October 20, 2021 6 min read
As serious leather enthusiasts, we’re all about learning as much as possible about the leather-making process. But even if you’re not as hardcore, knowing the basics of leather-making can go a long way towards helping you care for your full-grain leather goods.
Since adding or enhancing color is an integral part of making leather accessories, it’s important to know how your leather is dyed. These practices can affect the product’s physical properties and best practices for maintaining your dyed leather goods.
So, without further ado, here is a brief guide that explains how color is added to leather and what this means for you as a leather owner.
Before leather goes through any coloring, it must first be tanned. This is a technique that removes moisture and fat while strengthening the protein bonds in the cowhide. During this process, the leather is soaked in tannins, which is actually the first step in helping the leather to develop color.
Depending on which tanning agent is used, the leather could take on a tone that is either slightly brown, yellow, or even grey. So, before leather goes through a dyeing process, it already has a hue different from its original state.
After the tanning process is complete, the dyeing process can finally begin.
Here are a few of the techniques that are used to dye leather:
Just like it sounds, this method involves literally dipping the leather into some dye. For leather-makers, this requires creating large rotating barrels filled with dye. Then, they submerge the leather in them for a substantial amount of time.
To make sure the color penetrates, the temperature of the solution must be incredibly hot—so don’t try this at home!
After the dyeing process is complete, the leather must be rinsed out to prevent any possible color transfer to other objects. It then has to be dried completely.
Dip dyeing is a great method because it gets color on the leather from all sides and helps to create a uniform, evenly distributed color.
Hand dyeing is the preferred coloring method when it comes to handcrafted leather goods. While it takes a little work to get it just right, you can even do it yourself if you ever feel like changing or enhancing the color of your leather.
This technique basically involves applying leather dye to the leather by using a piece of cloth, a sponge, or a brush. Since it doesn’t require submerging leather in a barrel filled with great quantities of hot water and dye, it’s the least wasteful dyeing process. Another upside to this technique is that it can be applied solely to one side of the leather.
This technique is similar to hand dyeing but requires a spray gun. For this reason, this method is not generally preferred to hand dyeing for handcrafted leathers.
However, for large pieces of leather (such as dying your couch), the hand-dyeing process can get tedious. As a solution, spray-painting the piece gets the job done a lot quicker.
Now that we have an idea of how leather is colored, let’s take a look at the different types of dye that can be used and how they stack up against each other.
This type of dye tends to penetrate the leather deeply, which helps to bring the color well below the surface. Plus, because alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water, it takes a lot less time to dry the leather that it was used with.
On the downside, alcohol-based dyes don’t saturate the leather as well as some other dyes. For this reason, they have a higher chance of rubbing off on other objects.
Also, because the drying process is so rapid for alcohol-based dyes, the leather tends to lose a lot of its moisture pretty quickly. This can make the leather more rigid and prone to cracking. For this reason, leathers colored with an alcohol-based dye must be maintained with regular conditioning treatments.
Water-based leather dyes likewise have their pros and cons. On the downside, they don’t penetrate the leather as well as alcohol-based dyes. Plus, the dyeing process tends to be incredibly slow with this one.
However, water-based dyes tend to offer better saturation of the leather and are much less likely to cause color rub-off. Plus, they evaporate fairly slowly and help the leather to retain some of its original moisture. This is great news for the leather accessory over the long run.
Although it’s less popular with large tanneries, this type of dye definitely has its advantages. Since oil molecules tend to be fairly small, this type of dye penetrates very well and ensures that the leather is colored way beyond the surface.
Oil-based dyes also tend to take less moisture with them as they evaporate out of the leather as compared to alcohol-based dyes. For this reason, they are the preferred dye when it comes to maintaining leather’s soft feel and appearance.
You probably won’t see this being used in professional leather tanneries, but food is another option to get some color on your leather. Some of the food dyes we have seen include food coloring, coffee, Kool-Aid, and vinegar.
Some of these will definitely be more effective than others, but none of them will offer the superior coloring of professional dyes. That said, you will never have to worry about these dyes being toxic or staining your hands (or clothes) beyond recognition.
Finishes are essentially topcoats and are the last step in the dyeing process.
After dyeing leather, applying a finish is important in order to seal in the color and prevent it from rubbing off. In addition, since a lot of moisture is lost during the dyeing process, a finish can condition the leather and give it a glossy appearance.
On a molecular level, finishes are made out of small molecules that bind to the leather’s surface, which helps to form a protective layer. But, of course, there are many different types of finishes.
Here are a few of the most popular ones:
Aniline-finished leather is considered to be the highest-quality full-grain leather. It’s made using aniline dyes, which are water-soluble. This creates more of a glaze than a full-on coat of color. Sometimes, this finishing process can be followed by an application of an actual glaze.
An aniline finish allows the natural appearance of the leather to show through—with all of the hide’s natural marks and blemishes. However, this leather is in its most natural state, and for this reason, it is more susceptible to stains.
Aniline leather has several benefits. The leather is more breathable because it has a thin finish, making it an excellent choice for clothing, footwear, and accessories.
And even its susceptibility to staining has a benefit: the development of a natural patina, which makes your leather look better as it ages.
On the downside, this high-quality leather requires being properly taken care of. It’s a lot more sensitive to the elements, which means it should be kept out of harsh weather. Plus, it should be conditioned regularly to keep up its appearance.
This type of finish is very similar to aniline leather as it’s also dyed with water-based dyes. This allows much of its natural surface to be visible but still has a thin protective layer.
This layer allows the leather to have more pigment than fully aniline leather, which means that it can withstand more heat, UV damage, and moisture. Plus, some of its blemishes will be covered.
On the other hand, it won’t be as breathable and will not develop a patina as beautiful as aniline leather.
This type of finish uses a thick coat of finisher and completely covers up the imperfections in full-grain leather. On the one hand, this allows the leather to be bright and colorful, which is great for on-trend leather accessories. Plus, it can do a lot to restore faded color.
On the other hand, it becomes a bit stiffer and less breathable, which makes regularly maintaining it with a leather conditioner a must.
This type of finish is used with full-grain leather by applying oil or wax to it after it’s been tanned and dyed. This type of finish does a lot to enhance the leather’s natural color and to maintain its softness and flexibility. In addition, this type of finish goes a long way towards making your leather water-resistant.
Learning about how your leather is dyed can tell you a lot about its history and give you more insights into how it should be cared for. For this reason, at Andar, we are all for becoming a better owner of full-grain leather accessories and gaining as much knowledge as you can about all things leather.