Refinishing is a method of restoring--or changing--the color to leather and vinyl. In the case of furniture and cars, it is an alternative to reupholstery; in the case of clothing, it is a method of making a new item out of an old one. It requires preparation, materials, skill and time. You may attempt it on your own or seek the help of professional leather refinishers with their years of practice and bank of materials and colors.
The materials needed are much the same for leather and vinyl. First is a deglazer, formulated of organic solvents like benzene and toluene, which strips the surface of any waxes, oils and protectants.
Second is the paint, which is typically acrylic based. Acrylics are durable and flexible, so they can bend with the natural use of clothing or upholstery without flaking.
A do-it-yourselfer will use a complement of clean, lint-free cloths, foam brushes and some light sandpaper to smooth out any scratches or scrapes. A professional restorer will use air guns and air brushes, a ventilated paint booth, and a stock of professional-grade paints. For upholstery, she may have original formulations on hand from the furniture or auto manufacturer, which match your job exactly.
Most leather items are not dyed through, rather, they have a colored top coat with a protectant finish. It is much like your car with its layers of primer, paint and wax. So, the method of refinishing leather and vinyl is much like repainting a car.
First, match the existing color (if your objective is to renew a faded or stained color). Automakers use specific formulations of color for upholstery just as they do for the car’s paint job; these colors are commercially available, so the restorer can match the existing color exactly. More often, the restorer will purchase such common colors as black, chocolate brown or cordovan; or she will formulate the color from existing colors.
Prepare the surface to receive the paint. Remove any dirt, protectants or oils with the organic deglazer, leaving the surface looking dull. The restorer does not typically use a primer; aiming for a thin-as-possible, flexible coating.
Next, tape off any hardware or other materials, like buttons or snaps on clothing, wooden legs on a chair, the wooden surface of a leather-top desk.
Finally, apply two or more coats of color. For color restoration, two coats is usually sufficient. For recoloring, four coats is more typical. Apply thin layers, allowing them to dry completely, versus one thick layer. This method is better for allowing the grain to show through, and produces a more durable finish.
Purchase all the materials you need to recolor a leather coat for about $50, and all you need to recolor a couch for about $100 (2010 prices), in an all-in-one kit of materials (see References).
Still, do-it-yourself restoration is not a bargain in time and difficulty. Expect to spend perhaps an hour on a pair of shoes; but four to five hours of labor over several days to recolor a coat, and 10 to 15 hours over several days to recolor a chair or sofa. You will likely be working with the minimal materials by brushing on the color, versus the professional-grade equipment that a restorer has (for example, air brushes, compressors, a full complement of colors).
A quick check with two restoration shops in early 2010 showed restoring the existing color to a leather chair can cost as little as $200, while refinishing in a new color can run as high as $1,500—on par with reupholstery. Neither shop recommends recoloring automotive upholstery, which reduces the value of a collectible car, and will allow the original color to show through in scrapes or scratches.
Fine leather furniture is a better candidate for restoration than is all-vinyl furniture, which typically is not valuable enough to justify the expense of recoloring.
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