Skip to Content

How To Dye Leather – From Prep Through Surface Finishing

Learning how to dye leather and applying finishes to the surface can help create an amazing piece that will look great and be useful for years.

Dyeing leather is performed through a few basic steps. First, the leather is cleaned and prepared for the dye. Next, dye is applied and allowed to dry. Once dry, the leather is conditioned. Lastly, a surface finish is applied to protect it. Dyeing leather can result in great custom leather goods.

There are a variety of leather dye types and finishes available. There are also a few popular methods utilized in dyeing. Let’s take a look.

 

What is Leather Dyeing?

Leather Belt Prepping to Dye - How to Dye Leather - Liberty Leather Goods

Leather Belt Prepping to Dye

Dyeing leather is the process of applying a colored pigment mixed with a base (usually alcohol, oil, or water) to leather fibers of leather such that the visible color of the leather changes. Some dyes penetrate deeply into the leather fibers. Others remain closer to the surface, including leather paints. I learned about this while making a belt – click here to view that project.

 

Reasons to Dye Leather

Generally, leather is dyed to achieve a preferred visual look. Sometimes a leather worker is crafting a piece and wants it to be a particular shade of color. Or, they might have some natural leather they’d like to change into a colored leather. So, they learn how to dye leather.

Also, dyed leather can be damaged and need repair. In this case a leather crafter might need to dye the repaired leather area to match the original leather color.

 

Types of Leather Dyes

Leather Dyes and Finishes - How to Dye Leather - Liberty Leather Goods

Leather Dye and Finish

There are several different types of leather dyes commonly available. Each types has it’s own performance characteristics, so use would depend on personal preference and the specific project on which they’re being used.

 

Alcohol-Based Leather Dye

Alcohol-based leather dyes penetrate the leather deeply, so the color goes beyond the surface. The colors are usually vibrant. However, after the dye is applied and the alcohol dries, it takes some of the moisture out of the leather along with it.

Leathers dyed with alcohol-based types will then usually benefit from application of a leather conditioner to restore some of that pliability and the oils within the piece. Often, dyed leathers are coated with a finishing coat, to seal in the dye, prevent it from rubbing off, and protect the leather overall.

 

Oil-Based Leather Dye

Oil-based leather dyes penetrate the leather deeply, so the color goes beyond the surface. The colors are usually vibrant. Since these dyes are oil-based, less moisture is pulled from the leather when drying than with alcohol-based dyes.

Alcohol-based dyed leather when then usually benefit from application of a conditioner to restore some of that pliability before a finish is added. Often, dyed leathers are coated with a finishing coat, to seal in the dye, prevent it from rubbing off, and protect the leather overall.

 

Water-Based Leather Dye

Water-based leather dyes don’t penetrate the leather as deeply than other dye types, and the colors aren’t usually as vibrant. However, they are generally less toxic than the other types.

As with most dyed leather, even though these dyes include moisture, it can be helpful to coat with a leather finish after dyeing. This will help protect the color from rubbing off, and protect the leather from excessive wear.

 

Low VOC Leather Dye

(VOCs), volatile organic compounds, are chemicals that can be toxic in large amounts or with prolonged exposure. Most leather dyes have VOCs. Some are available with a low VOC formula, making it a little safer and healthier when working with them.

 

The Sun as a Leather Dye

The sun is a natural leather dye. When exposed to the UV rays from the sun, unfinished, vegetable tanned leather will darken over time. It does take time, though some leather crafters use this method to naturally change the colors of leather to a darker color.

 

Paint as a Leather Dye

While dyes generally penetrate the leather fibers with color, paint is another dyeing option. It only covers the surface of the leather with pigment. This both changes the visual color of the leather, while also provides some protection to the leather’s surface.

It does, however, cover the leather surface, so the original grain will not be as visible as when using penetrating dyes.

 

Antique Leather Dye

Antique leather dye is more of a finish than a true dye. It is a colorant that is applied to leather that makes it appear as if the leather piece is older, and worn with age.

They generally come in various colors, to match closely to the original material. Overall these types of dyes help enhance the look of the grain pattern within the natural leather. They’re an option when considering how one might finish the leather with color, when learning how to dye leather.

 

Shoe Polish as a Leather Dye

Leather Polish - How to Dye Leather - Liberty Leather Goods

Leather Polish

Applying shoe polish can help change the surface color of leather. Since it does not penetrate the fibers, and mostly rests on top, this method will generally not be long lasting. However, it is a relatively fast, and effective way to color leather for short term use.

