How to work with leather
You can get leather to hold a shape by wetting it, fastening it to a
"form" that's the shape you want it to take (usually carved from wood) and
letting it dry. That's the basic technique, but of course there are all sorts of nuances
and opinions on how to wet it, how to dry it, how to fasten it, etc. Forming usually seems
to be combined with other techniques as part of making a product.
There's also "cour boulli" (I'm sure I spelled that wrong), which is
shaping and hardening leather for body armour, usually only practiced by medieval
recreationists . Again, there are different techniques; some people advocate soaking,
forming and then baking the leather on the form in an oven, others recommend applying
melted beeswax, and others recommend specific mixtures of beeswax and other substances.
In general, the kind of leather - the animal, the tanning process, and the
general condition of the leather itself - affects all leatherworking techniques in how
they're applied and how effective they'll be. This goes doubly for forming, tooling and
stamping, which work on the very fabric (so to speak) of the leather.
Tooling and Stamping
Just as you can get leather to hold large shapes by forming, you can use
tooling and stamping to add finer, more detailed shapes to leather. Tooling and stamping
are definitely outside my meagre area of expertise, but I'll try to give you the gist of
it. Those more experienced can feel free to kibbitz.
Stamping is straightforward enough in application; you have a stamp, a piece of
metal with a design or image embossed on one side, and you put it against the smooth
(grain) side of a piece of leather and apply strong, abrupt pressure, usually by hitting
it. Usually stamps are mounted on thin metal handles about three inches long and as thick
as a pen or pencil, or they're designed to be fit onto such a handle. Typically you hit
them with a special hammer, with either a rawhide or polyurethane head. Typically you rest
the leather on a special, hard flat surface. A lot of people like slabs of granite for
How exactly does the stamped image stay in/on the leather? The metal edges of
the embossed design press down the smooth surface of the leather and compress and distort
the flesh underneath to a degree. The whole process is almost, but not exactly, like
tooling, just arguably a lot easier. On the other hand, if you're using a tiny 3/16"
by 3/16" stamp head to add texture to a space several inches across, it's going to be
rather tedious and require a lot of precision in placing and hitting the stamp.
Tooling is done by cutting a design into the smooth side of a piece of leather
with a special, very precise knife called a "swivel knife", and then following
up by using a stamp-like tool to compress or push up the leather. Again, this is usually
done on a hard surface, often marble. The cuts are very shallow and only penetrate the
"grain" of the leather, the thin, smooth surface layer, without going much into
the flesh of the leather.
From what I've read and heard, tooling mostly is done on damp leather; leather
that is carefully soaked all the way through, but not wet enough to yield water when you
squeeze it. Most books I've skimmed say that the best way to get the leather ready is to
use a damp cloth or sponge and press the water into the flesh side of the leather until it
starts to show on the grain side. Some people on the leathercrafter's mailing list have
said they find leather easier to work on when they wet it and then let it sit for a week
or more. In any event, you can see that the line between tooling and forming is rather
blurry, although the bulk of most people's activities seem to be focused on tooling.
I'm not into tooling because I like to build useful things with leather, not
just cigarette holders and belts that are blanketed with a dense mosaic of western
carvings and decorations. The first time I said that I put a little smiley face after it,
but some people still didn't get the joke. I admire tooling for the grace and beauty it
can add to a project, but for me it's something that _adds_ to the project, that
supplements it. I'd like to do some, someday (I once saw some tooled Celtic knotwork with
zoomorphic figures that'd knock your eyes out) but so far I haven't ventured into it. If
you're interested in tooling, you're in luck, because it seems most of the info out there
on leather crafting is about tooling.
Greg Gaub comments on tooling: "I like to think of tooling as the best way
to include a design on a project that will never go away. We all know that paint can come
off and dyes/stains can fade, but a tooled impression will always be there, even if it
gets soaking wet or beat to hell."
I'm using the blanket term "construction" to cover the basic,
conventional ways to build things out of leather. This includes cutting, skiving,
strapping, sewing, lacing, braiding, gluing, riveting, snapsetting and anything else I may
have forgotten to add. Most of my meagre experience with leather has been limited to this
You start with a piece of leather, either a scrap, a half-hide or a whole-hide.
