, producing different types of "nap" or suede texture. In general, suede textures are soft and velvety, but with a different feel than full-grain leather.

Most suede products are made from lamb hides, although it's possible to find suede shoes made from goat, deer, or calfskin. Our elegant suede Declan boot is made from the finest calfskin.

When it comes to boots, what should you choose? Suede or smooth leather?

Your answer to this question depends on what you're looking for. Smooth leather footwear is a popular solution for professional and formal settings. It's also a great addition to luxury fashion wear.

Suede products like our elegant suede Declan boot can be a bit more versatile, ideal for both formal and casual use. 

How to Determine Leather Quality

Now that you know the different types of leather used in boot manufacture, how do you determine leather quality?

Whether you're shopping for boots online or locally, always ask about leather grain.

The highest quality leather boots will be made of full-grain leather from adult cowhides. Lower quality boots -- those that likely won't last as long -- will be made of top grain, corrected grain, or genuine leather. Non-cow hides, such as steer hides, tend to be thinner and less durable than adult cowhides.

Keep in mind that most local stores and warehouses sell lower-grade leathers, which have undergone more processing than full-grain leathers. This is because lower-grade leathers are often more affordable than full-grain.

Another identifier to look for is the word "handcrafted." Higher quality boots will come straight from an artisanal shop, where manufacturers are more likely to use top-grain or full-grain leathers.

If you can't identify the grain in any way, be skeptical! The right manufacturers will be transparent about the leathers they use and their process.

It's also wise to consider where manufacturers are actually getting their leather. Prioritize shops that source from reputable tanneries

At Helm Boots, all of our boots are made of full grain side cow leather, sourced from select tanneries around the United States. It takes 133 steps to make each one of our handcrafted, durable boots!

Your Leather Boots Buying Guide

Now that you know the different types of leather used in boot production, it's time to find that pair of boots you'll have for the rest of your life.

At Helm Boots, we offer our customers only the finest full grain leather products. We're confident our footwear won't disappoint.


To pick up your next pair of black ankle boots, visit Helm Boots. We're an Austin-based bootmaker that specializes in high-quality, good-looking, and affordable boots for every look.