How do I clean leather or vinyl before restoration?

Many stains will not disappear with cleaning, but they can be concealed with a new finish. A solvent like alcohol is the single most important cleaner.

First, determine if unworn areas absorb water. This indicates the type of finish and which cleaning products should be used. The video below demonstrates.

How to Clean Absorbent Leather

How to Clean Non-Absorbent Leather or Vinyl

What About Oil, Ink, Mold, Pet Stains?

Video contents:

  • 0:12 – Is the material absorbent?
  • 0:51 – Clean leather and vinyl with alcohol (including aniline, semi-aniline, top-grain, full-grain, and finished leather)
  • 1:31 – Non-absorbent, finished leather or vinyl should then be cleaned with a mild water-based degreaser like Flite®
  • 2:28 – The Tape Test for adhesion
  • 3:16 – How to deglaze a waxed finish

Cleaning Absorbent Aniline or Semi-Aniline Leather

  1. Pour denatured or rubbing alcohol onto a rag, not the surface itself.
  2. Wipe the surface in smooth, fast strokes. The leather may temporarily darken. Take care not to chafe or abrade any worn, suede-exposed areas.
  3. Allow to dry.
  4. Test for adhesion by applying a piece of masking or painter’s tape to the cleaned surface. ‘Scrub’ the tape onto the surface with a nail.

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Cleaning Non-Absorbent Leather or Vinyl

  1. Start with a water-based degreaser like our Flite® or 409® on non-absorbent or unworn areas. A toothbrush or nailbrush will help remove dirt and oil from the recesses of the grain and is especially recommended if changing color. Do not use caustic, antibacterial, or other leather cleaners.
  2. Allow to dry.
  3. Follow with denatured or rubbing alcohol on all areas, including any absorbent spots. Pour the alcohol onto a rag, not the surface itself.
  4. Wipe the surface in smooth, fast strokes.
  5. Allow to dry.
  6. Test for adhesion. Apply a piece of masking or painter’s tape to the cleaned surface. ‘Scrub’ the tape onto the surface with a nail.
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What About Ink, Oil Stains, Vomit?

Learn more about pre-treating:

Need a More Aggressive Leather Deglazer or Dewaxer?

Lacquer Thinner is our first go-to. We used it for years to prep all our leather and vinyl, as it will remove grease, adhesive or wax where alcohol does not.

Acetone is the most aggressive solvent and should be used with caution. It will soften and remove most finishes to varying degrees. It rarely darkens absorbent leathers but can bleach them. It can be very effective in neutralizing silicone treatments (Armor-All®, Son-of-a-Gun®) as well as Scotch-Guard® type treatments on finished leathers prior to repair. It evaporates very quickly.

d-Limonene is a milder solvent with low toxicity that is primarily used as a degreaser and can be effective in removing waxy residue. It is better suited to non-absorbent leathers, as it may darken absorbent leathers. It is fairly safe on most finishes but can be mixed with alcohols to increase chemical aggressiveness. It is slow to evaporate.

  1. Test in a small, inconspicuous area.
  2. Pour the solvent onto your rag, not the surface itself.
  3. Wipe the surface in smooth, fast strokes.
  4. Allow to dry.
  5. Perform the tape test to check for adhesion.
  6. Repeat steps 2-5 as necessary.

30 comments

  1. I have used Angelus leather paint on my sofa in the past..it was a burgundy leather. ..I dyed it beige. I like the beige but it was scuffed and chipped in moving. I would like to dye it (leather paint, I suppose) again but I think it should be deglazed or sanded before attempting a lighter beige . Is it possible to remove the painted finish before proceeding with a new finish?

    Reply
  2. OK so I am a little confused as to where to begin. I have leather furniture which I really have not done anything with as far as conditioning and it is 15 yrs old. I like the color but it has cat scratches on it and it could use a makeover. How do I begin? I watched your cat scratch video and I have none that deep but alot of lighter ones where she would jump up. Can you tell me what I need to do to get started? I did see a couple of colors which are close to my color. Thanks!

