Introduction: Dye Your Shoes (or Other Leather Goods)

About: I'm an engineer in the renewable energy world, and help run a cooperative workshop makerspace in Boulder, CO called the Phoenix Asylum.

Lets dye our shoes! They are a boring color, and we crave something new and custom. Fortunately, leather dyes easily, resulting in a vibrant, permanent change. For this instructable, we will be brush-dyeing two pairs of assembled shoes. This is a bit time consuming, but will result in a hand-painted look that can't be matched by vat or dip dyeing.

I've selected a pair of Frye boots that I wasn't wearing much. They are "pre-distressed", but I wanted to give them a fresh new look. The second is a pair of Oak Street Bootmakers Trench Oxfords in Natural CXL. They are great quality shoes, but I wasn't a fan of the color. I was inspired by the work of the master craftsmen at Moto JP who hand dye beautiful shoes and I wanted to give it a shot.

First - the cardinal rules of dyeing.

  1. All dye projects are experimental. Dye can be unpredictable, and all materials react slightly differently to the dye. There is no way to perfectly predict the results. We can do some things to make the dye more consistent, but do not dye something that you can't bear to damage, and keep an open mind - the end result may not be exactly what you wanted, but you might still love it.
  2. Dye is transparent. Dye is not paint - it cannot cover anything up. Dyeing leather is like applying very thin layers of colored cellophane - each coat will darken the color, and mix with the colors below it. You cannot dye something a lighter color! If you want to dye a shoe that is tan, don't think "this blue dye will make it blue" think "this blue dye will make it tan+blue colored". That mix may look great, or it may not.
  3. Dye is permanent. The dyes used for this project are totally permanent. No going back. If you add dye to an area that you didn't intend - you are screwed (or you can just change plans and dye that area darker!).

This project is not suitable for younger children, but children who can use paints without spilling, and know not to put brushes or colorful liquids in their mouth could join in with adult supervision. The dyes are not especially toxic, but are alcohol and acetone based and should not be consumed or put on bare skin.

With that in mind, lets get started.

Step 1: What You Will Need

You will need a few special supplies that you will probably have to order:

  1. Leather preparer and deglazer. I am using Angelus Leather Preparer, which works quite well. You could also use Acetone, or various Saphir products. The purpose is to strip the original outer finish off the shoe.
  2. Leather dye. I am using Angelus leather dye, which is alcohol based. Alcohol based dyes dry very quickly, are easy to apply, and result in vivid colors. I recommend them over oil or water based dyes for these projects. Saphir also has a line of alcohol based dyes that look great, but are not generally available in the US, so I haven't tried them.
  3. Shoe polish. You want a good quality polish to rebuild the finish after dyeing. I recommend Meltonian Cream Polish and Kiwi Polish. Saphir products are also great. Get the "neutral" color, rather than a tinted polish.
  4. Shoes to dye! Of course. These dyes are intended for use on natural smooth leather, though Angelus sells a suede specific version, and in my case, the smooth-leather dye generated satisfactory results on suede. Pleather, vinyl, plastic and fabric will not dye in a predictable way with these products.

It is worth getting the right stuff from the beginning. You may be able to find some "leather dyes" at your local hardware store or craft store, but don't skimp - these alcohol based dyes are a bit trickier to use, but produce much better results. Many stores won't sell them due to overblown safety concerns (just don't drink it or wipe it on your body or huff it). The other bonus is that Angelus dyes are very reasonably priced - one of the rare situations when the right product for the job is actually the cheapest!

There are a few great suppliers for these dyes and supplies. I've used both and and had great service.

You will also need some general purpose supplies, available locally:

  1. A workspace you can get dirty (remember, the dye is permanent)
  2. A few rags you can get dirty
  3. A few small plastic cups or containers with lids
  4. Latex or nitrile gloves, if you don't want your hands turning the color of your project
  5. Brush cleaner for oil or lacquer based paints
  6. Quality masking tape (blue or green)
  7. Small paint brushes, I like a 1/2" angled shader brush
  8. Scraps of similar colored leather, of the same type if you can get it
  9. Shoe polishing supplies - cloths for applying polish, horsehair brush for buffing

Step 2: Prepare the Leather

The first step in dyeing is to remove the existing finish. Starting with a clean and dry shoe, with laces removed. Daub some of the finish remover/preparer onto a cloth, and rub off the existing finish of the shoes. If you are removing a lot of color and material, keep flipping your cloth to expose clean cloth to the shoe so you aren't just spreading the finish around.

