There’s a lot of mixed and contradictory information found online about the various kinds of napped leathers – nubuck, split suede, full reverse suede and roughout. Here I go through all of these leathers and sort out what each of these actually are, the differences and the pros and cons of them all.
To make the info in this article more understandable, we start with this classic image of the different sections of a leather, explaining the three parts of the hide that are used to various extents for all types of leather.
The finest and most expensive type of smooth pressed leather is full grain leather, which consists of the whole grain part and the junction and perhaps some of the corium as well, with the junction/top part of the corium being pressed together usually with a cross/hatch pattern which makes it look almost like a fabric on the back. To be able to use the actual grain surface the quality of the leather needs to be good. Then there’s a number of other types of leathers, like top grain leather, embossed grain leather, “genuine leather”, corrected grain leather and so on, many of them who only use part of the hide, change or add things etc., won’t go into these much in this article, now we will focus on the napped types of leathers.
Nubuck is the napped leather type that is most similar to smooth full grain leather. Here you in general also use the grain and the junction, and sand down/buff the top part of the grain to achieve the velvety feel. What is positive is that you have a large part of the stronger, more durable and protective dense grain area left, and in many ways it’s comparable to full grain leathers at this matter (although the removal of the hard top part and the pores gives it different preferences, like the need of waterproof spray). Nubuck could be called a corrected grain leather, since it has the grain changed (same goes for embossed grain leather for that matter), but nothing is added like the type of high-shine corrected grain leathers which has a plastic coating applied, so not just changing the surface but adding something superficial which completely changes the properties (usually high-shine has much less or nothing left of the grain as well, so under the plastic coating it’s more sensitive).
Most of what is called suede today is essentially a split suede. Here you only use the corium of the leather (another name for this part is suede, hence the name) with the loose fibres, and split this away from the grain area. This way you can make two parts of leather from only one hide (sometimes even three), saving money.
When you only use the corium with the loose collagen fibres, it easily let moisture etc. through if not waterproofed properly, and since the fibres are more loose it can also stretch more easily (if you have a good lining leather and reinforcements this is reduced). Sometimes a bit of the junction is used, making it a bit more dense at least part of the hide. It’s also common to shrink the split hide to make the corium fibres a bit denser.
Full reverse suede
Full reverse suede, reverse calf suede etc., can have various versions of the name. Here you basically have the same parts of the hide as for a smooth full grain leather, only a bit more of the corium left, and this is sanded/buffed to achieve a fine nap. Since it’s a more porous material here than the grain that is sanded for nubuck, you don’t get the very short, fine nap as there, and on the surface it can look identical to a split suede, since it’s essentially the same part of the hide that has been sanded the same way.
The difference is what’s below the surface, and here a full reverse calf has all the tight and structured grain area left, albeit facing inwards, while a split suede only has the loose fibrous corum behind the surface. A reverse calf hide is therefore in general more durable (not necessarily the surface, but the whole material as such) than a split suede, it stretch the same way as regular smooth full grain leather, and doesn’t let water all the way through as easily (you still need to waterproof spray it though, since you don’t have the dense grain surface protecting the top of the material).
Roughout leather is very similar to full reverse suede, but it is not the exact same thing. The difference is that here you have part of the corium left more or less untreated, “rough”, which means it doesn’t have an as smooth nap as the sanded reverse suede surface. All other things are equal though so it basically has the same preferences as reverse calf suede, just the surface that differs, and depending on how much of the corium you have left it can be more or less loose and rough in texture, if only the junction is left it will be finer, though still not as structured as a buffed suede’s surface.
The back of a roughout or full reverse suede is more or less the same as untreated smooth full grain leather, hence it’s common that these types of leathers that are used for unlined shoes, since its insides are suitable for this.
All of these types of leathers can be made of large cow skins or smaller calf hides, or from hides of other animals, giving them a bit various character. Also it can be treated with various oils and/or waxes to achieve different character and preferences. That often results in yet another round-up of names of leathers complicating things even further, but rest assured that if it’s napped leathers one of the above is always used, no matter what the surface treatment is.