Refinishing an Old Leather Table Top

Here's a wealth of opinions on how to put a worn leather table top through rehab. March 30, 2008

I need to refinish a leather top. What is the best way to strip and re-color the leather? It is very worn now.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor G:
If you mean strip the color and re-dye, the answer, for practical purposes, is that you can't. If you want to strip the upper lacquer, wax, or whatever, use an appropriate solvent. Without knowing what that top finish is, that will be an experiment. If the leather is really worn, as in worn through the grain and possibly breaking up, there are museum methods that you can search for under the subject of leather conservation and restoration. Your best bet, unless you have a museum piece, is to scrape off the old leather and reapply new. Tandy Leather has all the necessary leather, adhesives, dyes, top finishes, etc. (By the by, if you go that route, surface preparation is the most important thing, and errors, cracks, particles, etc will telegraph through the leather.)

From contributor C:
Does the leather have gold tooling on or near the edge? What color is it now? What type of furniture is it - round table, desktop, etc.? Is the piece yours or a customers? Do you want a finish like is on a belt or a shoe, or a base coat color and glaze like found on many old pieces? What are you willing to spend on leather finishing supplies?

From the original questioner:
It is not museum quality. It is a kidney-shaped reception desk in a funeral parlor. 1940's. I had hoped to glaze it. Light is low, so I may be able to get away with a lot. It had gold tooling but I told them that would not remain. It is mahogany and I am only doing the top. The bottom was done before, but very poorly.

From contributor C:
Go to Mohawk's web site and buy their leather finishing coatings and glazes.

From contributor R:
You can remove the existing finish with lacquer thinner or a mixture of liquid stripper and lacquer thinner. You can use regular dyes or oil stains, and topcoat with shellac or lacquer or a French polish or an oil varnish. Leather has pores just like wood, so no need to get fancy with the materials. Just be careful stripping the leather so you don't slop the strippers on the sides.

From contributor C:
Shellac and lacquer will crack in time. You're better off using the vinyl coatings that can move without cracking over an extended time - 20 to 30 years.

From contributor P:
What color is the leather now? If it's an oil tanned leather, then all you can really do is lighten it. Dying an oil-tanned leather is difficult because of the wax that's used in the process, but you can darken it easily with oil. If it is dyed, then acetone might remove the color, but that's going to depend on how it was dyed. I'm assuming it's a lighter weight material and that it's cowhide, probably from the belly. If it's a color dye and not oil-tanned, then it was probably dyed in a saturation tank and the color will go completely through the material, not just on the surface as with wood. This will make it harder to change the color, but going back to the original color is easy.

Leather needs to be cleaned too. The dirt particles work their way into the tiny cracks and act like little razor blades. Anytime you're attempting to restore or preserve leather, you have to take this into consideration. You must clean leather before dying or oiling. If you don't, the dirt will remain trapped in those cracks and will wear the material rapidly. There are numerous ways to re-color leather, but the color, type of leather, and thickness would need to be known.

I wouldn't topcoat leather with shellac or lacquer. It's done, but it will crack and craze at some point, especially if it's used much. The ideal method is to use a product such as delicate cream or lanoline. This will keep the leather supple and prevent the forming of cracks. Then every once in a while you should use a product such as saddle soap for oil tanned or Meltonian's leather cleaner for dyed leather and a soft brush to remove dirt followed by an application of delicate cream or lanoline. It's important to remember that thin leathers such as for garment or upholstery should remain soft and flexible to resist damage. If you do anything to stiffen it, such as use cleaners that leave residual salts or topcoats that harden, then that area will be easy to scratch and even break. Now that might not be a concern if the piece isn't used, but if it is used, then it should remain flexible. If it's a heavier iron, then you will have an easier time of things, but the process remains the same.

From contributor C:
It's a top - it's not going to get bent or treated as a fabric article. Leather has been finished for a long time with different coatings. Again, your best bet is vinyl coating and glazes for vinyl. This will allow it to breathe and move as it normally would if uncoated for the longest period of time. This is how I've been refinishing leather for 42 years, with the exception of Behlen bros. leather lacquer, which also was a vinyl base product, but no longer available.

From contributor Y:
So, a typical 1940's, 1950's leather topped coffee table can be run through a flow over stripping system with a water rinse and then finished out with the rest of the table? I have always taped the leather off, hand stripped the rest of the top, stained the rest of the top, then cleaned the leather, then shellacked everything and then top coated. Sounds to me that stripping the leather is a lot quicker and easier. What about the gold leafing? It must go away with the stripping?

From contributor T:
When I operated an antique restoration shop we saw hundreds of pieces of the depression era furniture you have. I found regular shoe polish worked great for restoring leather top pieces. It's basically colored wax. Buff to soft luster and be done.

From contributor C:
Any good wax will clean and preserve, but if we're talking damages - dents, gouges, tears, rips, or chunks - wax will not fix these problems, nor will it fix cigar or cigarette burns, which is where most of my work on vintage furniture came from. For that you need to cut out or remove the damaged area, fill back in and color and glaze to match on any repairs. On badly damaged tops, you need to strip or thoroughly clean surface and re- apply protective coatings intended to be used on leather. Then, after you're through, you can apply a coat of wax if you like.

Almost all leather finishes will come off clean and fast with a combo of 1 part lacquer thinner, 1 part 95% ethyl alcohol, 1 part MEK, 1 part acetone. Also, if you're hand stripping, you can work around the tooling and keep it intact, if the top is to be refinished in the same color, just by using a rag wet with the above formula wrapped around your finger, moving the rag often to expose a clean area of the rag. When leather is so badly damaged or ruined that it needs replacement, there are companies such as Constantine's that carry new pre-finished leather with the gold tooling (remove old leather and re-apply).

From contributor C:
Out of curiosity, is there any name of manufacturer in or on the piece? In the drawers or back or elsewhere? It sounds like a piece my father had from Baker and about the same age. If so, I could let you know exactly how it was finished originally.

From the original questioner:
It is Maddox from Jamestown, NY. I've had a few of their pieces over the years.

From contributor C:

Contributor R, I would not run leather under a flow system. In cases such as this, you're not trying to thoroughly wet the leather; you're using fast evaporating solvents/diluents to remove the coating. The drier you keep it, the better. Plus you really don't want to introduce any contaminants such as wax, etc. into the scope of the project.