Dyeing Leather the Easy Way

Based on the subject of this post, you may be picturing me swirling gory animal skins bicep-deep in a steaming vat while an angry chemical-induced rash blooms on my face.  Not so, not so!  This really is leather dyeing the EASY way!

First, a bit of background.  A few weeks ago I scored a gorgeous Rykken and Co. of Norway chair and ottoman from the 1960s.  It is leather with bentwood and a beguiling corded back. Best of all, it rocks, swivels, reclines, and is unbelievably comfortable.  I got it, along with three teak nesting tables, for $60!  I could hardly believe my luck, but I also knew right away that the leather on the chair wasn’t going to work for me.  It’s in amazingly good condition, but something about it read naugahyde to me and it was the color of an overripe–nay, festering–persimmon.  Even that sounds better than it was, and honestly it looks better in pictures than it was in real life.  It had a sort of gruesome, congealed tinge, and I knew I wouldn’t use it until I either reupholstered it or figured out a way to change the color.

Red House West||Leather Dyeing

In real life it was much worse than this picture suggests. I was so eager to change the color that I started before realizing I didn’t have a proper “before” shot.

In general I’m not a huge leather person and ultimately I think I would like to reupholster this guy in fabric, but with my Grandma’s couch still in tatters (I’m weighing about a dozen fabric options and leaning toward a silver gray mohair that I found a bunch of for a great price) I wasn’t about to sign up for another big upholstery project.

I searched the web, and didn’t come up with many options, until I stumbled on a company called Rub ‘n Restore.  Rub ‘n Restore is a mother-daughter owned company in California that makes water-based dyes to recolor and restore vinyl and leather.  I watched a YouTube video of dyeing a dark green couch a lighter tan color, and I poured over the reviews I could find to see if it was too good to be true that you could go from a darker to a lighter color using Rub ‘n Restore.  The reviews were resoundingly positive, so I decided what the hey and ordered an 8 oz. bottle of the camel color.

Application couldn’t be easier: you just put a little of the dye on a slightly damp sponge, and rub it all around.  The dye isn’t stinky at all and is really forgiving.  At first it looks uneven and streaky, but that only lasts for the first few coats.  You have to let it dry completely between coats, but I followed the recommendation of the company and used a hairdryer to speed up the process.  With a quick blast from the hair dryer, drying time took about 10 minutes, and application of each coat on the ottoman took probably 5 minutes.

Red House West||Leather Dying

The final picture was taken after about 8 coats.

After completely coloring the ottoman, I decided that camel wasn’t the color I wanted after all.  I was hoping for something less taupe, more saddle, so I contacted the company about whether I could mix another color into the camel.  They emailed me right back, and said that cognac would be a good color to mix in to create a warmer tone.  So I bought a bottle, did a little mixology, and came up with a color that I’m really pleased with.  It’s a warm fawn color closer to what I was picturing than the camel color, and much nicer than the original crust-around-the-ketchup-bottle-rim color.

Because it wasn’t such a dramatic change, going from the camel to the camel+cognac color took only a few coats on the ottoman, and probably eight total coats on the chair.  Here is the dyed and redyed ottoman next to the chair before I started on it:

Red House West||Dyeing Leather

As you can see there are lots of tufts and folds on the chair, but it was really simple to dye.  You just sort of pull and smooth the creases back and rub the sponge over all of it.  It honestly couldn’t be easier.  If not for job and kid duties this could have been done in a single day, but I did it over several mornings and evenings.  In fact there were a few mornings when I got dressed for work, went down to the basement to put on a quick coat of dye, and then headed out the door for the day.  It’s not a messy process at all!

I’m really happy with the results, and I’m so glad that I can have this chair in my house now without cringing at the color, especially since it’s so comfortable.  Oh, and here’s that gorgeous corded back I was telling you about:

Red House West||Dying Leather

Red House West||Dying Leather

Red House West||Dying Leather

Winifred is already doing her best to help the chair achieve a more distressed look:


And then Wolsey showed up to do his part too:

This cat has brass balls (even though in reality he has none).

I swear this cat has brass balls (even though in reality he has none–spay and neuter!).

Okay, and now for the best part: Rub ‘n Restore has graciously offered to give Red House West readers 10% off if you want to try this magical potion!  Just use the code RnR<3RedHouseWest at checkout.  They have tons of amazing colors, including some fun ones like turquoise and buttercup yellow.  Thanks for reading everyone, I hope you have a great week!

p.s.  In case you’re wondering, Red House West is not affiliated with Rub ‘n Restore and did not receive any compensation or remuneration for this post.  It’s just me, lovin’ on a product that actually works!

34 responses on “Dyeing Leather the Easy Way

  1. michellet2013

    Wow, Mera—what an amazing transformation! Who knew that upholstered leather could be dyed?! And I’m so glad that the chair has the Wolsey-Winifred Seal of Approval. Thanks for sharing.

