Technically, suede and nubuck are both types of leather, known for their softer, velvety nap. All three are commonly used in the production of dress and casual shoes, with each providing a unique look and style. Learn about the differences between suede, nubuck, and leather shoes, plus how to care for each of them.
How ALL Leather Is Created
First, it’s important to understand that all types of leather (traditional, suede and nubuck) undergo similar processing. First, a hide (usually from a cow, sheep or deer) is removed from the animal, and sent out for processing. This is known as tanning, and it’s a lengthy process involving multiple steps that actually change the protein structure of the hide.
The exact tanning technique depends on the intended look and use of the finished product. There are different steps for traditional leather, suede and nubuck. Similarly, there are different tanning processes for leather used in shoes, compared to leather used in jackets. There are also different means of tanning the hides used for dyed leather versus natural leather.
How Traditional Leather Is Created
Not all leather is created equal, and this is especially relevant for traditional leather. Traditional leather is created when the outside of the hide (the grain) has the hair removed, and is buffed to a smooth, shiny finish. High quality leather will have fewer imperfections and require less processing, whereas lower quality leather will need more processing in order to achieve a similar look. This is the difference between full grain leather and top grain leather - how much sanding and buffing takes place in order to remove imperfections.
On a traditional leather shoe, the outside of the hide forms the exterior of the shoe (the visible surface), and it requires more maintenance in the form of cleaning, conditioning and polishing.
How Suede Is Created
Suede is very different from traditional leather, because the exterior surface is actually the inside of the hide. To make suede, the leather is split, removing the grain and leaving the soft inner surface with its longer fibers and smooth, velvety feel. However, due to the fact that the inside of the hide is not as durable as the grain, suede is more susceptible to scratches and staining.
It’s a commonly held belief that suede requires more maintenance than leather, but the reality is that both materials require maintenance. Leather shoes need to be conditioned, shined and polished to retain their sheen, whereas suede shoes need protection against other forms of damage. A situation where suede requires significantly more attention is when it gets wet.
It’s a common misconception that suede is ruined when it gets wet, but that’s not entirely true. Suede can get wet, but it needs to be carefully treated in order to preserve its soft feel and texture (see how to treat wet suede).
How Nubuck Is Created
Nubuck is similar to traditional leather - the outside of the hide is also the visible surface (outside of the shoe). However, nubuck is created when the hide is sanded and left with a napped finish. Because the outside of the hide is used, nubuck is more durable than suede. Traditionally, nubuck was made from buckskin, but modern nubuck is commonly made from calfskin instead.
Because nubuck is more durable than suede, it’s important not to use nubuck brushes on suede shoes. Nubuck brushes are typically stiffer and may cause damage to the suede in the process of cleaning them.
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