If you are using Angelus Preparer or Acetone, do this in a very well ventilated area, and no open flames or smoking!

The leather should get dull, and lighten in appearance. In the images, you can see my test scraps of natural CXL lighten, and the end result on the full shoe.

You should also use this time to mask any areas you do not want to dye. The dye cannot be removed once it touches something, so use a good quality masking tape to block areas you don't want dyed. In this case, I want the outsole and welt to remain natural, so I have masked them fully.

Tip: If you are having trouble getting a thick finish to come off, wrap the cloth around a tongue depressor or similar wooden stick, and use it to "scrape" the finish off with the help of the deglazer.

Step 3: Test Your Colors

If you can, test your dyes on swatches of similar colored leather, or on hidden places on the shoe. All dyes will react differently on different leathers, so the only way to know your color for sure is to try it. Don't rely on the catalog swatches!

In this case, I am using the Angelus dye on some suede, which isn't officially recommended. Angelus has a line of suede-specific dyes which are usually the right choice. In this case, after a few test swatches, I'm satisfied with the results so I will proceed. If I knew from the beginning that my project was going to be on suede, I would have ordered the correct dye from the beginning.

Realize that in all of these cases, multiple coats will darken the color, and the final reconditioning and polishing will also darken the colors. Keep that in mind as you plan your results.

Step 4: Dye the Shoes!

Now for the main event. Dye those shoes!

Angelus dye comes with a sponge dauber, which works well on large surfaces and suede. It is too much dye for smooth leather shoes however, so use a small paintbrush instead. I was using a 1/2" angled shader brush, which was a good size for these shoes.

Tips for good results:

  1. Read the manufacturers instructions first!
  2. Keep the brush wet, and use long, consistent strokes.
  3. Make your first coat as consistent as possible, and wait until each section is dry before applying a second coat.
  4. You will leave some brushstrokes behind, especially with lighter colors. Make these strokes "artistic" rather than "ugly" by making your brush strokes follow the natural lines of the shoe. Follow stitch lines, and make brush strokes follow the same direction as a horsehair brush would follow when polishing the shoe.
  5. Make your dye more "deep" by blending colors. For the OSB Oxfords, I started with two coats of Oxblood, then blended Oxblood and Cordovan 50/50 in a plastic cup, and used that darker blend to over-dye the cap toe, edges of the shoe, and along stitch lines. This gives the shoe a vintage patina, and highlights the lighter colors between the stitches. See this Google Image search for "italian shoe patina" for some wild inspiration.
  6. If you are dyeing very light shoes with a very light color, get Angelus's dye thinner to allow you to make more, thinner coats, which will give you more control over the color.
  7. Go slow, and compare frequently. You can always make an area darker by adding more dye, but you cannot make it lighter! This is especially important as you start your second shoe.
  8. The dye dries almost instantly, but give it 20 minutes before removing any masking tape. Suede will hold liquid dye longer and take a little longer to dry.

Step 5: Finish Work

You aren't done yet!

The finish stripper and the dye have dried out the leather, and the dyed surface needs to be protected. Angelus sells an acrylic finisher for a strong shine, but I prefer a more natural waxed finish.

I won't spend a lot of time on the shoe polishing part since there are many great tutorials out there, but here are the basic steps:

  1. Test out your polishes and conditioners on your scraps! Some may significantly darken the color, others will only slightly darken it.
  2. Use "neutral" polishes, not colored. This will act like a clear-coat, and give your color more depth.
  3. Start with something that will condition the leather as well as protect it. Usually this means a cream polish or a straight-up conditioner. Lexol conditioner or Meltonian Cream Polish would be fine choices.
  4. The first layer of polish may take off a little of the dye - use a clean cloth, and rotate it frequently so you don't accidentally spread dye where you didn't intend to spread it.
  5. Let the applied polish dry, then buff with a horsehair brush.
  6. Repeat as needed, or switch to a paste wax like Kiwi to get a deeper shine.
  7. Let the shoe set and dry for 24 hours, brush again, and enjoy! Maintain by repolishing or conditioning occasionally (don't overdo it), and brushing clean after each wear. Cleanliness will protect your shoes far better than any product.

Enjoy your new shoes!

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