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The Difference Between Leather Dye, Paint and Stain

There’s not one leather nor one leather finish. Like all industries, the world of leather has its own vocabulary and terminology. Sometimes those terms become incorrectly homogenised in the marketplace. When it comes shopping for DIY products, there’s one common misnomer to understand and avoid.

The word ‘dye’ is often incorrectly used as a catch-all for leather colourants and methods of all types. In fact, dyes are one type of colourant with specific application methods and they are suitable for some but not all leather types. For example, you would rarely use dye on car seats; you would use paints, otherwise known as ‘pigments’.  Paints/pigments are often falsely marketed as dyes and that’s not really a big deal so long as you end up with the right product for your job.

When it comes to repairing, restoration and recolouring, great results start with the correct products and techniques for the particular leather type. Dyes, stains and paints, pigments, colour restoration creams and vinyl finishes are just some of the options.

Beautiful waxed leather

Dyes and Stains

Dye, also referred to as aniline dye, is the concentrated form whilst stain is the ready-to-use version of dye. When it comes to upholstery leather restoration, stains are most commonly used as dyes are, in most cases, too intensely coloured for restoration purposes. Both penetrate the fibrous structure of leather making a chemical bond. Once dyed, leather cannot be un-dyed. Dying makes the leather darker in colour and cannot be used to make it lighter. In some instances, dye transference is a possibility unless sealed with a topcoat.

Aesthetically, dyes and stains add translucent colour that allows the natural characteristics of the leather to show. As dye goes into leather, it adds no surface coating. This allows the luxurious warm feel or ‘hand’ to remain unchanged.

Leather Stain is translucent and cannot fully cover stains
Leather Paint is opaque and can be mixed to create endless colour options

Dyes are not highly UV stable and are, therefore, prone to fading. Where possible, protecting dyed leather from direct light helps to slow this process. Leather Hero’s Protect (No.3) contains a UV barrier that helps to minimise fading.

Dyed leather can be ‘unfinished’ meaning that it has no surface coating. Semi-aniline leathers are lightly coated with pigments and/or polyurethane topcoats. Nubuck and suede are also unfinished leathers with a slight nap that gives a velvety soft plush feel. Unfinished leathers are drum-dyed during the tanning process. They are soaked and tumbled in large vats of aniline dye. As a result, the dye penetrates right through the fibres. If the rear side of your leather is the same colour as the top side, it is likely, dyed.

Paints or Pigments

‘Pigment’ is the industry term for leather paint. Pigment does not penetrate, but rather remains on the surface and forms a physical bond. It has an opaque finish which makes it useful for covering imperfections, stains and discolouration.

Pigments tend to be UV stable which makes them preferable for use in cars and in sun-drenched homes. The addition of layers of acrylic coatings lends protection to leather. Most soiling and marks can easily be cleaned and permanent stains can be visually eliminated via recolouring.

Pigments can be applied in a variety of ways to produce different finishes. The most common finish is one solid colour; think of a white or stone coloured sofa or light pink handbag. By layering an accent colour over a base colour, antique and faux-aniline effects can be achieved.

The purple paint on this car seat was mostly removed by cleaning
The area was refinished with leather paint to cover the remaining stains

Leather Paint Colours

Leather paints are acrylic-based coatings created specifically for application on leather and man-made imitation leather. They are formulated to be flexible, hard-wearing and to resist peeling and cracking. Mixable, water-based and non-toxic, professional leather paints are chroma rich and designed to produce a refined factory finish.

Colour options are endless. That’s why Leather Hero offers an extensive range of pre-mixed and popular furniture and car colours as well as a core range of master colours.


Dyes and stains cannot be used on vinyl (unless blended with pigments). The upper layer of this man-made material is essentially plastic. It can be refinished with vinyl or leather paint. As it is less porous than leather, the physical bond may not be as enduring as it is with leather. Vinyl paint is applied by spray whilst leather paint may be sprayed or hand-rubbed.

This motor yacht captains seat is difficult to remove so on-board restoration with leather pigments offered the ideal solution


How are dyes and stains applied?

Dyes and stains can be applied by sponge, dauber, cloth, brush or spray gun

How are leather paints applied?

Leather paints can be applied by sponge, brush or spray gun

Can leather paints and leather dyes be mixed?

Yes. A small percentage of leather dye mixed into leather paint produces a paint that gives a semi-aniline effect

Are most cars seats dyed or pigmented?

Most cars seats are finished with leather pigments/paints – not dyes or stains

Are all brown sofas aniline or semi-aniline?

No. Lots of tan and brown coloured sofas are aniline or semi-aniline but many are painted. Shades of stone, caramel, putty and chocolate tend to be pigmented

Do dyes and stains only come in shades of brown?

No, they are also available in a variety of of other colours such as blue, green, red, yellow and ochre. They can be mixed to create unique colours such as oxblood and olive

Can leather paint and dye be used creatively to make art and design?

Yes! You can let your imagination go wild and use leather dyes and paints to embellish leather apparel, footwear and many other leather and vinyl items

Get creative!

If you can paint it on paper or canvas, you can paint it on leather using pro-grade leather paints. Imagine a truly bespoke hand-painted leather jacket or customised trainers, a decorated purse or even a set of vintage industrial bar stools creatively embellished. The only limit is your imagination.

Know your leather

Before starting a repair or restoration project, it’s important to know what type of leather you have. Common types include aniline, semi-aniline, nubuck, suede, pigmented or vinyl. Using the right type of colourant and finish is critical to achieving a satisfying result.

Leather Hero dyes, stains and paints are safe, easy to use and with correct application and aftercare, they offer lasting results.

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