Introduction: How to Paint Leather Shoes

Picture of How to Paint Leather Shoes

Bored of plain black, white or brown shoes? Hoping to spruce up your favorite pair of battered brogues? Interested in making a personalized gift for someone who has feet? This instructable will talk you through the process of turning a blank pair of shoes into a colorful fashion statement. Of course, what that statement says is entirely up to you.

A while ago I bought myself a snazzy pair of white leather dance shoes (for lindy hop and blues, if you must know). Clumsy dancer that I am, within a few evenings my shoes were covered in scuff marks and stains. A lesser geek might have just cleaned the shoes, or perhaps resolved to stop kicking people on the dance floor. Instead, I chose to repaint both shoes with a complex design so that any scuffing would be less immediately noticeable. (Think shoe repair is best left to seasoned professionals? What a load of old cobblers!)

The finished shoes are durable, flexible, colorful and even scuff-resistant. Read on to find out how to paint your own shoes!

Step 1: An Overview

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There are four stages to repainting a leather shoe:
  1. Stripping the shoe's finish – nearly all shoes will already have a protective coat applied by the manufacturer. This needs to be removed so that you can paint directly onto the leather.
  2. Penciling in your design – this step can be skipped if you're super-confident in your own painting skills. I am definitely not.
  3. Painting – using flexible paint to create your own design on the leather.
  4. Finishing – sealing the painted shoes in a layer of acrylic to protect the beautiful new paint job.

What you'll need:
  • Solvent to remove the shoes' finish – I used Angelus Brand professional leather preparer and deglazer.
  • Flexible leather paints - I used Angelus Brand paints. I was surprised by how little of each paint I needed.
  • Acrylic finisher – That's right, I used Angelus Brand acrylic finisher. Sensing a theme?
  • Pencil and eraser.
  • Brushes Cotton buds/Q-tips.
  • Wooden skewers for fine detail.
  • Disposable sponge.
  • Shoes (or anything with a smooth leather surface).
  • I also recommend a waterproof drop-cloth or plenty of newspaper to catch all the mess you'll be making.

Warning: This is a smelly and fumy project. The leather deglazer in particular gives off some quite noxious fumes. Be sure to do this in a well ventilated area, away from any flames. Also, keep a lid on any paint/solvent containers when you're not using them. You have been warned.

Step 2: Choose Your Shoes and Make Some Sketches

Picture of Choose Your Shoes and Make Some Sketches

I always find it helps to rough out a few ideas before I start painting/sawing/lasering a project. In this case, your shoes are going to be out of action for a few days while you paint them, so it's best to have a good plan of the whole project before you strip off their protective finish. Now can also be a good time to test out some paint colors. Mix, play and experiment on paper before you attack your shoes.

Step 3: Strip the Shoes

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First, remove the laces. Apply a little deglazer to the corner of a sponge and swab away at your shoes. You should immediately notice a difference in their surface as the finish is removed. In this case, you can also see some of the original dye coming off onto the sponge. Repeat this for the entire surface of both shoes.

Err on the side of excess here. Remember: any patches of original finish will stop your paint from sticking properly

Step 4: Pencil in Your Design

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This stage is great fun! Draw on your newly stripped shoes in pencil. If you make a mistake, erase it and try again. There's no pressure to get anything right first time, so you can try out as many patterns as you like. If you have trouble using your eraser on shoe leather, either find a softer eraser or use a few drops of deglazer on the end of a Q-tip to wipe away the pencil graphite.

Note: I drew on and painted my shoes one at a time because (a) I wasn't sure whether it would work and (b) I wasn't sure that I wanted both shoes to look the same. However, I strongly recommend painting both shoes at the same time. That way, the colors will all match and you'll be able to wear your shoes again much sooner.

Step 5: Paint on the Base Layer

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Disclaimer: I am not a painter by habit or training, so the next few steps are not necessarily the best way to achieve the look you want. If you're aiming for a fairly cartoonish, clumsily shaded design like my own, then by all means follow my advice. However, you could imitate almost any style of painting if you have the talent and inclination.

Paint your shoes one shade at a time, using bold solid areas of color for now. Later on, you can add shading and texture to these areas. The leather paint gives very good opaque coverage, so a thin layer will usually completely cover up whatever was beneath it. However, occasionally you may need to apply multiple layers to achieve this coverage. This is almost a better choice than trying to apply one thick layer, which will smear or dry unevenly. Fortunately, the paint dries so quickly that you can apply multiple layers in a single sitting.

