How to Dye Leather




Introduction: How to Dye Leather

About: I work at instructables by day, and turn into a stitch witch by night. follow me on instagram @jessyratfink to see what i'm working on! ^_^

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. :)



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20 Discussions

Hi. New to working with leather.

Is it best to oil your leather between *each layer* of dye or only when the dyeing undyed leather and applying the first layer?

Also, sounds silly, but how long should you wait for the dye to dry?

When staining wood, even though stain may be touch dry, you need to allow extra time for curing. Does this apply to leather?

I'm using Tandy's Eco-Flo Waterstain.

3 replies

I recommend only oiling before the first layer! Oil in between will most likely interfere with the dye drying. :)

Honestly, drying overnight is entirely fine! That's what I've tended to do - especially when I lived in an area with high humidity. I'm sure it actually takes less time, but I figure it's better to take some time and make sure. There's no need for curing, thankfully!

Hiya, Ratfinky One! ;oD

Been experimenting with jojoba oil (thanks to your *very* useful info about how and when to use it) & rubbing alcohol, and am discovering how and when to use each, in addition to using the waterstain on areas I've had to sand/rubbed/oiled on workpieces.

As for "dyeing"; perused discussions where people have said waterstain is more like paint, as it does seem to dry enough to be workable in minutes, whereas you'd expect dye (like with fabric dyes) to take longer as it's supposed to penetrate the leather.

Been experimenting with diluting water-based stains in combination with all the above, and finally think I'm getting *much* less lost in the plethora of conflicting stuff I've read, which had, frankly, left me terrified to try *anything*, lest I do it wrong or in the wrong order and waste yet more leather...!

Thanks again, Jessy...!

Howdi, Ms Ratfink. ;o))

I've found that Tandy's Waterstain is touch dry in *minutes* (doesn't even seem to rub off) - which I'm just unused to with *any* kind of colourant...!

Thanks for the heads-up re: the Jojoba oil; will add your teachings to my gradually expanding fountain of leatherworking knowledge...!


Can i use neats foot oil as a substitute to jojoba?

I got (what I'm pretty sure is) an oil stain on my veg tanned leather tote bag and tried to take it out with a degreaser. Not only did it not take out the stain, but it also stripped some of the leather of it's color. If I dyed the entire bag a shade darker, would I achieve a uniform, even color and mask the oil stain? ((Attached is a picture of area))

1 reply

Did you ever find a solution? I am in the same boat. :(

How long does it take for the leather to dry? Would blow drying damage it?

Fairly a great piece of information! Leather dyeing is of course a subject of trial and error. Thanks for making the stuffs easier with adequate tricks and facts.

Thank you so much for this instructable. I read and watched a lot of different techniques and this is one that was helpful. Thanks so much for posting!

Just to be a nit picker, the Cova Colours are not a dye, they are an acrylic paint. That would explain the thickness, as dye is a lot thinner. When you're picking dyes, make sure it says dye on the label.

Just my two cents

1 reply

Very true! The biggest difference between the paints and dyes is that paints sit on top of the leather whereas dyes saturate in to the leather. You can often get vibrant colors with the paints, however they may not be as resistant to wear.

If you want to darken your dye, apply shoe polish over the top. A light layer will make the leather look aged. It takes a bit of practice to get a uniform finish though.

Wow, this is neat! I have always been interested in working with leather... though I have never done it :P so when I DO get into working with leather, I will be sure to come back to this Instructable!

I remember the question of leather dying came up years ago in our Q+A forum and nobody had a good method. This is excellent!

Also, I'm partial to the natural leather surface and just the edge dyed (in your last picture). Looks so good!

Super useful! I'm tempted to made a multicolored bag or something now :)

If your tired of Eco flows having to wipe it off crap and the thickness of the dye, try fibens pro oil dye. It's simple to apply with a wool dauber and the buffing prosess afterwards is greatly simplified. So try it out if you want a change