Color & Finish 102 – Dye

As these instructional postings are still a work in progress, you can check back often – as soon as the basic skeleton is in place, I will be adding visual instructions with photos and mini videos.

Leather can be left natural and not dyed – in time it will turn a beautiful honey color. This natural darkening will be accelerated if some oil is put on the leather as a dressing. (See the posting about dressings and finishes.)

The oil and spirit (alcohol) based dyes sold by Tandy and Fiebings are meant for dyeing veg-tan leather only. Although it might look successful on any other leather, it will most likely bleed off or rub off on clothing. In other words, it is not meant for leather fibers that has some sort of finish on already.

Clean Leather
In order for the dye to take evenly on the leather, the surface of the leather has to be clean and free of oily marks. I prefer to keep the leather surface clean from the start of the project. If I have to lean on the leather or rest my hand on the leather, I rest it on a piece of off-cut leather to reduce the possibility of natural oil from my hand or arm to cause marks on the leather.

If you want to, you can clean the leather with a damp sponge or rag with some diluted saddle soap on. Then rinse it and let it dry.

Dye Even
Give this a thought: Perfectly evenly dyed leather will look like factory produced leather or vinyl. Leather is a natural product and uneven in nature.

Getting an acceptable even dye job pivots around one key factor: the surface of the leather has to be saturated with the dye.
Using the dye out of the bottle full strength might end in a too dark effect, especially if you put so much dye on as to get an evenly saturated surface. You can dilute the spirit based dyes with the solvents sold for the purpose, or with rubbing alcohol. You can always dye in two or more “layers” to get the color darker, but by working with diluted dyes, you can saturate the leather and not get it so very dark.

There are experienced leathercrafters that believe in lightly oiling the leather and letting it stand a day or two and then applying the dye. The oil is supposed to resist the dye so that it spreads around a bit more before it actually gets to the fibers to color them. My opinion is that you then place a barrier around the fibers and some of the dye pigments will not penetrate the fibers, but sit on top of the fibers and later rub off on your clothes.

My suggestion is that you might try the following to get the color even: First saturate the leather just with clean rubbing alcohol or solvent and while it is still good and wet, apply the dye – this will allow the dye to bleed and spread more evenly on the leather.

Deliberately uneven
Some of the best leatherwork I have seen, have been where the dye was applied uneven on purpose – say darker around the edge.

One of the foremost leather artist in the world, uses this technique very well – do yourself a favor and go and look at the work of Peter Main . Peter’s new book on coloring is also a must-buy!

Whether you are trying to color evenly or not, I have found that long lengthwise strokes with the applicator is more successful and gives a more natural effect than working in small little circles.

In General

  • You can dye on damp leather.
  • When you apply dye to leather, the leather thinks it is wet, and it will show darker – as the solvent in the dye evaporates, the color will lighten considerably. It is a good idea to let the project sit for a while to dry before you judge whether you dyed dark enough or not.
  • Bright colors like turquios will loose their brilliance as the leather turns naturally darker with exposure to light.
  • White is not a leather color. White can only successfully achieved on leather if it is applied as part of the tanning process. Basically you can dye leather darker, but never lighter.
  • To dye veg tan leather black, you might consider first dyeing it in a dark shade of brown or navy blue or even purple. If the dye then fades a bit, it will not show the natural light brown underneath. However, nowadays the new black dyes come so strongly pigmented that two coats or a dark undercoat are hardly necessary.
  • Make yourself a base of sponge, or layered leather or wood to set the dye bottle in to make sure it does not tip over while you are working – the spirit based dye is evil and WILL climb out of the bottle at every opportunity! For the same reason, always close the lid of the bottle when you are taking a breather – an unattended open dye bottle WILL fall over and spoil your project, the tablecloth, the chair upholstery, your pants and the cat and the carpet…!

Hope This Helps!

8 thoughts on “Color & Finish 102 – Dye”

  1. Thank you for the information. Could you please tell me the exact name of the dye I should use and where I can purchase it? Thank you. Kelli

  2. Both Fiebing’s Pro-Oil Dye (number one choice) and Feibings spirit based dye are alcohol based and described above. They are available from any Tandy Store country wide in the USA and now in the UK.

    You can look for the closest Tandy store at http://www.tandyleatherfactory.com/ or even buy the dyes online from them.

    Tandy’s new Eco-Flo water based dye can be used in very much the same techniques. They just take a bit longer to dry, but the colors are a bit more permanent and will fade less over time.

    Have Fun!

  3. The water-based Eco-Flo dyes take about an hour to dry 100% if you applied it to dry leather.
    If you applied it to wet or damp leather, it will take longer.

    Be careful to speed up the drying with a hair dryer – the heat will cause the leather to harden (a chemical reaction). – JOhan

  4. I am coloring the parts of my leather and then using blockout to resist those colors. I put several coats of of the block out on those colors to make sure I put enough on but I am still having bleed over from when I dye the rest of the leather with black dye. I get the same results if I use eco or oil it does not matter which. my colors do not look bright any longer. What do you recomend I do to stop the bleed over? Thanks for your help.

  5. Hey Rodney,

    I wish I had an easy answer for you. So, here it is:
    I do not think the Block Out, or Super Sheen (or Neatlac in the old days) were really meant to block out any dyes, only the antiques stains. And so I think that still holds true. Only now it also resists the new Highlight stain just as well, as the Antique gel.

    So, if I had to do color and black on a project, I would do one of the following:
    1) I would dye the color pieces, seal it good as you did with Block Out and then hit it with Black Antique Gel, Which will wipe off the Blockout much better. (just remember the black antique is somewhat transparent, so will will see some of the brown of the leather show through. Or,

    2) I would just simply dye the color pieces first, then carefully dye the black pieces with a fine brush around the colored areas.

    I hope this helps, but do test whatever you want to do first to make sure it has the desired effect! -JOhan

  6. Really great tips and I wholeheartedly agree on using rubbing alcohol before and for diluting.
    I would say you can dye natural leather white but it is a pain: Lexol and let dry for a couple days. Several, and I mean several, coats of fiebings white, then multiple light coats of white Leather Aid or Leather Restorer, followed by multiple, very, very light coats of color spray, leather balm w/atom wax or resolene. Has held up pretty well on belts.
    Oh and for Rodney, I’ve had really good luck with Ecoflos resist blockout.
    Just my two cents

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