Leather Office/Computer Chairs

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When is a "leather" chair not a leather office chair?

Quite often, it seems, if bought from eBay.

This guide is intended to prime you on what advertising terms to watch out for, what questions to ask before buying, and inform you of your consumer rights.  It is based on my recent purchase of an office chair advertised as "Leather" and "Luxury".

In case any readers check up to see what item I bought, I must make it clear that I am not accusing the seller of any deliberate misadvertising.  In this instance those words were clearly stamped on the sealed cardboard box containing the chair as imported from China, and I must give the benefit of doubt to the seller who then used those terms in the eBay auction to describe the item.  Without any proof to the contrary, I have to assume that the seller buys in sealed boxes, does not inspect the goods, and sells them according to the description on his/her purchase invoice and box content description.

Do Your Homework First

The first thing to do, as with any eBay purchase, is to check out feedback left by buyers about the seller.  In context with this guide, any negative or neutral comments about the quality, especially the covering, should make you steer away from similar items being listed by that vendor - unless of course you are able to buy it at a very low price knowing or suspecting that it may be inferior quality.

Common negative feedback about leather office chairs concerns the build quality, with bolt holes not lining up, etc, and about the fact that the buyer believes that the covering is not real leather.

Buying a leather covered chair (and expecting it to be covered with leather) is not some kind of snob-value thing. Some people don't like leather because it feels cold to them, but leather of any half-decent quality warms up after you have sat on it for a while and has the benefits that it is more resilient than the rough woven fabric covering the foam on standard office chairs. It is also easier to keep clean if you have a cat that likes to sleep on it :-)  Apart from that, if the advert says "leather", then that's what it should be.

What is "Leather"

That might seem obvious, but bear in mind that hides from cows, sheep, goats, and other animals can be treated and become leather. Each has its purpose and best applications of use, but leather chair coverings are generally made from cow hide.

If you really want to pay for copies of British Standards Institute publications like:
BS 6608:1985 Specification for cattle hide leathers for upholstered furniture and BS 2780:1983 Glossary of leather terms, then feel free to visit the British Standards Institute web site and search for those BS numbers, but you will find a multitude of other expert resources on the Internet, and in most cases the terms are in plain English.

BLC Leather Technology Centre (search the web for this site or for "allaboutleather") is an excellent resource, especially in the sections that discuss the Definition of leather and how to tell if you have real leather. Look for the links entitled "Definitions & Protection" and "Faking It".

To quote from their pages:

Legal Definition of "Leather" (BS 2780)

In the UK a definition of leather is set out in the British Standard Glossary of Leather Terms (BS 2780) and this definition is used as a guide in applying consumer protection legislation such as the Sale of Goods Act and the Trade Descriptions Act.

In short, if a product is made from reconstituted leather fibres or if the surface coating is too thick then it cannot be sold as "leather".

Hide or skin with its original fibrous structure more or less intact, tanned to be imputrescible (not subject to decay). The hair or wool may or may not have been removed. It is also made from a hide or skin that has been split into layers or segmented either before or after tanning.

Note 1:
If the leather has a surface coating, the mean (average) thickness of this surface layer, however applied, has to be 0.15mm or less.

Note 2:
If the tanned hide or skin is disintegrated mechanically and/or chemically into fibrous particles, small pieces or powder and then, with or without combination of a binding agent, is made into sheets or forms, such sheets are not leather.

Your best guide to whether a covering is real leather is where it bears the Real Leather mark as seen here:

The Leathermark is a certification trademark owned in the UK by BLC since 1976. It indicates that the leather meets the British Standard definition of leather ie. has approximately 80% of its useable area being real leather.

Users of the mark must register with BLC and have their products verified for use.

Absence of the real leather mark could mean a number of things, not all of them necessarily bad:

  1. Manufacturer isn't registered to use it.  The mark is to indicate a UK Standard, so imports may not bear the mark even though the item does comply with the BLC Standard.
  2. The "leather" is coated, laminated, bonded leather-fibre, or comprises synthetics such that it doesn't qualify with the BLC or British Standard.

Types of Leather

If you look at a cured hide of an animal, you have the outside that we would refer to as skin, and the inside that we would refer to as the underside.  The outer side of the skin is normally the shiny side and the inside is rough.  Sometimes the hide is very thick and not usable for manufacturing products, so they tend to "split" the hide by passing it through a machine that slices it into several thicknesses.  The topmost slice with the "skin" still on it is known as the "grain split" and is traditional "grain leather" where you can usually see the grooves or pits from the animal's skin on the surface.  The lower slice(s), where both sides are rough, are known as the "flesh split" and are generally used for suede leather.

There is a commonly used trick where an artificial (man-made) grain layer is stuck on top of the rough suede-type "flesh split" to make it look like grain leather.  This type of product is referred to as a "finished split" leather. It is still leather underneath, but the thickness of the coating (more than 0.15mm which is very thin) may mean that it cannot be advertised or sold as real leather in terms of the British Standards 6608 and 2780.

