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

Leather is like wood. 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. Some leathers (like those in auto interiors) have a pigmented finish that better retains color and resists stains. However, even pigmented finishes can be worn and discolored with use.


Dyes are prone to fading and transference (just as blue jeans can stain furniture). Leather cannot be dyed lighter color (for example to correct 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, mottled look.

Vinyl (a synthetic) cannot be 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 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.

Reader Interactions


  1. Victoria says

    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?

  2. Az says

    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?

  3. Pam says

    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?

    • lesandre says

      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.

  4. Dorothy Pergola says

    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.

    • lesandre says

      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 free evaluation we can be of better assistance.

  5. Douglas A Schwan says

    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

  6. Lyn says

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