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Leather Patina – How It’s Formed and Gets Better with Time

The leather projects I’ve made continue to bring me joy each time I look at them. Their day-to-day wear only seems to improve the item’s beauty with what is known as patina. 

Leather patina is the darkened look created as leather ages and absorbs oils. It is a natural progression of wear, and each piece of leather will patina differently, giving each item its own character. Not all leather can develop a patina. This process is limited to natural leathers.

One of the most appealing parts of leather is its ability to build character over time. Let’s look at what type of leather patinas and why it occurs. 

What is Leather Patina?

Leather patina is the visual process of how leather wears and ages. Characteristically, it darkens, creases, shines, and leaves a beautiful gradient. These changes are caused by everyday use, from the oil in our hands to the sun, water, and dirt found outside. This process highlights the points of wear, making every patina unique to its user. 

A Leather Briefcase With a Developed Patina - Leather Patina- Liberty Leather Goods
A Leather Briefcase With a Developed Patina

How to Develop Leather Patina

Leather Patina Process

The leather patina process is natural. Exposing leather to different elements that will leave their mark upon the piece. Oils that transfer from one’s hands during everyday handling. Sun stains from years of use. Everything that happens to leather can help develop a patina. This includes things typically seen as damage, such as water exposure, scratches, and creases. Some leather owners prefer this rustic look and hard wear their products for these results.

Leather Patina Before and After

The most typical sign of a leather patina is darkening. The initial leather will start with a much lighter tone. Another sign is creasing due to use. A wallet, for example, will have flat pockets until the leather begins to break in around the cards, creating an outline and a perfect canvas for patina.

How to Speed Up Leather Patina

Speeding up leather patina can be done in various ways, from sun tanning to rubbing felt along the surface. The most natural way to speed up the leather patina is to use the leather product more often and expose it to the natural elements. One possible way to do this is to leave the item in the sun; however, this may dry out the item and leave a more uniform look than a genuine aged patina.

Another method is to rub the surface of the leather with a felt pad. This will generate heat, bringing out the natural oils in the leather. Rain, spills, and other watermarks may also speed up the darkening process. However, this method creates uneven splotches that may be undesirable. 

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The Effects From Trying to Create Leather Patina

MethodGlossDarken
NaturalYesYes
Sun TanNoYes
Felt Friction PadYesSlightly
Water MarksNoYes, Splotchy
Methods for Creating Leather Patina

Types of Leather Patina

Natural Leather Patina

Natural leather patina is the most obvious in its color change. This is because, as the name suggests, the leather begins in a natural state with no color or coating. The leather starts a tanish-blond color and becomes shades of dark brown over time.

Black Leather Patina

Black leather patina can be very subtle visually, as the initial color is dark. Black leather may not show the same color-changing effects as other leather patina, but the surface will begin to shine after use. This is due to the oils and friction the item will come in contact with, buffing the top layer of the leather. 

Vachetta Leather Patina

Vachetta leather is a term used for untreated Italian leather. This leather would behave the same as untreated vegetable tanned leather. Before it is used, it begins as a tanish-blond color, and as oils and exposure to other conditions age the leather, it darkens to shades of brown.

Vegetable Tanned Leather Patina

Vegetable tanned leather patina’s intensity will depend on the item’s initial color. Regardless, vegetable tanned leather will show the classic darkening and shining traits of leather patina.

Natural Veg Tan Leather Patina

Natural vegetable tanned leather patina is similar to many other patinas in that it will darken. However, the initial leather color, being a natural tone, will allow these items to show the full depth of the patina. 

In this helpful video, Tanner describes how the beautiful character and aged look of leather patina is achieved.

Full-Grain Leather Patina

Full-grain leather patina can be a variety of things and may have different colors or a different finish. Patina for this leather type can range in the amount the color darkens and how the surface may react to wear. 

Undyed Leather Patina

Undyed leather will typically be the same color as natural leather. As a result, the patina will be the same. Starting from a tanish-blonde to shades of brown as it ages. H. Ozgunay of Ege University in Bornova – Izmir, Turkey, has provided research regarding the different tannage types of vegetable tanned leather. They found that although there may be a difference in how light affects each leather, all vegetable tanned leather will darken when exposed to light.

Leather Patina on Clothing

Leather Jacket Patina

Patina patterns on a leather jacket may vary wildly as these items are constantly exposed to the elements. Areas more exposed, such as the arms, and shoulders will highly patina. As well as areas with a lot of contact with skin, such as the cuffs, and collars. Lesser exposed or used portions of the jacket, like pockets, will show less patina when compared to other parts.

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This process highlights the points of wear, making every patina completely unique to its user.

Leather Shoes Patina

Leather shoes tend to patina on the tip of the shoe and around the opening. The tip is an area that sees heavy wear and is often treated with conditioners and creams that only further serve the patina. The patina around the shoe’s opening is due to oils transferred when handling a shoe daily.

