Introduction: How to Dye Leather

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When I first starting learning about leatherworking, I read loads of forum topics about how to dye leather and found many different answers about the "right" way to do it. After playing around with it for a little, I found out what worked and didn't work for me, so I thought I'd summarize it all here. :D

Dyeing leather isn't tricky, but it is a little about trial and error. This instructable is exclusively about dyeing plain vegetable tanned leather, but even vegetable tanned leathers can have different reactions to dye, so it's always a good idea to do a dye test run before going right to the final piece.

What I've detailed here is only one of many ways to dye! I recommend signing up over at the forums to learn more about it. :D

Check out my other leather ibles for more leatherworking basics:

Step 1: What You'll Need:

  • leather dye of choice (I'm using Tandy's Eco Flo)
  • 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

I also like to keep extra paper towels and water on hand for clean up! You might also want to line your workspace and wear gloves if you're concerned about getting dye all over. :D

You have many, many choices when it comes to dyes - there are oil, water and alcohol based dyes out there. You may need to do a bit of testing to see which one you prefer. Water-based leather dye is my go-to because I feel that is more forgiving on the leather and it's easy to clean up with soap and water.

Step 2: Prep and Oil the Leather First

Before you begin, it's best to prep your leather. Groove the leather, fold it, bevel the edges, punch out larger holes. Of course this all depends on the project you're doing, but if you want a uniform finish - do all your cutting and punching first.

After lots of testing, I found that hydrating the leather a little bit made the dye finish smoother. Water interfered with the dyeing - it got a little splotchy. But oil worked very well!

Also - if you've been handling the leather a good amount already, it's not a bad idea to swipe the front down with a teeny bit of rubbing alcohol to clean up all the oil your hands left behind.

For this you want to use straight oil, not leather conditioners with waxes or added glossing agents - they will form a barrier and the dye will not be able to penetrate the leather. I like to use jojoba oil on leather. It's pretty cheap, lasts forever, and doesn't impart any odd scents. I've also seen lots of folks recommend olive oil to condition after dyeing, so I bet it would work at this part of the process too.

Apply the oil lightly using a paper towel or a scrap piece of t-shirt and let it soak in for a few minutes. You don't want to apply so much you get a dramatic change in the color, just a light coating. Make sure to get the edges too!

Step 3: Dilute Your Dyes (or Not)

The way you choose to use your dye depends entirely on your projects. If you want bold distinct color, going full strength will get you that. You might need to apply a second coat with full strength dye to cover any blotches that occur.

If you want a more muted or antique finish, you can dilute your dye and do many thinner layers until your desired saturation is achieved.

If you want to dilute your dye, do it using the base of the dye. Since mine are water based, I'm adding water to dilute. If your dye is oil or alcohol based, you'll have to add oil or alcohol to dilute.

Above you can see the following concentrations of dye:

  • 100% dye
  • 75% dye, 25% water
  • 50% dye, 50% water
  • 25% dye, 75% water

Each of these dye squares is one thin layer.

Step 4: Apply the Dye

Everyone has their own technique here, but I like to use old t-shirt fabric to apply it to the flat surfaces. I use q-tips to apply the dye to the edges. I tried many different ways but a soft t-shirt did the job perfectly.

Once you're happy with the color saturation, you need to let the leather dry completely. If you try to continue working before it's dry, you can end up with serious smudging.

The second photo shows the difference between applying the dye dry (RIGHT) and applying the dye after lightly oiling the leather (LEFT). You can see the one on the right has many areas where the coverage is spotty and light.

Step 5: Finishing

Once you've dyed the leather and it is ENTIRELY dry, you can add a wax based conditioner or more of whatever oil you like. You can buy leather conditioners or make your own. Antagonizer has an awesome instructable up over making your own leather conditioner/polish.

After you've conditioned you can burnish your edges and otherwise make your work look awesome. Be sure not to burnish using gum tragacanth before you dye as it can cause the leather to resist the dye.

(Above is a dyed and burnished edge!)

If your dyed leather will be anything but decorative, you'll need to seal it to keep the dye in place. There are many options for this, but the two most popular ones in my research are Fiebings Acrylic Resolene and Bee Natural Leather Finish. Fiebings Resolene will give a higher gloss finish and the Bee Natural finish will be more subtle. :)