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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. Alcohol is the single most important cleaner.

First determine the type of material and if it absorbs water. This indicates the type of finish, the condition, and which cleaning products should be used. This video demonstrates.

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. Don’t overscrub or abrade the leather.
  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. If the tape sticks well and is not curling up at the corners, proceed.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 if necessary.

Cleaning Non-Absorbent Finished 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 from the recesses of the grain. Do not use caustic, antibacterial, or other leather cleaners which may leave residue.
  2. Allow to dry.
  3. Follow with denatured or rubbing alcohol on all areas, including 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. If the tape sticks well and is not curling up at the corners, proceed.
  7. Repeat steps 1-6 if necessary.

What About Ink, Oil Stains, Vomit?

Learn more about pre-treating:

Need a More Aggressive Leather Deglazer or Dewaxer?

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 more mild 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.

Reader Interactions


  1. Casey says

    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!

    • lesandre says

      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.

  2. Carol H says

    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

    • lesandre says

      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.

  3. Libuse Rajch says

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

      • Libuse Rajch says

        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.

  4. melody bohr says

    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!

  5. Jan says

    I have used Angelus leather paint on my sofa in the 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?

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The Knowledge Hub is a library of articles and videos complied to help our customers complete their DIY leather and vinyl restoration projects.