Leather, suede, and nubuck: the three pillars of the quality boot world. Chances are, if you’re considering quality boots, they’re made of one of these three materials. But which is right for you? There’s a lot to consider when comparing leather vs suede vs nubuck: how hard you want to wear it, how much you’d like to dress it up, and how much work you want to put into keeping it looking good, for starters.
Luckily for you, we’ve done your homework for you.
What Is Leather?
To start with the most basic: leather is hide from an animal that has been treated, or “tanned”, to create a durable, versatile material. Humans have been turning hides into leather for millennia and there are tons of ways to do it: different treatments, tanning processes, and types of hides all result in wildly varying kinds of leather. A chrome-tanned leather will look and feel different than a vegetable-tanned leather, a kangaroo leather is distinct from calf or moose, and the amount of graininess you’ll get on the leather — how bumpy it is, how much it looks like skin — depends on how much it’s been “corrected,” or smoothed down.
Look and Feel
Leather is pretty smooth, and beyond that it’s hard to make generalization — there are just so many kinds of leather! Rugged? Dressy? Supple? Stiff? Shiny? Matte? From the smoothness of the Thursday Captain Boot to the rugged, waxy roughout from the Truman Boot Company, leather does it all.
Depending on how much the tannery has treated the hide, you might be able to see the grain of the leather (that pebbly texture that reminds you it used to be an animal’s skin) or the leather may be “corrected” so you can’t. Corrected leather may only have major imperfections and blemishes glossed over or it may be treated so it’s totally smooth, with no grain visible at all.
Some leathers are “hot stuffed,” imbued with oils, waxes, and other moisturizers during production to increase the lustre. Changes in production can change the look of a leather a lot, which is why so many tanneries are cagey about what goes into their proprietary processes.
Similarly to the look, the feel of the leather depends a lot on how it is processed; some, like Chromexcel leather, are made incredibly supple with industrial chemicals, while others, especially the vegetable tanned kind, are intentionally tougher. Leather comes in lots of different colors and finishes, from pull-up leather, which is renowned for its depth of color, to thick, waxed leathers designed for soldiers to slog through mud in.
Over time, leather will form a patina, or pattern of wear, which lots of guys specifically cultivate to show off how well-worn their boots are. If you like the look of old boots, it’s because they have a patina.
What is Suede?
Suede is leather that’s been split and sanded to create a soft, velvety material. Imagine an animal’s hide like a crust of bread: while leather is made from the “crust,” tanneries make suede by turning the inside of the hide out and buffing it, just like if you turned that crusty loaf inside-out and sanded the soft inner bready part to enhance the fluffy texture. Because of this, it’s more porous than leather, which makes it much more susceptible to water and other liquid stains.
Look and Feel
Suede is soft, flexible, pliable, and velvety to the touch. Like leather, it comes in a wide variety of colors. The name comes from the French phrase “gants de Suède” which literally means “gloves from Sweden,” because originally it was exclusively used for clothing items that come directly in contact with the body (like gloves, or the liner in your boot). These days, you’re likely to find it on dressier shoes, because the trade-off for that softness means it’s not exactly durable. Like leather, well-cared-for suede will develop a patina over time.
Note that some brands make their suede more hard wearing and water resistant by waxing it, like the Taft Dragon boot.
What is Nubuck?
Think back to that loaf of bread. Nubuck is what you get when you take the crusty outer layer and buff it so that it, too, sports that signature velvety texture. It’s very similar to suede but, because it’s made with the outer side of the hide, it’s far more durable.
Look and Feel
Like suede, nubuck feels fuzzy or velvety to the touch; this is referred to as the “nap” of the protein fibers. Possibly the most recognizable use of nubuck is in the iconic Timberland Premium Waterproof boot, which combines the signature nappy texture of nubuck with an extremely waterproof coating; like suede, naked nubuck doesn’t naturally hold up well to getting wet.
Unlike both suede and leather, nubuck doesn’t patina well, so it requires a little more attention to keep it looking good over time, and it’s not usually considered a very dressy material.
Cleaning keeps your boots looking their best, day-to-day. What does that look like for leather vs suede vs nubuck? Well, it depends quite a bit on which material you’re working with…
One of the best things about leather is how easy it is to clean. Wipe off any heavy salt, mud, or grime with a damp cloth after wearing and you’re well on your way. The one thing you’ll want to invest in is a good horsehair brush. Periodic brushings (daily if you’re feeling scrupulous, but whenever you remember is really fine) will get rid of surface dirt and debris, smooth out minor scratches from regular wear, and revive the lustre of pull-up leathers by revitalizing the waxes and oils imbued in the hide during tanning.
