How To Start Leatherworking
If you’ve ever found yourself saying “I want to learn to work with leather”, this How To Start Leatherworking Guide is your first step in achieving that goal!
What tools are required?
Where do you get all the materials?
There are so many questions beginners ask when learning leatherwork. Hopefully, this guide will answer some of these questions for you and get you started on the path to becoming a full-fledged leatherworker!
Just as in most hobbies and trades, some tools are required to get started in leatherworking.
Kits are available that include most, if not all the necessary tools needed. Beginner leatherworking kits are a great idea for someone looking to pursue leatherworking as a new hobby.
Here are some of the basic tools you’re going to need. Make sure to look for some variations of these if you decide to purchase a beginner kit.
Leather Punch Awl
Probably the most used tool in the leatherworking arsenal is the leather awl. The leather awl can be used to punch holes for stitching or for marking out your pattern.
Awls come in many shapes and sizes. Some come with replaceable tips while others, like the one pictured, are not replaceable.
An awl has a long metal shaft that widens the farther down the shaft you go. This makes it great for creating stitching holes wide enough for your thread.
Using the point of the awl, you can easily scratch your pattern outline directly onto the leather. This leaves a fine line that is easy to follow with your cutting utensil of choice.
And edger tool is an often overlooked tool for beginner leatherworkers.
Having smooth, polished, and rounded edges on your leatherwork make it look more professional.
Edger tools come in different sizes. Pictured is a Number 2 Edge Beveler from Tandy Leather. The higher the number, the more leather is removed from the edge giving it a rounder appearance.
I find that the #2 does the job for most of the projects I’m doing. If I need to take a little more off, I’ll simply run my edger over twice. This seems to get the job done just fine for me.
Ok, a swivel knife isn’t really required for beginner leatherworking, but it should be!
Carving designs into your leather projects is extremely satisfying. When you decide it’s time for you to try your hands at leather stamping, your first tool needs to be a swivel knife.
A swivel knife with a sharp blade will glide through your leather surface leaving a perfectly cut line behind to use as your start at stamping.
Adding accents to your stamped piece with a swivel knife can add eye-popping life to your pieces.
Do not try to cut your leather with a swivel knife! It is not designed to be used this way.
Leather Cutting Tool
Pretty much just like the name says, this is a tool to cut your leather.
With a variety of options, I’m willing to bet you already have something around the workshop that will work just fine.
You may need a replacement blade since the last time you used it, but a typical utility knife will work just as well as any other cutting blade.
When you get more experience and you want to start upgrading your tools, getting yourself a leather round knife would be a wise start. The round knife is a staple in the leather industry and as long as you maintain it, it should last a lifetime.
You’ll be surprised at just how much you end up using your rubber mallet. A cheap rubber mallet like this one is typical in beginner leatherworking kits.
Punching holes with a leather hole punch stamp, you’ll need yourself a nice mallet. When setting rivets or snaps by hand using dies and setters, the leatherworking mallet is indispensable.
This one that I got in a kit has two removable heads that can be replaced. This is great for when the rubber head gets chipped or breaks but the handle itself is unharmed.
No need to buy the whole mallet again, just new heads!
There are better mallets that will last longer than this type, but I really don’t find the need for them.
A cheap rubber mallet along with my round headed stamping mallet, I have all the hammer power I need.
Leather Hole Punch
You could use your leather awl to punch your sewing holes, but what about the holes needed for rivets, snaps, or concho’s (decorative metal piece for leather pieces)?
A leather hole punch like this one can be found at most arts and crafts stores as well as online. You usually won’t find this type of punch inside beginner kits. They aren’t expensive, but they are worth every penny in my opinion.
Being able to punch perfect size holes for my belts or button snaps is invaluable. And to punch them consistently is even better.
The punch out dies on this model are replaceable. When you notice it isn’t punching holes as cleanly, it may be time to get some new dies.
Whether you decide to spend the money and purchase this type of hole punch or not, you still need some type of hole punch to effectively work with leather.
In the first beginner leatherworking kit, I purchased there were different sized hole punches that I needed to hold upright and hammer through the leather. Needless to say, this was usually not an efficient way to punch my holes. They usually came out uneven since I had a difficult time lining up the punch. The multi-size punch makes it a lot easier and a lot quicker.
Either way will work though, so use whichever option you have.
Calipers are another “non-essential” but very handy tool.
Used for marking even lines along the edge of your leather, the calipers do an amazing job of keeping things straight. Setting the calipers at the right space, you can create an even mark for your stitching line that can be followed by your grooving tool (coming up).
You’ll see in some of the tutorials how I use them to also mark the center of my belt blank. Estimating the halfway mark with my calipers I can make a tiny mark from one side and a tiny mark from the other. Between those two marks is my center point.
Then I can punch my holes, or cut my buckle slot.
Once your piece is almost done, you can also use the calipers to mark an even, decorative, line all around your project. This small detail adds so much to a finished project.
Give it a try, you’ll be surprised!
Burnishing Slicker (Wood)
An edge burnishing tool like this is definitely needed if you want your leather projects to look professional.
You rub the edge burnisher on the leather edge quickly moving it back and forth creating friction which turns to heat, melting the leather fibers on the edge.
This one is a wooden, edge burnishing tool and as you can see, it’s gotten it’s fair share of usage.
I have a few other edge burnishing tools that I also use to get a shiny edge finish.
There are also ones that attach to a rotary tool to make quick work of edge finishing.
Round Leather Stamping Mallet
The round stamping mallet is really only needed once you start stamping your leather. And even then it’s not a necessity.
It’s a very useful and comfortable mallet to use though when you’re stamping designs. They stamping mallets tend to be a little heavier but that’s a good thing.
You’ll want the extra weight when you’re tooling your leather.
The round head makes it easier to always hit your stamp in the right spot. Trust me, you’ll be swinging that mallet hundreds and hundreds of times once you begin tooling, so you’ll appreciate the wider surface area of the round head.
Leather Tooling Stamps
Leather tooling stamps will end up being a large chunk of your leather budget if you let them.
With the hundreds of shapes, sizes and designs tooling stamps come in, you’ll probably never have them all!
You also have the ability to create your own relatively simply, so really the possibilities are endless when it comes to tooling stamps.
From backgrounding stamps to detailed designs, tooling stamps can really make your leatherwork your own!
You can pick up a basic beginner leather tooling kit at some local arts and crafts stores or online. The kits typically come with about 6 or 7 different stamps as well as a swivel knife.
The basic kits are really a good idea if you aren’t sure whether you’ll enjoy tooling.
I’m pretty certain you will though!!
Leather Sewing Thread
If you want to connect two pieces of leather you only have a couple options really.
Glue will work for some things, but it’s not a permanent connection. For that, you’ll need some needles and thread!
You can’t really use your wife’s sewing kit to do this, but the same concept applies.
The thread goes into the needle(s), the needle(s) go into leather.
We’ll get into sewing techniques in a later section, but keep in mind there are many different colors and thicknesses available.
Depending on the thickness of leather you’re sewing and the strength you want the stitch to have will determine what type thread you’ll use.
Leather Stitching Groover
As mentioned above, the leather stitching groover is made to evenly mark your leather around the edges.
It has an adjustable “arm” that can be moved side to side to create a smaller or larger distance from the groove “point”.
This model shown has removable and replaceable tips. It was an inexpensive model I got online but it works really well.
I can use the tip shown here to make a mark around the edges of my project to add some decorative accents.
Another attachment uses a small blade to remove a tiny section of leather that allows your stitches to sit flush with the leather.
Bone Folding Tool
This little tool is a lifesaver when trying to mold your leather.
Whether you’re making a custom fit holster or a knife sheath, using this traditional bone folder creasing tool, you’ll get sharper edges and more details in your molding.
You’ll use this for assisting you in the creasing of the leather at folds or bends.
These are very inexpensive and usually come in a variety of shapes and sizes.
I picked up a pack of 3 for under $10.
They make the details on my holsters really pop and stand out since they’re able to get down into smaller spots without damaging the leather.
When you first start out with leatherworking, it can be very intimidating. Trying to determine what type of leather you’ll need and what the difference is between the different types.
As a beginner, you’ll typically want to work with vegetable tanned leather as opposed to the oil tanned leather. Obviously, this depends on the project you’re working on, but the vegetable tanned leather will give you some more options.
Vegetable Tanned Leather
The vegetable tanned leather is a leather that is tanned using extracts from vegetable matter. Since the process uses natural materials to tan the leather, the color is typically a light tan or brown. Shades will vary on all your vegetable tanned leather.
Veg tanned leather as it’s more commonly called is a great leather for tooling, stamping, molding, and all around custom leatherwork.
Veg tanned leather will absorb your dye wonderfully if you decide to color it.
However, veg tanned leather turns a great patina color as it ages and weathers. This a great for holsters or sheaths that will be used for years and years.
The older it gets, the prettier it will appear.
Oil Tanned Leather
Oil tanned leather is tanned using oils that typically tan the leather in darker colors.
The possibilities of colors using oil tanned leather are countless and wide.
One of the coolest benefits of using some oil tanned leather is what’s known as the “pull up” effect you get when bending or creasing the leather.
When oil tanned leather is creased it leaves a lighter mark where the crease is. This creates a really pretty contrast between the darker leather and the “pull up” parts.