You want to arrive at a finished thing, say a pouch, for example. To get there, you have
to cut the leather into pieces of the right shape, length and width, perhaps skive the
edges down to the appropriate thinness (essentially shaving some amount off the flesh side
of the leather) in places, and strap out a length of leather to hang the pouch on.
There are several specialised and not-so-specialised tools for doing all of
these. These days most people use one tool for each kind of cutting, maybe a precise,
sharp knife to cut out the shapes, a "skife" or skiving knife to do the skiving
or a lap-skiving machine to skive strap-ends, and a strap-cutter to cut long,
evenly-spaced, straight straps. According to Al Stolhman, author of a number of excellent
booklets on working leather and widely-recognised authority, many of these tasks and
others (maybe even most of them) were done with a single tool in the old days, a head
I've seen, handled and even worked a little with a head knife. A friend of mine
got into leatherworking, and decided right from the start (after reading my copy of that
Al Stohlman book I mentioned last paragraph) to learn how to do it all with ahead knife.
Essentially a head knife is a wooden handle with a semi-circle blade perpendicular to the
handle. Take a capital T, draw a half-circle across the top. The base of the T is the
handle, the half-circle is the sharp edge. The top of the semi-circle is the part you use
for skiving. The "wings", or corners of the semi-circle/T are used for intricate
cuts. There are different designs of head knives, some with more swept-back wings, for
If you're not ambitious enough to tackle learning a head knife, there are a
wide variety of specialised tools. The best way to learn about them is to buy Al
Stohlman's tool book, which covers an astonishing variety of tools, including how to use
them, care for them, and in some cases how to build them. See the suggested list of tools
below for my thoughts on what you should get to start.
Okay, so now you have all of the pieces you'll need, but how will you fasten
them together? There are a variety of ways to do it, including sewing, lacing, gluing, and
Al Stolhman has an excellent book on the basics of hand-sewing leather. Unless
you're working with exceptionally thin, soft leather (often called "garment
leather"), sewing leather is not like sewing cloth. Sewing leather boils down to
making matching holes in two or more pieces of leather and stringing some kind of thread
(or thong or leather lacing) through the holes.
The holes are usually made with an awl - sort of like a sharp, smooth,
round-pointed nail on a handle - or thonging chisels (which are theoretically for use with
thong or lacing, but that doesn't stop people from using them to sew). A thonging chisel
is exactly that - a small chisel with a head a sixteenth or eighth of an inch wide, that
you use to punch a slit in the leather.
You can also use hole-punches to punch round holes to string thonging or lacing
through. Hole punches are either "drive punches", which are tubular blades in
varying widths on the ends of metal handles like the thonging chisels, or "rotary
punches", which look like the kind of hole-punch you used to use in school to make
holes in paper. Most rotary punches have a number of different-sized punches on a rotating
head, so you can spin it around to the size you need at any moment. A rotary punch can be
incredibly handy, especially for field repairs, but in general I like drive punches
The thread is usually flax, nylon or cotton thread (very heavy compared to
normal sewing thread), or sinew, or more likely artificial sinew (natural sinew comes in
fairly short lengths and is difficult to obtain). The thread or sinew is usually rubbed
with beeswax to make it grip the holes better.
Lacing and thonging are long, thin strips of leather. You can cut them yourself
with a sharp blade (or with yet another specialised tool, a lace-cutter - but the ones
I've played with are only good for light-weight lacing). You can get a surprisingly long
length of lacing or thonging out of a a small piece of leather by cutting it out in a
spiral pattern. Once you've cut it and stretched it out straight, the bend is
For everything but stiff thonging, you'll need a wide variety of needles and
implements for pulling the thread, sinew, lacing or thonging through the hole. The needles
I mostly use are nice, large needles with huge eyes I can easily thread a large chunk of
sinew through, and nice, dull points that won't catch on the leather and make new holes in
the wrong places. I've seen "special" leathercraft needles sold for ridiculous
prices, so I'd definitely recommend shopping around before buying in any great quantity.