 

Types of Leather Finishes

 

Carnauba Wax

Carnauba Wax - How to Dye Leather - Liberty Leather Goods

Leather Tool – Leather Cream

Carnauba wax is a formula that can be applied to leather. It is usually a blend of waxes and conditioners. When applied, it serves to condition the leather while also providing a protective layer that helps resist dirt, grime, and moisture.

The wax is usually put on by hand, then buffed to a shine. The end result is a soft-feeling, shiny surface that wears well and looks great.

 

Leather Resolene/Acrylic

Resolene is a synthetic finish for leather. While waxes can be used to seal and protect leather, resolene is comprised of acrylic. It is usually applied in thin layers, each building a thinner layer of acrylic. When dried, it will result is a clear, smooth, durable, shiny surface that provides a fair amount of protection for the underlying leather.

Resolene is available in several colors, so a match can be made closely to the leather color that is being coated. It is also available in finish variations such as matte, sheen, and glossy.

 

Leather Tan Kote

Tan Kote is a protective finish type that is made of natural resin. It will provide a thin layer of protection from dirt and grim, though is not water resistant. Since it is made from natural resin, the layer it provides is usually a soft, smooth, subtle, satin finish.

 

Types of Leather That Can Be Dyed

Generally, most leather that does not already have a protective finished applied can be dyed. It is often best to dye darker than the original leather. For example, a piece that is tan can be dyed black. While a piece that is black can not easily be dyed lighter, such as brown. When learning how to dye leather, it’s important to know which will take dye the best.

 

Dyeing Wet Leather vs Dyeing Dry Leather

Some leather workers prefer dyeing leather wet, and some while it’s dry. When wet, the dye can be more evenly pulled into the fibers and provide for a smooth, even color. However, if the moisture varies across the leather piece, it could lead to variations in exact color matching across the piece as wetter areas might pull in more dye. Also, dye applied to wet leather will appear darker than the final color it will be once it dries.

Dyeing on dry leather is a very common method. The dye is applied directly to the surface of the material, and is pulled into fibers. It is usually easier to dye dry, especially for those new to dyeing. Since there is no water involved, one can see exactly where the dye has been applied and how much is needed to result in an even coat.

Both wet and dry dying can provide excellent results. It’s mainly up to the preference of the leather worker what they are more comfortable with, and what would would better with the type of dye they are using.

 

Leather Painting vs Leather Dyeing

Colored pigment can be applied to leather either by dyeing, or painting. dyeing generally changes the color of the leather fibers deep into and throughout the material. Leather paint is used primarily to cover the leather’s surface with the pigment. It will provide a thin layer of protection along with the color, though painting will not penetrate through the fibers of the material.

 

Dyeing From one Color to Another

When manually dyeing a piece darker, it’s usually best to transition through at least two dye colors. This helps the material take the dye better than a straight light-to-dark process.

For example, when dyeing white leather to a black color, it is recommended to first dye it an intermediate color, such as blue. For colors lighter than black, an intermediate color such as tan can be used. When planning how to dye leather, color transitions are worth keeping in mind.

 

Leather Dye Color Combinations & Mixing

Custom leather dye colors can be made by mixing existing leather dye colors. These generally follow the natural properties of the color chart by mixing the primary colors red, yellow, and blue. Here are a few examples:

  • Green – Mixture of yellow and blue
  • Orange – Yellow and red
  • Violet – Blue and red
  • Black – Yello, red, and blue
  • Brown – Orange and violet
  • Gray – Violet and green

 

How to Dye Leather

Leather Belt Dyed - How to Dye Leather - Liberty Leather Goods

Leather Belt Dyed

There are a few basic steps when learning how to dye leather. Each has variations that can be performed based on the preference for the process, and the look/feel of the final product. Let’s explore each.

 

1. Preparation – How to Dye Leather

Dyeing leather can get a little messy, so it’s important and very helpful to have everything prepared ahead of time. Usually, being prepared will also make the process go much faster and more smoothly. That will make it more fun, and the end results looking great.

 

Work Area – Ventilation

Chemicals used in the leather dyeing process generally require proper ventilation during use. Some can be toxic when breathed in, in large amounts, and others can be toxic when exposed to them for a long period of time.

