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Leather Stain – Uses and Options For Coloring Leather

Working with natural leather is exciting, as I get to try out various colors and application methods to create my own colored leather. Lately, I have been experimenting with adding colors on top of an already-dyed piece using leather stains. 

Leather stains color the surface of leather using a pigmented material. Stains have a larger molecular structure than leather dyes limiting the depth they color leather. Leather stains can be found in a liquid or gel paste that is rubbed onto leather and can cost $5–$15.

Leather stains can be used to add contrast and depth when coloring leather. Let us go over how to use stains and how they benefit leatherwork. 

What is Leather Stain

A leather stain is a gel paste or liquid used to color leather. Unlike leather dyes, stains do not penetrate the leather thoroughly, allowing for layers to build up or color changes. Leather stains may also be referred to as “antique” and used after tooling to add contrast to the tooling marks left on the leather.

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Applying a Brown Leather Stain

Types of Leather Stain

Two types of leather stains are liquid and gel. Liquid leather stains are closer to leather dyes as they can be applied to the leather in the same fashion. Gel stains, however, are a much thicker paste that is rubbed into the leather and immediately removed. Both types of leather stains serve the same purpose of adding color to the surface of leather.

Characteristics of Leather Stain 

Material

Leather stain is made similarly to leather dyes in which pigment is added to a solution to create an applicable color. The stains, however, contain pigment with a larger molecular structure that is less soluble.

The gel paste and liquid versions of leather stains are water-based instead of alcohol-based. This difference creates a product that is slow to penetrate the leather and can have the excess removed but will require some sort of finishing coat to seal.

Size

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The most common size for leather stain, in both forms, is 4 fluid ounces. A gel paste stain will last a while as you only need small amounts per application. However, it can also be found in 8 and 16-fluid ounces. On the other hand, liquid stain tends to be used faster and is also offered in 8 and 16-fluid ounces for those requiring more. 

Variations

The largest variation in leather stains is its form, liquid or gel paste. However, some other differences, such as color, can also vary. There are also more complex leather stains that utilize a resin, like resolene, within their mixture to provide a better-sealed final product.

Pros and Cons of Leather Stain

Pros of Leather Stain

Leather stains produce a more even color as the excess will be removed. Their water-based formula does not cause excessive dryness in the leather. They can also be diluted with water to provide lighter tones. When used in tooling, leather stains can give a pop to the tooling marks left on the leather. Leather stains can also be applied before a leather dye to create a multitone effect. 

Cons of Leather Stain

Although leather stains are easy to apply, they may take some trial and error when trying to create a specific color, as the longer you leave them on, the darker they get. Leather stains also dry much more slowly than dyes. Stains will require an additional product to provide a sealing coat to protect the color added to the leather. 

The gel paste and liquid versions of leather stains are water-based instead of alcohol-based. This difference creates a product that is slow to penetrate the leather and can have the excess removed but will require some sort of finishing coat to seal.

How Leather Stain is Made

Leather stains are a mixture of water, pigment, and sometimes resin. Brands use their specialized formula that has to do with the ratio of the items. The resin, usually resolene or other sealants, will be mixed with the water then the pigment is added to produce the desired color.

Gladstone Christopher Jayakumar, Ami Mehta, Jonnalagadda Raghava Rao, and Nishter Nishad Fathima, from the Royal Society of Chemistry, in the United Kingdom, have been researching alternative methods of creating stains to produce a more eco-friendly way of coloring leather. This is done by changing the cleaning solution used for the leather and opening the leather fibers for better staining results. Although their changes were similar to conventional staining methods, further research is required to improve the overall results.

Cost of Leather Stain

Leather stain price varies due to brand, size, and type. A 4-fluid-ounce liquid leather stain can cost $5–$8. While the larger sizes cost $10–$12 and $20–$25 for sizes 8 and 16 fluid ounces. Leather stain in the gel paste form costs a bit more, starting at $6–$10 for a 4-fluid-ounce container. Larger paste sizes cost $11–$13 for an 8-fluid-ounce container and $28–$35 for a 16-fluid-ounce size.

Prices and Sizes of Leather Stain

Leather Stain SizeLiquid Leather Stain PriceGel Paste Leather Stain Price
4 Fluid Ounces$5–8$6–10
8 Fluid Ounces$10–12$11–13
16 Fluid Ounces$20–25$28–35
The Cost of Leather Stain

Tips for Working With Leather Stain

  1. Apply leather stain before dyeing the leather 
  2. Leave the stain on longer for a darker color
  3. Use water to dilute and lighten the stain used
  4. Ensure your leather piece is completely dry before applying leather stain

Alternative Options 

If the goal for leather stains is to add color to a leather piece, leather dye is always a good option. Alternatively, if the goal is to achieve a more natural look, the leather can be placed outside to be darkened. Leather paints are also popular for adding color to leather tooling marks.

