Becoming a black belt in ‘do-it-yourself’ is a child’s play (or almost): all kinds of tutorials and information can be found on the net. Between recipes, home decorations, and videos on building a swimming pool in the garden, you can also find instructions on how to dye leather at home. 

Bring a belt back to life, change the color of an uninspiring cover, add a vintage touch to a bag or simply start a new project with a piece of leather that we have not yet given shape to is possible. With a few commonly used ingredients and a vegetable-based dye, all it takes is a few steps and the required timing to achieve the desired result. 

Dyeing leather? Yes, you read that right. Learning to dye leather – and to do it well – requires a bit of trial and error. But with a little practice and a lot of patience, you can definitely learn.

Important note: what you are about to read is a fun experiment to do with family or friends (or even alone), always bearing in mind that this is not an industrial or commercially valid process. Leave the business to the professionals 😉 

So let’s roll up our sleeves and get started!

Do-it-yourself dyeing: organization first  

To achieve a great result, you have to start with good preparation. What do we need? First and foremost, a well-ventilated workspace that can remain undisturbed during the drying time of the dye. As for ‘ingredients’, you will need:

  • gloves
  • clean cotton cloth
  • sponges
  • leather conditioner
  • vegetable dye for leather (there are many options depending on what you want to dye)
  • olive oil or jojoba oil 
  • cotton swabs (ideal for dyeing corners and edges)
  • paper tape (if you want to dye a belt or bag, for example, that has metal parts). 

Remember to always wear gloves, handle all substances with care and avoid inhaling them directly. Keeping the room ventilated is certainly advisable.

Selecting the right type of leather made with tannin and preparing it

Any undyed vegetable-tanned leather can be dyed. In fact, you can probably even dye pre-dyed vegetable-tanned leather…. However, keep in mind that finished leathers are coated with waxes that prevent the dye from penetrating the leather.

Once you have chosen our piece of vegetable-tanned leather, make sure it is clean of dust or dirt. Simply wipe it quickly with a dry cloth before dyeing to have an even, smooth surface. Some suggest using a leather degreaser to remove any oil stains caused by handling, for example. 

Don’t forget to cover any part that you don’t want to color with (paper) tape. 

Moisturize the leather with a light layer of olive oil or jojoba oil (depending on which you have chosen in the preparation phase): in this way you prepare the leather to absorb the dye better. The secret is to apply a thin layer with circular motions using a clean cloth. Make sure to use olive oil or jojoba oil for this step, and not a leather conditioner, as the latter contains waxes or polishes that prevent the dye from penetrating the leather.

Preparing the dye

If the rule says that applying several coats results in a more uniform finish, it is necessary to dilute the dye and not use ‘pure’ dye straight from the packet. 

How? Dilute the dye according to its base type: if water-based, dilute with water; if alcohol-based, dilute with alcohol; if oil-based, dilute with oil. Or, if you want to make it even easier, you can look for a ‘dye reducer’ that can be sold together with the chosen dye.

We recommend, in particular, the use of natural-based dyes made from plant extracts. In this way, vegetable-tanned leather at the end of its life cycle will retain one of the characteristics that make it unique: eco-sustainability. With no added synthetic substances, vegetable-tanned leather can be recovered and turned into fertilizer for agriculture, including organic farming.

Applying vegetable dye

Using a soft cotton cloth, gently apply the first layer of dye in a circular motion. Remember to apply multiple thin layers rather than a thick coat.

And now the golden rule of this job: let it dry. Waiting until the first coating (and all subsequent ones) are completely dry before applying further dye is a crucial step if you want to achieve a uniform, stain-free result.

Continue to apply the following layers in a small circular motion and dry before moving on. The aim is to cover the veins from all directions, leaving no uncoloured areas.

When the desired color has been achieved, let the dye dry completely (24 hours is usually sufficient). Obviously, during this period, avoid touching the leather to prevent the work from being ruined by unwanted fingerprints. 

After the final layer of dye has dried completely, it is time to apply a wax-based conditioner. The leather conditioner rehydrates the leather after the multiple drying steps and helps to seal the color.

Final step

After you have waited patiently for the time required for complete drying, it is time for the finishing touches. For extra durability, you can apply a thin layer of finishing products such as a wax balm, oils (e.g. olive oil or jojoba oil) using a soft cloth, preferably cotton, and circular movements. Then, once dry again, polish lightly with a clean cloth. 

A conditioner not only seals the leather, but also moisturizes it and prevents it from drying out. Finishing products are excellent sealers for vegetable-tanned leather, making it resistant to scratches and abrasions, as well as giving it an excellent coating.
As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, learning to dye leather is not one of the easiest and most straightforward tasks to learn and may require more than one imperfect attempt before achieving the desired effect.