Last week I described trying to freshen up the Pearl Beige sport seats in my E30 325iS prior to my putting it on eBay for sale. The car’s driver’s seat had small holes worn through the bolsters, so I bought and disassembled an E30 sport passenger seat to get its bolsters, and swapped them onto my driver’s seat. My E30’s passenger seat was in very good condition, other than a little cracking in the leather on the bolsters and sun exposure that had darkened the Pearl Beige finish to almost an olive color.

I could have simply swapped the bolsters and stopped there; I would’ve had two un-ripped seats whose appearance would’ve been commensurate with the car’s 140,000 miles. However, the spider web cracks in the leather and the darkening from sun made both seats look old; I’m trying to sell the E30, so I wanted to have seats that “pop” to help the car reach my asking price. Besides, already having the driver’s seat disassembled, there was no better time to dye. So down the rabbit hole I went.

Let’s continue the see-one-do-one-teach-one paradigm I started last week:

Do You Really Want To Do This Yourself?

Having just replaced the bolsters on the driver’s seat, I could have simply taken both seats to the local upholstery shop that quoted me a very reasonable cost of $150 per seat to dye them. I went back and forth about this for several days, weighing pros and cons. The lowest cost of a dye kit was about $100l I estimated that I could thus save perhaps $200 by doing it myself.

But it was more than just a question of cost. The issues seemed to be:

  • Would my work be inferior? Would I get an extra $200 worth of quality if I paid a professional to do it?
  • Would I enjoy doing it myself?
  • As is the question with any new tool or skill, once I knew how to do it myself, would I be likely to pull this tool out of the toolbox and use it again?

It was largely the fact that the answer to the last question was a resounding “yes” that swayed me to dye the seats myself—plus I found this excellent article on dyeing E30 sport seats. I read it thoroughly, and thought, yeah, it totally looks like I can do that.

It’s All In The Preparation

I cannot state strongly enough how much seat dyeing is like drywall or bodywork—neither of which I have the patience to do well—in that it’s all about preparation. The better you prep the seats, the better the results will be. You can dye old, worn, cracked leather seats, and their appearance may improve, but the new dye and the old cracks will look at odds with each other. Just as with drywall, you need to fill the cracks and then sand the surface smooth. Also, old seats typically have gradations of wear, from normal creases to light spiderweb cracks to deeply separated splits. It’s challenging to know where to draw the line when repairing.

Do You Really Need To Disassemble The Entire Seat To Dye It?

In my case, I wandered into dye-land because I replaced bolsters that had actual holes, so one of my seats was already completely disassembled, but many people will want to rejuvenate seats that simply have wear cracks. Do you need to disassemble the seats to dye them? It’s not much different from painting a car: The more disassembled the seat is, the better the dye job will come out. At a minimum, the plastic covers and levers should come off. The back and base sections really should be disconnected from each other so the dye can reach the places where they rub together. Once you do that, it’s trivial to pull the hinges off the base. Then the question is whether or not to remove the center sections so they’re not obscuring the bolsters. Unfortunately, that means having to remove and reinstall the hog rings holding the center sections to the frame.

Since I re-bolstered the driver’s seat, it was already totally disassembled, so I dyed it that way, with separate top, bottom, back center, and base center pieces. With the passenger seat, I pulled the levers and covers off, separated the back and base, and removed the hinges, but I left the center cushions in place. Why? I was simply sick of dealing with hog rings. I reached in with a foam brush to apply dye to the areas where the center sections obscured the bolsters or vice-versa. It was not optimal, but it came out okay. In my defense, a contributing reason for my shortcut was the fact that the passenger seat was in very good condition, needing only a little crack-filling on the bolsters before being returned to its original color.

Selecting A Dye Kit

A web search showed that dye kits seem to be sold by three main companies: Leatherique, ColorPlus, and LeatherTechWorld. The kits contain prep agent, dye, some sort of crack filler, a post-dye conditioning agent, and a few ancillary supplies.

The E30 seat-dyeing article referenced above used the LeatherTechWorld kit. I called LeatherWorldTech to ask a few questions. The person I spoke with said that they sell two filling products, a finish filler and a crack filler, and that the difference between them is that the finish filler can be rubbed into light spider-web cracks and is easily sand-able, whereas the crack filler is meant for fully separated cracks; it dries like Elmer’s glue, and is more difficult to sand. I sent him photos of my seats, and he recommended that I use the finish filler. However, he noted that their leather-dye kit contained the crack filler, as well as a leather patch and adhesive I didn’t need. On his advice, I ordered the vinyl dye kit, as it didn’t have any filler, patch, or adhesive. The kit came with 8 of cleaning agent, 16 ounces of dye, a post-dye conditioning agent, an applicator sponge, and a Scotch Brite pad, reportedly enough supplies to do both seats.