Examples of Items Made with Leather Stain

Leather stain has two main uses when making leather items. The first is to color a piece of leather. This allows for endless creativity as all items can be made with any color without needing to buy specific colors. The second use is after tooling a leather project. A stain can be applied to the tooled area to darken it, adding contrast and depth to the tooling marks. 

In this helpful video by Tandy Leather, George Hurst demonstrates how to use leather stains on leather that has been tooled. 

My Testing Comparing Leather Stain to Leather Dye

Coloring leather is an important step in working with natural vegetable tanned leather. However, choosing the right product for each project can be difficult. As a result, I tested gel paste stain, leather dye, and liquid stain. The purpose is to compare drying times, finish look, stiffness, and rub-off.

Method

For this test, I cut three equal squares of vegetable tanned leather and applied a black stain or dye according to their instructions. I tested these one at a time to ensure the most accurate drying time, and once all three were finished I gave them an additional eight hours to ensure the best comparison. 

Results

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After applying the dye and both stains, the dye seemed to have dried the fastest, needing less than five minutes. The gel paste stain was very close with just over six minutes but might have been faster if I had continued to rub it in. The liquid stain took much longer than both at 24 minutes. 

I used a wool dauber to apply both the liquid stain and the dye. They made little to no mess and provided an even finished coating. The gel paste stain was much messier as it required an additional cloth to remove the excess. Although I felt like I had an even coating, the gel paste stain was noticeably lighter in some areas. 

Once they were all dry, the leather colored with the dye was much stiffer. If I were to use the dyed piece, I would treat it with conditioner to help soften it. The liquid stain was slightly stiffer but shouldn’t need any additional treatment. The gel paste stain felt exactly like the undyed piece and was the softest overall.

Rub-off is a huge problem when coloring leather and the dye never seemed to stop after multiple attempts. The liquid leather stain did much better, experiencing some rub-off but stopping after a few minutes. The gel paste stain did even better, only slightly rubbing off from the darker areas. 

Conclusion 

While dye may be a more common method for coloring leather, leather stain in both forms offers a similar result with less maintenance afterward. The stain may not dry as quickly, but if time is not an issue, being able to color a leather piece without the fear of it rubbing off, a stain can be the answer. 

Leather Stain Care and Maintenance

How to Clean Leather Stain

Cleaning a liquid leather stain is difficult as any contaminant will either mix with the stain or be difficult to remove. If necessary, liquid stains can be poured into a strain to remove debris and placed back into the bottle with a funnel. Leather stain in a gel paste form is much easier to clean as the top layer of the paste can be scooped out if the contaminant hasn’t been mixed in.

How to Maintain Leather Stain

When using liquid leather stain, it is best to pour the liquid into a container and immediately close the bottle to avoid any unwanted contaminants. An alternative method is dipping a clean wool dauber in the bottle. Gel paste leather stain will require a clean cloth every time, scoping an estimated amount before closing the lid. Both stains will have excess that should be thrown away to avoid any issues. 

How to Store Leather Stain

Leather stains should always be stored completely closed in their original container, and upright. Liquid stain in particular can leak or have runoff from being used. The bottle should be wiped down before being put away, and a towel can be placed underneath to ensure no damage will be caused. Both liquid, and gel paste stains should be kept in a moderate environment, as exposure to extreme temperatures may have unwanted effects.  

Related Insights

What is the difference between leather stain and leather dye?

Leather stain does not penetrate the leather as the dye does. The stain will only sit on top of the surface of the leather. Leather stain is also water-based, which does not dry out the leather as much as a dye, and can be diluted with water to lighten the color. However, leather stains require a top coat to seal in the finished color.

Can you permanently dye leather?

Yes, a variety of finishing products, such as resolene and atomic wax, are designed to lock in the color added to leather. These can be used in tandem with multiple layers of stain to create a deeper, long-lasting color. Leather pieces can also be soaked in leather stain to penetrate deep color. 

How do you Restain leather?

Restaining leather properly will require the previous finish be removed as much as possible. This can be done with a deglazer or stain remover. Afterward, a different stain can be added to the leather. It is important to note, however, that restaining with a darker color will be most effective as completely removing color from leather is difficult. 

Final Thoughts

Leather staining offers different benefits for coloring leather. Their use in leather tooling only further provides a reason to try leather stains. They may take longer to dry but can be a great alternative to leather dyes when adding color to a project.

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