How Does Dying Leather Work?

Alcohol-Based Dye

Leather dyeing works by using alcohol-based dyes. This is because alcohol is a substance which is quickly absorbed into the leather, taking the pigment with it into the surface of the leather. Some stains feature pigments that "break away" from high points of a leather piece to concentrate in certain areas, creating an antique look. The most popular type of leather dye is Fiebing's Leather Dye. Although alcohol-based dyes are the best at dyeing leather, environmental laws are being passed that will soon make them illegal to use. Water-based dye is being developed, but it is not as effective. Shoe polish is also sometimes used in place of alcohol-based dyes, and oil can be applied to leather in order to darken it. Some leather artists also use a wax paste as a sealant after applying the dye, which also adds color to the leather.

Choose and Prepare the Leather

Not all leather can be easily dyed. Most leather artists work with vegetable-tanned leather, which is the only type of leather that takes dyes fairly well. In fact, some leather dyes can only be used with vegetable-tanned leather. Before applying the dye, the leather is first cleaned thoroughly, usually using a leather bleach mixed with water as per the instructions on the bottle of leather bleach. Afterward, the leather is dampened slightly using a sponge or a spray bottle set to spray at a fine mist.

Apply the Dye

After the leather has been dampened, the dye is applied using a sponge and long, smooth strokes. Leather artists do not overlap strokes unless areas of darker color are desired. After the first layer of dye has dried, a second layer is applied, and the process is continued until the desired shade is achieved.
During each drying period, the leather is flexed in order to discourage stiffness. Once the desired shade has been reached, the leather is buffed with a soft cloth. Finally, a coat of leather finish is applied to set the dye.