It takes a fair amount of trial and error to master the four simple steps to dyeing leather and do it well.
A simple DIY project that allows you to change the pigment of material to your preferred color is dyeing leather. However, coloring leather is challenging. It takes skill and a lot of practice to apply a nice, even coat of dye to leather.
This is the method for dyeing leather that I’m the happiest with after experimenting with several others. Now, let’s start!
Read More: 9 Best Sewing Machines for Leather in 2022
What You’ll Need
- leather dye of choice
- vegetable tanned leather
- leather oil/conditioner of choice (I’m using jojoba oil)
- something to apply the dye (I’m using old clean t-shirt scraps and q-tips)
- a leather sealer of some sort
Additional paper towels and water are also things I like to have on hand for cleanup. If you’re worried about spilling dye all over, you might also want to line your workspace and wear gloves. 😀
There are a ton of different dye options available, including those that are based on oil, water, and alcohol. It might take some trial and error to determine which one you like best.
I usually use water-based leather dye because I believe it is kinder to leather and is simple to remove with soap and water.
Step 1: Prep and Oil the Leather First
Preparing your leather before you start is recommended. Make the leather more textured by creasing, folding, beveling the edges, and punching bigger holes. If you want a uniform finish, do all of your cutting and punching first. Of course, this depends entirely on the project you’re working on.
After extensive testing, I discovered that slightly moisturizing the leather made the dye finish smoother. Water hampered the dyeing process, causing it to become somewhat uneven. However, oil had great results!
Additionally, if you’ve handled the leather quite a bit, it’s a good idea to wipe the front down with a tiny bit of rubbing alcohol to remove any oil your hands may have left behind.
For this, you should use pure oil rather than leather conditioners with added waxes or glossing agents because these will form a barrier that prevents the dye from penetrating the leather.
On leather, I like to apply jojoba oil. It is reasonably priced, never runs out, and doesn’t give off any strange smells. Olive oil is frequently recommended by people to condition clothing after dyeing, so I’m sure it would be effective at this stage as well.
Use a paper towel or a small scrap of the t-shirt to lightly apply the oil, then let it sit for a few minutes to absorb. You only need to apply a light coating, not enough to cause a noticeable change in color. Don’t forget the edges either!
Step 2: Dilute Your Dyes (or Not)
Your projects will have no bearing on how you decide to use your dye. Going all out will give you a bold, distinctive color. To cover any blotches, you might need to use full-strength dye and apply a second coat.
If you want a more subdued or antique finish, dilute your dye and apply many thinner layers until your desired saturation is attained.
Use the base of the dye to dilute it if you wish. I’m adding water to dilute since mine are water-based. You must add oil or alcohol to the dye to dilute it if it is an oil- or alcohol-based dye.
Above you can see the following concentrations of dye:
- 100% dye
- 75% dye, 25% water
- 50% dye, 50% water
- 25% dye, 75% water
These dye squares are made up of one very thin layer each.
Step 3: Apply the Dye
Everyone uses a different method here, but I like to cover the flat surfaces with fabric from an old t-shirt. The dye is applied to the edges with q-tips. A soft t-shirt worked perfectly despite my many attempts at other methods.
You must allow the leather to completely dry after you are satisfied with the color saturation. Serious smudging may result if you attempt to work after it has dried.
The second image contrasts applying the dye dry (on the right) and doing so after lightly oiling the leather (on the left). The image on the right has a lot of sporadic and light coverage areas, as you can see.
Step 4: Finishing
You can add a wax-based conditioner or more of any oil you prefer after the leather has been dyed and is COMPLETELY dry. You can either purchase or make your own leather conditioner. An awesome instructable on how to make your own leather conditioner/polish is available from Antagonizer.
After conditioning, you can burnish your edges and add other finishing touches to make your work look amazing. Before dying the leather, avoid using gum tragacanth to burnish it as this may cause the dye to not take.
