Friday, October 1, 2010

Ink on Leather? Beware of Home Remedies

A consumer has a new Ashley Furniture leather sofa that has suffered an pen mark (ink) on it.  The owner of the piece did an Internet search and read that hairspray would pull out ink from leather.  This picture shows the results.  The hairspray didn't pull out the ink, instead it stripped the outer color coating (print coat) in a few places around the ink.  Note the light spots.  That's the exposed base color coat after the print coat was dissolved by the hairspray.  

What actually happened when the hairspray hit the leather?  Hairspray has alcohol as an ingredient along with a bunch of other nasty stuff including versions of lacquer.  Alcohol is a solvent that will strip color from leather.  The hairspray theory is based on the alcohol's ability to pull the color of the ink out of the leather.  However as you see, the hairspray did strip color, just the wrong color.  It dissolved the color of the leather.

The unfortunate fact is alcohol can't discriminate between the coloring on the leather and the ink coloring.  This is exacerbated by this particular leather's weak chemical resistance, a hallmark of Ashley leather furniture.  The broad hairspray pattern hit the leather in a wide swath causing collateral damage. It's like the old military practice of carpet bombing.  Whereas what is needed is precision in attacking just the ink stripe, leaving the surrounding leather unharmed.

There are several strategies to resolve an ink problem.  Keep in mine this key point --- the ink is not harming the leather.  It is strictly an aesthetic issue. Here is the text of an earlier post from my blog that specifically discusses ink on leather.

In the interest of disseminating accurate and complete information about leather furniture restoration and repair, I wrote this post for people who have the common problem of ink on their leather furniture. There's lots of misinformation on the web about ink on leather. So, here are the facts.

Ink on leather? It's a common problem and completely solvable. The only question is if it requires professional attention or, can you resolve the issue yourself.

First, the basics:

1. Ink is primarily a dye. As such the ink has recolored the leather. It is not harmful to the leather. So the problem is strictly aesthetic.

2. If you can get to it quickly, then using a damp cloth, attempt to transfer as much ink off the leather as you can before it sets in the leather. Gently wipe or blot. In a short period of time, the ink travels into the leather. Don’t rub or you’ll push the ink into the leather, and possible rub out the leather’s grain pattern. Keep in mind that once ink penetrates into the leather it essentially has recolored the leather. No amount of aggressive rubbing will change that fact. You might also try a soft artist eraser, gently tracing the ink line. The objective is to pull the ink out before it has a chance to set.

3. Once it is set, removing ink from the leather is NOT a cleaning issue. In almost all cases any cleaner used that is strong enough to pull out the ink, won’t know the difference between the color of the ink and the color of the leather. Aggressive cleaning may pull out the ink, but will also pull out the leather color as well. And, aggressive cleaning chemicals will do more harm (pH damage) to the leather than the ink. 

4. The use of ink sticks or other products advertised to remove ink is risky business. The active ingredient is a solvent intended to neutralize the ink. Its success depends on how sensitive your leather is to chemical intervention. If the finish on your leather is chemically resistant it may work, but then again, A) it may pull the color out of the leather, B) may simply smear the ink around, C) may pull the protective top coat from the leather, D) may not do anything at all. Ink sticks and the like are clearly a “Buyer Beware” issue. Be careful.

5. Consider this --- one attribute of ink is that it migrates. That is to say the ink moves. This means that an accidental ink stripe may be absorbed into the leather and present a gradually fading reference that dissipates within a few weeks. So, a minor ink stripe may disappear of its own accord. Therefore, as time is not critical, leave it alone for a few weeks and see what happens. It may disappear altogether or become faint enough that it is no longer be an issue. However, if there is a high concentration of dye (i.e. permanent marker like a Sharpie pen) or a larger volume (ink spill) then what you see will be there for a long, long time.

6. If it hasn't dissipated on its own accord, or doesn’t responded to your gentle cleaning attempts then it’s probably time to turn it over to a professional. There is a two step process to resolve it. 

A solvent, (e.g. denatured alcohol) is used to neutralize the ink, knowing that it will in all likelihood affect the color of the leather. If you want to try this step yourself, then use a Q-Tip or like device moistened with alcohol and trail down the ink line. Keep turning the Q-Tip to a clean area so that you don’t transfer the ink that has been absorbed by the Q-Tip back on the leather. If the ink has been neutralized, and you haven’t disturbed the color, you’re very lucky. 

If the color has been affected, then it’s on to step # 2. Using an airbrush, and the properly mixed leather color, the offended area is airbrushed and viola - the problem disappears. The final step is to apply a top coat with the air brush. The top coat is the primary protection on the leather and it also dictates the sheen. 

It is important to note that simply coloring over the ink is likely not effective. Remember, one of ink’s attributes is migration. If you simply color over, then the ink will migrate up through the color coating and present itself all over again.

Once ink has set, ink removal from leather generally requires a professional as the key to success is color matching. Without experience, color matching can be very difficult. A final consideration is the type of leather. The more delicate the leather, the more difficult it will be to extract the ink and apply color so that it is undetectable. For more information about this and other issues associated with leather, go to

Copyright 2009, Kevin Gillan       

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