I then added finish filler to my order. The cost was just under $100 shipped. The kits from the two other vendors appeared to cost closer to $150.

Now, time and time again, I make decisions based on cost, and come out of it shaking my head and muttering, “That was stupid.” Obviously, it would’ve been idiotic to save fifty bucks if it jeopardized the project. But searching online, I didn’t find any bad reviews about the LeatherTechWorld kit. What I read seemed to coalesce around the view that the dyes from all three manufacturers are similar, although you’re advised to use a set of products from one company (that is, it may not be the best idea to mix and match cleaning agents, dyes, and conditioners from different sources).

So I pulled the trigger on the LeatherTechWorld kit.

Note that I was only looking at ordering commercial off-the-shelf Pearl Beige dye. All three of these vendors also offer custom dyes. You may be interested in this option for reasons other than changing the color; as you’ll read below, dyeing the front seats back to the original color may make them no longer match the back seats or the door panels or pulls, as those may have faded or darkened as well. Depending on the result you’re trying to get, you may want to talk with a vendor about a custom color.

Select Which Upholstery Pieces You’re Using

As I noted above, I bought the passenger seat to strip it for its bolsters, but once I disassembled both it and the driver’s seat and examined both of their seat cushions carefully, it was clear that all of the upholstery pieces from the parts seat were in better condition than their counterparts on the driver’s seat. Both of the original cushions on the driver’s seat had a fair amount of cracking that would have been time-consuming to fill and sand, and the seat base had one area where the stitching was missing.

So I swapped all of the leather from the passenger seat onto the driver’s seat. The tradeoff was that the adjustable thigh bolster from the parts seat had a good-sized divot in it. The upholstery covering the thigh bolster is sewn onto the seat cushion in such a way that you can’t separate the bolster without either disassembling the cushion or cutting the leather. I almost had Maire Anne (who has mad seamstress skills) cut the leather and sew it back together, but decided to try filling the divot instead.

Cleaning The Seats

Before dyeing the seats, you need to get them as clean as possible. I first used a light general household spray cleaner, and it had surprisingly little effect. I then used my steam cleaner. That did a better job, but a good number of stains were left, particularly on the places where the seat pieces rubbed against each other. Although these places aren’t visible when the seats are reassembled, I was concerned about these stains affecting the quality of the dye job.

The instructions on the cleaning/prep agent that came with the kit specified that if the leather had deep oily stains, another product needed to be used first. I decided that the stains on mine weren’t “oily,” and followed the instructions to spray the prep agent on and work it in with the Scotch Brite pad. It worked unbelievably well, taking off stains as well as breaking the glaze of the top coat of old dye. You could see some dye come up on the Scotch Brite pad, followed by the softening and opening effect it had on the leather. You’d never want to use this stuff simply to clean stains off seats without then dyeing them.

Filling The Cracks

I sanded the spider-web cracks in the leather of both seats with 600 and 800 grit sandpaper to remove the crack edges. I then applied the finish filler on large sections of the bolsters, as that’s where most of the cracks were, and sanded again. As I said, it’s like preparing drywall; any roughness that you feel with your finger will be visible through the dye. If you want it to look perfect, you have to get it perfectly smooth. I did three passes in most areas. It was just about at my limit of patience for this sort of thing, but surprisingly satisfying.

There were a few small cracks on the seat base and back, but there were also quite a few wear creases, and I saw no reason to smooth those out. There was, however, that one deep divot in the thigh bolster. It took several applications to fill. It was like using wall spackle; with every application, it dried and shrank, and I had to keep layering it in. Using a heat gun significantly sped up the cure cycle. I thought I’d finally filled it, called it good enough, dyed the cushion, hated the way I could still see the repair through the dye, used the prep agent to clean the dye off, and did three more applications of finish filler on it. You can still see it on the finished seat if you look for it, but the eye is no longer drawn to it.

In My Time Of Dyeing: Foam, Brush, Or Spray?

I applied a first coat of dye using the applicator sponge that came with the kit, working the dye in especially well in the areas that had the most sanding and repair. I was initially alarmed by the degree of orange peel, bubble aeration, and streaks left by the sponge, but it looked much better after it dried.

Nonetheless, everything you’ll read about dyeing seats says that you’ll likely be left with visible streaks if you use a brush or a foam pad, and that it’ll come out much better if you instead spray the dye. I read a recommendation that an inexpensive Harbor Freight Adjustable Detail Air Spray Gun (item 92126, $14.99) is adequate, so I bought one. Now, I’ve never hooked a spray gun to my compressor before, having always been scared off from spraying paint by concerns about temperature, lack of cleanliness, my inexperience, and using the wrong equipment. But dye isn’t paint. I bought a $12 in-line filter, put it before the gun, set the compressor to about 50 psi, pulled the trigger, and had at it. Despite my apprehension, it worked absolutely fine.

