Painted Leather Care
There’s few kinds of material out there as expressive as leather. It comes in endless patterns and colors, finishes and cuts, tannages and breeds. When you look at your leather purse or briefcase or backpack, relish in the fact that it doesn’t have a twin in the world. It’s an individual. And sometimes, the best way for an individual to stand out is to try on a new coat. Bust out the acrylic and brushes, because today’s post is all about painted leather!
Paint’s thought to be an artist’s tool. We paint our bicycles so that they look colorful and fun. We paint our houses because we don’t want to stare at piles of bricks anymore. We paint our torpedoes because we want the dazzling red white and blue to be the last thing Dr. Nefarious sees before he explodes in flames.
Turns out, that’s not the whole picture. As satisfying as it may be to see our mortal enemies burst into flame with awesome personalized decaled ballistics, that paint’s probably the reason you don’t burst into flames instead. Stuff travelling at high speeds through the air builds up a lot of friction and heat. This heat can lead to all kinds of problems, not the least of which sudden combustion at terrifying heights. Paint, like the kind used on airplanes and space shuttles, helps to create a buffer from this kind of out-of-control friction. It’s usefulness doesn’t end there. The paint on your bike? Prevents the metal beneath from going rusty. Your painted walls? Helps keep the rain out. The list goes on and on.
The Deal with Leather
So why don’t we see more painted leather? Seems like it would be useful, considering there’s so much gunk we need to keep out of leather to stay in shape. You’re right about that. Paint does help blockade materials from passing through your leather’s pores and rotting up its insides. The downside is that this blockade runs both ways. Leather, unlike most other materials, is a breathing thing. It needs oils to pass through into its matrix. Also, it needs cleaner and moisture to help take bad stuff back out. Without oils keeping it lubricated, leather will eventually dry out, and the razor sharp fibers holding it together will grind themselves to dust. Without cleaner and moisture, bad contaminants will rot these fibers away. Paint holds everything at bay. It’s like a giant embargo. The economy comes to a dead stop. Nothing exchanges in, nothing exchanges out.
Here’s the good news. Leather that’s made well takes a really, really long time to actually die off. Grab a solid piece of vegetable tanned, full grain leather, for example, and that thing will probably outlive you as long as nothing drastic happens to it. If you don’t know the difference between full grain and semi-aniline, bark tanned suede, check out our primer blog “How to Identify Types of Leather” for a bit of help getting you started.
So it’s probably not going to be much of a problem for you to paint your leather. There’s no real advantage to it, apart from the aesthetic plus, but the collateral damage should be a long way in coming. The real issues are about knowing what kinds of leather receive paint well, and what you should do to keep the paint, and the leather, intact.
Tools of the Trade
It goes without saying, make sure the paint you use is acrylic. Your goal is for the paint to penetrate the leather, sinking into its pores and getting a solid root. If it’s just building up on the leather’s surface, it will easily come off. That said, the less resistance the paint has when it is trying to absorb, the stronger the paint will be. This means that you always need to clean your leather and allow it to dry before using any paint. Alcohol solutions tend to clean the most effectively. Happily, you can find the very best variety right here on this website: Straight Cleaner No. 2. Just test in a discreet area before using.
Dirtiness isn’t the only thing that impedes your paint. If you’ve got the wrong kind of leather for the job, your paint will only develop a weak bond. An extremely soft leather, like suede, may not have the toughness to hold paint well. Oily leather, like pull-up, can also repel the water-based acrylic from developing any sort of reliable bond. Finished leathers may also provide more resistance, as the paint is having to absorb through defensive layers of pigment. For optimal paint performance, the best sorts of leather will have a tough, full grain cut, a natural finish (such as aniline or semi-aniline), and receptive pores for good absorption. Much of the time this will require trial and error. Don’t purchase leather off the rack and go to paint it. Get to know the leather you have, what it likes and doesn’t like, before you take it to the tattoo parlor.
So you’ve finally painted your leather! Well done, you! Now you’ve got to maintain it.
Your leather is a fundamentally different creature now. You won’t be able to clean her the same way, and conditioning is similarly off the radar. Contamination is a more potent threat. But don’t worry. All this means is you have to play smart. Do your work early, and after that, you won’t have to do much work at all.
For obvious reasons, you’re not going to want to deep clean your leather anymore. Alcohol may adversely effect the paint job, depending on how it’s set in. Similarly, conditioner will have a difficult time absorbing into the leather, and will usually just leave a sticky residue that will tarnish the paint job on the surface. Your maintenance on your leather will consist of regular dusting and light cleaning with a damp, lint-free cloth.
Of course, that’s well and dandy if all you had to deal with was dust. But numerous other environmental and incidental factors play in here. Sunlight and UV radiation will dry out your leather and age it prematurely, turning it into a cracking, flaking mess. Water can still penetrate your leather and pull everything out. High humidity does the same thing – moving moisture into your leather insidiously. And who hasn’t spilled a coke or beer on their leather jacket once in a while.
Protection sprays will be your best friend here. Make sure it’s the right kind for your leather. Test in a discreet area first.
The usual precautions. Silicone, while ordinarily inadvisable, may work wonders for you. After you’ve given your leather one spray, keep an eye on the texture and surface to discern when it will need another application. And I can’t stress enough, do your own research. Find out what works best for you. This your project, your baby, your art. And like any art, this is going to require all your heart and dedication. Make something you’ll be proud of.
Off to Work, Picasso
That’s enough to get you started. Remember, paint is a game changer. Your leather will never be the same again, and that’s a good thing. It’s your creation, and something that reflects you in a way nobody else can claim. If you put a little effort into it, it’ll make a portrait. Make it a lifestyle, and you’ll have a legend.