Ready, Set, Skive: Let the Leather Working Begin24th February 2022
To make straightforward items, and where time is of no account, only a few basic tools are required for leatherworking. While these can be obtained from specialist suppliers, most will also be available online for purchase.
In the beginning of your leather crafting journey, it is not essential that you have a dedicated place to work. A well lit and well ventilated workshop is ideal, but to begin with you will be able to manage quite fine with just a workbench or table, even the kitchen table will do. A table approximately waist height, and a foot rail or foot stool, positioned in front of a window, makes a great work area. Arrange your tools around the edge so that they are within easy reach. If possible, have some shelves or “pigeon holes” for storing leather and a draw or box for patterns under the bench. You will also need a few drawers and shelves for your threads, needles and so on. A desk tidy/organizer will also come in handy for storing things like embossing stamps, bone-folders and edgers. Most regular tables aren’t up to the task of being beaten with a hammer, so a nice thick granite/marble/stone/HDPE board approximately A4 size and reasonable thick will make a great surface for when you need to hammer in rivets or punch holes. Just be sure to use a thick scrap piece of leather if you are punching holes on a stone board, whereas if you have an HDPE board this wont be necessary.
When you need to cut out pieces of leather, lay a cutting mat on the table, and if you do any gluing or staining, first lay a piece of kitchen towel or brown paper down to protect the table surface.
Cutting can be also be done just as efficiently on a sheet of 9mm (3.5in) – or thicker medium-density fibreboard (MDF). Plywood is not such a good choice, as the knife blade’s tendency to follow the grain (beneath the cutting line) may cause inaccuracy and worse, you may end up cutting yourself because of this.
If you want to earn your living from making leather goods, you will find it essential to organize a good workshop space. A good size room would be around 5 metres square or 54 square foot, with natural daylight coming in from one or more sides. A large table for cutting out, placed in the center of the room, will also enable you to examine the leather thoroughly when patterns are being positioned. Workbenches around 75 cm (30 in) wide and between 75cm and 1 metre (30-36in) high for making-up, dyeing, polishing, riveting and hole punching can he arranged around the walls. Its also good to have plenty of shelves and cupboards for keeping metal fittings, threads, dyes, polishes and finished work. Running water, and a sink or basin would really complete the dream workshop.
Tools For Leather-Working
Those who enjoy carving and dyeing thick leathers will require stamps, carving tools and various dyes and sealers, but if you are interested only in making light leather goods, such as wallets, soft handbags, tool pouches, and so on, a more basic selection of tools will suffice. The wisest initial option is to buy the minimum number of tools and increase the range as and when required.
To begin with, you will be able to manage with a few essential tools (Fig. 6), but as your work progresses you will find that a wider range of tools will save time and give better results (Fig. 7). The list of hand tools that follows briefly describes each tool and explains its use. The below tools would be regarded by most leather workers, as the bare minimum to getting started with leather crafting:
A stitching awl is used to pierce holes in the hide before hand stitching can be carried out. Awls are available in sizes ranging from 32 to 90mm (14-3/in). For most work you will find that a 57mm (24.in) blade will be suitable. The blades are diamond shaped, tapering to a sharp point that penetrates leather easily.
A scratch awl has a round, tapered blade and is used to mark around patterns before cutting out. Professional awls are sold with the tips and handles sold separately, and the best handles are made from hardwoods. If you’re just starting out though, a cheap awl with a permanently fixed handle is perfectly fine to get started with.
Choose a shape that fits comfortably into your hand. Make sure that the tapered end is narrow, or the ferule (the metal band encircling the taper) will damage the leather when you are stitching fine work. To set an awl blade in a handle see INSERT LINK.
A smooth, polished piece of bone or resin/plastic between 12.5 and 20cm (5-8in) long which curves slightly at its center. Often used by paper crafters and bookbinders, is used for boning down (creasing) seams and turning edges.
It is also extremely useful for applying pressure uniformly along a line, flattening corners and opening up pockets and sleeves.