Yes, at the end of this stage your shoe will look much uglier than it did while you were penciling on it. Don't worry, you'll add borders to tidy it up in the next step.

Step 6: Paint on the Borders

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Wherever one color meets another, draw on a black border to cover the border. Vary the thickness of the borders, depending on what areas you want to emphasize. To achieve very thin borders, use a wooden skewer dipped in black paint rather than a paintbrush.

There, isn't that much tidier? It still looks somewhat flat and cartoony, though. If that's what you like, great! Otherwise, it's time for some shading.

Step 7: Apply Shading and Highlights

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Shade away! I used watered-down versions of the original colors, along with black and white to add some texture to the blocks of color. You may find that you'll want to redraw some of the borders at the end of this step.

Step 8: Seal It

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When you're sure the paint is completely dry, use a large paintbrush to liberally slap on a layer of acrylic finisher. Make sure it's applied evenly, or you might get some lumps or bubbles on the shoe's surface. Also check that you haven't accidentally dripped finish down onto the soles (unless you want to glue the shoes to your workbench). Wait for the finisher to dry, then repeat. Apply at least three coats to protect your beautiful masterpieces. Paranoid chap that I am, I applied seven coats.

The finish makes an enormous difference; as well as protecting the shoe, encasing your paint job in a thin layer of acrylic adds a striking veneer of professionalism to the shoes' appearance.

Note: Even though I used a matte finish, the shoes are still rather glossy. This could be minimized by combining a dulling agent (also available from most paint suppliers) with the paints and/or sealant.

Step 9: Shoe Number Two

Picture of Shoe Number Two

I used a slightly different, quicker technique for my second shoe. I wanted to give this shoe the look of the sketches that had been used to design the first shoe's internal mechanism. I started by painting a base layer of various browns and some black smudges, to create an aged paper texture. Then I used a wooden skewer to carefully draw on top of this in black, before adding bold colors and subtle highlights and shading to match the other shoe.

Step 10: The Finished Shoes

Picture of The Finished Shoes

I don't know how long these will survive regular use. So far, I've worn them for three evenings of social dancing and they haven't got a scratch on them. The surface seems flexible and resilient. However, I'm sure that eventually they'll go the way of all shiny shoes and become patchy and bare. If that happen, then I'll just have an excuse to repaint them with a new design!

Let me know what you think and, as always, please share pictures of your own shoe painting projects!


SabineT (author)2016-02-22

Wowsie wow! I was just trying to find tips for a plain old colour change for my plain old shoes - and found so much more. Thanks for this great 'ible!

Disco_Pink (author)2015-12-16

Will these paints work with vinyl ("manmade upper" on shoe descriptions), too? Im guessing that these Angelus paints are just more flexible than your average acrylic craft paint?

Ninzerbean (author)2015-01-29

I've also done this with paint markers. They are easier for me to draw/paint with 'cause I don't have to dip them into the paint to refill like with a brush. I never sealed them - Timberland boots, but they stayed looking great until I left them somewhere I did not return to. But your shoes are brilliant. Such a well documented 'ible. Thank you for sharing.

mrs.hughbanks (author)Ninzerbean2015-02-08

acrylic paint markers or???

luckydogstudio (author)2015-01-28

This is a beautiful Instructable! Well done you! I paint my shoes too, but you have outdone yourself!

qajaqer99. (author)2015-01-27


Great idea, now i can have zebra or giraffe shoes and matching heels for gf.

Sellesion (author)2014-11-03

These are amazing and give me all kinds of ideas. Even after all these months, have the shoes and paint job held up for you?

Kathar6 (author)2014-07-04

this is amazing ! i dont want any boring shoes any more! your instructable gave me inspiration for the next 20 years, many thanks for sharing your tips and technique (your drawings are just fab)

asuian (author)2014-05-05

Hello! I'va also started to paint my shoes after seeing your post and I want to thank you!
The difference is that I've used acrylic paints and fabric paints, and the pointer is also for fabrics. But I hope the painting will get dry enough, and when I will apply the sealing coat, it wont get off! :)
How can I share some pictures with you?

kbrooks3 (author)2014-05-01

These are absolutely gorgeous. You are an artist.

