Difference Between Leather Dye and Stain (Plus Pro Tips!)

difference between leather dye and stain

The leather term dye is often used to incorrectly to capture all leather coloring activities. The surprising fact is, dyes are In fact one of the several ways you can color leather and not exactly ideal for all leather situations. To add to the confusion, the term Stain is used interchangeably with dye to further describe the leather coloring process.

In this article, I researched with the aim of finding out the differences between leather dye and stain to help you make a better choice.

What’s the difference between leather dye and stain? Leather Dyes are lighter and consist of smaller sized molecules which make its composition a lot more soluble than that of stains which is larger making its composition less soluble and as a result, stay on the surface of the leather. Why? Because the large molecules won’t allow it to penetrate the leather.

The differences that exist between Leather dyes and stains is indeed something that even professionals totally get wrong and struggle with. Although the composition of dyes and stains is a distinctive factor, there’s more to that.

Leather Dye Vrs Leather Stain: Details

What is Leather Stain?

Leather stains are made with pigmentation material which has much larger molecules so they can’t work their way further into the leather cell structures of the leather. Stains due to their molecular structure stay on the surface on leather when used.

Stains like Tandy Leather Eco-Flo Gel Antique can be used to create fantastic effects on leather such as an antique look. You can also use regular brown or black shoe polish to stain your leather.

It acts as a perfect stain and a finish at the same time due to the oily waxy finish it gives to the leather and makes it waterproof. You can find both the stain and shoe polish on Amazon in the links above!

Most leather stains are also water-based and will wipe off so it will require varnish or shellac.

What is Leather Dye?

The Leather dye basically has two components that is a pigment and abase solution that may come in oil-base, water-base, spirit or alcohol base. The base refers to the medium the pigment of the dye is in.

Leather is by far understandably a very fine material with great looks even without a layer of dye. But due to the limited palette leather comes in, you’d find that people would want to alter the hues of leather to suit them.

You can make your own leather dyes at home using rusted metal and a solution of vinegar or lemon, but most leather dyes also come premade and ready to use.

Types of Leather Dye

I have worked with 3 types of leather dye types and what separates these types of dyes is the base. There is the;

  • Oil-based dyes
  • Alcohol-based dyes
  • Water-based types

Dyes are usually transparent that causes color changes to leather without necessarily altering the figure or cause the leather item to be more durable like gluing or stitching will. Dyeing is purely for its aesthetic quality.

One downside to dyes generally is that dyes require many layers of more coats to achieve a similar color depth.

The multiple coats of dyes you’d apply won’t build-up, instead, it keeps penetrating and becomes darker as more colorant is applied.

There’s a big confusion especially about alcohol and oil-based dyes. Both alcohol and oil-based dyes are both alcohol carriers but the main difference is alcohol dyes have powder-based colorant while the oil-based dyes have oil-based colorant.

Alcohol dyes are great but have a few flaws I sometimes dislike. Alcohol dyes on leathers often don’t show a clear difference in color tones. Meaning a dark brown color and black or light brown and dark brown will be pretty close to each other you might not be able to tell the difference between them.

This is in most cases not a problem especially if your works require a lot of dark or black tones.

Another challenge with alcohol dye is that its mostly harsh on the leather. It can cause it to harden or stiffen and crack when the leather bends back. So its best applied on leather items that may not require a lot of bends in its usage like a knife sheath.

I personally go for Fiebing’s Leather Dye which you can find here on Amazon! when I need to use alcohol dyes especially for novice products.

Alcohol dyes leave behind pigments on the surface after dyeing and so you’d need to buff it off before applying a finish to seal the dye on the leather.

Oil-based dyes, on the other hand, will give you a much better beautiful gradation of earth color tones. So meaning with oil-based dyes, you can clearly create distinct color tones on your leather, unlike the alcohol-based dyes.

Oil-based dyes also solve the problem of stiffness when used on leather and in worse case scenarios, oil-based dyes will only cause the leather to be a hair stiffer and will not crack.

This makes oil-based dyes application pretty much consistent and the easiest way of dyeing leather.

If you’re interested you can check out this oil-based leather dye here on Amazon! for more information.

The downside to oil-based dyes is that they are usually twice the price of alcohol or spirit dyes and there a lot more of dark colors as opposed to light color available.

Finally, with water-based dyes, they are more light-fast than both alcohol dyes. It is a great option if you want some level of durability in dyes.

If you’re interested, check out this water-based leather dye here on Amazon!

Leather dyeing can be very fun, what’s more fun about it is the fact that although there a few rules of thumb, dyeing is one method you can explore to find out what works best for you and which processes you love the most.

Pro Tips on Leather Dyeing and Staining

1. People dye at a different point on their leatherwork. Some may dye before or after tooling, others may also dye or stain before or after cutting out the various parts of their leatherwork project. You can choose any point to dye according to your preference.

2. Deep dyeing is generally the most conducive dyeing method of getting dyes to all corners, front, back, and edges of the leather.

3. Apply a dye prep on the surface of the leather you’re about to dye to remove any debris, residues, finger marks, and oils, etc. and give you a nice even color of dye. This is not necessary to use all the time but if you have handled the leather quite a lot of times before dying then you would want to apply this dye prep you can find on Amazon!

4. After the dye prep, you can also apply a light color of neatsfoot oil on the leather before applying your dye. This process will further prepare the leather for the dye and also make it have its natural flexibility. Generally, dyes reduce the flexibility of leather.

If you’re interested, you can buy this neatsfoot oil from Amazon and experiment to find out how impactful with or without this method will be for your leatherwork.

5. When buying leather dyes or stains, the color charts advertised is usually not what you get so from my experience so don’t pay much attention to those charts. I will recommend you try out a few dyes or stains and find which effect you want.

Related Questions

What are some of the most popular leather dye brands? There are several popular leather dye brands worldwide the most common brands you will find are Fiebings, Tandy Eco Range, and Angelus brand leather dye. They are best known for their quality, types, and range of colors.

what color can you dye leather? You can get quite a wide range of colors and it will depend on the type of leather since different types of leather will dye different colors best than other kinds of leather. Often you’d want to use vegetable-tanned leather which lends itself well to the natural colors of reds, browns, red-browns, dark browns, maroons, and blacks.

You can get other colors like greens, pinks, etc but will end up looking a bit strange because you might not be able to picture a green or pink cow. However, these are more fashion colors than traditional leather colors. Coloring leather is basically up to you and what color effects you want to achieve.

what is vinegaroon dye? Vinegaroon dye is a homemade acid that can be made by putting rusty metals into vinegar to create a special kind of acid that basically causes a chemical reaction with the tannins in leather and causes the leather to turn black. So vinegaroon is not actually a dye.

The big advantage of vinegaroon is that it’s very cheap because vinegar is cheap and you can as well pick rusty metals from the ground. The disadvantage of vinegaroon is it smells horrible, and after its application, you will need to cure the leather for example, with baking soda to stop the chemical reaction. If not cured, the leather dyed with vinegaroon will react very badly with metals like in the case of a leather knife sheath and knife.


Hi! I’m Kwabena, the owner and founder of Favored Leather. I’m a huge Leathercraft enthusiast and I’ve been that for almost 13 years now. I'm excited to share my experiences and all the new stuff I learn each day about leather craft, leather cleaning & care, and everything in-between!

Recent Posts