Icon 4×4’s Jonathan Ward Keeps the Tradition of Hand-Dyed Leather Alive

Icon 4×4 is known for its immaculate restorations.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Craftsmanship issue of Gear Patrol Magazine as part of the package entitled “Handmade With Purpose.” Subscribe today

California’s Icon 4×4 has built a reputation for incredibly detailed, largely handmade automotive projects, from painstakingly refurbished vintage Land Cruisers and Broncos to its “Derelict” line of reimagined (and mostly unrestored) classic cars. But while Icon’s founder, Jonathan Ward, is best known for his uncompromising automotive restorations, he’s also spent the last three years dabbling in leather craft, a labor-intensive process he calls his “therapy hobby.”

That sideline recently found its way into Ward’s day job, as he brings the essentially defunct tradition of hand-dyed leather back to the inside of a car.

“The tradition’s all but dead,” Ward says of hand-dying, “because it’s too artisanal. It takes too fucking long.”

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Ward was introduced to the technique by artist Kathleen Fiorito, of Oregon. (Ward signed up for her very first class.) After Ward posted an example of his handiwork to Instagram, a client who had commissioned a Nashville-inspired 1949 Hudson contacted him about swapping the car’s planned stingray trim for custom hand-dyed crocodylian. Ward agreed.

The trim starts out as tanned-but-not-yet-dyed skins, a condition known as “crust.” Pigments are then applied by hand. In the case of the Hudson commission, this involved a suspension made of pigment and denatured alcohol (a layer Ward describes as “almost like shoe polish”); dyeing wax; and a layer in powdered form that’s applied using materials as diverse as fingers, sea sponges and old t-shirts. The leather is then given an invisible protective layer of aerospace-grade ceramic nanoparticles to shield the final product from the searing effect of UV rays. The complete process takes about 40 hours of work, and there are no shortcuts. The only way to hand-dye leather is by hand.

“I can never repeat the exact recipe, no matter how hard I try.”

Or, as Ward puts it: “There really is no sort of computer-controlled, automated volume solution for such a varied and uniquely charactered patina finish.”

Every piece Ward creates using the technique is unique, no matter how much his customers might wish otherwise: vagaries in temperature, humidity, even the tick of the clock can change the composition of the appliques.

“It all must be done at the same time or it will never be an exact match,” Ward says. “This shit is so dynamic.”

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