I love decorating with old English riding boots and English saddles, but often the condition I find these items in is far from pristine. While I enjoy weathered antiques, when it comes to leather, it’s not a great look. Often, just a little conditioner and dye make the difference between an item that belongs in the trash and an item that complements a sophisticated equestrian-inspired look.
Whether you are restoring an antique for display or refreshing a beloved pair of boots for another season of styling with your favorite outfits, this step-by-step method for restoring the appearance of worn leather is easily worth the time investment for dramatic results.
Below is a great example of the transformation of a pair of riding boots from “ugh” to fab! I stumbled across these boots at a thrift store. Commonly with cheap riding boots, friction between the rider’s leg and the saddle discolors or even removes the dye from the inside of the boot. To restore these boots to display-condition, the boots needed black dye added to the discolored surfaces.
Start by cleaning your leather item.
It may be tempting to just wipe the item down, but leather goods like boots and saddles will have a tough gummy substance on the surface (a combination of dirt merging with the oils present in leather). Scrubbing with soap and water is necessary to remove this residue. Use as little water as possible, but do clean thoroughly. Don’t worry, oiling later will restore any oils lost during cleaning.
Prepare to Apply Dye to the Leather
Once completely dry, it’s time to dye your worn boots.
A local leather shop can help you match shades of brown if you are dying a delicate item, but an easier option, if you are working with a light colored item, is to dye the entire surface a darker shade.
When working with black items such as riding boots, Fiebings Black Leather Dye is always a safe bet- I’ve done perhaps a half dozen black boots and saddles with no color matching issues, using this inexpensive but professional-grade dye.
Using dye can be messy! Prepare and be careful- protect your skin and surrounding surfaces from this permanent dye!
Prepare your area
Listen, no matter how careful you are, you WILL permanently stain whatever surface you work on. So plan ahead!
- I recommend working on top of a flattened cardboard box with a trashbag or plastic drop cloth underneath it. The cardboard forms a very absorbant layer, preventing drips and splashes.
- Wear clothes you’d paint in.
- Use thin exam gloves or, in a pinch, thick rubber gloves (the latter makes fine movement harder, so I prefer thin exam or food prep gloves)
In these photos, I’m working on a cardboard sheet placed on top of a masonite sheet.
Prepare your tools:
You’ll need dish gloves or latex gloves and something to transfer dye with.
Sometimes dye comes with a dab of wool, but you may need something larger. Here, I use a chunk of wool roving.
Apply Dye to Restore the Worn Leather to New Looking:
Working quickly but carefully, paint the dye onto the surface of the leather.
The dye may sit for a few minutes on the surface of the leather appearing to pool up on the surface- but that’s ok! You’ll notice this effect particularly in spots where the original finish is intact.
Let the dye sit on the surface for a few minutes, giving it a chance to soak in.
Most dye will absorb immediately. Let the boot sit for 2-3 minutes and wipe off the excess dye with a clean, soft cloth.
You may need to buff with a bit of elbow grease to restore a nice finish.
You’ll see lots of improvement after one coat, but some thick full grain leather items like saddles usually need a second or even third coat to penetrate the leather fully.
Allow the dye to fully dry, apply your favoirte shoe polish or leather conditioner, buff the sruface, and enjoy your newly restored leather!
Fiebings dye is alcohol based, and will dry quickly. Once completely dry you can put the item to use immediately! You may wish to oil or condition the item to prolong life and restore the oils lost during the cleaning step.
Still need some work on your boots? For restoring plush, fleece, or sheepskin boot liners, check out my tutorial, if your boots are a little too big and giving you blisters, try the same trick I use to keep heels from slipping, it works great on boots too!
TIP: Getting Riding Boots to Stand Straight for Display.
Traditionally, riding boots were stored with wooden boot trees, which look beautiful but are difficult to find (and very expensive!) now. There are many functional plastic options for storing “working” riding boots, but for display, it’s difficult to find an option that looks vintage and supports the boot properly.
To hold the boots upright that I use for display, I now cut and place a 2×2 inside the boot. Screwed once through the sole, and once to the back of the calf, boots with a board secured as illustrated will not sag or tilt, and still have room to be used as a vase for flower bouquets or farm christmas decoration greenery as the seasons change.