Full Grain Leather
This cut of leather contains the outer layout of the hide, referred to as the “grain”; it hasn’t been sanded or buffed to remove any imperfections. Generally, only the hair is removed on full grain leathers. The grain generally has densely packed fibers that are finer; this results in a surface that is very strong, durable, and can withstand tough use.
Because it undergoes no sanding, the surface can have minor imperfections. These might be from where a cow rubbed up against a fence, a small cut they might have received, or scrapes from everyday life. Full grain hides without many blemishes are the most prized, as they are least common and are the most visually appealing.
Those surface fibers are also what give it the most strength of any leather type. This makes it good for saddlery, footwear, and furniture. Since the outer layer isn’t removed, it develops a patina (a surface color change from use) over time that can be pleasing to the eye. The outer layer also provides some water-resistance qualities as well. Full Grain is looked upon as the highest quality leather available.
Top Grain Leather
This cut is very similar to full-grain, except that it has had the very top layer sanded and/or buffed to remove imperfections and irregularities in the finish. This makes the leather softer and more pliable, with various dyes and finished applied to it.
While this sanding makes it more visually appealing, it also removes a lot of the strength and some water-repellent qualities of full grain leather. This we begin to see a tradeoff between leather strength, and leather look and softness.
Given its softness and flexibility, top grain leather is often used in high end leather goods, including handbags, wallets, and shoes.