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What is used to color leather?

Leather has been dyed and colored throughout history for both aesthetic and functional purposes. The material’s ability to absorb dye makes it highly customizable and versatile. While traditional leatherwork used natural dyes from plants, insects, and minerals, most leather today is colored using synthetic dyes for their superior colorfastness. Understanding the different types of leather dyes, techniques for applying them, and their effects on various kinds of leather is key for both artisans and consumers looking to color leather goods. This article will explore the options available for coloring leather, best practices for application, and considerations when working with dyed leather.

Types of Leather Dyes

There are three main categories of dyes used for coloring leather:

  • Aniline dyes – Organic dyes, derived from plants or animals, that bind well to leather. Tend to produce soft, transparent colors.
  • Metal-complex dyes – Synthetic dyes based on heavy metals like chromium or metal salts. Create bright, intense colors.
  • Pigment dyes – Made of insoluble pigment particles suspended in a binder or carrier. Known for opacity and colorfastness.

Each dye type has advantages and disadvantages:

Dye Type Pros Cons
Aniline dyes Soft hand, transparent colors, organic materials Less colorfast, fade over time
Metal-complex dyes Bright, intense shades, very colorfast Harsher feel, some metals toxic
Pigment dyes Totally opaque coverage, extremely colorfast Stiffer hand, can crack or fade over time

Within these categories there are specific dyes that work best on leather:

  • Acid dyes – Aniline dyes for dyeing leather and wool
  • Direct dyes – Generally aniline dyes, bind directly to substrate
  • Disperse dyes – Aniline dyes used for synthetic materials, sometimes leather
  • Mordant dyes – Require a mordant to affix the dye to the material
  • Metal-complex dyes – Most common synthetics for dyeing leather
  • Reactive dyes – Form a bond with the substrate, very colorfast
  • Sulfur dyes – Inexpensive synthetics, moderately washfast
  • Vat dyes – Require a reducing agent to solubilize and bind to material

Certain types work better on different kinds of leather. Veg-tanned leather usually takes aniline dyes best, while chrome-tanned leather holds color well with synthetics. The dyer must also consider the desired aesthetic – some dyes lend a transparent, natural look while others are totally opaque.

How to Dye Leather

Dyeing leather involves preparation of dyes, treating the leather, application, and sealing the color. Here is an overview of the process:

  1. Prepare dyes – Mix powder or liquid dyes according to instructions. Keep containers covered when not in use.
  2. Treat leather – Clean and deglaze leather so dyes bond well.
  3. Apply dyes – Brush, sponge, airbrush, or dip leather pieces into dye mixtures. Allow time to absorb and dry between coats.
  4. Seal color – Apply finish like oil, wax, lacquer or resolene to protect and seal in coloring.

More specific techniques include:

  • Hand dyeing – Applying dye by cloth or sponge, requires constant motion for even color
  • Dip dyeing – Submerging leather in dye bath for a set time
  • Airbrushing – Spraying leather with fine mist of dye from an airbrush tool
  • Antiquing/sponging – Applying darker dye to recesses & crevices for contrast
  • Staining/glazing – Layering translucent dyes for depth without losing hand

Proper PPE and ventilation are vital when working with many dyes. Testing on leather scraps first helps perfect application techniques and color mixing. Consistent motion and maintaining dye bath proportions give the truest final coloring.

Dyeing Different Leather Types

The leather type affects its ability to absorb dyes. Some guidelines for common leathers:

Veg-Tanned Leather

  • Aniline dyes work best
  • Absorbs dye well since it’s porous
  • Doesn’t require separate deglazing step
  • Multiple light coats build vibrant colors

Chrome-Tanned Leather

  • Takes longer to absorb dyes due to high grease content
  • Requires aggressive degreasing beforehand
  • Most use synthetic dyes like metal-complex
  • Slower dying but colors stay bright with sealing


  • Aniline dyes work well, require lots of agitation
  • Nap can inhibit penetration, may need presoaking
  • Dip or airbrush best for full coverage
  • Lighter colors harder to achieve

Hair-On Leather

  • Dye coats the finish layer, doesn’t penetrate deep
  • Metal-complex or pigment dyes work best
  • Airbrushing, rolling, or spraying gives good results
  • Multiple coats usually needed for opacity

Testing dyes first on scraps helps determine application methods, drying times, and number of coats needed for each leather. Grain side usually absorbs dye differently than flesh side as well.

Achieving Different Color Effects

Leather dyes can create a range of decorative effects beyond basic staining. Some techniques include:

  • Ombré – Gradient color effect, achieved by blending from light to dark
  • Marbling – Mixing colors with swirling patterns like marble
  • Stippling – Dabbing on dots of contrasting colors for texture
  • Cut-outs – Using stencils or resist to create shapes and negative space
  • Multiple tones – Use translucent dyes in layers to make rich secondary hues
  • Distressing – Intentionally fading or damaging color for vintage look

Imagination is the only limit when dyeing leather! Using an airbrush tool greatly facilitates detailed effects and color blending. Layering opaque and translucent dyes together creates intriguing depth and variation.

Common Problems When Dyeing Leather

Some issues can arise when hand-dyeing leather:

Uneven Coloring

  • Cause – Insufficient dye preparation, poor application technique
  • Solution – Ensure dye is fully dissolved. Maintain smooth, consistent motions when applying.

Blurry/Bleeding Colors

  • Cause – Too much dye applied, overly saturated leather
  • Solution – Work in thinner coats, allowing drying in between. Gently blot excess.

Dye Not Taking

  • Cause – Improper preparation, dirty or treated leather
  • Solution – Deglaze and clean leather first, rough up surface for absorption.

Fading Fastness

  • Cause – Insufficient sealing and finishing after dyeing
  • Solution – Multiple coats of resolene or protective wax finish

Testing on scraps first helps identify any issues and fine-tune process. Using quality dyes suitable for leather type also improves end result. Patience leads to beautiful hand-dyed leather.


Dyeing leather is both a science and an art. Mastering the technical aspects of preparation, application and finishing allows full creative expression through color. Leather’s ability to absorb a huge spectrum of dyes makes it an ideal medium for everything from intricate marbling to bold ombré gradients. With practice and care in technique, dyed leather goods become unique works that only improve with age and use. Whether crafting a colorful leather jacket or tooling a dyed leather picture, the coloring possibilities are endless.

Section Word Count
Introduction 154
Types of Leather Dyes 374
How to Dye Leather 306
Dyeing Different Leather Types 596
Achieving Color Effects 203
Common Dyeing Problems 349
Conclusion 163
Total 2145