Leather dye vs. leather paint: what’s the difference?

Leather, like wood, is a fiber. It can be stained (dyed) or painted (pigmented finish or coating). Leather dyes penetrate and accentuate the natural variations (including stains) in the fiber. Dyes are in the leather (a chemical bond). Leather finishes like Rub ‘n Restore® coat the fiber; they are on the leather (a physical bond).

Most leathers are both dyed and finished. Some have no finish (aniline) or a light clear finish (semi-aniline). Their absorbency makes them prone to body oil and other stains, and they are more susceptible to sun-fading. Some leathers (like those in auto interiors) have a pigmented finish that better retains color and resists stains. However, even pigmented finishes will wear and discolor with use.

A dye or a finish can be used to restore leather. Dyes are still subject to sun-fading and can also backstain (just as blue jeans can stain furniture), so they often require an additional sealer like Resolene®. Dyes cannot be used to lighten a color (for example to cover darker stains). Only a pigmented finish (paint/coating) can accomplish this.

Leather paints and finishes are therefore more versatile. You can change color (even to a lighter shade), and you can mimic the varied, marbled appearance of aniline leather. Acrylics have a better ‘hand’ (feel) but are not as thick (and therefore as durable) as urethanes, and so may require more maintenance in the case of a color change.

Vinyl (a synthetic) cannot be effectively dyed; it can only be refinished.

Rub ‘n Restore® colors are water-based acrylic finishes that are suitable for vinyl and all leathers except suede and nubuck (though we’ve had customers do it). Use of our products on nubuck or aniline will slightly cool the feel of the leather by adding a water-resistant finish. The leather will continue to breathe. While it may still exhibit absorbent qualities, it will be more stain and fade-resistant than traditional leather dyes. Rub ‘n Restore® finishes will never flake or peel like other paints and coatings.

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28 comments

  1. I have water damage on a beautiful tan leather jacket. I tried to remove the stained edge and managed to remove color in a small spot. Now I’m thinking that I need to repair the entire panel where the damage is so that it will blend with the rest of the coat. I believe the leather to be aniline or at least partially so because it readily absorbs water. I want to restore the color in the spot where I removed it and make the rest of the panel fit with the color of the coat (a gorgeous golden/reddish tan). Can you give me some advice? Thank you.

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  2. I hired one of those mobile vinyl repair guys to paint the top of some mildew damaged pontoon benches.

    It looks like he used a color at least two tones different from the original. The original was a creamy off-white, what he used looks very yellow tinged and he didn’t completely coat the panels leaving a contrast that amplifies the difference!

    I am sending a sample panel for a detailed color match. Do I need to do anything to prepare the vinyl surface, specifically since I am painting over his original paint as well as the original material? I am going to cover all of it and not try and ‘blend’ original & new since there might be some fading overall from age from the sample I am sending you guys.

    Thanks in advance for any help!

    Douglas Schwan

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  3. I bought a used Thomasville leather sofa. Several years ago we called to find out why it appeared to be cracking and asked what we could do about it. They told us there was nothing that could be done because of a coating on the couch. Apparently they had been recalled at one point. Now I’m moving and would love to use this couch in my new place. Do you know if there’s any leathers that your product won’t produce the types of results I’m seeing.

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    • Bonded, faux, or polyurethane ‘leather’ (not vinyl) resist all coatings, and we discourage repairing those materials because of their inferiority. You don’t want to refinish nubuck, suede or fabric. Our products will work well on everything else. Thomasville is a decent brand with real leather, in our experience. If you submit the project evaluation we can be of better assistance.

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  4. I just bought a new demo car that has med brown car seats. The driver seat has a stain that is about the size of a nickel that is darker in color, and the stain will not come out with leather cleaner. My concern is that a stain would not work since the stain spot is darker than the base leather. Curious if you have a recommend as best solution?

    Reply
    • Our products are finishes (paints) and will conceal darker stains where a dye will just darken everything and will still be prone to backstaining and fading. For an auto interior, you may need a Custom Color to get an exact match.

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  5. I have a black faux leather day bed that I’d like to paint(?) Would RubnRestore work on it? I’m thinking to use a tan color. What should I do?

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  6. Hi my mum has tried to remove a stain using acetone free varnish and it’s removed the white finish from our leather couch. Can you please advise how we might be able to fix it?

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  7. I need to stain or paint a vintage leather footstool from the ’50s. As it’s a footstool and will endure som wear,. Is paint a good option or do I need to go with a stain?

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  8. I have a pair of leather skates. Some of the paint has scraped off (small patches) and some areas have ‘wrinkles’. They’re in the creases where the skate bends with use.

    Will your guide for fixing cat scratches fix the wrinkling? I plan to use white. If I decide to change the color later, can I use another color finish over the white?

    Reply
    • If the original leather is degrading along those stress points, a repair can’t be expected to perform better. And you’d want to use flexible filler. Color changing ice skates is discouraged. They’ll require constant touch-up depending on the quality and condition of the leather.

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  9. I have a new black leather bag with contrasting tan handles. Would like those handles to be black or grey. Is there any product that won’t rub off on clothing ever?

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  10. I have a black sofa. I am not sure if it is real leather or some type of leather looking fabric. There are no tears or cracks. Someone sat on it and must have had something on her hair as when she got up I saw the black color had disintagrated where her head was. It is like a large tannish spot. What can I use to repair this?
    Thank you

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  11. Hi. We have a chestnut brown 3 seat sofa and chair. It’s approx 2 years old and in great condition. We have just re decorated our living room and the colour of the sofa and chair does not work with our new flooring. Can we change the colour to a light grey and if so, what would you recommend? Many thanks, Julie.

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  12. Our new leather recliner has a noxious chemical odor and a mildew smell. In all my years I have never had a new leather piece smell this badl. It’s only been 5 days and the odor is now running through the a/c vents and when you come into our home, the smell hits you like a brick wall. When I complained to the furniture store they were very disagreeable and questioned my ability to judge. Should it smell this noxious and as strong?

    Reply
    • Hard to know what it was tanned and finished with. If the recliner has matching vinyl backs and side, perhaps that’s what you’re smelling. Either way, put it outside and let UV and fresh air do the work.

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  13. I want a motorcycle tank bib that is gray but black is about all I can buy. Thinking to buy a new black bib and simply paint it gray. Would leather paint handle occasional slight drips of gasoline (immediately wiped of course)?

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    • Our finishes are water-based acrylics, which are not as thick and durable as urethanes. Acrylics wear / discolor without cracking, peeling or flaking like urethanes, however, and they touch-up easily. Gasoline is an aggressive solvent, so it may discolor the acrylic finish, but it’s worth a try. Just be sure the bib is real top-grain of full-grain leather or good quality PVC / vinyl, not polyurethane faux leather. Clean it thoroughly with a toothbrush, a water-based degreaser, followed by denatured alcohol or paint thinner, and the tape test. More info about changing color and what discoloration / wear can look like is here. Perhaps the greater issue is matching the grey. If ours don’t conform, we can customize but this is cost prohibitive for a small bib.

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  14. I have black motorcycle seats and would like to paint then brown. Will the brown paint hold up against the hard wear and tear of denim jeans and direct sunlight?

    Reply

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