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Leather Finishes and Finishing Techniques: A Complete Guide

Finishing and Finishes are very common terms in leatherwork. Every type of project needs to be finished in one way or another for that added professional touch and feel. But what’s finishing and finishes and what are the differences between them?

What’s Leather Finishing?

Leather Finishing is a leatherwork term that is used to describe all the activities the leather item being made goes through with particular attention to the step by step processes that determines the quality of the overall appearance of the leatherwork. 

Good leather finishing goes a long way to ensure the leather artifact is very presentable.

To ensure a leather project has a very good finishing, crafters will would be very particular about every aspect of the project: from the selection of the leather and other materials through to the designing stage to the final stages of the leatherwork project. 

Leather finishing in a much simpler way can be explained as the overall appearance and beauty of a product. Finishing includes choice of techniques and all other activities that enhance the outlook of leather products. 

There are also specific finishes the leather crafters will deliberately use to achieve desirable outcomes.

What are Finishes?

Finishes are the topcoats and the last things you put on your leather to either preserve its dyes or treat the leather. Some finishes are more water-resistant than others.

Generally, finishes are applied to the leather to preserve the qualities and appearance of genuine leather and to also protect the leather surface. Here are also some other reasons why most crafters apply leather finishes to their leather products:

  • Prevent the leather dyes from rubbing off on users
  • Protecting the leather surface
  • Gives off a gloss
  • Enrich leather dye colors
  • Makes leather work beautiful, clean, and very professional
  • It also prevents mold growth

The use of leather finishes involves the application of carefully formulated coatings of leather substance and processes to the grain side or surface of the leather in order to protect and preserve the natural appearance and qualities of leather. Finishes also improves the resistance of the leather to enable it to withstand harsh weather conditions. 

There’s a lot of talk on the types of finishes that are best among professionals in the leatherwork fraternity. But to me, a lot of it will come down to personal preference. 

When you apply leather finishes to leather, you may unavoidably be altering quite a few things about the leather you’re working with. You can expect a few changes with the texture of the leather (for example, Matt finish), water-resistance of the leather, smell of the leather, color of the leather (in some cases), etc.

The major characteristic of using leather finishes is that they only come in at the final stages of the product making process. 

Types of Finishes Given to Leather

Burnishing 

Burnishing is a glass-like surface treatment given to the grain surface or edges of leather. How this is done is to continuously rub the surface or edges of leather with any suitable item which is rounded, hard, and smooth. 

For the edges you can use an edge burnishing tool and gum trac which is a plant extract to the edges of your leather article a good burnish.

This is a fairly simple finishing that can be done in the comfort of the crafter’s studio or home.

The most common items used to burnish leather includes wooden or metal spoonsglass bottlessmooth stones, and on some occasions a piece of cloth has been used for burnishing leather. These items are used to bring out a natural glass-like sheen of the leather. 

This type of finishing on leather requires a bit of pressure and hand muscle to accomplish. Burnishing renders the surface of the leather wear and water-resistant, fatigue and corrosion resistant and so much more. 

Tips for Burnishing Leather 

  • Always make sure the leather is placed on a smooth surface 
  • Ensure there are no dirt, dust, or debris on the surface of the leather; 
  • The grain side of the leather must be the surface you burnish not the flesh side
  • Adequately rub or run your preferred burnishing tool over the grain surface of the leather to and fro until you achieve a glass-like glossy finish.

Polishing 

Polishing is also a type of finish done at the finishing process of the project. It’s done to make leather articles smooth, shiny, and to look fresh off the box. Polishing is done by applying leather enriching substances which are either in liquid, creamy or solid forms. Because polishing enriches leather products, it can be done several times even after the project has already completed and is in use.

There is a lot of polish on the market but a few weeks ago I tried the Fiebing’s carnauba creme and I find it to be the best all-round polish that will give your leather products a very nice smell and supple especially after you have applied and given the leather a gentle buff.

Before polishing the surface, dirt, dust, or debris are removed with a clean brush or rug using saddle soap especially if the dirt is major. In this case, the leather product is allowed to dry thoroughly before the finish is applied. 

Like oiling some crafters may not consider polishing as a finishing method and will add a coat of another kind of finish to it like leather sheen which is some form of an acrylic finish that will give your leather some more water resistance and extra shine. But polishes can also be widely used alone as finish and yield satisfying finishing results.

Since is the finish being applied is the last thing that is done, all final touches are done before a polish is applied to the surface of the leather. An important tip most crafters ignore is applying the leather polish in a circular manner in a very gradual way.

Oiling 

Oiling is a leather finishing process of applying oils such as castor oil, jojoba oil, Shea-butter, mink oil, neatsfoot oil like this neatfoot compounds, groundnut oil or any vegetable oil on the surface of leather to make is soft and supple.

The most important thing about oiling is that it prevents leather items from becoming dry, brittle, and eventually having ugly cracks and peels. There are many people who will not consider oiling as a finish but others do and is also a very common type of finish for leather projects.

Oiling sets leather on a good track allowing it to have a rich solid look and a flexible feel. Without oiling, most leathers will certainly crack and peel. Oiling really enriches the pores of leather. After applying oil on the surface of leather, it should be left to dry before buffing. 

Before applying any type of oil when finishing leather products, it’s important that dirt, dust or debris on the surface of the leather must be removed. The type of oil used depends on which part of the world you are and what’s readily available to you within your location.

In most places around the world, there will be access to neatsfoot oils, mink oils, and a couple of other different types of oils. In some places in West-Africa, groundnut oil is very common. For example, in the northern part of Ghana, most local tanners use groundnut during the tanning process by pounding the leather with groundnut oil and also applying quite a bit more after the leather product is completed. 