    1. meramatthews

      I know, I had no idea before finding Rub ‘n Restore! It does seem to open up a world of thrifting possibilities. And speaking of Wolsey, Opal has mentioned several times that the last time you were here Wolsey was “dripping” on you. I assume that means he was drooling, and so I say from the bottom of my heart, I am sorry. It’s how he shows his love. 🙂

      1. Michelle eade

        Great post I love in London and I am looking at changing up a brown ottoman ..i was thinking of getting it upholstered but I might try this amazing dye first! If they ship international !

    1. meramatthews

      My critters are awesome, but I can tell you that I wasn’t thinking that when they jumped up on the chair when I was trying to photograph it. What came out of my mouth may or may not have rhymed with ‘massmoles.’ Thanks for reading and for commenting!

  2. dwhmmatthews

    I’m continuously amazed by the great products that you and Katie find. This is another that I will try. And the chair is a beauty. Eager to see it.

  3. Susan

    This is inspiring! Can Emily and I transform a similar chair she was given? What an improvement. I never liked that color, never, not even “back in the day.” Winnie has joined the family fully — photo ops and all.

    1. meramatthews

      You and Emily should give it a try! Really, it could not be easier. I’ve been using my chair a lot since recoloring it, and so far so good! xo

  4. Carol Crump Bryner

    Those critters know a comfy chair when they see one. The leather looks very soft. The looks on Woolsey’s and Winifred’s faces is priceless.

    1. meramatthews

      It really is a game changer! You know those rad turquoise leather chairs at anthro? Yup, suddenly those babies are within reach! Thanks for reading and commenting! 🙂

    1. Mera Post author

      Because I ended up mixing two colors I had 16 ounces. But I only used about half of one (mixed) bottle, so I would guess that yes, one bottle would have done the job if not for the color issue. Thanks!

  5. Cliff

    So it’s been a while since you’ve colored it. How is it holding up?
    Have you had any issues with staining of clothes/skin, etc…?
    I want to do a couch slate gray but I’m worried about my clothes and that sort of thing.
    Any info now that you’ve used it a while?

    1. Mera Post author

      It looks as good today as it did the day I finished coloring it! I wouldn’t worry about color transferring onto your clothes or skin–my experience has been that the color does not transfer once dry no matter what you do to it. Go for it! 🙂

  6. sharon

    hi Mera, thanks so much for the review. Your chair turned out great. I ‘m thinking of using the ivory on a leather sofa and chair. How is it holding up to your dog? Did you use the topcoat or just leave it the matte finish? I have two dogs who like to cuddle on the sofa with me. My husband also tends to sleep on it quite a bit so wear is an issue. The sofa leather is in really good shape and the chair is like new. It’s a medium chestnut brown color with stained wood frame which I’ll be painting with a chalk type paint. I’m just concerned about where issues and stains.
    Thanks for any new info.

    1. Mera Post author

      Hi Sharon, thanks for your question. I have had no issues with staining; once the dye is dry is does not transfer to clothing, skin, or pillows at all. I used the topcoat on the footstool, but it made it shinier than I wanted it to look, so I went over the top of it with more dye. The chair has held up incredibly well. I haven’t noticed any scratches or fading, but I have noticed a few spots deep in the folds that I missed when I first dyed the chair. I have leftover dye, so I just grabbed a sponge and put some on. It couldn’t be easier!

  7. sharon

    Thanks so much for the update on wear, staining and shine. I’ll be ordering the ivory dye soon. My sofa and chair have tight upholstery with no tufting so it should be fairly easy to do this. I’m so glad that you did your tutorial/review of this product and had such great results. It makes me feel more confident to try this product out. 🙂

  8. fresenius

    rubnrestore was 2014 – how’s it holding up? any rub offs on clothes? Body? in your opinion, could it cover medium blue to your color? thx c

    1. Katie & Mera

      It’s holding up great! It looks just like it did in 2014. The chair is in front of a window – in direct sunlight – and hasn’t faded or become discolored at all. Despite heavy use by humans and dogs alike I haven’t needed to do any touch-ups. And nope, the dye has never rubbed off on clothes or skin. Still highly recommend it and the discount code linked in the post still works. Let us know how it goes!

  9. DeAnna

    What ratio of camel and cognac did you use? I like the “fawn” color, is it pretty true to the photos on a computer screen? I’m so happy I stumbled on your post! I have some dark burgundy chairs that need a face-lift. I considered painting them but was a little concerned that it wouldn’t last after my research, I called an upholstery shop for a quote and well, my bargain chairs would no longer be a bargain. I want to make dark chairs a lighter color and didn’t find much info on other leather dye until your article and feel more confident using this product since it was created for refinishing leather. Thanks!

    1. Mera Post author

      Hi DeAnna, it sounds like you have an exciting project ahead of you! I can’t say enough good things about Rub’n Restore. My chair looks as good today as it did when I first refinished it. As I recall my mix was about 50/50 cognac/camel, and the photos in the post do show the color accurately. Let us know how your chairs turn out!
      Oh, and the 10% off promo code is still good!

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