Please note that all information is intended for advisement, and should be taken with caution. No leather antique is exactly like another. To restore antique leather is a potentially complicated and delicate process, and information given here cannot guarantee any result. It’s a good idea to consult a leather professional before attempting to restore antique leather on your own.)
Let’s assume you’ve taken pictures of all the parts of your antique leather that need to be fixed up. (If you haven’t done that already, it’s probably a good idea to do now. Photograph reference is your safety net!) Chances are, after your scrutinizing flash session, you have begun to notice some problems. Your antique leather is a bit old – the surface is hard and brittle, flakes are peeling up and falling off, and cracks are appearing everywhere you look. Not to mention, the color has rubbed off significantly, so that it now has a faded, variegated appearance wherever you look. This is mainly due to leather deterioration, which is a naturally occurring process. Although antique leather is typically very wear-resistant and robust, if it loses its lubrication and protective coatings, it will deteriorate, and grow weaker as it does. Oxidation, abrasion, internal wear and tear of the fibers, and chemical damage via sunlight, temperature, bad leather treatments or even pollutants in the air can all be hazardous to unprotected leather. Without getting too obvious, you’ll want to get some coverage on your leather pronto.
Spirits and Suds
First priority is to clean this bad boy. Antique leather naturally attracts a lot of dust, and chances are there’s a good bit of dirt clogged deep in its pores as well. If you want to bring this mummy back to the land of the living, you need to get it breathing (read “How Does Leather Breathe?” for more on this). While you’re at it, it’s also a good time to restore some of that old color as well.
Spot clean before you begin. Grab a soft cloth and remove any excess layers of dust or surface wax and oils. This will help give your leather a more thorough cleaning, and prevent spotting once you apply your remedial dyes. When the surface is looking good, you’ll be moving on to a deep cleaning. Methylated Spirit is commonly used to restore antique leather, and for most conventional, finished leather, Chamberlain's Straight Cleaner no. 2 is an excellent product to use. For unfinished and exotic leathers, you will want to be careful with what you try. You can read more about those in our blogs “Leather Care for Finished and Unfinished Leather” and “Cleaning and Conditioning Exotic Leather,” respectively. Always test leather cleaners and leather conditioners before using them; different leather breeds require different leather treatments and techniques, and what works for one leather type may not work for another. Apply the leather cleaning recipe you wish to test on a discreet portion of your leather item with a clean, white cloth, and let it dry. Check your cloth for excessive color rub off, and the leather for discoloration or any other negative effects. If you see none, you should be good to go.
Once you have found a good leather cleaner, grab a soft, lint free cloth or applicator pad and apply it to your antique leather in thin layers. Make sure it spreads evenly over the surface, and take care not to rub too hard, or you may take off more of the color. If the antique is large, work on one side at a time. Once the surface is covered, wipe off any residual fluids and let it dry completely. Note that if you encounter any sign of bubbling, more flaking, or excess color rub off during this process, stop immediately and seek out professional leather care before trying anything else.
Time to Dye
Now that your leather is clean, its pores are open and ready to be dyed! Now, I’ll probably sound like a broken record here, but be cautious. Using any dye on leather as old as an antique can be risky, as you have no idea what products might have been used on it since it was made. To start off, you should probably hike your antique (or photograph) over to a specialist repair shop and ask them to show you their range of dye colors on a strip of finished, vegetable tanned leather with a wax finish, or a strip akin to your own leather antique if they have it. Comparing these dyes will give you a good idea of the final color match, and what you’ll need to purchase. Most of the colors you’ll be looking at will probably be fairly somber; prewar leather was typically black, brown and tan, and any brighter colors were often muted. People really ate up happy-go-lucky back then.
So, you’ve got your dye now. Make sure your leather’s absolutely clean and any polish or surface wax is gone. Wax actually resists dye, which can give your leather an unsightly spotting when time comes to put it on. First, try a small amount of your dye on a cotton bud, and brush it into a discreet part of your antique. If it dries well and the color looks right, wonderful! If it starts bubbling or flaking, start running really fast and blame it on gremlins. Oh, and seek professional leather care advice.
Assuming you narrowly averted a tragic catastrophe, grab a wool daub (or an artist’s airbrush if you have it) and get ready to color your antique! Before you start, set the antique up on a newspaper to save cleanup time, and make sure to cover any areas you don’t want to dye with masking tape and paper. Once everything is set up, use long, overlapping strokes on your antique leather’s surface, working on one side at a time. If your leather starts streaking, repeat the process. Make sure the dye is spread evenly, or you’ll end up with something less than uniform. Afterwards, let it dry in a cool and clean indoors location away from sunlight and direct heat.
Tune in Next Time
What a beautiful color! Now that the dye’s fully dried, it’s glowing with a hue long missed for decades. Masterful work, leather wizard! Take another picture, because next stop we’ll be conditioning your antique leather to bring back its old glimmer! The Magnus opus waits yonder! Stay tuned next chapter for our final episode, when we’ll curb your leather’s dry spell and wind back the clock for a younger, suppler hide!