How to dye leather

How to dye leather

Leather earring blanks ready for tooling available at Red Pony Leather Goods Shop.

I get a lot of questions about dying leather. In this article, I will show you the types of leather dyes I prefer to use and how I apply them. Start with a good quality tooling leather called vegetable tanned, tool it up and you are ready for dying.

Here is a quick materials list:

Leather Dye (available at any leather supply shop – mine is from Tandy)
Paper towels to protect your work surface
Rubber gloves preferably the mechanics kind to protect your hands
Wool daubers (also available at any leather supply)
Dish to pour the dye into
Leather burnisher (if you plan to finish your edges)
Leather project of choice

If you have ever stood in the leather supply store, overwhelmed by the many options available, I know how you feel. I’ve been there. There are so many brands and types of dyes. You wonder if you will get the results you are looking for. There are oil dyes, alcohol dyes, water dyes, stains, sealers, conditioners, high lighters and the list goes on. I’ve been dying leather for a few years and my favorite dyes are water dyes. There are no right or wrong ways to dye leather, so you should feel free to experiment with different products. Don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t come out exactly as you planned at first, just try again!

I buy my dye products at Tandy Leather Supply and my favorite is called Eco-Flo. I prefer the water dyes because they dry fast. I like the leather dye and the waterstain. I’m happy with the color saturation I get and they become completely dry overnight. They are dry to the touch after a few minutes. Water dyes can also be diluted with water, so if you need a lighter version of the color you are using, you can add part water until you get the desired result.

Pick up some leather dye at a leather supply store.

I am also a huge believer that what you apply your dye with matters. I have tried sponges, paint brushes and rags, but I prefer wool daubers, also available at your leather supply store. In my opinion, they provide the best quality coverage, saturation and give me the best finish.

Leather water based dyes come in great colors!

There are many types of dye work, and for this article, we will just approach a simple finish, that can be used on any project. Just start with the front side of your project. I use a watercolor dish, but you can use any kind of dish you like. For dying something small, you will only need to pour a small amount of dye into the dish. After you have used it, it will be easier for you to determine how much you will need for your other projects. If you were applying dye to a belt or bag, you would want to use a bowl of some kind to hold more dye. I like to keep the top piece of the manufacturers packaging intact, and just poke a hole in it to pour it out. This keeps air from the dye for the most part, and it keeps longer. After dye has been exposed to air over time, it will begin to get thicker and go bad.

Protect you hands with gloves when dying leather.

Dip your wool dauber into your dye and allow it to soak in and saturate the dauber. Begin applying the dye to the leather evenly and in a circular motion. Keep applying the dye until the surface is covered. Depending on how dark you would like your finish to be, you can apply more coats, allowing each coat to dry between 15-20 minutes. Letting it dry for this amount of time will give you a pretty good visual of what the actual dry color will be. As dye dries, it lightens slightly and if you go ahead and let it dry overnight, you will notice some color change.

Applying dye with a wool dauber.

Let leather dye about 15-20 minutes between coats.

Try to evenly coat the leather and work around the front edges. Let the leather dry for 15-20 minutes and dye the back as well. You can choose to leave the back side raw if you like. Not all of my projects get dyed on the backside. If you decide not to dye the back, keep in mind that you will either need to protect the back side, (you can use tape) and dye carefully. Leather dye will seep through holes and around edges and get onto your backside if you are not very careful. For this project, I will dye the back.

After your project is dry, (I recommend letting it dry an hour or two) you can go ahead and burnish your edges, using a burnishing tool. I prefer to wait until the leather is very dry to do this because I don’t like floppy, uneven edges. If you burnish the edges when the leather is still wet, you will get uneven edges. After you have left it to dry overnight and you are happy with your color, you can go ahead and apply a sealant called super sheen or satin sheen. Super sheen will give you a shiny finish and satin sheen will give you a matte finish. This will seal the dye. You can use this product on the back as well (but I don’t). You can also apply a good leather conditioner if you want to protect the leather further.

Waterstain dyes.

Another dye I particularly like is the Eco-Flo brand Waterstain dyes. I love the color choices these come in. These have a different consistency than the dyes and they are not as saturated, so if you want a deep saturation, you will have to layer a few coats. These don’t dry as fast and are a bit thicker in consistency. I apply these the same way as the others. An issue you may encounter with these are bubbles. Just try to apply evenly and smooth away bubbles as you see them by applying a light pressure. Move across the surface slowly after you have dyed it completely and try to remove any bubbles you see.

Some of the vivid colors you can get with water dyes. Earrings from Red Pony Leather Goods.

This example shows the use of water dyes and stains and some hand painting also. Hand painting leather requires a different type of product, so I will cover that in another post. You can apply antique gel stain to the finish we have just completed to accentuate your tooling. This will requrie the antique gel product, also available at your leather supply store.

Applying Antique Gel Stain

To apply antique gel stain, first put two or three coats of super sheen or satin sheen over your dyed leather product. Let it dry overnight for best results and about 30 minutes between each coat. Next apply antique gel stain with a sponge or a dauber applying pressure in a circular motion. You want to work the stain into the cracks and crevices of your tooling. Do not leave the stain on the leather for more than a couple of minutes. Immediately wipe off excess gel stain with a clean rag and try not to wipe it out of your tooling. Be careful, it can be messy and get onto the back or sides of your project. Be sure to wipe away any streaks as quickly as you can with a clean rag. I use small pieces of tee shirt cut into squares about the size of my hand. Let this dry and you have a pretty, antique look that will really showcase your tooling.


Leather earrings with antique gel stain applied available at Red Pony Leather Goods.

I have tried quite a few kinds of dye. Water dyes are my personal favorites. There are many other dyes available and I have been able to get some very interesting effects from them, so I will cover some other types of dye in future articles. In the meantime, happy tooling and dying! Feel free to ask questions, I am happy to help!

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