[Originally published August 2006]
Leather can be left natural and not dyed - in time it will turn a beautiful honey color.
This natural darkening of vegtan leather, will be accelerated if some oil is put on the leather as a dressing (oxidation - has nothing to do with light!). (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.
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 have 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.
Or you can use deglazer to clean the surface.
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. (This has historical roots, so remember: In the old days the leather was different, the liquids had different recipes, the methods of the old timers is not always well explained, etc..)
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. Especially when now working with water-based liquids.
So for alcohol-based dyes, you might rather 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.
Some of the best leatherwork I have seen, have been where the dye was applied uneven on purpose - like darker around the edge.
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. [I hope Al Stohlman does not turn over in his grave....]
"Saturate the leather with the dye......"
Here is the two pieces of leather I dyed in the video - they do not have any conditioner or finish on in this photo:
- You can dye on damp leather - only use stain on dry 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 turquoises will loose their brilliance as the leather turns naturally darker with exposure to oxygen (oxidation).
- 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. The one exception is diluted white acrylic paint.
- 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...! Or all of them!
Hope This Helps!
[Updated Aug 23rd, 2020]