How to Darken Leather the Right Way

Maintaining high-quality leather shoes is a must-do. Aside from the weekly wipe down and once-a-month deep clean, another great way to restore your pair and make it look almost new is to darken it.

See, one of the things which make anything look old is fading. And do expect some level of decline in the color and overall quality of footwear, especially if a certain pair is your daily go-to.

The good news is that there is an easy remedy for this.

Dyeing is the first thing that comes to mind when darkening leather, but it’s not advisable if you haven’t used this before. The better option is rubbing animal oils like Mink and Neatsfoot, and vegetable oils for cooking such as Coconut, Olive, and Walnut onto the material. Once absorbed, the leather will take on that richer, deeper shade.

As aforementioned, dyes can be a challenge to use. Even cobblers and shoe repairmen find this task daunting because it takes good knowledge of hues and well-honed skill of mixing to get the right shade.

Going for natural oils and colorants is prudent, especially if this is your first attempt.

But before we discuss these natural ‘dyes’ and how each is applied, preparing everything you need – including your shoes – is important.

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Prep is a Must!

Before you start applying any of the items listed above, you must do an initial cleanse on your shoes first. Here’s a basic step-by-step guide:

Fill your shoes or boots with crumpled newspaper

Doing this keeps the footwear in shape so that it won’t get bent or folded while you’re working on it.

Get rid of visible dirt by brushing those off

Do a top to bottom brush, getting rid of dried mud and accumulated dirt.

Tap the outsoles together to loosen the dirt which may have crusted in between the indents on the ball and heel. For more obstinate dirt, brush it off under running water. Just make sure that the upper doesn’t get wet.

Wipe the shoes down

If you have time and energy to do the whole deep clean process like shampooing or vinegar rubs and eraser duties (specifically for suede and nubuck), go ahead and do that.

But if your pair isn’t that scruffy or if you just did a deep clean recently, just wiping the surface with a damp rag then letting it completely dry is fine, too.

Application of the Product

Once you’re satisfied with the results of your pre-cleaning, you can start applying the natural ‘dyes.

Here are some of the easiest, safest, and most effective darkening materials.

1. Mink Oil

Five to six shades darker

This is derived from the fatty layer of the mink pelt, usually removed before making it into a luxurious fur coat or scarf. Because it has a high amount of palmitoleic acid, a substance that has similar properties to the oily human sebum, many add this to cosmetic products.

Why This?

It is the go-to natural conditioner because it fills the dry pores naturally, making your shoes, sofa, or any item made of this textile plusher and water-resistant. While this is the base ingredient of most conditioning products, pure mink oil is said to be a better option because it doesn’t give an unnatural duskier hue to your footwear.

To Use:

Wrap a portion of a microfiber rag around your finger then dip this into the mink oil. Apply this onto the surface of the textile in circular motions, putting in a bit of friction so that the leather gets saturated well. Keep dipping the rag into the grease if it gets too dry.

2. Neatsfoot Oil

Six to seven shades darker

This comes from the rendered fat shin bones of cattle (FYI: Neat is the old English term for cattle). Although some have used this in medicinal preparations, particularly for dry skin, it has been used in tanneries for the longest time as a conditioner, softener, and preservative.

Why This?

A lot of animal-based fat tends to harden at room temperature but this remains liquid, making it easier to be absorbed into leathers. This is favored over the first option especially if you want your pair several shades darker.

To Use:

Apply in the same manner as the first item. Because it is liquid in form, dab just a bit and try to spread that evenly on the surface so it won’t leave a too-greasy residue that would attract dust.

Important to Note:

One of the biggest criticisms about Neatsfoot is that this oxidizes faster, causing the quicker degradation of the material it was applied to.

3. Vegetable Oils for Cooking

Depends on the type used

Many cooking oils can darken leather in practically the same way, that’s why all these are consolidated as one option. The three most effective are:

  • Olive (two to three shades darker)
  • Coconut (four to five shades darker)
  • Canola oil (two to three shades darker)

But aside from the ‘dyeing’ capabilities, these also nourish and soften the leather, making it last longer.

Why This?

The great thing about vegetable oils (except the coconut variant) is that they do not alter the color of the material. It may seem like that at first, especially right after you have applied it. But after a few days, it will return to its original color – just a bit richer and deeper.

To Use:

Just like the first two, wrap a piece of lint-free cloth around your finger, dip it into the oil, and gently rub it onto the textile.

Important to Note:

Both coconut and olive have a strong smell which may not go away that fast. If you’re not too fond of that, use the canola variant instead. Also, make sure that these aren’t rancid because this will really smell awful and will ruin your boots fast.

4. Shoe Polish

Two to three shades darker

This is primarily rubbed on shoes to give them that brand new gleam but many have found that it can darken a pair of shoes, especially when two or more coats are applied.

What Makes This Work?

Most polishes are made from wax which makes these easy to spread and get absorbed by the textile. While there are neutral-colored products like clear wax, several companies have come up with different shades that match basic footwear colors like black, dark brown, and tan.

How to Apply:

Wrap a lint-free cloth around your finger then dip it into the tub of wax. Gently rub this onto the leather, making sure it is spread evenly on the surface. Once you’ve covered the whole shoe, let it absorb for thirty minutes. If it isn’t as dark as you wanted, do a second coat.

Important to Note:

Choose the right kind of wax color. As much as possible, get the same shade of wax as your footwear because that will be effective for what you need. Going for a darker shade of brown for a tan pair, for instance, will create an unattractive discoloration.

5. Coffee

Two to three shades darker

A cup of morning joe is said to be an effective way to darken leather mainly because of its dark color. However, this is advisable only for dark brown to black footwear. Using this on anything tan or lighter may not be effective.

How to Prepare:

Brew two to three cups of coffee and leave it under high heat for an additional two minutes to allow the ground beans to get slightly burnt. Let it cool down for 5 to 10 minutes before draining the grounds.

How to Apply:

You could use a soft brush to ‘paint’ the coffee on the shoe. You could also dip a microfiber cloth into the beverage and wipe it over the surface. Allow this to air dry for another 10 minutes before you repeat the process until you get your desired shade.

6. Walnut Hulls

Depends on how long the hulls were soaked

This works just like coffee but is said to be even more effective. You need gloves for this because they can stain your skin.

How to Prepare:

Put half a kilo of walnut hulls in a small basin and submerge these in water. Let that soak for a week. The longer it stays there, the stronger the natural dye will be. Drain the hulls using a strainer or a cheesecloth. You can let the hulls dry and store these for another use.

How to Apply:

Use as you would the coffee. Again, don’t forget to wear gloves throughout the process.

Final step

After you applied the oil or wax onto the leather and gave it enough time to be absorbed, the next step is to vigorously scrub it with a horsehair brush so that it will shine like new. Start from the top (especially if you have a pair of boots) and move down to the outsole.

If you used either the coffee or walnut hulls solution to darken your pair, apply another coat of clear wax or oil before buffing it to a shine.

Which Works Best?

First of all, do know that regular deep cleaning – from shampooing to polishing – will slow down the wear and tear of your pair, including its fast fading.

But if time and constant use have taken its toll, expert cobblers and shoe repairmen will tell you that mink and neatsfoot oil are the best for darkening leather. These have been used in tanneries to color new leather since time immemorial so they will definitely work for restoration projects.

The rest of the options, even vegetable oils, should only be used when you ran out of the two above and you have no other option at the moment.