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So, what am I doing different?

Things have been a bit quiet here lately, mainly due to a new job but also a dose of shingles left we with no energy for anything.

I’m on the mend and have finally got around to dyeing the samples for the paint tests. I’d prepared the dye about the first week in January, by pouring about 125ml of cider vinegar in a container and then adding enough 0000 steel wool to just be covered by the liquid. I agitated it every couple of days and two weeks later when the steel wool had dissolved, added as much again. It has sat that way for the past three weeks and now is a grimy brown liquid with residual grit sitting at the bottom.

I’d done some reading and everyone seemed to complain that the best one could expect from this sort of dye was a darkish grey that would darken on application of tallow or wax, so I was prepared for patchy results. I did a single dip for each of three pieces of the same harness butt I use for my blackjacks and leather bottels. As I lifted each one out, it was a pale grey that darkened almost immediately to a deep grey, deepening within minutes to an even, deep black. So black, I had to label the samples so I could tell them from the samples done with modern spirit dye.

Iron dyed veg-tanned leather samples. This is 30 seconds after the dye dip.

Just in case it was a particularly high-tannin leather, I also tried samples of carving leather, newly tanned calf leather and a piece of heat-sealed goat skin. All but the goat are jet black, it has gone a pleasant pale silver.

So what have I done differently, or what did I do right? Did ignoring the mix for three weeks contribute to this success?

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11 thoughts on “So, what am I doing different?

  1. Just took a call from a friend who’s a cabinet maker and specialises in historical work. He uses a similar dye on wood and leather using an 18th century recipe from a book he found. He mixes up 3kg of steel wool in a litre of spirit vinegar and always gets a good strong black.

    Looks like the best results come from a saturated solution.

  2. 3kg of steel wool in one litre of liquid? That’s a helluva lot of steel wool in a small amount of liquid, or am I mis-imagining things.

  3. In my experience, grey when dry is about normal until you oil or grease the leather. You get two different sorts of colour, depending on the type of tannins in the leather, deep blue-grey that makes the best black when you oil it or a browner colour. It’s to do with the level of pyrogallic acid in with the tannins.

    Something to be wary of, that I have run into is that if there is insufficient tannin in the leather this will leave the surface brittle and prone to cracking and delaminating. I have run into this with modern ‘veg’ tan belts and a veg deer purse. The book M. C. Lamb’s book “Leather Dressing, Including Dyeing, Staining and Finishing” (http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?sts=t&tn=Leather+Dressing,+Including+Dyeing,+Staining+and+Finishing&x=0&y=0) has details on the whys and wherefores and recommends adding logwood extract. Not sure if that was in use by the 17th century, but it certainly was by the 18th.

  4. The delamination I saw in my items took a year or so to become evident.

    3kg of steel wool to a litre of vinegar seems like an extraordinary amount. My usual mix is four or five ‘balls’ of 0000 to a 500ml jar. I’d have thought at that point buying iron sulfate from a chemcal supply would be cheaper.

    The key, for anyone else reading this who wants to make some, is to punch a small hole in the lid of the container you’re using. Iron dissolving in acid produces hydrogen gas which will pressurise, and possibly burst the container if not vented.

  5. yes , your waiting period ,makes the black deeper, longer wait, darker black.
    ive got a gallon jar of iron/ vinegar ive been using for about ten years, when the fluid level goes down, i add more vinegar

  6. I’ve been experimenting with iron dying of late. I’ve had great sucess with a relatively small amount of steel wool. I thought I was very clever to come up with the idea to use steel wool. Perhaps not so clever, but I get a pretty good black. It is very deep after finishing.

    I filtered the raw solution through a coffee filter and let stand for a while. Some sediment precipitated and the iron sulfate solution turned rust red due to exposure to the air.

    I’ve also tried iron sulfate from a chemical supply. It’s actually ferrous sulfate, heptahydrate.

    • The info I forgot to add regarding ferrous sulfate heptahydrate is that it is the same iron compound found in fertilizers and moss killer. It makes a pretty good ferrous sulfate when left to disolve in water overnight.

      I strained mine through a coffee filter and let it precipitate for a week. Then decanted the clear liquid. Letting the solution stand for a week or more is a critical step. Without it the solution will produce salts on the surface of the leather that will reappear even after repeated cleaning.

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