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Can this leather be restored?

The viability of restoring your leather lounge, leather car seats, handbag or apparel has a lot to do with how much you love it, how much longer you’d like to keep it as well as the quality and condition.

What is ‘restoration’

In this context, ‘leather restoration’ refers to cosmetic leather repairs and new colour coatings. It’s all about repairing damage, slowing further breakdown and getting your leather looking great again. When it comes to sofas, generally, restoration becomes a welcome solution after a few years of wear and tear have occurred and there’s a motivation to keep the furniture for any number of reasons.

In this article, we will focus on leather restoration (refinishing). Whilst we refer to sofas, the same information applies to leather upholstery in other applications such as cars and boats as well as on handbags and apparel.

Reasons for restoring leather

  • Comfort – there’s nothing better than a perfectly worn-in sofa that offers familiar comfort
  • Poor alternatives – a lack of appealing alternative options available in stores. Buying new can mean accepting a reduction in quality and comfort
  • Timing – you might be moving in a couple of years and want to wait till then to replace furniture
  • Expense – restoring is significantly cheaper than replacing with quality furniture or retrimming
  • Maintenance – leather needs regular maintenance just like cars, homes, clothing and gardens, etc to keep it looking good and lasting well
  • Circumstances – there are many! Families and pets can take their toll so making the best of the existing furniture can make the most sense. Selling your house or car can be other reasons to spruce up leather upholstery cost-effectively. Sentimental attachment can be all the reason needed for restoring leather items
  • Environment – we are all becoming increasingly aware of our contribution to unprecedented levels of consumer waste and the need to slow our consumption

When considering a leather restoration, perhaps the first question is viability. Is my sofa repairable?

The decision to restore often depends on personal priorities

and is determined on a case by case basis

This discussion starts with leather and coatings that are shabby, damaged or undesirable in some way; the wrong colour, faded, stained, greasy, scuffed, worn, torn, or delaminating (flaking).

When damage is too advanced

Restoration is not viable when leather is:

  • Brittle and ripped open in large sections; so hardened that the edges are sharp and stiff, especially in load-bearing locations such as seat cushions (often seen in cars as a result of exposure to wet swimwear and high heat)
  • Rotten with grease – in advanced cases, hair and body oil cause leather to tear and can prevent successful repairs
  • Faux materials – many man-made leather-like materials are difficult to repair. Whilst immediate results can be pleasing, the unstable nature of the faux material can undermine your repair efforts

NOT VIABLE: These rips are too large and too brittle to repair. They are also in load-bearing locations (seats) so any repairs would be heavily strained. Retrimming is best in these cases.

NOT VIABLE: ‘Crust’ (unfinished leather) it is a light blue-grey colour. Notice the dark colour of the leather under the coatings? That’s lots and lots of human hair oil. It has penetrated into the structure of the leather causing it to ‘rot’ and split. Repairing leather that is heavily impregnated with oil is extra challenging and likely to deliver poor results.

NOT VIABLE: This man-made PU ‘leather’ is damaged beyond repair. With some careful repair work, it could be improved somewhat but would most likely still look lumpy and bumpy and not aesthetically pleasing. PU leather cannot be sanded as leather can, so repairing this type of damage is less viable. Cat scratches in natural leather can often be repaired very successfully.

Possible, but …

Leather that has been damaged by body oil, perspiration and a lack of cleaning can be improved with restoration. Results vary and the repaired areas require extra care. This level of damage cannot be reversed but it can often be cosmetically improved.

POSSIBLE: This is advanced damage. Repairs are possible if you are up for a DIY challenge. There can be good reasons to try and results can be incredibly satisfying.

With patient work and the right leather repair products, this dark green lounge was repaired to a significantly improved result. It is part of a larger suite of 4 separate pieces, all in very good condition except for one, very damaged panel. By repairing the area, the life of the entire suite was extended.

Extra care and future touch-ups can help to keep leather looking its best.

Delamination

POSSIBLE: ‘Delamination’ describes the breakdown of the original coatings whereby they appear to tesselate into tiny tiles that flake off leaving the leather exposed. It usually occurs on seat cushions. The first close-up image above shows the texture and typical look of advanced delamination. It happens on some leathers after years of use, particularly where there’s been an absence of regular cleaning to remove soiling, body oil and perspiration.

With thorough surface preparation, refinishing (applying new leather coatings) can give a dramatic make-over to delaminated leather. Whilst perfect results should not be expected and the life of the new coatings may be reduced, restoration offers a viable means of prolonging the usable life of ageing leather. With ongoing coatings maintenance over time, a sofa can be sustained for years to come.

