Leather workers have been perfecting the art of dying leather for millennia. Today, a project that includes dyeing leather may require a significant amount of time and effort, but it is not a skill beyond the abilities of most crafty, do-it-yourself enthusiasts. With basic leather dyeing skills, you can create beautiful unique leather goods suitable as gifts or even for sale.
One of the most popular reasons for learning how to dye leather is to renew or change the color of leather upholstery, jackets, or other accessories. Although such a project is not easy, they are certainly doable. With a little determination and work, you can change a rugged old leather sofa into one that looks brand new.
What is the Leather Type
When working with new, unstained leather, very little preparation is required. However, if the leather is not new, the preparation needed before dying depends on what type of leather it is. Understand that leather "type" refers to the type of treatments the leather has undergone rather than the type of animal the hide is from.
Aniline leathers are the easiest to prepare for dyeing. They have been dyed, but no protective layer has been applied. It is not too difficult to determine these types of leathers. They readily show scuff marks and stains. They are also soft and pliable, and have a supple texture.
Pigmented leathers take more work to prepare. They have a protective coating that makes them durable. This coating generally appears very smooth and is often glossy. Pigmented leathers hold up to rough treatment, do not scuff easily, and they resist staining from spills. They also resist staining during the dyeing process, so a project involving a pigmented leather will be a challenging one.
Leathers often fall somewhere between aniline and pigmented, with some protection applied that still leaves the leather almost as supple as aniline, but not protected enough to avoid many types of damage. If the leather resists staining, treat it as a pigmented leather. If it stains with water, it should be safe to treat it as an aniline leather.
Choosing the Dye
One reason that many people do not know that dyeing leather can be a do-it-yourself project is that the dyes and other treatments required for the process are not available in most stores. Even craft and variety stores rarely display these items.
Thankfully, an internet search for "leather dyes" can locate suppliers, and sellers also offer the supplies through online auction sites, like eBay. Because it is an online purchase, seeing a true representation of the color may be difficult. This should not deter the online purchase, however, because the outcome of the dyeing process depends significantly on the type of leather and the prep work, so the color shown on the bottle will not be the color of the finished project anyway. For this reason, choose a color that appears close to the desired shade, but do not expect the end result to be an exact match.
It can be a good idea to purchase two different colors to mix together in order to get a closer match. Leather dyes mix much the same way all other colors mix, so you can combine dyes to obtain a desired shade or to create a unique color. It is not wise to mix different brands of dyes, however, and Fiebing's (a well-known Milwaukee leather care products manufacturer) advises that its white and grey dyes cannot be mixed with other colors.
Test the dye color on a scrap piece of leather that has been prepared the same way as the project piece. This might be difficult if the project is a restoration or a color change of a piece of furniture, clothing, or a handbag.. The key is to find a place to test that is not easily visible once the project is finished.
Generally, leather continues under the back of a piece of furniture, and if this area is prepared in the same manner as the rest of the project, it is a good place to test. Handbags often have leather patches inside of them, or a leather seam inside the pocket. Jackets also have leather seams inside pockets, but another good spot to test on a leather jacket is the underside of the back, where that seam is turned up to meet the lining.
Before testing in any of these areas, it is a good idea to tape around the area to keep the lining and other parts of the project clear of the dye.
Preparing the Leather for Dye
All leather needs to be prepared for the dyeing process. If the project is made from unfinished tannery leather, following the instructions on a product like Dye - prep is all that is required. For other types of leathers that have already received dye treatment, the main prep work will be in weakening or removing the pigmentation and protective coatings.
Repairing Minor Blemishes
It is unlikely that minor scuff marks and surface scratches will still be visible after preparation and dyeing. However, deep scratches should be addressed at this stage. For areas where leather fibers have pulled away, (e.g. cat scratches), sand with 180-400 grit sandpaper. Places where the leather has torn away but is still attached can be glued flat with leather glue . Avoid getting the glue on the outer surface of the leather, however, because it may show on the finished project.
Cleaning the Leather
Be sure to wear rubber gloves throughout the entire preparation and dyeing process. Some of the chemicals are harsh, and the dyes are intended to stain hides, which are very similar to your skin. Before cleaning, protect all parts of the item that should not receive treatment. Anything that is not leather should be taped off and covered.
The first step in the prep process is to moisten the leather. A good leather cleaner opens the pores of the hide and makes it ready to receive the dye. The instructions on most cleaners call for using a soft cloth for application and scrubbing. Ignore this, because it assumes you wish to maintaining the finish of the leather, when in fact the goal is to remove the original finish. Instead, when applying the cleaner, use an abrasive nylon scrubbing sponge, or wear an exfoliating glove over the top of a rubber glove. This rough treatment not only opens the pores and ensures a thorough cleaning, but it also evens out any deep scuff marks or blemishes.
For pigmented leather, use a deglazer to break down the finish of the leather. Follow the instructions on the product, remembering that rough treatment at this stage helps to prepare the leather for dye.
Some do-it-yourself tutorials suggest that acetone will do also do the job. However, so much acetone is required that it is not cost effective. Regardless, wear gloves whenever working with strong chemicals.
Dyeing the Leather
Leather dye is a thin liquid, suitable for many air spray gun applicators. An spray gun is not required, however. The dye may be applied with a brush, a sponge, or a colorfast rag, whichever gives the most uniform results. If a spray gun is used, use a brush or some other method to be sure that the dye is worked into the pores.
Most leather dye projects require three to five coats, and the leather must dry in between each coat. Use a hair dryer to help the process go quicker. Make sure to uniformly cover all parts of the leather, including seams, folds and gathers, so that no undyed leather shows when finished. Use a small paintbrush to get difficult areas and dry them individually with the hair dryer before moving on.
Most dyes do not require any further treatment after drying. However, depending on the dye used, the pores of the leather may still be open, leaving the leather unprotected from stains and wear. To protect the leather for years to come, follow the instructions provided on the top coat or protective treatment of your choice. Most are applied in a similar fashion as the dye.
Buying Leather Dyeing Supplies on eBay
eBay and other online retailers are the best way to purchase many of the supplies needed to dye leather. Tools, treatments and leather pieces for projects are listed in the Leather Tools and Treatments category. For a specific item, search through all categories from the main page. Use exact words to narrow the search down.
These types of craft supplies are often listed in lots, an economical purchasing option. Look for lots that include the dye treatments and supplies required for the project. Some may even include the leather.
Dyeing a piece of leather furniture can transform it from something that looks like it belongs on the roadside into something any homeowner would be proud to sit on. Maybe you own a leather jacket that fits perfectly and is in style, except for the color. Dying it can turn it into the prized possession it was meant to be.
A leather project like a hand crafted leather belt, guitar strap, dog collar, bookbag, or a set of moccasins is not finished until dyed. Whether to recolor a tired item, or to finish off a crafty gift, the skill of dyeing leather is one that will serve any do-it-yourselfer for years.