Check out a sewing shop and similar places as well as speciality stores like Tandy. Get
lots of spares, you'll always be losing them, breaking them, or not want to unthread them
from one project to use elsewhere.
You can also glue leather with a strong rubber cement or leather glue. Barge
glue seems to be the most widely recommended, and it's what I've always used. I don't
recommend gluing as the primary means of construction, but it's useful for getting a
tight, waterproof seam, or for making sure that small pieces and corners and the like stay
where they're supposed to. I also like to carefully glue intricate projects together
before sewing them, sometimes, so I don't have to worry about pieces slipping. This isn't
always practical, though. It depends on the project.
Riveting is the use of metal rivets, like the kind you find on Levi's jeans
(only in much wider variety, of course) to hold two or more pieces of leather together.
Riveting is done with a special kit - a small metal anvil and a cut to hold the one half
of the rivet in, and a special tool to press the other half of the rivet into place. This
is again, one of those picture-is-worth-a-thousand-words situations. I don't like to rely
solely on riveting - in fact I tend to be minimalist with riveting - but it's quite useful
in some situations. There are also a variety of other metal snaps and buckles that can be
useful for all sorts of things. In general this sort of stuff is called
"findings". You can find them at the hobby stores, but you may also be able to
find them at actual "findings" suppliers. Check out the business-to-business
directory or yellow pages.
Lest I gave you the wrong impression above, it's possible to build useful
things solely or mostly by cutting the leather. Unfortunately, this is one of those
"a picture is worth a thousand words" things, and I can't easily put a picture
You can also do a lot with braiding, for example the classic "mystery
braid". Take a strip of leather, cut two slits down the length of it, starting a
half-inch from the first end and stopping a half-inch from the other end. You end up with
three strands of leather in the middle, connected on either end. It's possible to create a
seemingly impossible braid of the three strands in the middle. Again, a picture would be
necessary to explain this. More normal braids can also be quite useful for building straps
and fasteners for projects.
In addition to basic construction, most projects should include a variety of
finishing steps, like bevelling edges, slicking edges, You can get away without a lot of
this, simply because so few people do go the whole way. I'd suggest you don't worry about
it for your first few projects, at least. This is the icing on the cake. Worry about
baking a good cake first. But once your comfortable with constructing things, start on the
Staining and Painting
Leather comes from the tannery either "natural" or dyed a specific
colour. I generally like to have leather dyed the colour I want it to be, since I feel
that they do a better job of doing it than I can with my meagre resources. However,
sometimes I can't get what I need, or sometimes it's just not available - vegetable-tanned
tooling leather, for example, always comes in a light tan colour. That's when I get the
I only have two or three stains in my tool chest, which goes to show you how
much staining I do. But stains can be quite useful for adding highlights and interesting
colours to a project. One of my earliest projects was a holster (of sorts) that started
with two different-coloured leathers. By using multiple applications of stain, I managed
to get it all to a nice, red-brown wood-tone that worked quite well, matching the musical
instrument that it was designed to carry.
You can also paint leather. In clothing this is called appliqué, I believe,
and it has a long and, , colourful history. I don't know beans about painting leather.
I've seen it done once, and I've seen several finished pieces, so what I do know is that
it can be a powerful technique to achieve an effect. There's a lady who shows up at the
Pennsic Wars (an SCA event held in western Pennsylvania every august) with masks that are
formed and tooled and painted to look like various animals. They are impressive! I suspect
that choice of paints and leather (how it was tanned, surface texture, suppleness) could
be crucial in getting good colours, and in getting the paints to stay on well and last.
Things to Make
Belts, Pouches, Boxes, Sheathes, etc.
This is where most of what I do fits. Basic belts (which are fairly easy,
although doing a nice, quality piece requires several finishing steps that most people
leave off, like bevelling, edging, forming the belt around the buckle, etc), pouches,
knife sheathes, and so forth. To get started in this, I'd suggest you pick up a copy of Al
Stolhman's booklet on Hand sewing Leather. A Tandy Leather hobby shop should have a copy
of it, or be able to order it for you.