Bulldog Clips or Binder Clips
These clips are available online and from stationers. Cover the jaws with thin 2-3oz leather and use them for holding edges together when gluing or stitching.
A smooth, shaped piece of boxwood, a burnisher is used to seal and burnish the grain surface of vegetable tanned leathers. Burnishing is all about generating friction through speed (not pressure) to bring the natural oils in the leather to the edge to seal off the leather fibers and give a professional finished look to your project, as well as protecting it from moisture and fraying.
Clam or Stiching Clamps
If you are going to be doing a lot of hand stitching than a clam or stitching clamp are essential for accurate and neat hand stitching. Also known as a saddler’s clam, quality ones are made from two curved pieces of ash, beech or oak, this provides a means of holding the work securely while hand stitching or thonging. When you are stitching, the clam holds the work, leaving your hands free to hold the awl and needles.
The clam is normally held between the knees, and the work is re-positioned between the leather-padded wooden jaws as it progresses. The curved pieces are bonded together in such a way as to spring the jaws shut, therefore gripping anything within them tightly.
Dividers are adjustable double-pointed tools, similar to geometrical compasses. They are for marking guidelines a precise distance from an edge for stitching, creasing, thonging and pattern-making.
These have handles, curved shafts and blunt blades, and are used to make decorative crease-marks on leather grain (top surface) at a predetermined distance from the edge.
There are three types: adjustable screw, single and step, each of which works in a slightly different way. Single and step creasers are heated before use to allow the blade to make an acceptably deep impression. When it is heated and pressed firmly into the surface of leather, the creaser leaves a thin, decorative line. It is mainly used close to edges or on lapped joints to hide seams.
An adjustable screw creaser can be used either heated or cold, for marking a non-permanent line at a measured distance from an edge, for instance when marking out a line of stitches.
A professional cutting-board made of square wooden blocks, preferably lime, which are glued together with the end grain forming the cutting surface, will not blunt your knife. It can be let into the top of your cutting table and, when it is worn, the surface can be scraped smooth and dressed with linseed oil.
Edge beveller also known as an edge shave, this rounds off the edges of thick leathers prior to burnishing. It is available with either a flat or a concave hollow back (when they are known as hollow ground), in sizes 1-8. For most work, sizes 1-3 are adequate.
These woodworkers’ tools are useful for securing the paring machine to the workbench and for moulding.
Used for flattening edges, turning seams, fitting metal fittings and attaching press-studs, and so on. A shoemaker’s hammer which has a flattened head is ideal for these jobs, but unless much specialized work is envisaged an ordinary hammer is quite adequate.
Only hide, wooden, or rubber hammers should be used to strike metal tools because they do not damage the tool shank. Shoemaker’s and bookbinder’s hammers have large, flattened, circular heads, and they are ideal for flattening seams and turned edges.
Your choice of knife will depend on the thickness of leather to be cut, the shape of the pattern pieces and the size of hand. For most work you will find that a shoemaker’s knife with a shortened blade is easy to use and to sharpen. When you are cutting out curved or awkward shaped pieces, a clicking knife with a curved blade is useful. A statndard utility or box-cutter knife with replaceable blades is also handy to have for simple straight cuts.
Use a metal ruler or straight edge for easier cutting. Turn the leather so the cut parts are closest to you. Keep the blades sharp by stropping.
Clicker knife or craft knife as it’s sometimes called has a short, approx 100mm (4in), tapering, cylindrical wooden handle and an adjustable, screw-tight socket for the insertion and attachment of blades. Curved and straight blades are available, the curved ones being useful for cutting thicker leathers and awkward bends. To ensure accurate and efficient cutting, the best way to hold this knife is the same as you would hold a drawing pencil. Blades are sharpened occasionally on an oilstone and more frequently on a strop.
Needles for leatherwork are not sharp, as they are not intended to pierce the leather, merely to enter a hole already made by the awl blade.
Bunt, large-eyed harness needles used for hand stitching are available in 11 sizes, with the most popular sizes being 4-6, but a good place to start is with a size 4, which will be suitable for for most stitching jobs.