I simply put all of the seat pieces on a big sheet of cardboard on the floor of the garage and sprayed three coats, waiting for the pieces to dry between coats. It was enormously satisfying seeing the transformation as the dye coverage became uniform.

I then reassembled both seats; the results looked fantastic. I was about to clean and spray the large seat-back panels when I realized that I probably didn’t have enough dye. I laid the back panel onto one seat, and I could tell that the color was slightly off due to the panel having darkened with age. Then I noticed that the headrest color was off as well.

I thought I had little choice but to order a $25 8-ounce bottle of dye, wait for it to arrive, then do the seat backs and the headrests. But then I looked at the door-handle pulls and the back seat, and realized that they all had darkened a bit toward olive. I thought, “Well, I’m not going to dye all of them. I’m calling it done.”

I put the seat backs on both seats and was at peace with the slight color mismatch. But the mismatch of the headrests was obvious; the fact that they’re right next to the window had caused them to get a lot more sun exposure than the seat backs, and thus darken considerably, as well as to put the color mismatch right in your face.

I looked in the dye bottle. There was one inch of dye left. Fortunately, it turned out to be plenty to do both headrests.

They were the first pieces I dyed that needed to be sprayed from all sides, including the bottom. Fortunately, I found some Styrofoam blocks I could jam the posts into and elevate the headrests. Done.

Here are the “before” photos of the seats inside the car:

And here it is with the newly dyed seats:

Those with eagle eyes may notice the crinkle in the bolster on the upper left side of the driver’s seat, where either I didn’t pull the leather taut enough, or the edge of the foam under the bolster is peeling up. But overall, pretty good, huh?

The Time It Takes

It probably took me about two or three days, working on and off, to strip the driver’s seat and the parts seat and swap the bolsters. It was then about another two days, also working on and off, to clean and prep the seats and dye them. The actual spraying of dye was the easiest part and went very quickly. The spray gun’s instructions had all sorts of warnings to clean the gun if you weren’t going to use it within five minutes or else it would clog, but I think this is more applicable to latex paint. I had absolutely no problems leaving dye in the gun all day.

Reassembling the seats was quick; both were done in an evening. Reattaching the hog rings holding the back and base seat cushions to the frame was by far the most tedious part. It was kind of silly of me not to pull the center cushions out of the passenger seat simply because I was tired of dealing with hog rings, but they don’t look any the worse for my shortcut.

The Cost And The Quality

After I was done, I wondered what quality of results I would’ve gotten from the local upholstery shop who quoted me the very attractive price of $150 per seat to dye them. I don’t know what product they would’ve used, or what degree of disassembly and prep that would’ve bought. In a perfectly scientific world, I would have done one seat myself and paid them to do the other to A/B the results, but obviously no one would actually do that.

Factoring in the purchase of the spray gun and some other sundries, I probably saved about $150 by doing it myself ($300 to have them dyed versus spending $150). On paper, the amount of time it took probably wasn’t worth the $150. But I don’t think, as was one of my concerns at the outset, that it cost me $150 worth of quality— they came out looking great. And more important, I learned a lot doing it, it was surprisingly enjoyable, and I’d definitely consider doing it again for either a keeper or a flipper.

The Puns

When I dived into the dye job, I posted the progress on my Facebook page with the heading “Time To Dye,” a reference to Roy Batty’s soliloquy at the end of Blade Runner (“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe”). The Hack Mechanic faithful then deluged me with movie and song-related dye puns:

  • “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to dye.”
  • “No, mister Bond, I expect you to dye!”
  • “Dye Another Day” (The Bond franchise is fertile ground for dye puns).
  • “I feel like I’m-a-fixin’ to dye!”
  • “Do you realize that everyone you know, someday, will dye?” (Hey, there should be at least one for those born after 1985.)
  • And this from Sam Smith, who aimed for the pun I’d already used but veered away and then went in for the tangential kill: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched the C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhaüser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in whoa dude that’s a lotta hog rings.”

To cap off the madness, Photoshop wizard Eric King—he who replaced Kurt Russell’s face with mine in a Used Cars poster—created this gem:

Seriously, though” Dye Another Day? For the right set of seats in the right car, absolutely.

And the eBay auction? The car sold for $7,999, so from a work/reward standpoint, it was totally worth it.—Rob Siegel

Rob’s first book, Memoirs of a Hack Mechanic, and his new book, The Hack Mechanic Guide to European Automotive Electrical Systems, are available through Bentley Publishers, Amazon, ECS Tuning, and Bavarian Autosport—or you can get personally inscribed copies through Rob’s website: