Dye Your Shoes (or Other Leather Goods)

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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 AngelusDirect.com and DharmaTrading.com 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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43 Discussions

Can you dye man made material shoes

hi.i have a pair of magenta colour shoes, i love them but they don't get much wear anymore.i was thinking of dying them black to get more use..can i do this or will they go a funny colour..what do i need to do. thankyou

1 more answer

Dyeing to black usually works pretty well, because the black dye overwhelms all the other colors. Just do a good job deglazing the surface and removing the top finish so the dye penetrates evenly, and you should be good to go.

Hi, thank you for this post. Is it possible to dye leather shoes that have been painted? If so, do I deglaze them first as well? My brown shoes had an oil stain on one of them, the shoe repair guy said the only thing he could was to paint them, they came out almost nude color and look super cheap. They have no gloss and look like plastic shoes. Now reading this I'm thinking he could have dyed them until the stain blended in with the color. I'm just thinking I will dye them myself to get at least a little darker and hope that it gives it some shine. I hope you read this! Thank you!

2 replies

Hi, unfortunately once the paint is on, the dye has nothing to soak into... I agree that dye would have probably worked better than paint.

You could try removing the paint, but usually the acrylic leather paints are frustratingly durable.

If it were me, I'd be inclined to make a little art project out of them and paint them something fun and colorful using Angelus leather paints (http://www.angelusdirect.com).

Thank you so much for getting back to me! I'm not really the artistic type but I guess at this point I have nothing to lose so I will give it a try. Thank you! You have inspired me :)

Hi. I have a pair of leather booties that I bought and wore twice before some wax was spilled on them in a small spot. Long story short, I took them to someone who said they could fix it but in the end they had to dye them black. The black came out to a deep brown, which I can live with, however, it is a shiny finish and I don't like the shiny-ness. I would like to try and remove the shiny-ness and make it more dull or opaque. Any suggestions? I was looking at the Preparer and Deglazer thinking maybe this would help tone it down. Or I thought about buffing it out somehow but I don't know how. What do you think?

I am trying to dye a pair of grey/beige clogs a tan/brown color. In most places it has taken well, but in other places it is turning yellow. Should I have tried an intermediate color before the brown? I am using fiebings color, deglazed, conditioner. I am about to deglaze them again. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Note to self, don't buy Dansko clogs in odd quirky colors that I hope will grow on me!

Would you happen to know whether the initial stripping of the leather finish with the deglazer affects any waterproofing qualities? I have to get specialty boots with specific features for my job, but my company also has uniform policies and all footwear must be black, but I can only find the best quality boots for my purposes in brown. It would be great if I could just get the superior brown ones and dye them black, but they must be waterproof. If the deglazer does damage the waterproofing, do you have experience refinishing with a special waterproof finisher? Does that work better than using a waterproofing substance on already-finished leather? I've used many waterproofing creams and leather conditioners on boots straight out of the box, but none of them have lasted longer than 2-3 months without regular reapplication. Unfortunately, the kinds of boots I'm talking about are extremely expensive (over 300$) so I can't exactly test-drive this theory. Any thoughts you have would be greatly appreciated!

2 replies

Leather is naturally water resistant, that doesn't come from the dye. If you deglazed the boots then dyed to black you wouldn't fundamentally change that. What you'd probably want to do though is use a good waterproofing product on top - I'd probably go deglaze -> dye -> condition -> Obenhaufs LP -> black wax polish to get something both highly water resistant and still shiny black.

All dye projects are experimental, but going to black is pretty low risk, I wouldn't hesitate to do it on my work boots (which are, like yours, quite expensive..).

Thank you for such a thorough explanation! You've given me the confidence to try this.

Hi there, I'm thinking of dying some light grey brogues to burgundy. They're soft suede, not textured. Ideally, I'd like a soft, ombre effect with the colour rather than one flat colour, and I definitely don't want a shiny/patent effect. Does anyone know whether shoe cream or dye would be better for this type of project, and which brand might be well-suited? I've attached a picture of the shoes and the sort of effect I'm aiming for. Thanks :)

IMG_9672.JPG1912f111e051232d57f140b94cf32e98.jpg
2 replies

The Angelus suede dye would be right for this - you could skip the deglazing (though give them a good cleaning first with some unscented handsoap, then allow to fully dry with some shoe trees in them to hold the shape), and then after dyeing you wouldn't polish, so you'd keep the matte look.

Thanks for your help. :) I'll try that!

Great article! I.ve been searching all day for some decent info. My 1960s Carnaby Street cowboy boots are going to get the treatment

Thats crazy. they look like brand new shoes.

Great job on the color! The bluchers look awesome. I'm going the same route as you. Will post when done. Niiiiice shoes bro.

I want to try to dye some white Birkenstock sandals which are made of Birko Flor (soft acrylic and polyamide felt fibers with a durable smooth leather-like finish). What do you think?

2 replies

did you ever try this? i am wanting to dye my Birkenstocks, but worried it wont work

Nope! I never got a response from anyone so I didn't even try! If you decide to, post the results!