The bottom "suede-type" split from a hide is more fibrous and brittle than the split with the original skin on top.  Sometimes the top grain split is deliberately treated to make it feel and look less shiny by effectively sanding off the very outside of the skin, but that would still leave it much more supple than the lower split.

eBay sellers of Leather office chairs often refer to the "leather" as "genuine cow-split leather".  OK, so it's from a cow, but what they AREN'T specifying is WHICH split the "leather" is.  It could be that the stained surface of what you sit on IS the original skin of the animal, with it's proper graininess (and sometimes coated with a very thin layer of clear or coloured protective coating), or it could be the lower split with an artificial coating stuck on top of it so it looks like real grain leather.  In addition to this, manufacturers of cheaper "leather-covered" chairs will use hide from older animals that is less pliant, just as we humans endure as we age.

How to Tell?

From a photo and description in an eBay auction?

The short answer is that you can't tell or know with certainty in advance, despite the seller's description.

Probably the best guide is the price.

If you have ever sunk down into a chief executive's leather office chair (while he or she are away on holiday!) and caressed the soft leather that feels warm to the touch and as smooth and soft as human skin, then those don't come cheap.  They usually use the top grain split from a sheep and the hide is referred to as "Aniline Leather".  It does crease readily, and may not be entirely suitable for a seat covering that will be scuffed regularly by studded jeans, but is sheer luxurious quality and very expensive.  Go into a quality leather furniture shop, ask if they have an executive chair covered in Aniline Leather and gasp at the cost.

Semi-Aniline Leather is similar to the above, but has had some of the creased grain partially filled out with a thin coating and would usually be cheaper.  Maybe the Managing Director gets this chair :-)

Pigmented Leather is real leather from the upper "grain split", but is thicker and stiffer than the luxury Aniline leather.  It also has more uses because it is harder wearing.  Sometimes you will see the real and original grain that was the animal's skin texture (cow hide usually), but in a lot of cases the grain pattern is filled out and a new "fake" grain stamped into it to make it more uniform than the original skin texture would have been.  If the leather is of good quality, then this fake grain texture is nothing to worry about as long as the coating applied is thin.  An office chair covered with this would be the Works Manager's one.

"Finished Split" leather uses cheaper leather taken from the bottom slice of the hide and has a man-made surface coating applied to it to resemble the real grain leather texture.  Sometimes these use  reasonable quality leather underneath the artificial surface, but can feel stiffer and colder than leather due to the coating, depending how thick it is.

"Bonded Leather Fibre" is NOT real leather, and cannot legally be described as such.  It is made by compressing leather FIBRES together with a binding agent.  Ever bought a cheap (and in some cases expensive if you go for designer gear) "leather" belt, and find that it cracks on the back after a short period of use?  Well, that's "bonded leather", and is sometimes used as the backing for a belt with a very thin layer of nice soft leather on the front.  You are unlikely to see this type of "leather" covering an office chair though, because it would be too thick and inflexible to upholster with.

FAKE LEATHER

Chairs in public waiting rooms, on older buses, dentists' reclining chairs, old car seats, and many other types of seating are covered with a textile referred to a Rexine.  This is a completely man-made Vinyl outside surface with a backing of woven material to hold it together and make it workable for upholstery.   The Vinyl surface layer can be thick or thin, smooth or textured, and can be made to resemble grain leather quite convincingly.  The give-away is in the feel of it, and when used on cheaply made office chairs being passed off as leather it will feel cold and stiff.

Where it is folded around rounded corners, it doesn't stretch like leather and often the upholsterers will form it into a fancy looking feature where it disguises the fact that it doesn't stretch too well.  You may see good examples of this from eBay photo's where the headrest or front edge of the seat pad has an unusual extra cushioned bit.  It's hard to describe in words and eBay does not permit links to external images.  I cannot link to any eBay auction photo's without positive proof that the item was fake leather.

If you ever see the expression "Faux Leather", then you should be aware that the seller is correctly advertising fake leather.  Faux is French for "forgery" in the literal translation, but we would use it to mean "fake".  So, don't buy a "faux fur" coat and expect mink, not that any of us support real fur anyway?

To Buy Or Not To Buy?

I can't answer that question for you.

For a start, you can't reach out and feel the "leather" through your computer monitor when looking at an eBay auction, and photo's are often too small to get a close up view of the chair covering.  If you can find one that does show enlarged and close up views, then the seller isn't intentionally trying to hide it from you and you MIGHT be more assured of getting a quality product.

What you have to remember is that many eBay sellers are importers or accept orders as "Drop Shippers".  A drop shipper is someone who never actually sees the products because they take your order and send it to another company who delivers it.  On that basis, the seller could be advertising the item in good faith, but could be selling "real leather chairs" that should not be legally advertised or sold as described.

This latest "cow split" expression being used is not only misleading, but could be a reference used by Far East manufacturer's without the prerequisite knowledge of our UK legislation.  After all, the Chinese factories don't just export to the UK, and other countries may have different legislation.

