Making Vinegaroon

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Disambiguation: This article refers to leather “dye” not Vinegaroon the arachnid.

One of my primary interests in leather work is that is an old craft and a natural material.  Modern leather work uses all sorts of harsh chemicals for both tanning and dying.  Traditional artisans didn’t have access to all of these methods and had to use other ways to dye and tan and to achieve the results that they sought.  One of these processes is the usage of vinegaroon to “dye” leather black.

Vinegaroon is basically ferric acetate, formed by dissolving steel wool in plain white vinegar.  Chemically the mixture that I make from steel wool and vinegar is far from [Fe3O(OAc)6(H2O)3]OAc (OAc is CH3CO2).  But for the purposes of “dying” leather it’s splitting hairs.  So why do I keep saying “dye” in quotes?  Well technically there are no pigments in the vinegaroon that are dying the leather, but rather a reaction forms between the ferric acetate and the tannins present in the leather from the tanning process to create a rich dark black color.  This creates a rich permanent change in the color of the leather that won’t rub off or stain anything it comes in contact with.

My first attempted batch I bought some stainless steel pot scrubbers and soaked one in vinegar for 2-3 weeks.  The scrubber was mostly untouched by the vinegar and I realized that 1) The thickness of the metal was rather large and 2) the stainless steel was rather impervious to the light acid of the vinegar.  The result was useless and I tossed it.  I had mostly forgotten about it when I found some steel wool at the dollar store!

The steel wool that I got came in a 12 pack for only $1 and came in #2, #1 and #0 sizes, four pads of each gauge.  Steel wool can be found in even finer gauges like #0000 for even faster dissolving.  I took one pad and pulled it apart a bit to maximize surface area and dropped it into a spare jar of about 12oz of plain white vinegar.  I poked a hole in the lid to let off any pressure and after dating it, put it in a dark cupboard to do its thing.

After only 1-2 weeks the liquid had turned dark red/black and I couldn’t see if there was any steel wool left or not.  I was busy with other projects so I just let it go extra long for almost a month.  Today I filtered it out through a paper towel and tried it out to see how it worked. There was very little sediment remaining after the filtering.

Just as expected it dyed the leather intensely black, even in bright sunlight.  I’ve read that if you desire a darker black you can soak the leather in brewed black tea to increase the tannins in the leather so that it will create a stronger reaction.  You may also wish to neutralize the pH of the leather in a baking soda and water solution briefly so that the acid doesn’t damage the leather.  That’s all there is to it!


  1. Kristen Says:

    Wow, that’s so cool! I had no idea you could color leather without dye…

  2. andre Says:

    will it ruboff say if i stitched it together with veg tan leather, say black shell wallet and natural interior?

  3. John Says:

    The beauty of vinegaroon is that it’s not a pigment based dye that the pores are soaking up. It’s actually a chemical structure change of the leather so it doesn’t rub off or bleed on anything.

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