Painting leather furniture is possible, but it’s a bit trickier than painting more common upholstery or other items with simple fabric paint. In addition to needing a specific kind of acrylic paint, there are certain preparations that must be made before you begin to paint your leather furniture.
If your leather itself is already peeling, small amounts of paint or dye may be enough to restore it, but leather that's in such poor condition already probably shouldn't be put through a project as harsh as this one.
Step 1 – Clean Up
The first step is to clean the leather. This phrase applies in more ways than one. Not only will dust and debris get in the way of painting and working, but you’re about to apply bleach to a large item. Move anything you don’t want to be harmed by the bleach away from the piece.
Step 2 – Bleach the Leather
Put on the protective clothing you’ll need to handle the bleach. This includes gloves, safety goggles, and a mask or respirator.
Mix some leather bleach with one pint of water to make a cleanser that's gentle enough not to damage the leather. Use the soft-bristled brush to scrub the leather thoroughly with the mixture. Take your time and make sure every nook and cranny is cleaned. When finished, dry the furniture off with a hand towel or clean rag.
Even if you buy a product that’s specifically called “leather bleach,” it will likely still have other classic bleach ingredients in it such as oxalic acid, so be sure to take proper precautions.
In other circumstances when you are simply cleaning leather, you may use warm or hot water in your solution to help open up the leather and speed the entire process along. Do not use warm water when you mix in your leather bleach. Water that is too hot won’t speed up the process of painting the furniture, it will just draw the vapors out of the bleach more quickly, exposing you to harmful fumes.
Step 3 - Take The Shine Off
While suede leather holds paint relatively well, the smoother, shinier types of leather are covered in layers of surface oils, wax, and other protective coatings. In order to make the paint adhere to the leather, these will have to be removed. In order to remove these and allow the paint to bind, apply some rubbing alcohol to a washcloth and thoroughly scrub the area of leather that will be painted. This will strip away the majority of the protective layers.
After this is done, take sandpaper and gently sand the leather once over to make sure all of the protection is removed. This has the added bonus of wearing the leather slightly. Even with fine sandpaper, any subtle unevenness you can give to the furniture’s surface will give the paint a greater chance of binding with the material.
Step 4 - Prime The Leather
Once the leather has been prepared to accept the paint, you will need to prime the material using a solution made up of one part acrylic paint and one part water. Essentially, this is a base coat of paint for the leather so that the later, undiluted coat of paint has something to adhere to.
If the leather surface is relatively small, use a wool dauber to apply the solution to the material. If the leather surface is quite large, such as a leather sofa, use a flat paintbrush and apply the solution with long, even strokes.
Apply one layer of this, and then flex the material to ensure the paint doesn't crack when drying. After flexing, apply a second layer, making sure the solution is absorbed into the fabric beforehand.
If it isn't being absorbed, simply add more water. Continue flexing and testing the leather material.
Step 5 - Paint Away
Once the second layer of primer solution is almost dry, apply a thin layer of undiluted acrylic paint across the entire surface. As before, take care to flex and stretch the leather afterward to ensure the paint doesn't crack during the drying phase. Then, apply as many coats as necessary, keeping in mind that several thin coats last longer than one thick coat.
While any brand of acrylic paint is more suited for leather painting than other paint types, be aware that there are subcategories. For example, acrylic leather paints specifically engineered to work on leather clothing will not be as perfect on your furniture as a furniture specific brand might be.
The silver lining is that if you do things incorrectly or if your paint starts cracking and peeling, you can always try again. The only real risk is that you'll dislike what you change and wish to go back to your old leather furniture. With the bleach and the sanding, it's impossible to move backward.