The second image above shows the same sample of leather after treatment with Leather Hero’s Binder and Repair Kit. An excellent result was achieved. Every piece of used leather is unique, may respond differently to treatment and give different performance. That said, treating delaminated leather always produces a welcome improvement.

Man-made ‘leathers’

POSSIBLE: Low-grade, man-made leathers and materials can be re-coloured and whilst some are moderately repairable, others are not. Brittle vinyl, peeling bonded leather and flaking PU leather are generally considered unsuitable for repair. Restoration efforts can buy some more time and make things look better but the continued breakdown of the material is usually inevitable.

Having these bed-head panels reupholstered would mean dissassembling the bed. However, the extraordinary weight of the furniture and the second floor location prevented this option.The delaminating upper layers of the PU leather were removed via sanding and scraping (where possible) before a hand-rubbed vintage-style tri-tone effect was applied using leather paints. The restoration created a worthwhile improvement that helped to extend the life of the original panels.

When is restoration viable?

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide but here is a list of problems that can be significantly improved with restoration:

  • Fading – UV fading on aniline and semi-aniline is common and can be restored with astounding results
  • Wrong colour – a colour change can make a massive difference to the appeal of a sofa
  • Colour wear – new coatings transform leather that has lost colour due to wear (abrasion from use)
  • Scuffs and scratches – minor surface damage can be repaired using pro-grade repairing materials to a level that can be anywhere between somewhat detectable, discreet or completely undetectable/invisible
  • Tears – these can vary greatly. They are often repairable and can help to slow further degradation. Large, open, load-bearing rips are usually best corrected via re-upholstery
  • Delamination – when the original coatings are flaking, leather Binder can help to stabilise the loose and porous surface and enable refinishing to produce pleasing results. Heavily damaged leather can require periodic colour-work to extend the usable life of the leather and keep it looking good
  • Old and valuable – careful restoration can help to preserve older leather items
  • Greasy – in mild to moderate cases, an oil extractor can help to minimise oils that have penetrated into leather thereby preparing it for colour-work
  • Marks and stains – unwanted marks can be recoated, effectively making them disappear
  • Dry and dirty – with our without colourwork, sentimental pieces can be revived and preserved

Let’s look at each of these issues.

Fading – Restored glory

VIABLE: UV fading is common on aniline and semi-aniline furniture especially in sunny homes. Luckily DIY restoration can produce excellent results. This quality semi-aniline leather lounge showed extensive and uneven fading. Restoring the colour to match the original colour was like hitting the reset button. The leather no longer appears dry and exposed but rather, protected and luxurious. With periodic touch-ups, the original colour can be maintained year after year.

Wrong colour

VIABLE: Let your imagination run wild in the wonderful world of colour. Most leathers can be re-coloured in the same or a completely new and different colour. You can go light over dark and vice versa. With a Large Repair Kit, a 3 seater lounge can be completely transformed with new coatings. Recolouring requires opaque (not able to see through) coverage and this comes from pigments (paints) rather than dyes (which are transparent). A semi-aniline look can be achieved by using a blend of pigments and dyes. Leather Hero features a range of ‘Aniline’ colours that provide coverage with luminous dyes for depth and vibrance.

Isolated repairs on nubuck and suede are possible and are great for treating faded jackets and unwanted marks but whole nubuck furniture recolours are not viable.

Colour-wear – The typical pattern

VIABLE: Colour-wear is the gradual abrasion of the colour coatings. It typically occurs in high impact areas like seat cushions. Soiling, scratches, early-stage delamination and colour-wear changed the appeal of the white leather sofa. Above, the texture of the red leather was smooth and the cuticle (surface) strong, making it ideal for restoration. New coatings re-set the aesthetics and gave protection to the leather thereby extending the usable life of these sofas.

This process can be repeated as needed as the years go by. Well maintained coatings make for a well-maintained sofa.

Scuffs and scratches – pets and bingles

VIABLE: Restoration doesn’t always produce perfect results but it usually creates a dramatic and welcome improvement. Here, the cat scratches were sanded, glued, filled and smoothed before being refinished. They were not 100% invisible but they were very inconspicuous. The full refinish addressed years of colour-wear thereby revitalising the vibrance and finish of the entire couch.

Tears – Accidents happen

VIABLE: Despite the tear, this leather was in good condition and therefore repairable to a pleasingly discreet result. The area was cleaned, a sub-patch inserted, then Leather Hero pro-grade repairing and refinishing products were used to join and conceal the rip. Repairs to rips in non-load bearing areas can be extremely successful.

