Brush Off Those Old Handbags and Make them “New” Again

Dooney & Burke Classic Hobo

Who doesn’t have a friend (or two) who obsesses over expensive, leather handbags? Instead of visions of sugar plums, they dream it’s raining Coach, Prada, Nancy Gonzalez and Bottega Venata. Not that I’m judging—okay, maybe a little—but I seriously had to search the Bottega bags because I’d never heard of them. The day I spend $2,500 on a plain, square handbag (Bottega comes to mind), I’ve instructed my husband to call a paddy wagon equipped with a straitjacket; I will have, indeed, lost my mind.

Most of my friends consider an expensive handbag a once in a decade treat, or completely unnecessary altogether. They’d rather make an extra house payment, sink a little cash into their kids’ college funds that never seem to grow beyond a thousand dollars, or feed the hungry. These are my people.

This is the Dooney & Bourke hobo I’ve used every day for a decade. It’s functional, classic, and still looks nice after all this time. I would love to tell you it’s because I pamper it with kid gloves, but that would be a flat out lie. When I say I use my handbags, I mean I use my handbags. They’re an integral part of my practical, crazy, busy life. They get tossed in the backseat and land on crushed Goldfish. They’ve been bathed in sugary drinks—accidents happen. I throw them over my shoulder for a quick dash through the rain or a brisk walk in the snow from one locale to next. They’ve even been left in the blistering sun, unintentionally, of course. I know… shudder to think. 

If your bag takes a beating, occasionally or constantly, you can save yourself a LOT of money (depending on your idea of expensive bags) with this quick and easy cosmetic lift. Empty your trusty old bag and let’s get started.

What you’ll need:

  1. Leather cleaner or mild liquid soap
  2. An old towel, drop cloth, butcher block paper… (I’ve even used clean puppy pads; the plastic keeps seepage off my counters)
  3. Thin gloves (surgical type)
  4.  Leather dye in the color of your bag (I like Fiebin’s Pro Dye… here’s a link to Weaver’s Leather
  5. A few daubers
  6. Leather balm

The process: (Please read all instructions before you begin.)

  1. Clean your bag with a non-wax leather cleaner. Don’t have any? You can use a very mild liquid detergent, heavily diluted so there’s very little soap. Wipe down the bag with a washcloth to remove dirt, grime, and oils. (Don’t submerge the bag in the soapy water.)
  2. Let it dry completely—it should dry pretty fast.
  3.  Get your daubers and dye ready. Place your bag on the drop cloth or an old something-or-other. Wearing gloves, dip the dauber into the dye (my dye of choice is Fiebing’s. I found mine here at Weaver’s Leather Supply.)
  4.  In the direction of the leather’s grain, apply the dye in smooth, steady strokes. (Tip #1: The dye will absorb quickly into the leather. Don’t double back over the same areas that you just dyed. You can go back over any missed areas with a 2nd coat. Tip #2: Keep the dye off the parts you don’t want dyed (zippers, linings, etc.). You can do this by taping those areas with painter’s tape if it helps you to stay off those areas.)
  5. Set aside and allow to dry for an hour or more.
  6.  Once dried, check for smoothness and even dye distribution. Apply a 2nd coat to fill in missed spots. Keep in mind, the more dye you apply, the deeper the color.
  7. Set aside and allow to dry for an hour or more. (Tip: If your dye job isn’t absolutely perfect, don’t worry. The next step will shock you with how it all comes together.)
  8. Gently shake the leather balm—you want to avoid making bubbles. With a clean dauber, clean cloth or piece of wool, apply a coat of leather balm using the same motions that you applied the dye.
  9. Set aside and allow the leather balm to dry completely. The balm dries in about the same time as the dye.
  10. Using a clean cloth, vigorously buff the leather balm into the handbag. (Note: A small amount of dye may come off. That’s normal. Keep buffing until none comes off.) Apply a second coat of balm and repeat to deepen the color or for more shine.

VOILA! Sit back and marvel at your brand new, old handbag! Doesn’t it look MARVELOUS? Now it’s good for another decade.

When should you give your bag a cosmetic lift? As soon as you notice the leather feels dry or you see it cracking. Or, when you simply want it refreshed.

Now for the mega bonus tip! What if the zipper breaks, the lining gets torn (or gets ink stained, like mine)? You are in for a treat! Many handbag manufacturers will accept your “wounded” handbag for repair. Yes! They will fix them. My handbag manufacturer of choice, Dooney & Bourke, allows handbag owners to send in bags for repair after the company’s one-year warranty expires. It usually costs a whole lot less to fix them than to get a brand new handbag. Now THAT’S customer service! For Dooney & Bourke, follow this link for the 4-1-1.

We all know when it’s time for a fresh, new look. I’m due…I’ve had my bag for a LONG time. But between now and then, this easy, affordable, cosmetic lift will have you feeling terrific about your trusty bag once more.

Happy creating..and repairing!


Fiebings Pro Dye, Leather Dye

Fiebing’s Leather Dye

Daubers for leather dye


Fiebing's Leather Balm

Fiebing’s Leather Balm

Weaver’s Leather Supply:

Fiebing’s Leather Dye and Products:

Done & Burke Repairs:

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