Leather Like New

Dec 3, 2009

There’s probably nothing that says luxury in a vehicle quite like leather seats and trim. However, leather may require a little more care than the average car owner wants to perform.

Without regular maintenance, the end result may be cracking or fading of the leather, not to mention the inadvertent hole poked by a screwdriver or pen forgotten in a back jeans pocket. While drivers may simply choose to replace the damaged or faded piece, repairing or refinishing the leather is also an option.

With the proper instruction, leather repair is a skill that can be learned fairly quickly. True success lies in good color-matching ability.

Suppliers of leather repair systems say the service is an excellent match for restylers looking to broaden the scope of their product offerings. So, if you deal with customers who have worn or damaged leather seats, and have a keen eye for color, this process may be just what you’ve been looking for.

An In-Demand Service

Even if everyone cared for their leather seats as recommended by regularly reconditioning them, there’d probably still be some need for leather refinishing.

“As leather ages, it tends to wear,” explains David Prince of Classic Dye Products, Fallbrook, Calif. “A lot of our business deals with refinishers who go to dealer lots. The dealer may detail the exterior of a vehicle, but they want the interior to look like it’s brand new, too.”

“If nothing else, you’re going to have some fade from it sitting on the street,” adds Tom Piontek of the Middletown, Conn.-based Viper Products. “It will also start to crack in high-wear areas.”

And, for people who don’t treat their vehicles well, thanks to pet scratches, cigarette ash, spills or any number of other normal wear-and-tear issues, the demand can be higher.

Jeff Ochs of the Englishtown, N.J.-based Refinish Coatings LLC, says leather damage can also be caused by poor seat design, overly aggressive cleaners used on seats that wear off the protective top coat, or even caustic cleaners used by detail shops that give a quick clean but damage the long-term wearability of the leather seat.

Ochs’ comments point out perhaps the first rule of leather care, regardless of whether you’re detailing and looking to clean it for a customer or you’ve gotten into actual refinishing-”it’s vitally important to use products that won’t damage the surface or cause more problems for the customer down the road.

Both Ochs and Prince say the best cleaner is plain water with a little soap added. Ochs, for instance, recommends Joy dishwashing detergent.

“Conditioners aren’t all the same,” he explains. “You want to use a conditioner without any silicone or lanoline in it. Silicone attracts the dirt, and lanoline can be sticky and waxy and also attract more dirt.”

As with just about any other restyling job, leather refinishing begins with having a clean surface. After wiping the surface with soap and water, Prince recommends using a prep cleaner, which will further open the pores of the leather and soften it a bit further to accept the dye.

“Soap and water isn’t necessarily good to prep with,” says Prince. “We have a water-based preparation that can either be sprayed on or wiped on. The best way to do it is with a soft-bristle brush or a 3M Scotch-Brite pad that helps clean the leather.”

When refinishing, Ochs recommends using a product that will strip off the urethane top coat without harming the long-term life of the leather. Refinish Coatings has designed such a product, and feels so strongly about it that it openly gives out the formula to customers and competitors.

“In the end, working together, we make this a good industry,” Ochs says.

The next step depends on the situation. If there are holes or cracks that need filling, they should to be taken care of first.

Piontek explains that cracks are normally addressed with the use of a water-based filler that’s allowed to air-dry and then sanded smooth.

“A hole is a little different,” he adds. “For those, we use a heat-seal compound to seal the hole. It’s basically a liquid that will turn into a solid. Then, you sand the area with a very fine-grit sandpaper and refinish it.”

Depending on the size of the area and the depth of the grain, the repair may also require that the new surface be textured. Piontek says there are a couple of different retexturing methods, including one that requires the use of a silicone compound and a catalyst and takes an image of the grain from an undamaged area.

“Then, after we spray the filler compound, we’ll take the grain pattern, warm it up a little and use it to give a more defined look to the new area,” he says.

Bringing Back the Color

Once the area is satisfactorily repaired, the next step is to refinish, or re-dye, the leather.

In reality, Ochs says that the word re-dye is a misnomer, since the leather was originally vat-dyed on the russet side at a tannery and then finished to the final OEM-specified color. More accurately, he explains, refinishing is simply refreshing the color.

“It’s a matter of basically spraying light coats of color on and allowing each one to dry to the touch between coats,” adds Prince. “The idea is to build up layers of color. If you spray it on too heavily, it doesn’t allow the bottom of the finish to dry properly.”

While mastering the use of airbrushes and a small compressor are typically part of the leather repair process, getting the correct color match is the biggest headache with refinishing, everyone agrees.

“While colors can be matched by eye, we have auto-matched colors, which have been matched to different vehicles,” says Piontek. “You’re taking a clear and adding a pigment, and we tell people to start in an inconspicuous spot before you start spraying all over.”

Prince says Classic Dye carries some 900 different colors just in its automotive line.

“If you know the interior name, we can usually research it and get the color,” he says. “We also have color chart books that are fairly close with the colors, although they’re not perfect because they’re done with a computer and printer.”

He says his company is working on developing electronic color-matching tools, as is Viper.

Refinish Coatings offers more than 4,000 pre-matched colors, and its Advanced Color Matching System that utilizes a computer program and a high-quality spectrophotometer.

Learning the Ropes

It’s recommended that anyone interested in getting into leather refinishing obtain some formal training to learn color-matching, the proper use of tools and the related skills necessary to perform a top-quality repair

Ochs says that Refinish Coatings is among the companies that offer free basic training on the use of their products, and notes that the company has also supplied training materials and spectrophotometers to some of the country’s top automotive technical schools, where they are incorporated into courses on trim and upholstery.

Viper also provides customer training, including in-depth education on color-matching.

“We offer hands-on training by the day,” says Piontek. “Normally, we recommend three or four days of training, but it depends on your other experience. After that, you’ll be fully capable of doing the work, but you’ll probably be slow in the beginning.”

And Prince says Classic Dye refers people to training programs around the country.

“The classes vary from a one-day class to a two-week course,” he explains. “It depends on how fast you want to learn the business. Of course, we’re available for online technical support for our customers.”

For the restyler ready to take on leather refinishing, there’s certainly a demand for the service both at the dealership level and with retail customers.

“Some of our people are detail shop owners who are looking to add services,” says Piontek. “Others are dealerships that want to provide the service in-house.”

Ochs cautions that some dealerships are reluctant to have an outside vendor work on the leather on anything besides used vehicles, because if the job is done poorly the dealership will take the brunt of the complaints.

But those restylers that learn to perform top-quality repairs will find plenty of opportunities. As with vinyl repair, leather refinishing has applications outside the automotive aftermarket. Along with boats, motorcycles, aircraft and recreational vehicles, it’s a skill that’s needed by hotels, motels, casinos, restaurants, interior decorators, furniture stores and upholstery shops, to name a few.

So it may be time to take advantage of most drivers’ aversion to caring for their leather seats by offering them a service that makes those luxury interiors look like new again.