If used indoors in a closed room or basement, breathing in these chemicals could make someone sick. Therefore, it is recommended to do most leather dye work outdoors. Indoors is an option, though ventilation and air flow would need to be significant to ensure enough clean air circulates through the space.

Also as an indoor option would be to have a workspace with an exhaust fume hood installed. This is essentially a somewhat-enclosed workspace with large fans that pull up the air and exhaust it outside of the room/house/building. Exhaust fume hoods are commonly used in scientific laboratories or creative design studios, where toxic fumes might be generated by chemicals, glues, adhesives, or paints.

 

Work Area – Surface

Leathe Dye Work Surface - Liberty Leather Goods

Leathe Dye Work Surface

Usually, a table outside on a nice day works great. Covering the surface to protect it from dye spills is recommended. An inexpensive solution is to cut plastic trash bags along the sides, and unfold it into a flat, plastic barrier. This protects the table, and makes for easy cleanup later.

Any flat surface can do. Working on the ground is possible. Even a wide board placed on some saw horses can work. The key is that it is a stable surface so that as you’re working with the dyeing, everything stays in place.

One factor to consider when working outside is if the work area is under trees or anything else that might drop debris onto the leather piece. Usually this isn’t a big issue, just something to keep in mind. A patio table with an umbrella raised can be an ideal location. It is best when leaves, acorns, or anything animals might drop is kept away from falling onto the piece during the several stages of drying.

 

Work Area – The Temperature

The chemicals used in dyeing leather generally work best within a temperature range. Ideal is usually 72°F with low humidity. As humidity goes up, so does drying time. As temperature goes up, drying time usually goes down. If it is too hot, though, the chemicals might not have enough time to perform their intended function before they dry, if they dry too fast.

When it’s colder, the chemicals usually take a longer amount of time to work. As a rough example, what might take 20 minutes to dry at 72°F could take 2 hours to dry at 55°F. Many factors will influence timing, so be sure to check the instructions with the specific dyes and prep chemicals that you are using.

It is possible that conditions can be too cold. Generally anything in the 40’s°F, and especially freezing and below (32°F and less) should be avoided. Chemicals can become thick, tacky, and not perform as they should.

 

Tools & Supplies

Wool Dauber - How to Dye Leather - Liberty Leather Goods

Wool Dauber

Here’s a list of the basic tools and supplies you’ll need to dye leather. You might find more specialized ones over time, or have preference for simpler or other methods, though in general these will be helpful.

Tool Description
Work Surface Usually a table outside on a nice day works great
Plastic Trash Bag To cut and lay on top of the work surface
Plastic Gloves Wear these almost all the time while handling deglazers, dyes, and finishes
Leather Deglazer Used to clean/prep the leather for dyeing
Leather Dye The pigment used to color the leather
Wool Dauber Used to apply the dye to the leather, as well as the deglazer and finish
Scrap Cloth Used to wipe away excess dye/clean up spills
Leather Conditioner Used to moisturize he leather after dyeing
Leather Finish Used to seal/protect the dyed leather surface
Tray or Tub Used to hold dye if the leather will be dipped into or pulled through the dye

 

Thinning the Dye

Some dyes come very concentrated and produce deep, rich colors. When looking to achieve a particular color, it might be preferred to lighten the dye up a bit.

Leather crafters lighten dyes by thinning them. If the dyes are water based, water can be added. This dilutes the original dye a bit and makes it slightly lighter. If using an alcohol-based dye, alcohol can be added to help “thin” it. Some users also thin alcohol based dyes with water.

It will ultimately be up to personal preference, and a little testing, as to what the proper amount of dye:thinner is. A common ratio to start with is 50:50 (1/2 amount of dye to 1/2 amount of thinner).

A thinner dye can be applied in several, lighter layer to slowly bring the leather piece to the preferred color. A thicker, richer dye can dye in fewer coatings, though one will have less control over the subtlety of the density of color.

Leather workers even thin black dyes to give a little more control over color density. However, this is purely preference. Dyes will color leather with or without being thinned.

 

2. Cleaning the Leather – How to Dye Leather

After preparation, the first step in actually dyeing the leather is cleaning. Leathers can have various oils and substances on and in them as a result of the tanning process. Since we are looking to color the leather fibers, it’s important that any chemicals or substances on those fibers is removed as much as possible, before dye is applied. Always make sure to wear gloves or properly protect the hands while working with chemicals.