Paring or Skiving Knife
Pairing or skiving knives are a flat piece of metal, angled at one end. The angled side is bevelled to a sharp edge that is kept razor-sharp and used for reducing the thickness of a piece of leather at its edge to facilitate making a fold, particularly in turned-over-edge work. Skiving knives are produced for right or left handed people, as the side on which the tool’s blade is set is specific to each. The best skiving knives are steep angled, with a long, bevelled cutting edge on one side and a completely flat back.
This simple-to-use, bench-mounted machine (Fig. 8) was designed by a bookbinder to pare flat areas of leather to an even thickness or to make a bevelled pare along edges. It uses a standard double-sided razor blade, positioned over an anvil (Fig. 9), and you can adjust the anvil up or down to set the depth of cut or tilt it to achieve a bevelled pare.
An oblong slab of soft stone used in lithographic printing, known as a litho stone, is ideal for paring because it will not blunt your knife. It has a smooth, polished surface, which can be sanded flat. If you cannot obtain a litho stone, a thick piece of plate glass or marble will do instead. Even though not vital, a paring stone will be very useful if much skiving work is anticipated.
You will need flat-nosed engineer’s or saddler’s pliers to pull through stubborn needles and to grip leather at the beginning of a cut made with a plough gauge or splitting machine. Long nosed needle and snub-nosed types are both useful.
A plough gauge is used for cutting belts and straps. The width of strap is determined by sliding a fence along a graduated gauge, and the strap is cut by pushing the knife, which is mounted to the right of the gauge, parallel to the edge of the leather.
A heavy cast iron bench press, familiar to book- binders as a nipping press, is used for exerting pres- sure over large areas. It is useful when you are attaching glued linings and for embossing.
Pricking irons should be made of high-carbon steel, these are stamping tools for making marks on a leather surface in preparation for piercing holes for hand stitching. This steel tool is used to mark the position of stitches, but it is not designed to penetrate the leather completely. Each tooth is ground so that it has a chisel shaped head at an angle of about 45 degrees to the horizontal. The number of teeth in each iron is determined by the width of the iron and the number of stitches to the inch, for example, 1in wide number 7 has eight teeth, a number 8 has nine teeth and so on. They are available in sizes (that is, number of stitches to the inch) The tool is held at right angles to the work, and its shank is struck with a hide hammer in order to imprint a prescribed number of teeth to the inch onto the leather surface.
A small steel wheel mounted in a frame is used to mark stitches in the same way as a pricking iron. It is useful for making leather-covered buckles.
Punches are tubular steel tools for cutting holes. An oval hole in a strap helps the tongue lie flat and reduces the strain. A crew punch cuts a long narrow slot, such as would be required when fitting a buckle to a belt. Other types of punch might give circular or oval holes, and some punches are shaped to produce a neat shape to the end of belts and straps.
A race is a grooving tool with a U or V-shaped cutter for removing a thin channel of leather. It is used on the flesh side to make it easier to form a sharp bend or on the grain side to create a channel for stitches to lie in.
Revolving Punch Plier
Six round punches, ranging in size from 1.6mm to 6.4mm, are mounted in a revolving head. Those made of solid forged steel are best. The cutting part is fixed to a shank, and the shank is struck with a hammer so that the metal slices the leather.
Japanese water stones are very fast-cutting but soft. Combination oil stones have a coarse and a fine layer joined together. Woodworking tool suppliers and sites such as Ebay and Amazon will stock a wide range.
The kind of lamp that burns on methylated spirit is used to heat creasing tools.
A cast iron frame with a horizontally fixed steel blade is used to reduce the thickness of leather straps or gussets. The machines are available in blade sizes 128mm (5in), 153mm (6in) and 204mm (in), but unless the blade is kept very sharp, it is difficult to pull through a width greater than 10cm (4in).
Straight Edge or Steel Ruler
You will need a steel rule, at least 2mm (in) thick.