You must seal the leather to keep the dye in place if it will be used for anything other than decoration.
Kinds of Leather Dyes and Finishes
What kind of dye to use to get the right dye color and leather finish will depend on the type of leather. Consider these different leather dyes and their applications:
- Shoe polish: A more transient form of leather dye is shoe polish. Even though this dye is quick and simple to apply, the polish does not penetrate the fibers of the leather, making it less permanent.
- Alcohol-based leather dyes: These dyes produce more vibrant, long-lasting colors by penetrating the leather’s surface. You may need a leather conditioner or finisher to restore the leather because alcohol may strip the moisture from it and cause the material to become stiff.
- The sun: A natural method of coloring leather is the sun. Your vegetable-tanned leather will become darker if you expose it to the sun. This procedure will take at least an hour, possibly longer depending on how dark you want your leather to be since the sun’s ultraviolet rays will gradually turn lighter leather to dark brown over time.
- Oil-based leather dyes: Oil-based dyes do not remove liquids from the leather like alcohol-based ones do. Oil-based dyes penetrate the leather’s surface to give the fibers a deeper saturation of color. These might work best for top-grain and full-grain leather that has not had any surface finishes applied because those fibers will dry out more quickly.
- Water-based leather dyes: The colors produced by water-based dyes are more subdued but have less toxicity than other dyes. Your leather will remain supple as a result.
- Resolene: As a leather finish, you can use thin layers of acrylic dye or leather resolene. This method works with corrected grain leather because the fibers have already been sanded down to make the resolene provide a durable finish. After drying, the thin layers of acrylic harden into a shiny, solid, and protective surface on top of your leather. Resolene is a flexible leather dye option because it comes in a variety of finishes and hues.
- Resin: Natural resin-based leather finishers will result in a softer, more subdued finish and offer some degree of dirt defense. While not water-resistant, resin-based finishers can be effective.
Tips for Dyeing Leather
Consider the tips below to help finesse and ease the dyeing process:
- Have a variety of tools for applying dye. Your dyeing process will involve a variety of tools, each with a specific function. Cotton balls are useful for getting into tight spaces, sponges can add texture, and sprayers help blend colors.
- Sample your dye color. The shade of your dyed leather won’t exactly match the color of the dye in the bottle. See how the color reads on your material by experimenting with a small sample. If necessary, you can try blending different colors to get one that is more accurate.
- Dipping can be an easier, faster technique. You’ll need to buy more dye if you want to dip-dye your leather. If you feel comfortable sacrificing it, pour the dye into a bowl or other container. Check to see if there is enough dye to completely cover your belt, wallet, or other leather items. After a brief dipping, remove it and leave it to air dry for the remainder of the day. A quick method that guarantees an even coating is dipping.
Fabric dyeing is the process of coloring textiles, such as cotton, silk, wool, or synthetic fabrics, using different types of dyes. Dyes can be applied to the fabric using various techniques, including immersion, dip-dyeing, tie-dyeing, and printing. Here, we have explored some fabrics that you can dye:
Conclusion: Dye Leather
Again, here is how to dye your leather:
- Step 1: Prep and Oil the Leather First
- Step 2: Dilute Your Dyes (or Not)
- Step 3: Apply the Dye
- Step 4: Finishing
No matter if you’re imagining a smooth honey brown leather clutch or a tough dark brown wallet, do your research, hone your skills, and if all else fails, throw out the dye and buy something new that’s already exactly how you want it.
Can Leather Be Dyed Any Color?
Leather is a fiber, just like wood. It can be stained (dyed) or painted (pigmented finish or coating). Leather dyes penetrate the fiber and draw attention to any stains or other natural variations.
Is Leather Hard to Dye?
Natural, unfinished leathers take dye the easiest, making natural vegetable-tanned leather one of the best options for customizing. Yes, you can add color to items that have already been dyed, but be aware that if done improperly, the process may take longer to produce the desired color.