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Leather Dye – Choosing the Right Composition and Color

Some projects look incredible when colored in a unique way, or made to look classic when made with a timeless color. Here is what I learned while exploring the options and benefits of leather dye.

Leather dye is a pigment suspended in a liquir or oil substrate, used to apply and permanently alter the surface color of leather material. It is commonly available in alcohol, oil, and water-based solutions, available in a variety of colors, and generally ranges in cost from $3-$15 per bottle. Leather dye can be used on most leathers and most project types.

Knowing which type of leather dye to use can make a big different in the finished look and feel of an item. Let’s explore more and dive into the types available, benefits, and when to use them.

What Is Leather Dye?

Leather dye is colored pigment suspended in liquid used to permanently change color of leather when applied. It is used primarily on unfinished or vegetable tanned leather. Mostly used for aesthetic purposes, it can additionaly be covered with a sealent or protective layer (wax, cream, resolene, etc.) helping to protect the leather and the color from the dye.

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Leather dye

Types of Leather Dye

Depending ont he type of leather being dyed, and the vibrancy of color one is looking for, there are a few options for leather dye types that are helpful to know about. Let’s explore these more.

Alcohol-Based

Alcohol-based dyes quickly penetrate the leather and seep into the fibers.  The alcohol evaporates quickly and leaves the pigmentation behind.  The pigmentation used is a powder solution mixed into the alcohol.  These dyes have a strong chemical odor and should be used in a well-ventilated area. 

Due to the rapid evaporation, leather dyed this way will tend to be less pliable after dyeing.  As the alcohol evaporates, it will also leave some of the pigmentation powder on the surface.  This excess, free pigmentation, can cause a chalky appearance, which can be rubbed off.

Oil

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Oil dyes have an alcohol carrier, just like alcohol-based dyes but the pigment is in oil solution as opposed to powder.  The oil allows for much better coating of the leather fiber as well as penetration.  It takes longer to dry than regular alcohol dyes, but less time than water-based dyes.

The oil solution also helps the leather maintain its natural hand better than alcohol dyes.  The color is much more even compared to alcohol based.  It is typically sold under a “PRO” label.

Water-based dyes

Water-Based will typically have additives like resin to assist with the impregnation of color into the leather fiber.  These additives along with oils and waxes help maintain the suppleness of the leather.  Water-based dyes take longer to dry than alcohol-based dyes, but do not have the odor.  Water-based dyes tend to have less rub-off than alcohol based dyes.

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Applying Leather Dye with a Wool Dauber

What to Look for In Leather Dye

Dyes have two purposes; color leather and to achieve the look one is looking for in a project.  It is best to test the dyes on a scrap piece of the same leather as the project is using to determine if the results are satisfied.  Ensure the area where the dye will be used is adequate for the type of dye being used.  If they project is more than a one-off, one will need to ensure repeatability in colors and finish.

Dyes have two purposes; color leather and to achieve the look one is looking for in a project.

Leather Dye Options & Uses

When planning a project, it’s important to keep in mind what type of leather items will be dyed, and what elements are necessary to do the job well. Here is a look at some of the more common leather dyeing projects and dye options that can be helpful for each.

Leather Dye Kit

Kits will include popular dye colors, applicators (sponges and/or wool daubers), and typically a clear coat.  There are multiple types of kits for different leather applications, such as, furniture, automotive, general touch up and repair.  Starter kits will include smaller amounts of several dyes so one can do several small projects to determine which to buy in larger quanities.

Leather Touch Up Dye

For small touch-ups, dye is sold in marker or pen form to easily apply the proper color to cover the defective area.  For larger areas, touch-up or repair kits will include textured pieces to match multiple texture types and colors to blend and mix dyes to best match the area to be touched up.

Leather Shoe Dye

Shoe dye is alcohol based just like what is used for regular leather projects. The application process is a bit different in that you must prepare shoes by rubbing them down with an acetone solution known as a deglazer prior to applying dye.

