No Sledgehammers, Please!

By Kian Amirkhizi & Doug Snow

It is quite natural for men to use the sledgehammer approach to most things in life, treating every problem with overwhelming horsepower. To put this phenomenon in visual terms, think of an untrained golfer preparing to hit his first golf ball.  You can practically hear his body screaming “I’m gonna crush you.”  Only to see the predictable consequences that overkill most often produce—a dramatically misplaced shot or a ball that flaccidly dribbles a few feet forward.

Life rarely favors the barbarian approach to problem solving and ink stains on leather are no different. Grabbing the biggest, baddest chemical and scrubbing frantically while grunting “me get ink out” like a cave man (or cave person), is not the approach we would recommend. It is best to consider stains like locked doors and the chemicals we use to remove them as keys. Use the wrong key and guess what happens, you break the key off in the door and the door stays locked forever! Use the right key and voila—the door opens and the stain comes out. Removing ink from leather seating requires a series of carefully planned steps to ensure the best chances of removal.

U-“Bic”-Quitous Pen Marks 

When it comes to automobile interiors, ink stains on leather are probably the most common stain concern. As to be expected, the sledgehammer approach to pen marks rarely removes the ink stains, but always damages the delicate surface coating on leather.

A common service call for aesthetic technicians is to repair the damage caused by using powerful solvents combined with aggressive cleaning techniques. The longer the ink has been on the leather the less likely you will achieve a 100-percent result. There are also many different ink manufacturers, and what may work with one brand may not be as effective with another.

So many pens!

Your garden-variety ballpoint pen is a combination of dye and pigment (think of pigment as being similar to paint).  When you write on leather, the result becomes a challenging combination. Perhaps, you have heard to use hairspray for removal of ink on leather. Not only is there a lack of hair to primp on leather, but the active ingredient in hairspray that has any effect on ink is alcohol. There are far more efficient methods of removing ink and the vehicle will not smell like Aquanet.

Ink lifter

The Process of Removing Ink

Removing ink always requires two steps: dissolve and suspend. One chemical must dissolve (think solvent) and another must prevent the ink from re-depositing (suspend).

A great, simple-to-use product is an ink lifter stick. It is packaged in a chapstick-style container containing a waxy-based material mixed with a mild solvent. The waxy material permits the solvent to “dwell” on the stain without concern of evaporation. Since this gives us greater working time, it also allows us to use a milder solvent in the cleaning process.

Once the ink is liquefied through the action of the solvent, the second law of thermodynamics works in our favor, allowing the ink to absorb into the waxy material; thus suspension is obtained.

Patience is key in this operation. Sufficient dwell time must be allowed for the solvent to act on the ink. This process may take five to 10 minutes. Gentle agitation can be applied with something called a “bone scraper” or finger. Bone scrapers are nifty little devices that are made from an inert material that allows you to simulate fingernail-type cleaning, while not harming the substrate.

Bone scraper, ink lifter and ink stains

In the process of using this technique to remove ink, you are actually removing some of the material that comprises the “top-coat” of the leather. Let me state that fact again (lest you be sleeping during this ever-critical point).  You will remove some of the finish of the leather in order to remove the ink.

So, it is important to first do a test on a small area where the ink is located in order to see whether there will be any adverse effects. You can try it first in an inconspicuous area, but it is better to test it on the actual stain, because the leather in this area is usually more worn than in an inconspicuous area, so it will react differently. You also need to see how the ink reacts.

Another mistake that motivated detailers and car-washers make is that they are tempted to grab a super powerful solvent and start rubbing. The solvent, in combination with the friction, spells disaster to the leather coating.

In addition, once the solvent comes in contact with the ink you are now re-liquifying the ink, which, through a process of astonishing alchemy, turns the ink into a dye staining the leather. It is actually possible to “chase” the ink stain all the way through the coating down to the actual dermis portion of the leather.

If you find that the ink removal stick is not working, then you may try to increase the strength with other solvents combined with gentle rubbing pressure. There are many solvents that may work in concert with the ink removal stick. Check with your supplier or our technical support line for more answers.

Even if you follow all the steps correctly, you may not get satisfactory results. The ink still may be stubbornly uncooperative to any attempt to disrupt its deathlike grip on the leather. Or worse, you may damage the coating to such a degree that you need to re-spray some of the color coating back on the leather.

One last thing to consider before you begin: any stain that a customer asks you to remove is still their stain until you touch it. Once you roll up your proverbial sleeve and give it the old college try, it now becomes your stain!

Therefore, it is usually a good idea to “disclaim the stain” ahead of time.  It is better to undersell and overproduce then to oversell and under-deliver. Let the customer know that you are going to do your best to remove the stain, but that the stain may not come out completely, or that some of the topcoat finish could be removed in the process.

A great solution for the inherent dilemma of removing the topcoat finish is to be able to replace the finish if it is removed. There are several good products that you can use to replace the finish. You can use these products with minimal instruction, and they are available in pre-matched colors for most late model vehicles.

This way you can offer the customer a great service by offering a surefire solution to their problem. You can say, “I will either remove the stain completely, or if it doesn’t come out all the way or if the leather is discolored by the process, I can refinish it.” Even spraying an aerosolized clear topcoat would work better than doing nothing at all.

Sledgehammers may be effective for pounding in stakes or breaking up concrete, but should never (even metaphorically) be used in removing ink. A methodical and delicate approach always produces the most consistent results. Now I have to get back to that little white ball. And, this time, it’s gonna pay!

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