 

Deglazer

Leather Deglazer - How to Dye Leather - Liberty Leather Goods

Leather Tool – Leather Deglazer

Often, this is done with a substance called a deglazer. Deglazer, once applied to the leather, helps strip away the existing finish and any additional residues or chemicals underneath it. They are usually highly toxic and require outdoor ventilation for safe use. They are also temperature sensitive, and should be used within the temperature range recommended on any specific deglazer you’re using.

One can also make their own deglaze by using denatured alcohol. Another option involves using a combination of ethyl acetate and ethyl alcohol. Though, if you plan to mix your own, make sure you’re familiar with any chemicals, their potential reactions, and safe/proper handling. Deglazers made for leather dye prep are usually help and an easy way to first try it out.

 

Cleaning

Ok, time to start! 🙂 Lay the leather piece out on the table, on top of the plastic bag. At this point, you can even place a piece of scrap material (an old towel, or sheet) between the leather piece and plastic, if you prefer a fabric work surface.

Dip a wool dauber into the deglazer, and then apply it in smooth even strokes to the leather surface. The leather will change color in places where the deglazer has been applied. This is because the leather is now wet in those areas, it will go back towards its original color once it dries.

Apply deglazer to the entire leather piece where it will be dyed. Allow the deglazer to dry thoroughly. This will usually take about 15 minutes in ideal conditions, though might take up to an hour or more. Once the deglazer has dried, we’re ready to dye the leather.

 

3. Dyeing the Leather – How to Dye Leather

Dyeing Leather - How to Dye Weather - Liberty Leather Goods

Dyeing Leather

Once it’s cleaned with deglazer, the leather is ready for dyeing. There are several different application techniques that can be used. Mostly, selection of a technique depends on preference, and in some cases the goal intended look of the final piece.

When dyeing leather, with any technique, it’s usually best to apply the dye in light, even coats. This will allow for an even, consistent application across the leather piece. It will also allow for more subtle variations in the final color choice, since the color has been applied in layers, getting a bit darker each time.

It is recommended to let the dye dry after each application, before applying the next layer.

 

Application Techniques

Here are a few of the most common leather dye application techniques.

 

Wool Dauber

Wool daubers are little balls of wool attached to a wire handle. The balls are approximately 1/2” – 1” wide, and the wire handle about 5” long. Daubers are great for dipping into leather dyes and finishes, then rubbing onto the leather surface to apply the dye or finish.

The wool picks up an amount of dye or finish depending on how deeply it is dipped. It then offers an amount of control over where the dye or finish is placed on the leather piece and how evenly it is applied. For smaller leather pieces, dauber are a great choice as an applicator.

 

Brush

A brush can be used to apply dye in even strokes. Essentially it’s like painting with a paint brush, though using dyes. Brushes come in various shapes, sizes, and bristle types. Choices will be influenced by preference, size of the leather piece, and budget.

Generally, a very simple paint brush will work great. Detail isn’t so much important here as is proper coverage of the dye onto the leather piece.

 

Rag/Cloth

A basic, lint-free scrap rag or cloth can wok greta for dye application. Just dip the cloth into the dye, then rub it across the leather surface. Repeat as necessary to get a smooth, consistent application of dye on the item.

 

Pulling

Pulling is very popular method of dyeing leather. It involved filling up a shallow pan with the leather dye. Then, the item to be dyed is pulled through the pan and dye. This exposes the leather to the dye in a consistent way as it’s pulled, resulting in an even application of the dye.

Since manually applying dye via a brush or dauber requires repetitive accuracy, pulling is preferred as a single pull can have the whole item covered in just the same way, similar to dipping.

 

Dipping

Dipping is an extremely popular way to dye leather. To dip, just fill up a container with the leather dye, and dip the item to be dyed, right into the container. After a second or two, pull it out and set it aside to dry. Done!

This dipping method also ensures a mostly consistent application of dye across, and into the leather item. This method is also very fast, as it just requires a dip instead of many manual strokes as with a dauber or brush.

While very easy, dipping does require a lot more of the dye substance. For example, applying dye with a dauber or brush requires relatively little dye. The applicator is dipped into the dye then spread over the item. With dipping, there needs to be enough dye for the entire item to be submerged into it. This often can be more expensive.

If you’re dyeing just one or two items, maybe try the dauber method. If you’re dyeing many of the same, or very expensive items where the dye cost is relatively minimal, dipping can be great. It will provide for an even consistency, penetration, and overall color finish.

