High Society Kustom Garage

Vinyl vs leather

 

Custom interior; vinyl or leather?

Despite the other textile and material options available to those building custom car interiors, the two titans most often battling for a place when it’s decision time are vinyl and leather. They are sometimes mistaken for one another, and in some instances misrepresented.  While they may at times look very similar, the truth is that the differences between the two are vast. Knowing these differences may be the deciding factor for you in your automotive quest.

I’m going to focus on custom interiors here, as on all but unfaithful restorations the decision has already been made for you. But inside a custom vehicle, almost any whim or desire is possible if no laws are being broken given the right budget.

Environmental impact and ethics

PU leather, artificial leather, vegan leather, pleather or naugahide, call them what you like they are essentially the same.  A plastic coating, usually polyurethane or pvc, laminated to a base layer for strength. The production of many artificial leathers require petroleum, large amounts of energy, and raw materials sourced from many different regions, making them far worse for the environment than many detractors of leather would have you believe. But the history of chrome tanning chemicals also needs no introduction.  If mishandled they are an environmental catastrophe.  There are certainly some manufacturers with safer and more ecologically friendly than others.

The fact that the hides used to make leather are mostly by-products of the beef industry is often contested by animal rights activists, and sometimes they are right.  The beef and bovine leather industries can prop each other up depending on the country and its leather manufacturers. Ethically, your perception of leather probably reflects that of your perception of meat. Carnivores most likely don’t have a problem with leather.  Vegetarians and vegans who are against all forms of animal exploitation will hate it.  Those who don’t eat meat as a health choice may be on the fence. This article won’t sway either side, nor is that an intention. So for a moment, put ethics aside.

Dollar cost

First let’s get cost out of the way. Vinyl IS the less expensive of the two. Except in very rare cases, it costs less to purchase, it has less wastage, and at the cutting stage requires less labour than leather. If you’re making your decision purely based on upfront cost, read no further, you are never going to have anything else but vinyl. But there is so much more to consider than out of pocket expense. If resale is also to be considered leather attracts more attention and usually it’s a positive. Leather just sounds sexier than vinyl, and sexy sells, in this case, for more than vinyl in a like for like vehicle.

Life

As for durability, quality leather that is properly cared for is the runaway leader. Leather is stronger than vinyl, and though still able to be scratched, is usually more difficult to tear than vinyl. Even well cared for vinyl will eventually harden, making it more prone to cracking.  Most enthusiasts of older cars (especially here in South East Queensland where we are based) are familiar with the sight of sunburned seat backs.  This is especially visible on rear seats in sedans and coupes.

That being said, leather left to its own devices will also fare poorly in the automotive environment, especially in warmer climates.  In fact, without proper care they can actually age FASTER than vinyl. For any chance of survival it requires regular cleaning, even though it looks clean.  For example, the natural oils from our skin speed up the rate at which leather dries out, so all leather will require periodical attention to remain supple. Vinyl requires far less upkeep.

But even the most cared for leather isn’t a wise decision for certain situations. Take the dashboard of a daily driven vehicle for instance.  Here the constant exposure to sunlight and close proximity to glass means that leather dries out and shrinks. In some cases, this crushing the plastic beneath it.

 

Characteristics

Despite some vinyls available looking for all the world like leather, there are some traits that can’t be mimicked. That rich leather smell, and the buttery soft feel for example.  Except for heavily corrected grain leathers, leather IS a natural, breathable textile. This inability to breathe is what makes vinyl so hot and sticky in the summertime, and cold and stiff in winter. The patina that a leather interior develops over time is something else that can’t be faked. Classic cars are allowed to show that they were used and they’ve earned the right to wear some scars.

When it comes to colour choice and surface finish things get a little trickier. Perforated leather looks great, and serves its purpose well in all areas.  On the other hand, perforated vinyl isn’t a great choice for seating.  On doorcards and headlinings though it is great. Newer techniques such as laser etching also lend themselves more to leather than vinyl.

But it isn’t all bad news for the man-made product, with a seemingly endless scope for colours, pearls, glitters and patterns being seen through the years.  Leather has only in the last couple of decades really started catching up on this front. The caveat here is that by the time a lot of these finishes are applied to the hide, it acts more like vinyl.  It loses some of the breathability and natural beauty of its less tampered brethren.

So, vinyl or leather?

So, for what do YOU choose for your custom interior, vinyl or leather?  Now you are armed with a little insight into these two perennial favourites, the final decision really comes down to you.  Your personal preference, budget, and your requirements.  Hopefully we have helped make it a better informed choice.

Vinyl or leather

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