General Zod (author)2014-02-11

Those look awesome!!!!!

flyingpuppy (author)2014-01-20

Those are spectacular pieces of art! BTW, you can also use porcelain paint on leather shoes (and purses and clothes), and it dries glossy, so no need for a coat of acrylic. E g.

PenfoldPlant (author)flyingpuppy2014-02-02

Great tip! How scratch-resistant and flexible is porcelain paint? Would it withstand a night of furious Charleston?

flyingpuppy (author)PenfoldPlant2014-02-03

A night? More like a lifetime of furious charleston...

sjara (author)2014-01-20

Um... What size are these and where can I buy--screw DIYing it!

PenfoldPlant (author)sjara2014-02-02

Aww, where's the fun in that?

sjara (author)PenfoldPlant2014-02-02

Not so fun when they turn out hideous from my art skills!! These are just sick. I DIY everything else--I swearZ it!

panks (author)2014-01-21

Wow! They're spectacular! You should try selling them.

PenfoldPlant (author)panks2014-02-02

Thanks, but I'd rather keep them for myself!

panks (author)PenfoldPlant2014-02-02

I meant make more to sell :)

Izzypup (author)2014-02-02

Know what you mean about frittering hours away on 'invisible' details! I made a quilt years ago for my now ex-husband. It contained 36 squares of appliquéd, embroidered, painted or a combination of the 3 depictions of his hobbies/interests. When anyone sees it I'm compelled to point out that the numbers on the camera lens can be read and are positioned precisely! Otherwise they'd just see a quilt!

Vampyra65 (author)2014-01-20

Wow, you are quite an artist. Thanks for sharing this. I don't think I could do such a nice job.

PenfoldPlant (author)Vampyra652014-02-02

Thanks! Why not give it a try on some old shoes?

Vampyra65 (author)PenfoldPlant2014-02-02

I could never draw as well as you.

haventmadeabombyet (author)2014-01-30

Would it be safe to assume that this technique would work with synthetic leather as well? I have a tablet case to which I've been wanting to add pinache.

That's a good question. I've read elsewhere online that these paints work fine with synthetic leather, but it would still be a good idea to test it out on a corner before you start a large design. In particular, I'd want to check that the acetone/deglazer doesn't damage the material.

altomic (author)2014-01-26

totally awesome.

PenfoldPlant (author)altomic2014-02-02


Izzypup (author)2014-01-23

I've been scrolling thru Instructibles for hours and your shoes are the most imaginative, beautiful and wonderfully executed things I've seen. I've always thought myself a crafty person (in an artistic, not sneaky way!) but I couldn't begin to do what you've done! In the past, when I've been complimented on my 'talent', I've used the 'just takes time and patience' line. That does not apply in your case. The intricacy of the design is unbelievable and the overall look is...can't find a word! If you apply a tenth of the talent you've exhibited here to your dancing, I'll be expecting to see you on Dancing With The Stars - as a teacher - in a few months!!
One last thought - my first thought after looking closely at your shoes was a street theater production based on 'The Sultan's Elephant' which has been done in several European cities. HUGE puppets, a larger-than-life elephant, etc. Anyway, Google 'The Sultan's Elephant' and I think you'll see how my brain made the connection.

PenfoldPlant (author)Izzypup2014-02-02

For me, part of the fun of dancing is that I can't spend ages obsessing about every detail of it. It's a great way to get out of my own head for a while and spend some time in the moment, responding to the music and my partner, never looking back. Painting feels like the opposite of that: I enjoy it hugely, but it's very easy to fritter away hours fixing a detail that nobody else would ever notice.

That's my long-winded way of saying that I'm not very good at dancing, but I still love it!

I LOVE the work of Royal de Luxe. I was actually in London the weekend that the Sultan's Elephant paraded through, but I didn't find out about it until the day afterwards. I was kicking myself for weeks! I sincerely hope to see some of their work in person one day.

spylock (author)2014-01-22

Dude these are works of art,and should be in a gallery in New York.

