Grain Calf and Buffalo Leather – What’s the Difference?
I often have customers insist that they only want buffalo, or only want calf leather. I also see saddles being sold on line as calf or buffalo, when they are clearly (to the educated eye) grain leather. So what’s the difference and why should you care?
The first and most fundamental difference between the leathers is in saddle construction. A calf or buffalo leather saddle will have a 2 layer construction on the flap. A thin layer of calf leather is sewn onto a more durable and sturdier grain flap, usually with a thin layer of foam in between the two leather layers. This gives that nice soft comfy feel. A grain flap saddle is a single layer of grain leather with some decorative stitching around the edge.
Now, the calf or buffalo flap starts out with a softer, more broken in feel. It also feels more grippy. However, these initial advantages can be outweighed by the long term disadvantages. The dual layer construction comes with stitching and seams and wear can and does occur through the top layer of calf especially on the lower flap. This is often counteracted by putting in a grain flap guard, a sort of extra piece of halfmoon shaped leather on the bottom of the flap, but now you have 3 layers of leather right under your calf. Dual layer construction is also more costly.
Buffalo is touted as being a more durable alternative to calf – all the initial advantages with less potential for wear. A buffalo saddle will have 2 layer construction, but can often be difficult to tell from calf in a used saddle. Buffalo will often have a more pebbly texture than calf and a bit of a grippy feel, but unless a seller can show you the original invoice I wouldn’t count on a saddle being buffalo when buying used - it’s just too hard to tell and most manufacturers do not indicate the type of leather on the stamp.
Big picture? If you care for your grain flap saddle with proper cleaning and condition with leather balsam, it will outlast a calf saddle, and will be just as soft and sticky. If you don’t ride enough to wear through calf, and love the extra squish, go for it! Have a bit extra to spend? Really go for it and get the buffalo!
Photos top to bottom show buffalo, grain, and calf leathers, while bottom photo shows the dual layer construction with wear through on the bottom of the flap.