Old and valuable

VIABLE: Beauty and value are in the eye of the beholder and sometimes, the collector. This iconic 1970’s Anfibio sofa bed by Alessandro Becchi has been treasured for half a century. Despite the aged condition of the leather, there were no rips or tears, just lots of stains, colour-wear, dryness and cracking. The quality, designer and historical value of the piece made it ideal for restoration. The results were true to the original look and incredibly satisfying.

Greasy – Hair and body oil

VIABLE (mild cases only): Restoration of oil affected leather can be viable but it’s a question of severity.

Leather is porous and can readily absorb body and hair oil. On aniline leathers, this shows as dark patches. On pigmented leathers, it can be hard to detect until it’s too late. Oils can ‘rot’ the fibers causing it to split. To spot it, look for the colour of the leather (not the coatings). If it is blackish, that may indicate heavy oil absorbtion. Torn, oil sodden leather is extremely tricky to repair and may not be worth the effort unless the repaired furniture is no longer used as a functional piece (ie, the chair you don’t use). As with most other types of leather damage, prevention and regular cleaning are key to avoiding these unwelcome problems.

Where oil penetration is light and correct surface preparation is undertaken, results can be satisfying. The use on an Oil Extractor can help to draw oils from leather before refinishing.

In the example shown above, a semi-aniline lounge was treated using Leather Hero’s Aniline Dye & Colour Restoration Kit. This refinishing system for aniline and semi-aniline make-overs, blends dyes and pigments (paints) to give partial coverage thereby allowing the characteristics of the leather to shine. Where heavy stains are present and full coverage is needed, the Large Repair Kit can be used. This converts the finish from aniline to pigmented.

Marks and stains

VIABLE: Marks and stains happen. Refinishing pigmented leathers with new coatings completely conceals unwanted blemishes, large and small.

Dry & dusty

VIABLE: Technically speaking, this is not a restoration as no leather coatings or dyes were used.

The sentimental and heritage value of this Australian Super Northern, Genuine Wieneke saddle meant that a sensitive restoration was most appropriate. There was no desire to make it look like new but rather to retain the character features and to bring up a lustrous vintage shine. The process was simple; a good clean with Spot & Prep (No.4) followed by a generous application of Nourish (No.2) to moisturise then Waxy Nourish (No.9) to render a rich waxed finish. A light buffing was all that was needed to transform this cockroach and mouse gnawed, dusty old saddle to a treasured family heirloom.

Maintaining leather coatings

Re-colouring quality leather that is in good condition can give extremely durable results that last for years. Giving leather correct care extends the life of the leather and coatings. Repairs in non-load bearing areas can also last indefinitely.

When leather is compromised or damaged, restoration can help to extend the usable life thereby maximising the value you get from the upholstery. Like the original coatings, your restoration may need a touch-up in the future. In fact, replacing worn coatings is part of maintaining leather upholstery. Leather Hero offers simple to use restoration products that make light work of maintaining leather coatings.

In short, the better the condition of the leather and regular leather care,

the longer your restoration lasts.

In areas where leather is weaker, some coatings maintenance may be needed sooner.

The same can be said for usage. Light use means a restoration can endure for years. Heavy use can mean periodic touch-ups are needed to keep things looking great.

Once you’ve completed a restoration,

you will be amazed by the easy process and incredible results.

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What type of leather do I have? Take the quiz now

What type of leather? semi-aniline - Leather Hero

Let’s look at the main types of leather used in furniture upholstery and their key features. When it comes to caring for upholstery leathers, it’s important to know what type of leather you have before selecting your leather care products. That’s because each finish tolerates and benefits from different cleaners, conditioners and colourants. Using the wrong product may expose your leather to the risk of damage, unwanted changes or provide less than optimal results. So, how can you find out what leather you have when your memories and receipt have faded? There are a couple of quick checks you can make to unearth the missing information.

  • Look for a product tag. Check the underside of the sofa, the lower backrest seam or the bottom of a cushion for a descriptive tag. If you are in luck, it may list the type of leather and your search is over.
  • Search online for the same model. If you know the manufacturer, brand and model and it’s still in production, you may be able to verify the leather type via an online search. If you only know the store, they may also be able to help.

Types of Leather

In the absence of an informative label, identifying one leather from another requires a process of elimination. Although there are countless leather and leather finishing variants in use around the world, when it comes to upholstery leather, most fit into 1 of 5 main types:

  1. Aniline and Semi-aniline
  2. Pigmented
  3. Nubuck and Suede
  4. Waxed or Pull-up
  5. Man-made

Each type of leather has broadly typical characteristics. Use this quiz to help identify your leather.

