Do you own a car with a leather interior? Is said interior dried out, cracked, and looks like it was made from a prehistoric cow? Are you torn between springing for a pair of Recaro GT3's, or handing $1500 to a discount shop that "promises" to make your original seats look like new? Personally, I think if you have any pride of ownership, a little patience, and a little money, many people can re-dye their own seats. I have personally redone seats, and they look very close to new.
I'm hesitant to post instructions on the Internet. That's because within any large group, a certain percentage of people will get confused and things can go very wrong. When they do go wrong, some people feel others should assist them financially in correcting their mishap. I have no idea what retail price is on a factory seat and have no intention on helping anyone replace one. These are not instructions and should not be used to guide anyone through the process of refinishing leather and/or vinyl. Any information supplied hereunder is based on my personal experience and is for entertainment value only. Over time, products as well as the instructions for those products change. The information at this site is not intended to replace or supplant any other instructions. If you are intimidated by the thought of pulling your car apart, working with dangerous power tools (like a paint brush, sponges, a bucket, and possibly a ratchet and socket), stop right now. You are much better off taking your car to a professional upholstery shop where the technician will tell you that for two thousand dollars they'll re-dye your seats. If you decide to recolor your seats, you should research the leather you're restoring and follow the instructions supplied with the materials used.
When I refinish leather using Surflex colorant, I'm actually re-coloring leather, not re-dyeing it. Basically, I'm painting it - just like most car manufacturers do. Painted finishes protect and preserve the leather much better than open dyed finishes. If leather has been dyed, any cracks will run through the dye, and go all the way into the leather. The cracks on painted leather surfaces are a type of stress relief in the finish (paint). If the seats have been cared for, the leather beneath usually doesn't have any cracks. Any interior, whether it is made of leather or vinyl, can be refinished. It's not very difficult. Surflex colorant can be applied with a paint brush, which means parts can be done while in the car. Also, this really is "special paint". This isn't Krylon or something to be used on lawn furniture. If standard spray paint is used on seats, the leather will be sealed. With the pores sealed, the leather can't be conditioned. In a short while, the seats will have to be recovered.
Before being re-colored, the leather should be conditioned. Lexol, Connolly Hide Food, Meguiar's, and One Grand are all a fine products. At least one of them can be found almost anywhere. Some people swear by Zymol, until they put it on top of another conditioner, then they just swear. The point is, seats should be prepped before changing to Zymol conditioner.
To prep a seat for conditioner, I pour some lacquer thinner on a terry cloth towel, and wipe the seat with the towel. Along with the dirt, any old conditioner residue will come off. This won't remove any of the old color on the seat. If it does, someone has worked on the seat in the past.
At this point the seats are ready for conditioner. Recently, I've been using a product called Eagle One's Leather Crème Conditioner. It's applied liberally, and allowed to soak in. After letting it sit for 30 minutes, it's wiped dry. The procedure is repeated again in two days. That should be enough conditioning. If the leather has hardened in places, Surflex Leather "Soffener" (yes, that's how it's spelled) may prove beneficial.
Two days after the last conditioning, the seats have to be cleaned. The seats can be cleaned in the car, or out. Removing them will give better accessibility for both the cleaning and the coloring.
I use three buckets, three sponges, and a citrus cleaner. My preference is P21S Total Auto Wash by Smartparts. Wurth Citrus Degreaser is good as well. "Mild soap" is supposed to be good to use on leather, but since I don't know what the definition of "mild soap" is, I only use these leather products on leather. For the uninformed, products such as Tide, Ivory Liquid, and Castrol Superclean will ruin the seats. Three ounces of P21S is placed in a bucket containing about three gallons of warm water. A word to the wise; don't use too much. P21S is a very strong cleaner that's also used to degrease engines and undercarriages.
Bucket number 1 has the cleaner and it's own sponge. The seats are cleaned with the sponge from bucket number 1. Bucket number 2 has clear water, and some rinsing sponges. The seats are rinsed with the sponges from bucket number 2. Bucket number 3 starts off empty. After rinsing the seats with the sponges from bucket number 2, the water is squeezed out of the sponges and into bucket number 3. The object is to keep the rinse water as clean as possible.
The seats must be allowed to dry. During the summer months in a warm garage, this will be done in a day. Depending on the temperature and how much water the leather absorbed, it may take longer. The seats should be thoroughly dry before applying the colorant.
After the seats are dry, they are ready to be colored. Surflex Leather/Vinyl Flexible Colorant should be used in a well-ventilated area. The 8-oz container is more than enough. I use a soft bristle paintbrush to apply it. Per the can, it takes 24 hours to dry, although it's probably dry in two hours. It's supposed to take six weeks to fully cure.
Color Plus carries the Surflex product line. In addition to mixing custom colors, Color Plus has Surflex Colorant in a number of factory colors for BMW, Jaguar, Lexus, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and Rolls. Car Care Specialties carries it as well.
An 8 ounce can is plenty. I could do two cars with that much. Click here to see the Mercedes-Benz leather color chart.
Here's the before & after of a seat that most people would either throw away, or have recovered.
This shows the leather as it appears in the steps used to bring a worn seat back to as-new condition. In this case, the seat bottom was in much worse shape than the previous seat.