This effect looks really cool on pouches, satchels, or bags.
Possibly even a purse!
When I first started learning leatherwork, I had no idea there were different thicknesses and that every thickness had a general purpose. With some time under my belt and some leather purchasing mistakes, I think I have a good grasp at this point.
Tandy Leather has created a great chart that quickly shows what each thickness is most often used for.
As you can see, the thinner leathers are used as linings while the thicker leather is used for things such as belts and holsters.
New leatherworkers will want to make things like wallets or journal covers to start.
At least that’s what I wanted to do. 😉
So using this chart I would look for wallets and find that around the 4-5 oz range is what’s typically used for billfolds (wallets) and clutches.
Now you’ll be able to order your leather at the correct weight.
Once you order some different thickness leather, you’ll see the difference first hand.
Unless you can hand pick your pieces, ordering online can be tricky sometimes. You’ll receive a wide range from some distributors so be mindful of this. I’ve ordered 4-5 oz pieces that arrived looking like 7-8 oz and some 3-4 oz that looked like 1-2 oz.
If you have a store like Tandy Leather located near you, I’d recommend you visit them to get your first pieces of leather. This way you’ll get a hands-on feel for the different weights of leather and the staff can help you pick the right piece for your next project.
Quality and Grades of Leather
The leather is classified into three main sections based on which part of the hide is used.
Full Grain Leather
Full grain leather is the top of the line leather. Acquired from the outermost section of the skin, full grain leather is the strongest and of the best quality leather that you can get. The natural grain in the full grain leather contains some of the strongest fibers throughout the entire hide.
One of the best qualities of full-grain leather is the aging process it endures. Rather than the leather wearing out and breaking down over time, full grain leather develops a beautiful natural patina.
This assumes you’ll be taking care of your leather piece throughout the years. 😉
Because of its high quality and low availability, full grain leather will be your most expensive type of leather.
For this reason, it’s recommended that you wait until you have some practice under your belt before you start spending your life savings on full grain leather.
Top Grain Leather
Top grain leather is what you’ll typically want to use. The top grain leather is much more readily available and therefore less expensive.
Taking the pieces of full grain leather with imperfections, the manufacturer sands and removes the outermost section of the upper grains.
Because they remove some of the natural grain, this makes top grain leather slightly less durable and strong.
Top grain leather is a great choice for new leatherworkers because of its vast availability and lower prices. Messing up a piece of top grain leather is less of a heartbreak than screwing up a beautiful piece of expensive full grain leather.
Genuine leather is the most readily available leather on the market but it’s also the least durable and lowest quality.
Featuring a smooth, grain mark free, surface, genuine leather is typically pressed with a texture to appear grainy.
You’ll find genuine leather is used for lower quality purses or bags and some clothing. The low quality makes the lifespan of genuine leather far lower than full grain leather.
For this reason, you really won’t want to use genuine leather for any high-quality projects you’re making.
Parts of the Hide
A “whole hide” is the entire animals hide. It is then broken down into sections.
Now that you know all about the tools required and you have your leather ready to go, let’s talk about the different techniques you’ll need to learn.
Dyeing the leather is one of my most favorite parts of leatherworking. I love watching the light tanned leather change to a dark amber, or a deep rich black.
To properly dye your leather, you’ll need a few things.
- Rubber gloves
- Oil or Acrylic Dye
- Dauber, Wool Skin, or Cloth
- Waste Newspaper or Cardboard
- Towel for Cleanup
- Put on your gloves! Dye will stain your hands just as easily as it stains the leather.
- Lay down the newspaper or piece of cardboard to protect the surface you’re working on then lay your leather piece down on top.
- Although not necessary, I lightly wet the leather and let it dry before moving on. I find this helps evenly distribute the dye.
- Using the wool dauber or cloth, evenly apply the dye. For your first coat, apply in a circular motion all over the leather.
- Once you’ve covered the entire piece, go over it again but in a side to side motion this time.
- I often even make a third pass going in an up and down direction. This ensures I’ve covered the entire piece of leather evenly and completely.
That’s it! You’ve officially dyed your first piece of leather.
Pretty easy right? Nothing to be intimidated over.
Generally, you’ll want to let your leather dry completely overnight before working with it again.
If you’re planning on doing any projects that require two pieces of leather, you’re going to be stitching.
Stitching is nothing to be afraid of and nothing to be intimidated about.
Burnishing Leather Edges
Burnishing the edges of leather adds so much professionalism to your projects if done properly. A smooth, shiny, edge on that holster you made adds detail that people will definitely notice and appreciate.
For some reason, I always feel like a grade schooler when I break out the contact cement and start gluing up my leather. Probably because my tongue sticks out while I concentrate on getting the glue in the right place.