Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Real Facts about DIY Leather and Vinyl Repair

You’ve seen it on TV - the magical do-it-yourself leather repair kit that eliminates a major tear in any leather surface “in just minutes!” The color is always perfect, and so is the grain-pattern. It’s simply amazing. How can this be? Leather repair and restoration specialists, with many years experience of constant, day-to-day practice may take hours to achieve similar results. But on TV, it happens “in just minutes!”

Now for the reality check. Small problems have turned into big problems --- big problems have turned into utter devastation “in just minutes!” AS professionals see this happen regularly even with customers that are technically astute. Many of them are people who remodel their own homes, restore their own cars, etc. They’re experienced at Do-It-Yourself (DIY) projects and aren’t afraid to tackle a new one. So, the question is: Are the companies selling these Do-It-Yourself leather repair kits on TV misrepresenting the process?

This picture is a case in point. The customer had cat scratch damage on several areas. The customer purchased a repair kit that included several colors and a mixing chart. What you see the customer’s attempt at color matching. Not only is the hue very wrong, but it’s also flat and muddy compared to the rich, bright brown of the original.

The lesson learned here is that despite what TV and website advertisers claim, successful leather repair requires time, attention to detail, and a willingness to forego instant gratification.

The formula or product that will give good, long-lasting results with little or no effort is an illusion. However, that doesn’t mean that do-it-yourself leather repair is impossible. It simply means that the project be approached with realistic expectations and a willingness to follow the appropriate procedures with the right materials and help from experienced technicians.

Repair Process Overview

There are many types of leather. For simplicity sake, our focus here is the most common leather found on furniture and automobiles. Its call finished leather.

There are two types of typical damage to upholstery grade finished leather:
1. Damage that affects the topical color only.
2. Damage that affects the color and the underlying leather fibers.

To address each condition, there are two primary components of a leather repair kit. The first is fill material (also referred to as fill or repair compound), which is used to fill any void in the leather created by the damage (cut, burn, gouge, etc.). The second is the surface colored finish. Some sold on TV kits mix the color directly with the fill compound. In the interest of not boring you beyond all reason, let me just say that this is a bad idea on many levels. If you’re the type that absolutely must know then email me ( and I’ll support my point with specific facts.

Repair Compounds

An internet search under “leather repair kits” will yield site after site that offers do-it-yourself leather repair kits. Usually, it’s something called Leather-“blah”, where “blah” is any descriptive term that implies “As if it never happened – in just minutes!”.

Here’s the rub. Many of these kits are based on chemistries intended for vinyl repair. These sites suggest that their kits are suitable for leather, or vinyl. Let’s look at the facts about what you are buying.

The fill compounds used for vinyl repair are oil-based. Oil impregnation is an underlying chemical basis for vinyl as an upholstery material. The active ingredient that offers wear resistance is a solid (PVC), which is (as you know if you’ve ever held a piece of PVC pipe in your hands) a stiff, hard plastic. This plastic is heated and mixed with oils, which give flexibility to the finished product. This is all fine, if you’re using oil-based fillers on vinyl, where the damaged area of material is chemically similar.

The fact is leather is quite different. It is an organic material and absorbent by nature (imagine a leather chamois that you’d use to dry your car). When you apply oil-based filler to leather, over time the oils migrate into the surrounding leather fibers leaving the PVC solids behind. The fill compound then reverts to its natural state (stiff PVC plastic). Because the oils are no longer present to soften the fill material it stiffens and subsequently cracks when required to flex (i.e. the seating area of a sofa). So, lesson one is to use fill material that has been chemically engineered for leather.

Color Chemistry

Now we come to the color application. This is the part of the repair process where you apply color to conceal the damage including the fill compound, if it were necessary.

There are two components that make up leather or vinyl colored finishes, binder and pigment. The binder is basically a clear film or resin which encapsulates or binds (hence the name) the individual pigment molecules in place. The pigment presents the actual color. In combination, the binder chemistry holds the pigment molecule in place, each over-lapping its neighbor, so that a field of over-lapping pigment molecules is seen as an uninterrupted field of color. This is the same principle represented in any paint medium, from house paint, to car paint, to canvas acrylics, etc.

The chemical engineering behind the binder determines the characteristics of the colored finish. If it is a stiff resin, it will not have good flex properties. If it is a soft, pliable resin, then it will have good flex properties. Since leather is required to flex, then soft resins are key. However, many flexible resins don’t have good chemical or wear-resistance. So it’s a blend of resins each imparting its own physical characteristics for good wear resistance in combination with high flex characteristics. There is a lot more to the story that goes beyond the scope of this article however, the following lists the attributes of good materials used for leather repair and coloring.

1. They should pass the test of time and repeatedly flex over the life of the leather.
2. They should have good chemical resistance (from water, to caustic cleaners, to solvents).
3. They should have a low profile, so the color film follows the fine grain pattern of the leather and not bridge over the valley of the grain.
4. They should have an inviting tactile quality, and not resemble a piece of plastic.
5. The colors should have excellent covering power yet present bright, clear hues.

The Color Match

Now add the art of color matching and you have the ingredients for a repair that is essentially invisible and will last the life of the leather. Color matching is an acquired skill. If you’re off even by a little bit, you can see that the leather has been repaired. For best results, access to color matching professionals would make the DIY repair task so much easier and dramatically improving the probability of an invisible repair.

Let’s take another look at that disaster cat damaged sofa with the terrible color match and what it looks like when repaired and color matched correctly.
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So, let’s review. For best performance the colors and fill material are chemically engineered uniquely for leather, not vinyl. And the color is matched correctly.

As leather technicians, our goal is to provide a permanent solution. We need quality materials to do our job. After years of continual improvement and testing in the real world of professional repair and restoration we have created state-of-the-art fillers and colors for our own professional use. We now make them available to you. The components of a DIY repair kit are the same fill compounds and colors that we use professionally.

We also offer professional color matching services, placing the burden of getting the color right in the hands of experienced pros.

If you’re willing to invest the time and effort necessary, then the repair you want can be accomplished using the same materials and techniques we’ve used for years and with our help color matching.

To help guide you we include detailed instructions, often via DVD video. And, we’re here if you need technical support. We want the result of do-it-yourself leather repair to be what it looks like on TV, but with a dose of reality. Our goal is to empower consumers with quality materials and techniques, offering the option of resolving leather furniture problems through quality and effective DIY Leather solutions.

Copyright 2009 Kevin Gillan

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