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Leather dye vs. leather paint: what’s the difference?

Leather is like wood. It can be stained (dyed) or painted (pigmented finish or coating). Leather dyes penetrate and accentuate the natural variations (including stains) in the fiber. Dyes are in the leather (a chemical bond).

Leather paints and pigmented finishes coat the fiber; they are on the leather (a physical bond). They can be one solid color (monochromatic) or multiple colors and tones (mottled or base-and-print).

Vinyl (a synthetic) cannot be dyed; it can only be refinished.

Most leathers are dyed. The variable is their finish. Some have no finish (aniline) or a light clear finish (semi-aniline). Their absorbency makes them prone to body oil and other stains. Some leathers (like those in auto interiors) have a pigmented urethane or acrylic finish that better retains color and resists stains. However, even pigmented finishes can be worn and discolored with use.

Dyes are prone to fading and transference (just as blue jeans can stain furniture). Leather cannot be dyed lighter color (for example to correct darker stains). Only a pigmented finish (paint/coating) can accomplish this. Leather paints and finishes are therefore more versatile. You can change color (even to a lighter shade), and you can mimic the varied, mottled look.

Rub ‘n Restore® colors are water-based acrylic finishes that are suitable for vinyl and all leathers except suede and nubuck (though we’ve had customers do it). Use of our products on aniline will slightly cool the feel of the leather by adding a water-resistant finish. The leather will continue to breathe. While it may still exhibit absorbent qualities, it will be more stain and fade-resistant than traditional leather dyes. Rub ‘n Restore® finishes will never flake or peel like other paints and coatings.

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The Knowledge Hub is a library of articles and videos complied to help our customers complete their DIY leather and vinyl restoration projects.