    Reply
  3. can I use Flite as sealant after painting the leather sofa with your Rub and restore colour product ?

    Reply
      • Thank you can I buy Clear Prep+ Finish in Australia?
        I prepared my sofa as folow:
        cleaning with a rubbing spirit and then used flite.
        let it dry and used 2 coats of a filler for scratches let it dry for 2 days
        and then used sanding paper to to prepare for painting the colour.
        But on the smooth surface the filler formed a thin film and started to peal while sanding what have I done wrong.

        Reply
    • We recommend a sponge. A brush may lay it on too thickly, doesn’t massage the color in as well, and may also leave lines. We only recommend small angled artist brushes for ‘cutting in’ different colored panels, piping or stitching.

      Reply
  4. My project is an open/bow rider boat. The dashboard. The instrument panel itself is very worn but I’m not sure if it is made of vinyl or a very hard plastic mold. If it is the latter, can I restore this using your products? Thankyou

    Reply
  5. Hello,
    I bought a West Elm chair on super clearance that was supposed to be a a beautiful marina blue and well, it’s purple and faded quickly. It’s described as poly leather but the tags read: new material, polyurethane foam pad 65%, resinator polyester, fiber batting 35%. I don’t see anywhere on the tags that actually say leather. Can I use the midnight blue Rub n Restore leather and vinyl finish?
    Thanks for your time!

    Reply
    • The tags sometimes only refer to the interior stuffing, not the outer material. You can usually trust the description online. If the material remains a mystery, you can either mail a swatch for us or gamble on a 2 oz. bottle and see if it adheres.

      Reply
  6. I have a 20 year old lazy-boy couch. The leather is tan buckskin. After time it has become soiled from food and head oils. Is this leather acceptable to your product. I also would like to turn the leather dark brown or even black if the soiled areas would hide better.

    Reply
    • Sounds like an aniline or semi-aniline, which is the best quality and candidate for a color change, so long as the oil stain is not sticky nor resists a new finish. It’s usually less maintenance to restore to original, and the color will cover a darker stain with sufficient coats. Submit the evaluation if you want our professional assessment and tailored instructions.

      Reply
  7. I’m so confused! lol. I received my order and am at a loss as to where to start! I love the color of my sofa so I am not planning on recoloring it….only touching up the very worn areas where people sit…with sunscreen etc… (I know..) Anyway, so my sofa is leather and in the unworn areas it is not absorbent; however, in the worn areas, it is absorbent. I am questioning myself b/c I have ingested so much information I’m not sure what is what anymore!

    As I said before I am just blending this, I have the colors, my struggle is where to start. Do I use 409 or alcohol? How long do I let it dry before applying the color? I purchased the clear prep & finish; when I’m done should I put the sealant on? How do I ensure that the color does not transfer to clothing when people sit on it? Ugh….help please!!

    Reply
    • Use 409 on non-absorbent areas. Use alcohol on everything, even worn, absorbent areas. If these worn areas are chafed, shaggy, cracked, scaly or suede is exposed, consider repairing with filler. Otherwise, mix equal parts Clear Prep+Finish with color and apply to the worn, absorbent areas as a base-coat. Let dry. Gently sand any roughness with 320 grit. Continue with more finish. Color alone gets better coverage. Clear alone as a topcoat will dry very shiny, so you may want to stick with a glaze (mix of color and clear) throughout. If you need more help with your project, email photos of the damage.

      Reply
  8. when I prep the leather with rubbing alcohol the color came off. Should I clean until most of the original color is off before using the color restore product. will leaving some original color cause uneven or different look to the restored color? My sofa is light brown and I want to restore it to taupe.

    Reply
    • Great question! If you were restoring the original brown, I’d say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But if you’re changing to a lighter taupe, may as well strip off whatever you can. It may prove to be a less dramatic change of color to the taupe and also wear better.

      Reply

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