Carlos Perez-Vidal, Jorge Borrell Méndez, Alejandra Gonzalez, J. Ernesto Solanes, and Luis Gracia of the University Miguel Hernandez de Elche researched the potential for patina created through robotic assistance, highlighting the steps to achieve patina through wax and polishing. 

Leather Boot Patina

Leather boot patina is extremely similar to shoes, though because they see more extreme conditions, the patina can be much more apparent, and widespread. The tip and places that come in contact with hands will be the largest source. Though patina will be seen throughout, as boots may experience more rain, dirt, grime, and debris. 

Leather Boots With a Developed Patina - Leather Patina - Liberty Leather Goods
Leather Boots With a Developed Patina

Leather Patina on Accessories

Leather Case Patina

Depending on its use, a leather case will develop two points of patina. The exterior will see color changes due to use. While the interior will see more creasing and highlights where the item(s) is carried. 

The oils from our hands will be the main source for patina, with sunlight being the second.

Leather Wallet Patina

Leather wallets are perhaps the most common case for leather patina. They are items that see years of wear, carried around, touched, and pulled out daily. All these actions lead to patina. From the oils in our hands to the elements it’s exposed to and the shine generated through the friction from a pocket. Leather wallets will also have an additional patina highlighting the shape of the cards placed inside the wallet.

Leather Patina iPhone Case

A cell phone case will patina very similar to a wallet. The oils from our hands will be the main source for patina, with sunlight being the second. A shine can also develop as the phone is pulled out and put into pockets. 

Leather Couch Patina

Leather couch patina will occur through two main sources, sunlight and use. The sunlight will darken the leather more uniformly and in larger areas. In contrast, the patina developed through use will be isolated to the points that see the most wear. Oils from our clothes or body will seep into the couch, making larger points of patina. 

Related Insights

Does genuine leather patina?

No, genuine leather is typically a lower grade of leather that does not offer the same characteristics as more natural leather, such as vegetable tanned leather. Genuine leather may be bonded or pigmented, requiring additional coating for its production. This coating prevents leather from properly developing a patina.

Does leather darken with age?

Yes, if leather can patina, it will, regardless of how it is treated. Any light leather is exposed to will darken it if the leather is natural. Pigmented leathers, and alike, will not darken with exposure as their painted color layers are not natural. 

What happens to leather as it ages?

As leather ages, it will begin to soften and perhaps crease at wear points. It will then slowly begin to darken. This will be most notable within areas of high wear. The last step of natural wear is a shine that will develop as oils and friction buff the item over time. While most products will follow this process, the gradient and gloss that develops depend on the user.

How Patina Creating Techniques Compare to Natural Patina  

As a leather crafter, I have many leather items around my house that have developed a natural patina from use. I currently have a duffle bag with vegetable tanned handles that I have been traveling with for a couple of years. These handles have begun to develop a patina as a result.

For this experiment, I compared the patina of these handles to two pieces of natural vegetable tanned leather which I artificially patinated. One piece was left in the sun for an afternoon, while the other was rubbed with felt. All these leathers started as a tanish-blond color of natural vegetable tanned leather.

The handles which have been held by me, exposed to sunlight, taken on planes, and experienced different climates, have a strong patina where my hands are placed. While they are not a dark brown yet, the process has clearly begun as I can see different shades of tans, and a light shines throughout. Further down is a much lighter tanned spot with most color coming from the edges. 

Leather Bag Handles - Leather Patina - Liberty Leather Goods
Leather Bag Handles

Finally towards the bottom of the bag is a darker patina similar to the handles, but more black. I assume this is caused by being in contact with the ground more often. After leaving a piece of leather outside all afternoon, there was not as much of a difference as I had hoped.

The leather was slightly darker than it started, but because the leather was entirely exposed to the sun, the color was a flat tone, lacking the depth of a true patina. In addition, no shine had developed. The next method I tried was using felt, friction, and heat to bring the natural oils out. This took a lot of physical effort, both in pressure needed and time.

Rubbing the felt against the leather did both darken and add a lot of shine to the piece, but the patina created was isolated to small points. The problem with the method became clear. I may have had control over where, and how much patina I wanted, but it was too much effort to create it, even on a small piece of leather. 

Additionally, while I tried to create a gradient pattern on the leather, I couldn’t help but feel that the pattern was too artificial. There was simply no depth to the darkened areas. This may be solved with more patience, and better technique, but after half an hour, I was unhappy with the results. 

While both methods did have some effects on the color of the leather, and could in theory mimic aged leather, neither of these methods really compared to the natural patina I have developed over simply using my duffle bag. Though if someone wants to quickly patina a brand new leather item, these methods will jumpstart the process.

Final Thoughts

Leather patina is a natural benefit of owning a quality leather product. No other crafting material ages as beautifully and uniquely as leather.

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