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We All Dye Eventually - Start Today!


Hand dying leather can sound like a lot of fuss, mess and ruined leather to some. But armed with the right information this needn’t be the case at all.


Hand dying leather has its benefits. There are an unlimited number of colors available when you mix dyes for custom options. Not only that, you can create two tone colors and faux patinas to add visual interest.

Want a bright red wallet to stand out from the crowd? Prefer a subtle antique finish for your leather bag? The possibilities are endless.


Before we jump into the dyeing process, let's make sure you have everything you need:


Leather

Choose high-quality, undyed vegetable-tanned leather for best results. Also known as russet or crust leather.


vegetable tanned leather ready for leather dye
Image shows Vachetta leather. Full of oils, this leather dyes well without drying out

While chrome tanned leather can be hand dyed, most of it comes pre-dyed. Undyed chrome tanned leather is normally a pale blue/gray color from the tannery and is rarely sold in this state.

Not only that, chrome tanned leather is mostly surface finished with a sealant or pigment layer on the surface. This retards the dye and prevents it penetrating through.



Leather Dye

Opt for professional-grade leather dye in your desired color. 

One of my favorites is Fiebing’s Pro Dye (previously known as Oil Dye) which is a solvent dye with a touch of oil (Oleic acid).

There are many other oil dyes out there, I just stuck to what works well for me.


blue leather dye
Use a small bowl for your dye. Never straight from the bottle


Protective Gear

Don't forget gloves and an apron to keep your hands and clothes free of dye. Your skin is not a mile away from being leather. While it won’t penetrate very far, the surface of your skin can be permanently dyed until it wears away.



Applicator

Use sponge brushes, daubers, or even old socks for applying the dye. My favorite is a magic eraser. These sponges are mildly abrasive and can help the dye to penetrate as you rub it over the surface. Whatever sponge you use, test a small portion of it by applying some dye and waiting. If the sponge begins to expand in the presence of the alcohol in the dye, or begins to dissolve, don’t use it on your leather. Melted sponge material or the sponge breaking apart while working is not what you want to happen.


Squeeze most of the dye from your sponge to prevent drips


Preparation

When it comes to hand dying leather, preparation is key to your success. At the tannery or supplier, undyed vegtan frequently comes into contact with greases, oils and waxes from other leathers that can prevent dye penetration. So left untreated, results can be poor. Even sweaty hands can leave enough oil on the surface to cause this, especially with water based leather dyes.


So, start by wiping the surface down with alcohol on a soft cloth to remove any dirt or oils that might prevent the dye from adhering properly. You don’t want very much alcohol, just enough so the surface darkens for a few seconds before the alcohol evaporates off.


If you don’t like the idea of using alcohol, or you don’t have any, a sponge with mild soapy water also works well. Don't saturate the leather, the sponge or cloth only has to be damp. Vegetable glycerine soap is ideal, so is saddle soap, or at least fragrance free ‘eco’ type dish soap. Again, only a few drops in a large bowl is all it takes, we’re not looking for an impromptu foam party on your work table!


Dyeing

Now comes the fun part – applying the dye.

Put on your personal protective equipment, place card or plastic sheet down onto your table (larger than the leather) to protect your work area, and move anything on your table somewhere else. You’ll need more space than you realize, especially for large hides.


Shake your dye bottle well and pour a small amount into a container. Dip your applicator into the dye and squeeze most of it back into the container. Apply the dye to the leather using smooth, circular strokes.


hand dyeing leather
Small circles help to reduce visible lines for a more natural look

You can always apply a second layer if needed, but try to get it in one go. 3 or more applications of dye can cause your leather to dry out quite noticeably.

Once leather has dried out too far, either from chemical exposure, or age, no amount of conditioner will bring it back to its former supple self.


leathercraft project hand dyeing
Finish up by adding a small amount of dye to lighter areas. Bright daylight makes this easier


Drying

Next, leave the dye to fully soak in for about 10 minutes, then take a dry cloth or shop towel and GENTLY rub over the surface in a circular motion to remove any dye still on the surface. Use caution, the leather is damp, so it is susceptible to marking.


Now it’s time to perform a trick I learnt from a bookbinder to help the dye soak in further. This will provide a more natural look, with a more even surface, and reduce scratches from exposing the lighter leather below.


Before the leather dries fully (it should still be wet), turn the piece over and lay it grain side down on plastic sheet (clear kitchen wrap also works). Make sure there is no stray dye on the sheet before doing this, so you may want to give it a wipe.


Grain side down slows drying times. Use a plastic sheet so the dye doesn't react with any particles left on your table

The idea is this; let it dry by evaporation through the flesh side, not the grain side. This pulls the dye deeper into the leather by slowing down the drying process allowing the dye more time to penetrate and equalize, giving even better results. On small pieces and thinner leather, a few light weights around the edges prevent the sides from curling up and drying too fast.

Leave the piece to dry over night before turning over grain side up. If the surface still smells of alcohol dye, or feels damp, give it a few more hours with the grain side up to fully dry out.


Conditioning

Once your leather is completely dry, you can go ahead and remove any surface dye that would normally rub off. Commonly a dry cloth is recommended, but I have found a slightly damp cloth (barely damp) removes more without getting the leather wet again.


removing excess dye from leather to prevent dye transfer
Either excess dye goes on a damp cloth, or your clothes. Simple choices

Now it's time to seal the deal (literally). First you need to re-moisturize your leather by using a leather conditioner. These are usually emulsified (oil and water mixed) white liquids that replace lost water and oil which occurs when the solvent from your dye evaporates.


applying leather conditioner
Hand dyed leather is thirsty and hungry, feed it with conditioner

To be honest, there are so many out there and most are fine for this application. Saphir makes excellent products such as ‘Saphir Creme Universelle’ Leather Balm.


Protecting

Lastly, after one last damp cloth wipe, it’s time to apply a surface wax to protect the leather, enrich the color and add some shine.


I personally like a solvent based shoe polish for this, as it can penetrate better into the leather. Something from Saphir, Kiwi or other well known brand is fine. You can match the color of your dye or simply go for clear wax which works for any color.


kiwi shoe polish parade gloss
Final touches using a finishing wax

After wax application, leave for 10 minutes, then buff to a shine with a horse hair brush or a soft cloth.


polishing waxed leather with a horse hair brush
A horse hair brush provides a nice polish in only a few strokes

And that’s it! So, with just a few pointers you can have a beautiful dye job with even coverage, no unwanted dye transfer and long lasting results.


a hand dyed leathercraft leather wallet
The finished article (rear)

P.S: Don't forget to share your dyeing adventures with the community in the comments below. I'd love to see your colorful creations or hear your ideas!


a leather walled hand stitched and hand dyed
The Flightmaster Currency Wallet. An online course available with any Masterclass video Plan




Now, go forth and dye – the leather, that is!


Honorary title mentions that didn't make the cut:

Come with me if you want to dye

I honestly thought you dyed already..

I just dyed, and I loved it

Don’t dye alone, join me in the workshop

Everyone should dye, here’s how I did it

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3 Comments


Excellent and informative Phil.

I've been using various dying methods on my projects myself. It's the finish I was always personally frustrated with as I've used tan kote, resolene but I hate the fact it leaves a almost plastic film and very shiny finish on the surface. I've been looking into more natural finishes like kiwi, or sapphire as I've heard alot of positivity around these products. Glad you've done this.

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Handy tip that Phil, I was unaware of this thanks

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