All in all, I find that the Jojoba oil to be ideal due to its high reputation of being less smelly and not having a too darkened effect on the leather compared to other types of oils.

Oils generally, darkens leather significantly and also it’s hard to get an even application without saturating the leather. Using oils to finish leather is ideal for restoring back oils into the leather especially if in the process of making the leather you dried the leather out quite a bit by using cheap dyes or any other activities that dried the leather out or simply put, the leather was just dry right from the start of the project.   

Waxing 

Waxing is also another type of finish for leather products. This is a process of applying either liquid or solid wax onto the surface of your leather article. You’d find that many professionals might prefer the liquid wax to the solid ones. 

This is because the liquid wax is able to penetrate the pores of the leather and is also able to preserve and maintain a beautifully consistent appearance of leather. A gentle buff is in order after polishing for a nice pleasing luster.


Before starting to wax your leather, you should ensure the applicator and the leather surface has no dust or dirt and after waxing, you should ensure the work is thoroughly dry before use.

There are many different kinds of leather wax you can get to finish your leather items but I find the adam wax to be one of the best because it’s the pure wax base which is in the recipe for a lot of tanned. It will give you work a nice polish, soften, enrich the dye color and give it a beautiful gloss.

Tips on Applying  Wax Finishes

Here are a few tips on how you should apply a wax finish to your leather items

  • Apply finish to the surface in a smooth circular motion
  • Apply very light coating at a time
  • Ensure that you cover the entire surface is evenly covered
  • It’s also a great idea to spray from a spray can
  • In case you’d want to go with brushing the wax over the surface of the leather item, make sure to use a soft sable brush

Lacquering 

Lacquering is another finishing method of applying a thin layer of lacquer onto the surface of leather products to give it a protective layer and a nice sheen. While the clear type of lacquer finishes like most finishes produce a high gloss finish, it’s, however,  difficult to apply when spirit solvent dyes have been applied to the leather. This is because the lacquer ends up reacting to the color of the product. 

Usually, before applying lacquer finishes, an important tip is to apply a thin coating of liquid wax finish. However, when water-soluble dyes are used prior to lacquering, the result is always awesome. On the other hand, it doesn’t work well with acrylic paint finishes.

Lacquer acts as a superior sealant layer for dyes and results in one of the strongest water-resistant finishes for leather. The key point is to allow the layer of lacquer to thoroughly cure before use.

Antique Finish

The antique finish is a type of leather coloring that comes in the form of soft cream and is available in a range of browns and tans. Adding an antique finish to leather is to give it a beautiful detail. It’s commonly used on treated or dyed cowhide and can as well be applied to other types of leather. 

What the antique finish does is not so much as dyeing precisely but instead, it tones down the original color of the leather and bring out some details on carved or stamped leather to emphasize the relief patterns. There are two basic ways of getting this done;

Antique Method 1

The way this first method works is that after you have done a bit of leather carving or stamping which results in raised and depressed patterns, apply the cream form of the antique finish only to raised parts of the stamping or carving of the leather leaving the impressed design very light or without any antique finishes. 

This is best done by stretching several layers of soft rag over a small wooden block, smearing some amount of cream sparingly on a piece of rag, and then rubbing it over the leather. 

Antique Method 2

The second antique application method is just opposite the first method. This is where the receding parts of the carving or stamping are darkened leaving the raised parts light or without any antique leather finishes. 

The best what to achieve this is to apply the antique cream over the entire surface with a brush. Make sure to fill up all the crevices of the design and immediately wipe off the excess antique and gently buff. 

The longer the antique finish stays on the leather, the more color the leather will take and the darker the receding portions become.

One characteristic of antique finishes is that it doesn’t give a waterproof finish and may require to be given an extra polish when the antique finish substance dry. 

What’s the Difference between Finishing and Finishes?

From what’s been explained above, finishes are carefully formulated chemicals in the form of products specially designed in a way that when they’re applied on the leather product, it enhances its look.

Finishing, on the other hand, are a bunch of activities and processes leather projects go through including the use of finishes and other carefully formulated chemicals to make leather items have an attractive look and professional. 

Related Questions

What’s the best way to finish leather?

The best way to finish leather is a highly debated subject. While others may perceive polishes or wax finishes as the be best types of leather finish, others may also view oiling, burnishing, lacquering, antique or a combination of any of the above the best type of finish.

It basically comes down to what the individual wants and the level of protection you will require a finish to give a leather product.

How do you finish leather after dying?

Generally, after dying your leather you would want the dye to dry thoroughly before applying the leather finish. Also, you would want to consider putting on a type of finish that nourishes the leather quite a bit especially if the type of dye used makes the leather a bit dry or brittle.

How can you tell if leather is finished or unfinished?

Virtually all the leather you will encounter on the market is finished with a top coating that acts as a protectant commonly in the form of pigments that also preserves the color of the leather.

Whereas unfinished leathers are raw meaning it may not have a color or may have some form of color (dye) that is seated in the pores of the leather unlike that of finished coatings that sit on the surface of the leather. 

What is topcoat leather?

The topcoat is a layer of finish coating applied to the grain side of leather to seal off the dyes applied of the leather to prevent it from coming off, protect the surface of the leather or preserve the natural and artistic qualities and expressions created by the crafter the on the surface of the leather. Topcoat is the last thing the leather crafter will apply after all finishing touches have been successfully completed. 

Macwilliam K. Appianing

Hi! I’m Macwilliam, the owner and founder of Favored Leather. I’m a huge Leatherwork 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!

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