Mr. Stolhman also has many other books, most of which are quite useful (the
tooling patterns don't do me much good, but then again I'm not into tooling). I
particularly recommend his book on leather crafting tools, which shows you the basic
techniques in using the tools, and how to care for them properly. Just reading this gave
me a much better understanding of the tools that are available and of how to properly use
some of the tools I was mis-using.
Boots & Shoes
I'm interested in shoe and bootmaking, specifically for medieval recreation (in
the SCA) and I've been collecting information (some good, some not so good) about it, but
I have yet to get much practical experience with it. Cold feet, maybe :-) You can
generally find some basic introductory material and kits on moccasins and the like at
Tandy leather, but I personally haven't been too impressed with the quality of the
resulting pieces. The whole point of making footwear yourself is to get the best fit you
possibly can; most of these kits only get close, because like commercial, mass-produce
shoes, the leather is cut to standardised sizes, and your feet generally don't come in
those standardised sizes.
I don't do a lot of garment making with leather, because it's much more like
sewing cloth than like the rest of leather working, and I've never found sewing cloth too
easy. The leathers you use are generally a heck of a lot more supple and lighter weight
than what you use for other activities, and aside from the peculiarities of the material,
it's just like making clothing. Hence, if you're interested in this, you'd be better off
learning first about sewing clothing, then learn about how to bring leather into your
Of course, I've only touched on some of the things leather can be used for.
There's an immense field of saddle-making and harness-making, not to mention
whip-braiding, and that's just the first three things that popped into my head. There are
an astounding variety of possibilities - and indeed of examples throughout history - for
making things with leather.
My brother and I once had a conversation about this; he's put off by what he
feels are contrived uses of leather, for example making chess pieces out of leather. What
he failed to realise (until I showed him a picture of a Moroccan tooled leather chess
board and pieces that date from the 15th or 16th century) is that until plastic was
invented, leather was ubiquitous, used for most everything, just as plastic is used for
most everything today.
For construction, I'd suggest you start with at least the following:
Knife - a sharp knife with a small blade. I generally use a utility knife or
"box knife" (called so because they're usually used in shipping and such to open
cardboard boxes). Anything that fits that general profile should do: mostly handle and a
half-inch to an inch of blade, so the cutting tip is near your grip and easily controlled
for precise cuts, yet allows you apply strength when necessary for heavier leathers. Some
people use Exacto knives, but I find them too light for most heavier leathers.
Cutting Board - these come in plastic or hard black rubber. . I've never been
too happy with what they charge for a square foot of the stuff, so I encourage people to
look for alternative sources. I suggest you get a cheap piece of board to back the rubber
with, tough, as it *is* possible to go through leather, rubber and into the table you're
working on, by accident.
Hammer - some people swear by rawhide mallets, others say Polyurethane is
just as good and lasts longer. I used a $16 polyurethane hammer for two years until a
friend borrowed it and moved to Texas. Now I use a hard rubber mallet. Someday I'll pick
up a rawhide mallet just to try it out. You want something that's heavy enough to hit with
a little weight, but not so heavy you have trouble controlling it for delicate work.
An awl to make holes in things. There are different shapes of awl heads, get at
least a round one to start with, or get one of the ones with interchangeable heads. A fid,
which looks like a dull awl, is immensely useful for widening holes without cutting any
further into the leather and for pushing things through holes when they get stuck. Some
thonging chisels and maybe a rotary punch or a small set of drive punches.
A spool of artificial sinew, a spool of thread. Lace-cutter (so you can cut
some lace to work with, quickly and easily). A tube of barge glue. Large, dull needles and
other speciality needles. A chunk of beeswax. Anywhere that has candle-making
supplies might have beeswax.
A straight-edge, preferably metal, can be useful when making long, straight
cuts. A strap-cutter can be invaluable when you're doing a lot of belts or straps.
Now the only thing left to tell you is ...get on with it.