Nubuck vs Suede: What’s The Difference?

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William Barton Avatar by  William Barton | Last Updated:  Sep 24, 2020
Nubuck vs Suede Whats The Difference Cartoon graphic of Nubuck boot on one side with nubuck background and suede boot on the other with suede background

Find an amazing pair of boots made with nubuck leather, but you’re trying to figure out how that’s different from suede?

While suede and nubuck have a similar texture and look, there are some big differences. 

We’re going to break down those differences here and explain which material is best depending on what you’re planning to do with your boots. 

How All Leather Is Created

Leather can be made from just about any animal skin: deer, pig, snake, crocodile, emu—you get the point. But the most common leather comes from cows. 

First, the skin of the animal is removed either by hand or by what’s called a fleshing machine. Fleshing machines are more efficient, but they cause knicks, scratches, and imperfections far more often than when done by hand. 

From there the hide is placed in a salt-brine (or frozen) to stop the decomposition process. After salting, it’s basically a skin-pickle, but nobody calls it that for obvious reasons. 

The hair is removed, and the hide is tanned. 

There are two major methods of tanning leather: vegetable tanning, and chrome tanning. 

Vegetable tanned leather is very soft and flexible, so it’s perfect for things like handbags, backpacks, and furniture. This process also places less burden on the environment. 

Chrome tanning is generally less expensive, but when done right, can create supple, high-quality leather, too. 

After tanning, the hide is dried, dyed, and ready to ride. 

What is Suede?

Suede is leather made from sanding or buffing the underside portion of the hide. 

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If you were to look at a raw cowhide under a microscope, you’d see a few different layers of fibers. The innermost layer has the most “open” grain structure. The outermost layer, known as full-grain, has a tight, “close” grain structure. This leather is more expensive because it’s usually much softer and more durable. 

To create suede, leatherworkers sand the underside of the hide. This creates a more “open” knap that has a velvety texture. As you might imagine, this breakdown and exposure of open fibers makes for a very pliable and soft leather. 

When Should You Choose Suede?

Suede originally got its name from the French term: gants de Suede, which translates to “gloves of Sweden.” If you know anything about Swedes, it’s that they love a nice velvety texture. I mean, they’re responsible for the band ABBA, otherwise known as “the velvet of music.” 

Because suede has more texture than burnished leather, it’s an excellent choice for boots worn in the colder months of fall and winter. 

Suede easily dresses up casual pants like jeans and chinos. It’s often less expensive than nubuck because bootmakers can achieve a soft texture with a lower-grade piece of leather. 

The downside to suede is that, unless it’s treated with a special wax or a water-proof spray, it’s easily damaged by water. 

Most suede boots you’ll find have some sort of water-resistant wax or spray applied already. While that helps, suede will never be a good choice for boots you know will get wet often. The grain is more open, which means it can take on more water. 

What is Nubuck?

Nubuck is similar to suede, but instead of sanding or buffing the inner portion of the hide, nubuck is made by sanding the outer portion where the grain is “tighter.” 

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While nubuck has a velvety texture, the knap is more pronounced than suede. Nubuck is also made only with the top grain of the hide, so it often comes at a higher price point than suede (though that’s not a hard rule). 

A classic example of a nubuck leather shoe is the Timberland Classic Waterproof Boot. And, as the Timberland name suggests, nubuck leather is much more capable of true water-resistance compared to suede. 

Timberland Men's 6-inch Premium Waterproof Boot

The original Timberland rain boot. Chances are, if you're thinking of Timberlands, these are what come to mind.

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Still, if you’re thinking about getting a pair of nubuck boots, make sure you’re aware of how much wax has been applied—you may need to pick up something like Scotchguard Suede and Nubuck Protector, especially for the wetter months of winter. 

When Should You Choose Nubuck?

As we said earlier, nubuck is more water resistant because it has a tighter grain structure, but that comes at a cost. 

If you’ve got a few extra coins stacked in your piggy-bank and you don’t mind spending a touch extra, nubuck boots are a fantastic choice. 

To be clear, not all nubuck is better quality than suede. But a $150 pair of nubuck shoes will likely be more scratch and weather resistant that a similarly priced pair of suede shoes. 

If you’re worried about getting your shoes wet, choose nubuck over suede. There’s a reason Timberland has been making their classic work boot with nubuck for decades rather than any other leather: the scratch and weather resistance.

How to Take Care of Suede and Nubuck

Just like any other material, suede and nubuck can trap a lot of dirt. A cheap suede brush like this one from Amazon is a great tool for removing dirt and restoring the texture of your shoe. 

Sof Sole Suede and Nubuck Cleaning Brush Kit
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When you wear suede and nubuck boots, the texture picks up grime and grease, which can flatten the leather or create unsightly streaks. A simple brush will help a lot in these cases. 

If you were caught in the rain without waterproofing your shoes first, you may experience stains or other blemishes. Bickmore makes a classic cleaner that folks have been using to spruce up their stained leather for years. 

Bickmore Suede & Nubuck Cleaner
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Just like with other types of leather, conditioning suede and nubuck regularly will extend the life of your boots. 

You don’t have to go wild and recondition every month (unless you wear them every day and like to keep them looking as close to new as possible). But if you wear your suede or nubuck shoes once or twice a week, you’ll be fine touching them up with a brush and some cleaner every six to nine months. 

Recommended Reading: How to Clean Suede Boots in 4 Easy Steps

Making Your Suede and Nubuck Leather Waterproof

Scotchgard makes a classic water repellent for suede and nubuck, but there are plenty of other brands that work just as well. 

Scotchgard Suede & Nubuck Protector, 7 Ounces
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It’s as simple as spraying down your boots and leaving them to dry for a few hours. Each brand has their own process, which they’ll label on their packaging, but the basic process is the same. 

We recommend going for a spray-on protector rather than an oil or cream. Because suede and nubuck have a velvety texture, oils and creams can flatten the knap and make the shoe look older. 

Using a spray is the easiest way of making sure you keep the texture intact. If you’ve already used an oil, just take a cleaning brush and work it over the entire boot to restore the texture. 

So Which One Is It? Suede? Or Nubuck?

Have you decided which boot you’ll get? Going with the classic suede? Or are you thinking about getting the durable nubuck?

Remember, because nubuck leather is brushed where the grain is tighter, it’s typically more expensive and durable. 

Suede isn’t as finicky as folks think, and these days you can pick up several water repellents that will protect your boots if they’re caught in an unexpected rainstorm. Still, nubuck is well worth the slight extra cost if you’re planning on getting your boots wet or doing any hard-work activity like hiking or even walking around the city a lot. 

FAQs

Are Timberlands suede or nubuck?

The Classic Timberland waterproof boot is made with nubuck leather. It’s also treated with water repellent, so while nubuck is more weather resistant than suede, Timberlands go the extra mile.

Is nubuck water resistant?

Nubuck is more water resistant than suede. Still, it’s best to use a water repellent spray to add another layer of protection for your shoes, boots, and bags.

Which is better: suede or nubuck?

Nubuck is more durable and water resistant, but it often costs more. Suede has a more velvety texture and is often softer and more luxurious looking. Neither is better than the other. But we’d choose nubuck for if you’re using your shoes/boots to walk a lot, and suede for something more dressy or formal.

Is suede the same as nubuck?

Suede is not the same as nubuck. They’re similar because they’re both brushed, knapped leather. Suede is created by sanding the innermost of a piece of leather, and nubuck is made from sanding the outermost portion. They have different textures and different levels of durability.

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