Monday, December 7, 2009

Tack Tips--Dyeing Leather

Although I have had several requests for a leather dyeing tutorial, I have been hesitant to write one. Dyeing leather is something I struggle with. No matter what I do, there are always parts that turn out streaky or splotchy or just generally uneven. Today, however, I decided to bite the bullet and show you how I go about dyeing a piece of tooling calf.

I know that most Western tackmakers tool first and dye later. However, for my (mostly English) purposes, I find it's easier to dye first and then select the best areas to use in my saddles. I don't discard the uneven and splotchy sections. Instead, I save those for areas that are covered with skiver (the panels and saddle tree, for example).

Here's a quick look at the items you will need for this project. First and foremost, be sure to protect your work area by covering it with newspaper or something similar. Leather dye is meant to penetrate and it will leave permanent stains on most surfaces. Trust me--I speak from experience! You will also need a piece of leather, leather dye (I prefer Fiebings brand oil dyes), and daubers or paint brushes. The Leather Amore conditioner and paper towels are optional.
Dip the dauber (0r paint brush, if you prefer) into the dye bottle and begin to spread the dye onto the leather.
Don't worry if the dyed areas look extremely uneven and streaky.
Just keep working in a back and forth motion until the streaks start to fill in.
When the leather is reasonably well covered...
flip it over...
and repeat the process on the flesh side.
When you've finished that, flip it over again. Chances are your grain side will look a lot more even now. The leather will be quite damp at this point.
I'm not sure this last step helps, but it certainly can't hurt. While the leather is still damp, I squirt some of the Leather Amore on the grain side...
and quickly rub it into the entire surface with a paper towel. I have convinced myself that this helps avoid the greenish sheen that sometimes appears when leather is saturated with dye. It also conditions and softens the leather which is never a bad thing!
At this point, you're basically done. You may need to touch up a few streaks later, but that's about it. Set the leather aside and let it dry thoroughly. Depending on the type of dye you're using and the temperature and humidity, this can take several hours.

One thing I forgot to add earlier is that most smart people will wear latex gloves every time they handle leather dye.
Apparently I am not that smart!
Ok, I know there are some accomplished tackmakers who read this blog. If you're one of them, please add your best dyeing tips to the comments section. Dyeing leather is one of my least favorite parts of tackmaking and I would be delighted to learn a few new tricks!

23 comments:

  1. Thank you! I feel like a dunce I never knew you were supposed to dye the flesh side too...

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  2. You're welcome, Linda, but I really don't know that there's any "supposed to" about this particular tutorial. I'm certain there are better ways to dye leather, but this method works pretty well for me.

    Oh, and I should tell you that your saddle will be cut from this exact piece of leather!

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  3. I have found that doing more than one coat helps too.

    I also treat with neatfoot oil (pure) as it helps to even out the dye and it softens it too! (back to the original suppleness)
    A note though: PURE neatsfoot oil will DARKEN leather. There are substitutes that will not; all these can be found in the local tack store or in your barn

    I thought about dyeing the flesh side, but I figured since when dying the grain side, it didn't seep through, it wouldn't on the flesh side.

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  4. Since I do western, I dye after tooling, but I do almost the same way....even to dyed fingers...I hate rubber gloves. The Leather Amore? Do you think it really helps? I don't have uneven dye, but sometimes the leather really dries out after dying. The only piece I do not dye the underside on is the bottom skirt since it will be covered with faux sheepskin....lol

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  5. Vicky, it's entirely possible that the Leather Amore is my own lucky rabbit's foot. I feel like it helps, but I can't prove it. Maybe I just *want* it to work! In any event, it's not expensive and it doesn't change the color of the leather or affect its glue-ability. I'll keep on using it until someone convinces me not to.

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  6. I havent tried dying leather yet, but now I know how to do it. That was very helpful, thanks!

    Any tips on skiving leather? I purchased some inexpensive scraps of leather from my local crafts store, which happened to be pretty thick. I tried skiving some with an exacto knife today, but it seemed to be a very long process and I was wondering if there were any 'tips and tricks' to doing it... I am a beginner tackmaker. Thanks!

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  7. Great help thanks ! so much i will not be apprehensive about dying my own leather know :)
    thanks again

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  8. I dye my leather after cutting out the pattern. Maybe that's because I am cheap and only dye the bits I end up using! But if you're concerned about blotches you can also dip the leather. If you've already cut out your pattern then pieces can be lowered into the dye bottle (but don't drop them!). They take longer to dry, and I generally only dip long thin things like stirrups leathers or bridle pieces, but you get a really nice depth of colour and no streaks or blotches. It's also less intensive too but I still end up with dyed fingers!

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  9. This was really helpful! I'm about to dye for the first time, so this is perfect timing. Thanks!

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  10. I also dip pieces. Being a western person, my pattern is outline pieces, tool, dye, cut out, add decorations, assemble.