 

Airbrush Dyeing

Another option for applying leather dye is airbrush dyeing. It utilizes air brush tools to essentially spray light layers of dye onto the leather material.

This allows for precise control, and very smooth, even layers. It does require having more specialized tools (airbrush, compressor, tips, etc.) and the skills to use them. However, if you’re already familiar or the increased cost of these tools can be justified by preference or result, then airbrushing leather dye can be a great option.

 

4. Conditioning the Leather – How to Dye Leather

Leather Conditioner - How to Dye Leather - Liberty Leather Goods

Leather Conditioner

The chemicals used in cleaning and dyeing leather can often dry out the natural fibers. To help ensure they are maintained properly and last a long time, it’s important to condition the leather after dyeing.

Conditioners can be pure conditioners that nourish and moisten the leather. They can also be a mix of moisturizer and a light protectant. Those with a light protectant will generally not be a surface finish, as can be applies with a dedicated leather surface finisher.

Common conditioners include lexol, and neatsfoot oil. Once conditioned, let it set for a few hours, in some cases overnight, before applying a finish. The specific instructions with the conditioner should provide more detail into specific timing.

 

5. Sealing/Finishing leather – How to Dye Leather

Carnauba Cream - How to Dye Leather - Liberty Leather Goods

Carnauba Cream

 

Once conditioned, the leather can be sealed. This serves a few purposes. First, it provides a protective layer that will protect the leather underneath. Second, it will protect the user of any dyed leather from having any of the dye rub off onto their skin or clothes. Some common finishes include carnauba wax and resolene.

Many other finishes are available based on preference and the intended use of the leather product. Some will make items waterproof, while other provide very shiny, glossy finishes.

 

Carnauba Wax

Carnauba wax is a formula that can be applied to leather. It is usually a blend of waxes and conditioners. When applied, it serves to condition the leather while also providing a protective layer that helps resist dirt, grime, and moisture.

The wax is usually put on by hand, then buffed to a shine. The end result is a soft-feeling, shiny surface that wears well and looks great.

 

Leather Resolene

Resolene is a synthetic finish for leather. While waxes can be used to seal and protect leather, resolene is comprised of acrylic. It is usually applied in thin layers, each building a thinner layer of acrylic. When dried, it will result is a smooth, durable, shiny surface that provides a fair amount of protection for the underlying leather. Resolene is available in several colors, so a match can be made closely to the leather color that is being coated.

 

6. Cleanup – How to Dye Leather

Excellent! The leather has been cleaned, dyed, and finished, you’re all done! After the finish has dried you can clean up.

Reuse and recycle any materials as much as possible, and dispose of any other waste materials as responsibly as possible. Save any materials that might be able to be used for future leather dyeing.

Once all cleaned up, you can relax and enjoy your newly dyed leather piece 🙂

 

Popular Leather Dyeing Products

While there are nearly endless possibilities for dyeing leather, including using natural barks, colorings, and dyes, here are a few of the most popular products that can get you started.

 

Common Leather Cleaners

  • Fiebling’s Deglazer
  • Angelus Leather Preparer & Deglazer

 

Common Leather Dyes

  • Fiebling’s Pro Dye
  • Angelus Leather Dye

 

Common Leather Conditioners

  • Tandy Prime Neatsfoot Oil Compound
  • Fiebing’s Mink Oil Liquid
  • Lexol Leather Conditioner

 

Common Leather Finishes

  • Fiebing’s Carnauba Wax
  • Fiebing’s Acrylic Resolene

 

 

Overall it’s relatively easy to learn how to dye leather. Once you do it a few times, you’ll have the right tools and experience to make it a simple step in your leather working process.

If you’re interested in more about leather oils for conditioning dyed leather, click here for my detailed article on them.

 

 

Related Questions

How do you prepare leather for dye?

Leather is prepared for dye by cleaning it first with a delgazer. The deglazer removes surface finishes and any chemicals that might be on the leather fibers. Once cleaned, the leather is then ready for application of the leather dye.

Can you dye leather with food coloring?

Yes, leather can be dyed with food coloring. They offer an alternative to more common leather dyes, and generally stain the skin less if one is to come in contact with them. food colored leather can be finished just like other types of dyed leather.

Can you dye leather with shoe polish?

Yes, leather can be dyed with shoe polish. Since it does not penetrate the fibers, and mostly rests on top, this method will generally not be long lasting. However, it is a relatively fast, and effective way to color leather for short term use.