How to refurbish leather upholstery


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Jul 02, 2023

How to refurbish leather upholstery

Q: My 20-year-old Italian leather couch and love seat are showing wear on the seats, which has not been helped by dogs. The color has faded unevenly, and there are some scratches, but overall, they

Q: My 20-year-old Italian leather couch and love seat are showing wear on the seats, which has not been helped by dogs. The color has faded unevenly, and there are some scratches, but overall, they remain in good condition. I have regularly cleaned and conditioned them, using recommended products (Leather Master). I am considering refurbishing them. Several companies I have found online have trained experts in my area who repair and refinish leather. I worry about using harsh chemicals and finishes that could ruin the soft leather, which I believe is unfinished. What should I look for in choosing a company to refurbish quality leather furniture? What results can I expect?

A: Leather used for upholstery falls into two main types: finished and aniline. Within aniline, which is probably what you have, there is a subset called nubuck that is especially soft. Your options for refurbishing depend on what type you have and the results you want, said Marleny Olivo, a customer service representative for Uniters, which owns the Leather Master brand of care products and also markets to professionals via a sister company, Uniters Pro.

Finished leather is the most common type used on furniture. Also known as pigmented leather or protected leather, it has a surface coating that contains pigment. Depending on its thickness, the finish can partially or even completely cover defects, such as scars from injuries the animal endured. It’s similar to the way paint coats wood. The finish also makes the leather easier to clean and more stain resistant. Families with kids usually opt for finished leather.

But with aniline leather, named for the synthetic dye used in processing it, the feel of the leather trumps practicality. The transparent dyes soak into the leather and tint it throughout, without changing the texture or obscuring defects. Dye colors that reflect what people think of as natural leather help even out the color of a hide and give hides from different animals a more uniform color. Similar to a penetrating stain on wood, the dyes don’t create a surface finish, so the leather remains soft and absorbent. It is more likely to stain and fade than finished leather. If one end of a couch with aniline leather is in direct sunlight for long stretches of the day, that section winds up looking bleached.

Is that old sofa worth reupholstering? Here's what to consider.

Nubuck leather is aniline leather that has been sanded or brushed to give it a nap, which makes it even softer and more absorbent. “It’s almost like a velvet feel,” Olivo said. But it’s not suede, a term that refers to the fleshy side of leather. Nubuck’s texture is on the outside, or “grain” side, where the animal’s hair was.

Another variation of aniline, called pull-up leather, is embedded with waxes or oils. It reveals lighter colors in areas where it is stretched, creating a worn but cared-for look that Rejuvenation and Pottery Barn love.

Because your leather is soft, it’s probably standard aniline or nubuck. Run your hand over the leather in one direction, then the other. If the color shifts, it’s nubuck. Or go by what you paid. Nubuck is far pricier, with a chair starting around $3,000, Olivo said. Only best-quality hides are used for nubuck, which is marketed as a luxury product. It’s super soft but stains more easily than other leather and is more difficult to care for and restore.

Decide on your goal before you embark on refurbishing because there are trade-offs. Do you want your furniture to look new, with uniform color, even if that makes the leather somewhat stiffer? Or do you want to maintain the soft feel even if the color gets only somewhat more even?

If you have aniline leather and need only mild rejuvenation, or if maintaining the soft feel is paramount, Olivo recommends cleaning and conditioning the leather, then adding dye matched to the color when the leather was new. This will brighten and even out the color while protecting the soft feel. Many homeowners do this themselves. Leather World Technologies sells a kit with cleaner, conditioner and 30 options for dye colors with eight-ounce bottles of each product. An eight-ounce kit may be enough to do a whole sofa, but because sofas vary in size, Olivo said to figure that eight ounces will treat five to six sofa cushions.

Uniters also sells an eight-ounce kit, but instead of selling only stock colors, the company creates custom colors. Order by phoning the customer-care department (877-336-3041). If you know the color name and the manufacturer, Uniters can check whether it has a swatch to use for matching. Or you can mail a piece of the leather, ideally a one-inch square. Manufacturers often attach swatches for this purpose between cushions, inside zippered cushion covers, or on the bottom. If you can’t find a swatch, tip the furniture upside down, pry up part of the dust cover, and look for excess upholstery to snip off. If there’s only about a half-inch of extra leather, snip off a two-inch strip and the company will tape it into a one-inch square for scanning.

Once you have the refurbishing kit, just follow the instructions on the labels.

Or you can hire a pro, who likely will bring dye in a range of colors and apply different ones depending on how much the leather has bleached, for a more even finish. Aniline color builds with repeat applications, though, so you can accomplish a similar result by applying multiple coats where needed.

But aniline leather can absorb only so much color. If more than half of the upholstery looks bleached, or if the bleaching is severe, Olivo recommended calling a leather-care company to evaluate whether adding finish is the best option. This would be a permanent change, involving both a primer to make the leather evenly absorbent (Uniters’ product is called pre-bottom, sold to pros) and colored finish, which comes in different thickness formulas. Thin finishes leave leather softer, but thick finishes fill scratches better. Have a detailed discussion of your options with anyone you’re thinking of hiring.

Aniline rejuvenation kits also work on nubuck leather, but it’s best to hire a pro here. The treatment will probably flatten the velvet texture, Olivo said. To restore that, the leather can be sealed (with Uniters’ nubuck fixation, sold to pros) and then buffed or sanded. Solvent-based rejuvenation products, also sold to pros, work even better, she said.

How to find a good pro? Try calling a company such as Uniters that markets products to professionals to get recommendations in your area.

Have a problem in your home? Send questions to [email protected]. Put “How To” in the subject line, tell us where you live and try to include a photo.

This story has been updated.