It’s also strongly advised that you let your boots sit in cedar shoe tree between wears; they help with absorbing moisture, help them retain their shape and minimize creases, and, as an added bonus, will make your boots smell noticeably nicer in the long run.
Unlike leather, suede looks its best when it’s regularly cleaned. A simple stain, poorly treated, can leave your boots looking too shabby to wear. Generally, you’ll want to brush your suede after each wear with something a little stiffer than horsehair: a brass-bristle brush.
It seems counterintuitive to use such a tough tool to clean such a soft material, but brass bristles are the best for raising nap of the fabric, loosening up the fibers to release trapped dirt and debris. Just be gentle; a little bit of brushing goes a long way. Brush back and forth to get all the grime out, then smooth the fibers back down so they all lay in one direction. Stains that resist brushing can be treated with an eraser block and crepe brush like these.
The number one thing you should never do when cleaning suede is put water on it. Because suede is porous, water is easily absorbed and can leave a permanent mark (like the ring you get on your coffee table when you put down a glass but forget a coaster). If you do get water on your boots, you’ll want to dry them immediately by dabbing with a clean, soft cloth, to absorb as much moisture as you can, then brushing gently. Be patient, and resist the temptation to dry them by putting them near the radiator or in the sun. A shoe tree, wrapped in a sheet of plain paper, can help speed the drying process — both will absorb the moisture from the inside.
Like suede, nubuck will benefit from a quick brushing with a brass-bristle brush, though the “every time you wear it” rule doesn’t apply here. Just pay attention to salt and other grime that might stain. For existing stains, an eraser block (or just a regular pencil eraser, in a pinch) should do the job. Timberland also makes a very cleverly named cleaning product for their boots, Renewbuck, that does a very nice job. And again, a cedar shoe tree never hurt anyone (except perhaps the bacteria that cause your stinky feet odor…).
Conditioning & Protecting
The two horsemen of keeping your boots looking good for the long haul: conditioning and protecting.
- Conditioning refers mainly to replenishing any oils that the hide loses over time, thanks to contact with the outside world;
- Protecting is about minimizing the contact with water, road salt, and other weather-based-factors that cause damage in the long run.
Some products do both, some specialize, and leather, suede and nubuck each have their own unique needs for maximizing their lifespan.
Leather is skin, after all, and like skin it benefits from moisturizing. You want it to stay flexible, not dry out and become brittle. Leather conditioner is generally made with some kind of wax or oil, to replenish what’s lost with wear; regularly conditioning your leather boots is a must. (Not sure where to start when choosing among a million leather conditioners? Check out this guide to the top 5 leather conditioners of all time.)
Keep in mind that regular conditioning means “at regularly spaced intervals” not “every time you wear them.” Over-conditioning your leather can lead to the fibers becoming oversaturated, resulting in floppy, soggy boots. Use your common sense and condition your boots only when the leather is looking dry. Generally, vegetable tanned leather needs to be conditioned more often than chrome tanned; you can also “spot treat” places if you notice your boots aren’t uniformly drying out. Trust your judgement — you know your boots best.
There’s lots of different ways to waterproof leather, though they are not all created equal. Mink oil, often considered the standard for waterproofing boots, will darken the color significantly. If waterproofing and color preservation is a big concern for you, you’ll want a more layer-based approach with paste, cream, and polish each taking a turn.
[Learn How With Our Guide to Waterproofing Nice Boots]
Caring for Suede
Suede doesn’t require regular conditioning the same way that leather does and, in fact, the waxes and oils in the conditioner can block the pores and mess up suede’s signature velvety texture. Regular brushing, and storing your boots in a cool, dark place, should suffice when it comes to conditioning.
Waterproofing is a whole other can of worms; the number one criticism you’ll hear about suede is that it’s very susceptible to water damage. While this can be true, it doesn’t have to be — a silicone-based spray can do a lot to protect your boots from being destroyed in a sudden shower.
Of course, there’s always waxed suede, like that of the Taft Dragon 2.0, which combines the water resistance of wax and the softness of suede into a boot with an extremely cool and unique texture. If you like, you can also wax your own suede with Otter’s Heavy Duty wax — just know that it’ll change the texture significantly.
Caring for Nubuck
Like with suede, you’ll want to be sparing with the conditioner applications to nubuck in order to preserve the signature texture. If your nubuck boots aren’t already waterproof, an application of something like Red Wing’s Leather Protector spray will have you covered. Again, store in a dark, cool place and brush regularly to keep the nubuck conditioned with its own oils.
There you have it: the ultimate guide to leather, suede, and nubuck. Go forth, buy boots, and rest assured that you’re picking precisely the right material for you.
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