    My only "trick" is like you Jennifer, just to completely saturate the pieces. I like using big filbert brushes instead of those daubers though. I also use only the oil dyes as well.

    As far as those asking about skiving - it really does just take loads and loads of practice. I usually skive 5+ yards of each lace width I use at once, so I have lots of "raw lace" ready to go for any project I need. It's really a "muscle memory" thing, which is why I like to do a ton all at once when I can get into it.

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  11. I do have a skiving/lace preparation tutorial in the planning stages. Probably I will publish it sometime during the kids' winter break. I need someone to help with the pictures and Ryan has become quite accomplished in that respect! I will say, though, that some craft leather is very, very hard to skive even for an accomplished tackmaker. I won't even bother with the really thick, spongy stuff. It's impossible to work with and never looks right in the end. Everything is so much easier when you start with nice, quality Kangaroo lace...

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  12. I use neatsfoot oil after I tool and before I dye. It has really helped even out the dye. I was given the suggestion by the local Tandy's manager. I also use a cut-up thin dish sponge to apply the dye.

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  13. I'm the crazy one of the bunch. I air brush my leather dye! ;-D I also recommend diluting the dye because it's really strong out of the bottle. I use dye reducer. I look forward to the skiving tutorial, that has always been a chore and what happened to you happens to me too! UGH.

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  14. Ditto the brush over the dauber. Those darn daubers just suck up your dye/money! Just buy fairly cheapo ones. After an accident with a not thoroughly cleaned brush, I now also keep one brush per color. Live and learn!

    I've also considered using a little spritz bottle to dye. I don't have access to an air brush, and figure it's a cheap enough experiment to take a shot.

    FWIW, I cut first, dye second.

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  15. Immensely helpful tutorial jennifer!! I was just wondering if you have any tips on how to cover the seat, panels and knee rolls of your saddles.I use really thin skiver leather but somehow allways endup with creases where i have folded the leather over the item to be covered...its really annoying! Anyway thanks again for the great tutorial! (btw i cut first, then dye)

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  16. Sophie, I never have that problem with skiver so I'm not sure what advice to give you. Try making your skiver a little bit damp first(I usually bathe mine in gum tragacanth)and then really stretch it over whatever you're covering. Good skiver has a little bit of elasticity to it. You may tear a piece every once in a great while, but I really pull it tight when covering seats, padded flaps and panels. Hope this helps and thanks SO MUCH to everyone who has weighed in on different ways to dye leather!!!

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  17. Do you know the differences in use between oil dye and non-oil dye? Right now I'm using the non-oil dyes but I was wondering what oil dyes are like.

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  18. PERHAPS IT WILL BE VERY OBVIOUS WHEN I ASK THIS?, BUT IF YOU DO NOT KNOW...YOU ASK. AT LEAST, THAT IS WHAT I TELL MY STUDENTS.
    I WANT TO CHANGE THE COLOR OF MY SADDLE. I WANT IT A BROWN INSTEAD OF THE REDDISH-TAN THAN IT IS NOW. SINCE IT IS A NICE SADDLE, I DO NOT WANT TO CREATE WHAT WE CALL IN THE SOUTH A 'HOT MESS'! I HAVE STAINED WOOD, DONE CUSTOM PAINTED WALLS WITH GLAZES, AND HAVE AN ARTSY FLAIR. HOWEVER, I HAVE NEVER, EVER, EVER DYED LEATHER. I AM NOT SURE HOW I WOULD GO ABOUT DYING A SADDLE NOR THE COLOR FASTNESS OF THE DIFFERENT AREAS OF THIS SADDLE. I HAVE HAD THE SADDLE FOR A FEW YEARS WHICH STILL LOOKS WONDERFUL BECAUSE OF THE SADDLE CARE, HELP? TU IN ADVANCE! :)

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  19. I wouldn't dye a riding saddle. There's too just too much potential for things to go really, really wrong. What I would try is oiling it. When I was working in the real tack business, we oiled nearly every saddle we sold. This would turn most tan saddles (hunter/jumper saddles, not Western) a darker reddish brown. Just about any kind of oil will do. I'm partial to Hydrophane, but that's just me.

    Good luc!

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  20. Carrie Sloan MeyerJuly 25, 2014 at 8:05 AM

    I dye after ive cut out & tooled things- both Western & English- ive found if it is done in a different order the pieces wont line up as enviably they stretch after cutting and need to be re-cut. Dyeing later also gets the details of the tooling set in the leather with high and low areas of cover. What exactly is the purpose of the gum tragacanth? is it a conditioner or sealant or something else? Same for Leather Amore?

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  21. I dye full size leather with yellow round sponges you can get from the local greenhawk. I also use them for cleaning/conditioning my saddle (don't mix them up, though :) ). They're really usefull!

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  22. I use a sheet of baking paper instead of newspaper, because the dye won't soak through. I once turned my hand bright purple because who remembers to use gloves?

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