IMG_2344
If fingernail scratches leave a mark
and
water absorbs quickly...
IMG_2344 - copy
Your leather may be
ANILINE or SEMI-ANILINE
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Aniline & semi-aniline

Aniline leather is “unfinished”. With little or no protection from topcoat layers, it tends to show scratches and absorb water quickly. Aniline leather is usually drum dyed. The colour passes right through the hide from the front to back. Popular shades include tan, brown and mahogany. Luxuriously soft and warm to touch, anilines may display naturally irregular grain, blemishes, wrinkles and creases. Semi-aniline leathers are a more practical version of this premium leather type. They are semi-protected by light layers of colour and topcoats which lend serviceability. Use Leather Hero’s Nubuck, Suede & Aniline Care Kit to keep you aniline upholstery looking its best.

IMG_3050
If it is water resistant
and
the finish is a solid opaque colour
or painted effect...
IMG_3050 - copy
Your leather may be
PIGMENTED
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Pigmented

Pigmented leather is the most common leather type found in family homes and cars today. If your sofa is opaque monochromatic red, black, blue, white, stone, chocolate or any other solid colour, it is more than likely, upholstered in pigmented leather. This practical material is finished with layers of protective colour and topcoats that lend a degree of water and stain resistance. In addition, manufacturers use transparent pigments and dyes to create special painted finishes such as antiquing.  The Leather Hero Leather Care Kit is ideal for maintaining pigmented leather.

IMG_3050
If it's water resistant
and
the finish is a solid opaque colour
or painted effect...
IMG_3050 - copy
Your leather may be
PIGMENTED
nubuck
If it has a nap or pile
and
it's warm and velvety to touch...
nubuck - copy
Your leather may be
NUBUCK or SUEDE
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Nubuck & suede

These leathers are relatively easy to distinguish as a result of their luxurious plush hand (feel under touch). Nubuck and suede are ‘unfinished’ or ‘unprotected’ types of leather. This means that they have no barrier to soiling, spills and stains. Often made in soft warm whites through to rich tans and browns, these leathers require specific care to maintain their beauty.  Choose from Leather Hero’s range of Nubuck, Suede & Aniline leather care products to make your leather look great and last longer.

IMG_4423
If it's water resistant
and
the finish has a burnished patina of
creases and cracks that give a distressed look...
IMG_4423 - copy
Your leather may be
WAXED or PULL-UP
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Waxed or pull-up

During the finishing and upholstery processes, a tapestry of light coloured fault lines forms on Pull-up leather. These beautiful random striations add character and appeal. Waxed leather tends to be water resistant and often comes in the ‘natural’ earth tones of tan and brown.  If you have a waxed leather sofa the Leather Hero Waxed Leather Care Kit contains your must-have leather care products.

IMG_5084 (2)
If the underside is woven
and /or
it smells like plastic
and/or
the pores are in a regular pattern...
IMG_5084 (2) - copy
Your leather may be
MAN-MADE
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Man-made

Bonded, split, PU, faux and vinyl are man-made materials. Although they are not technically types of leather, they are commonly used in upholstery and often referred to as ‘leather’. Bonded and split leather both contain some leather components but are heavily processed to render a viable product. In fact, leather may be a minor ingredient in the final product. The other ‘leathers’ are synthetic versions that mimic the real thing. Manufactured from plastics and fabrics, sometimes the underside looks woven, other times not. Smell is usually a good differentiator as are unnaturally regular pores. The Leather Hero Leather Care Kit is perfect for keeping these materials clean, soft and protected from soiling and stains.

Choosing Leather Care Products

What’s good for one type of leather may not be good for the next. There is a myriad of leather finishes and each has unique needs. It’s tempting to always go for the strongest leather care product to make light work of the task. Consider this; a waxy polish might be ideal for waxed leather whilst creating unwelcome changes on suede leather. A far better choice is to use leather care products that are developed for each type of leather. This minimises the risk of damage and ensure that you achieve the best possible results. No matter what type of leather you have, remember that you want excellent short-term and long-term results.Avoid home-made and cheap leather care products. Stick with professional grade solutions and give your leather upholstery the care it needs.

Your leather upholstery doesn’t need much from you but it will respond generously to the right care.  You can easily choose the right product for your job now that you are armed with the right information about the types of leather most commonly used in furniture upholstery today.