Leather Furniture Dye

Using dye on furniture or automotive  leather can require additional steps before and after dye use.  Sometimes furniture dye will be in liquid form, other times in a paste.  Pre-steps include removing wax coatings or sanding the leather, especially if one is going from a dark color to one lighter.  Post steps may involve texturing or applying conditioners or top coatings using other forms of chemicals and additives.

Automotive Leather Dye

Sometimes, touching up the color of upholstery in cars and autmobiles requires dyeing the leather. Some of these auto leathers are synthetic leathers, and might be best with paint. Automotive upholstery that is made from natural leather is usually best worked with using quality leather dyes. Water-based dyes often have less smell and pigment rub-off that oil-based dyes, and can be a helpful option here.

Testing the approach in an area that won’t really be seen or rubbed up against often is usually a good way to first determine if this will work well.

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Leather Deglazer and Dye

Best Leather Dyes

When looking at dyes for a variety of projects, quality is usually an important factor that should be considered; it can have a significant impact on the finished item. Here are some of the best leather dyes available, each is generally available in a variety of colors.

1. Fiebing’s Pro Leather Dye

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An alcohol based dye with liquid pigment mixed in an oil solution; sometimes referred to as an oil dye. The oil assists the pigment, allowing it to penetrate deeply into the fiber.  The liquid pigments absorb well into the fibers of leather, allowing a nice, even color.  Pro Leather Dye work well on veg tan leather whether tanned at well-known tanneries or mass tanneries overseas.

2. Angelus Leather Dye

Angelus brand dyes are alcohol based using powdered colorant to achieve the desired dye color.  They have a tendency to bleed or have rub off due to powder being drawn to the surface as the alcohol evaporates. To prevent this, dyed projects can be covered with a light coat of clear coating by dauber or airbrush.  When using on mass veg tanned leather, it is best to apply neatsfoot oil, allow to dry, then apply dye.  This will enable more consistent dye coverage.

3. Tandy Eco Flo Leather Dye

Eco Flo dyes are water based; taking longer to cure than alcohol based dyes. The colors are vibrant and rich and have better results on leather tanned at Hermann Oak or Wicket-Craig tanneries than those tanned in mass.  There are no chemical odors from water based dyes.  Water based dyes differ from water based paints in that they are very color fast and do not wash out easily should they end up on an unintended item.

The informative video below explains several ways on how to dye your own leather.

Helpful Insights

What Is the Difference Between Leather Dye and Stain?

Stains have a larger molecular structure than that of dye.  This allows the dye to penetrate through the top surface, into the body of the leather, absorbing into the fibers.  Stain will stay on the top surface of the leather without penetrating into the leather.  Stains can come in liquid form as well as gel.  Stains are sometimes used in conjunction with clear coats to achieve an antiqued look to tooled leather.  The clear coat is placed on the topmost surface of the leather, leaving the cut and tooled areas unmolested.  When dry, a stain is then applied and it will cover the cut and tooled areas; creating a color contrast on the project.

Is It Better to Dye or Paint Leather?

Your leather project will dictate whether dye or paint should be used.  Paint will act like a stain and stay on the surface of one’s project.  If the project piece will be flexed or make contact with other items over a period of time, paint can crack, peel, or chip.  Projects like wall hangings, coasters, other flat, stationary objects are examples where painted leather is applicable.

How Do You Fix Leather Dye?

To fix imperfections in dyed leather, one must remove any top coats, including wax or other protectants.  Try to match the original color of the dye by first testing on a scrap piece of leather.  If the color is to be changed, it is much easier making it darker.  If lighter dye is desired, the project must be sanded down first and be completely dyed with the lighter dye.

In Closing

Using leather dyes can be a great way to add color and dimention to leather projects. They can provide an easy option to customize color, as well as provide visual and creative elements to explore for those crafters that want to change existing colors or add color to vgetable-tanned leather items.

With some practice, this becomes a relatively straightforward process that is a fun addition to leather working skills and techniques available in the shop.

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