The first thing to do is contact the seller and ask for an assurance that the leather complies with British Standards as "real leather".  Don't just take the seller's response "That's what it says on my purchase invoice and on the box" as an assurance that you are getting either real leather or a product of decent quality.  You need to ascertain if the leather complies with British Standards that define "real leather".

DO NOT engage in any discussions outwith the eBay messaging function.  If you need to raise a dispute, then you would have no evidence if you used your own email outwith eBay to discuss things with the seller.

Another thing you can do is find out if the seller has a proper furniture showroom and has actually examined the goods.  Of course, that doesn't imply that the seller has the experience to identify real leather, so try and find out WHO is guaranteeing it as such.  The Trading Standards department of the Local Council in the area where the seller is supposedly selling from should be able to verify if the seller has business premises and what they are registered as.

Go to office supply showrooms, computer showrooms, and other furniture shops and look carefully at leather office chairs.  Find the ones that have the "real leather mark" and then ones that don't.  Try to remember how they look and see if you can spot any tell-tale signs from the eBay auction images.

MOST OF ALL, check the seller's negative and neutral feedback to see if "real leather" is an issue.  If it is, then avoid that seller unless ....

.... you know what you're getting and believe that it is value for money.  I read one negative feedback comment where the buyer stated something like "cheap vinyl covering, but a functional comfortable chair for a reasonable price".  If you're prepared to pay for a chair that isn't covered with real leather, but like the aspect of the "leatherette" rather than fabric, and IF you aren't paying any more than you would for a non-leather chair of comparative quality, then go ahead.

Your Rights

This is a VERY important issue, and something that I wasn't fully conversant with until I received a response to my query with my local Trading Standards Department.

When buying goods from a Business rather than an individual, the Sale of Goods Act 1979 (amended by the Sale and Supply of Goods to Consumers Regulations 2002 which transpose a European Directive) is applicable.  Look these up in your web search engine for the full legislation, but in short traders must sell goods that are "as described" and "of satisfactory quality" (I believe the expression used is "merchantable quality").  In context with this guide, the "As Described" aspect is most relevant.

To exercise your Sale of Goods rights as a consumer, and in order to reject the goods and receive a full refund (including postage costs), the burden of proof is on YOU to show that the item has been misdescribed.  It doesn't matter if it was intentionally or unintentionally misdescribed, but to prove that a "real leather" office chair is not covered with real leather, YOU must get the item tested independently by an organisation or individual qualified to do so.

The BLC Leather Technology Centre mentioned earlier is the only UK laboratory dedicated to the testing of leather.  Testing will cost you upwards of £70 and you have to get the chair or eg. the seat squab to them at your expense.  You may find, as in my case, that these costs will end up double what you paid for the chair.  You may be able to get the trader to agree to the test on a “loser pays” basis, but that is unlikely.

BLC Leather Technology Centre Ltd, Leather Trade House, Kings Park Road, Moulton Park, Northampton, NN3 6JD.
Tel: 01604 679 999

Another organisation that is equipped to do independent testing is:
The UK Leather Federation, Leather Trade House Kings Park Road Moulton Park Northampton NN3 6JD.
Telephone: 01604 679917

There is another piece of legislation that was set up to provide consumer protection as online, telephone, and mail order purchasing became so popular, is the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000.  This gives a 7 day "cooling off" period during which goods can be returned, but IT DOES NOT APPLY TO AUCTIONS.

It WOULD, however, be applicable if you bought the same goods from a company's normal website rather than through that seller's ebay auction.

OK, so you could raise an eBay dispute, and your Credit Card may also have some type of insurance to cover certain things, but you will usually find that the seller's "Return Policy" specifically states:

  1. No returns without prior authorisation
  2. Returns are at the buyer's expense.

You could end up paying as much in return carriage as you paid for the goods, and that's ONLY IF ther seller agrees to an allegation that the chair is either of poor quality or not properly described.  Seeing as you have paid for the goods, you would want to make sure you had proof of delivery and probably insurance up to the price you paid including carriage (so you broke even if it went missing or was damaged in transit), and those services aren't cheap.

Sums:

Cost of chair:  £40
Cost of P&P to you: £20
Cost of testing: £70 (minimum)
Cost of P&P to Tester: £20
Cost of P&P from Tester to You: £20
Cost of returning goods to seller: £20
Total cost: £190
Minus reimbursement of original cost of chair and P&P: £80
Out of pocket = £110 for a chair worth £40 or less?

You would have been cheaper going to your local PC Land (yes, can't use the proper name) and buying the same chair for £60 where you would have time to decide, and your husband or wife to tell you that you didn't need it anyway.

Conclusion

It should be clear from where we've ended up in this guide that you don't want to get to this stage.  Auctions are a risk, and that risk is mostly the buyer's - the same as placing a bet at the betting shop.  You don't get the chance to touch and feel products, or see them up close, so you are almost buying in the dark unless the seller provides some really detailed close up images.

Hopefully this will help somebody else from ending up with a cold, stiff, "leather" office chair of questionable quality. 

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