PenfoldPlant (author)spylock2014-02-02

Much appreciated!

nice sister (author)2014-01-22

I'm not sure how you can say you're not a painter -- you have a ton of skill with painting/drawing/design. These are truly amazing. Thanks for sharing them with us. :)

PenfoldPlant (author)nice sister2014-02-02

Thank you for your kind words. I'm glad that you enjoyed the shoes!

wilson bill (author)2014-01-20

Those are tits! They'd go well with some Pimp Socks with the bright flourescent stripes and a Don King doo.

PenfoldPlant (author)wilson bill2014-02-02

Yes. Exactly this.

davidqxo (author)2014-01-20

Those shoes are gorgeous! Kudos. My dance is Argentine tango. Maybe I can get an artist to do a fileteado design for me.

PenfoldPlant (author)davidqxo2014-02-02

That would be amazing if done well. I hope you have an incredibly extravagant suit to match them!

studleylee (author)2014-01-20

Amazingly cool. If I ever get another band going, a set of these will be my playing shoes!!!!

PenfoldPlant (author)studleylee2014-02-02

Great plan!

thecapper (author)2014-01-20

Well, I'm inspired! Now I just need a good idea...and some bad shoes.

PenfoldPlant (author)thecapper2014-02-02

Cheers - I look forward to seeing the results!

flyingpuppy (author)2014-01-20

Attn: staff. How do we pin, tweet, FB right from the instructable? Would love to promote ibles like this. Would be especially useful on the app. Thx

realguy (author)2014-01-20

Of all the things I’ve seen on here, this is one of the finest pieces of work, (without wood tools and welding and circuit boards!) that I’ve seen. I wish I could “scratch draw” as fine as you did on shoe number two!!

How long (if you don’t count time for the intricate paint) do these take? I assume the paint is out there just to refinish or re-clear a shoe if you wanted to as well? What’s the approximate cost for cleaner, clear and one bottle of color?

Would one color bottle cover one shoe or two? Or more like two per shoe?

If you had a new pair of shoes, could you clear coat them right away for scuff and water protection? Or better to leave that to ScotchGuard?

Thanks again! Damn, they look great! Don’t underestimate shoe #2!! Perhaps you should be designing machinery!!

p.s. - do you think that old bowling shoes would make the cut? Or are they not leather? (would the cleaner turn them into liquid!!! ?? )

PenfoldPlant (author)realguy2014-01-20

Thanks a lot! The most time consuming part was definitely painting all the details. If you want to keep it simple, you could probably repaint a pair of shoes in an afternoon, and most of that time would just be drying time between coats.

I think you could probably paint a pair of shoes with a single $3 (for 1oz.) bottle of paint, but I would buy two bottles to be safe and to allow for multiple coats to give a better finish.

Over all, paint, deglazer and finisher could cost as little as $10-12 for a single pair of simple shoes.

Most shoes have already been treated in some way to protect their outer fabric, so you shouldn't really need to coat them in acrylic unless you really like that polished plastic look. As for bowling shoes, I think they can have either leather or synthetic uppers. If in doubt, test it out with a small drop of deglazer on the side of the shoe and see what happens...

lindaweir (author)2014-01-19


randofo (author)2014-01-15

Do you think this would still work as a good personalized gift if the person does not have feet? Personally - I have feet. I am just curious. Also, are these good for situations other than social dancing? I don't know how to social dance. Do you think I should buy leather shoes anyhow?

PenfoldPlant (author)randofo2014-01-18

There are many ways a person without feet could appreciate a fine pair of shoes. They could be use as decorative planters, paperweights or even for acts of political protest. Did you know that the word "sabotage" comes from the practice of factory workers throwing wooden shoes ("sabots ") into machinery?

However, I fear that such a generous gift might be construed as offensive by the footless recipient. I would advise against such a gift unless you know the person very well.

Sadly these shoes are cursed with such a deep and funky groove that they only work for dancing. But yes, I strongly believe that you should get a pair and start dancing. Right now.

roballoba (author)2014-01-13

I won't be painting my Zaps any time soon, but cudos to you for yours! Awesome X-Ray concept! I hope they help you with your dancing skills....

PenfoldPlant (author)roballoba2014-01-18

Honestly, they're pretty hard to see clearly on the dance floor. The best comment I've had so far was, "Cool Spider-man shoes!"

About This Instructable




Bio: Artist in Residence at Pier 9, currently exploring a vast array of new tools with which to injure myself.
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