A flat piece of wood with a layer of leather, flesh side up and impregnated with emery paste, glued to one side, is essential for keeping knives sharp.
Self-Healing Cutting Mat
Use to ease cutting and protect your work surface. The self-healing feature prevents your knife from slipping into previous cut lines, plus the mat will last longer.
Tips on cutting different leathers:
Cutting Veg-Tan, Prefinished, and Suedes: Place leather right side up on the mat. Be sure your knife is sharp (stropped). Suede particles will form on the cut lines, so use a lint roller to remove them.
Cutting Hair-on Leather: Cut on the backside, just through the leather. Then pull pieces apart, carefully separating the hair. Pull along the edges to remove loose hairs.
Cutting Thick Leather: Try to cut through with the first cut. If you have to go back, carefully line up the blade in the previous cut groove and repeat the cut.
This popular tool is used for cutting straight and slightly curved cuts. Ideal for cutting soft, stretchy leathers. Use a straight edge for easier cutting. Be sure to replace the round blade when it’s dull.
Leather Scissors and Snips
Leather scissors are used for light to medium weights of leather, lace, and thread. Leather snips are best for lightweight leather, lace, and thread. Upholstering scissors, approximately 20-23cm (8-9in) long, are great for cutting leather. Smaller general household-type scissors are perfectly adequate for cutting ancillary materials like silk or card, as well as for cutting some thinner leathers and rexine.
Straight Edges, Squares and Templates
Handy tools to making accurate cutting easier. 2 common lengths for a steel ruler is 305mm/12inch and 610mm/24inch long. Handy for pattern-cutting and accurate straight cuts in leather. Make sure that the zero mark is placed at the end of the ruler (most are).
These have either one tapering, chisel edged point, for punching around corners, or three or four points for continuous punching in straight lines. The chisel end width is either 3mm or 1.5mm.
With a diameter comparable to a small nail rather than to a needle, and even blunter than harness needles, these are designed to enter comparatively large, previously punched, holes. There are two types: one grips the leather thonging strip between two jaws, holding it fast by means of one or two angled spikes, while the other type requires the tapered, thinned leather to be screwed into a threaded entry-port, where a tiny metal thread grips the leather.
A small knife, with a replaceable blade, used in a very specific way when carving leather. Different types of blade are used for different applications.
Steel tools comprising a 10cm (4in) shank and a head with a machined design on its surface. To be held horizontally and used for stamping designs on cased/damp leather
Fig 3 Close-up of heads of five stamping tools: (left to right) beveller, camouflage tool, backgrounder, veiner, ridged pear shader.
This tool is similar to a sculptor’s modelling tool, with a central barrel and an angled point at one end, and an angled flat face (spoon) at the other. As well as being useful for tracing designs from tracing paper onto damp leather, the pointed end is invaluable for inserting under a thonging loop to disassemble or loosen a thread. It is one of a range of tools used for moulding and shaping damp leather and for transferring designs from paper to leather before carving begins.
Three types of common modeller (stylus) are point, beveller heads and spoon heads.
This slices a channel along a leather surface, so as to allow stitches to be recessed below the grain’s top layer. The distance from the leather’s edge can be adjusted precisely.
The gouge is useful for removing material to a specified depth: for instance when making a fold without skiving the total area of turnover.
As you can see the variety of leather working tools is huge and each one has a very distinctive purpose – it can be quite overwhelming when faced with the full gamut. Some tools can be re-purposed from wood working, but there are a lot of iconic tools, such as the emblem of the leatherworker or saddler which is the iconic round knife (also used in our logo), with its broad sweeping arc of a blade, which is very specific to leatherwork.
Similarly, the uniqueness of these tools, such as the pricking iron, gives them a great character. They are designed to perform a single function as well as possible. It is easy to spend a huge amount of money on tools, simply due to the sheer number of them. The quality of these tools also varies wildly and the higher-end hand tools from companies such as Vergez Blanchard and CS Osborne cost a lot due to the work put into them. These are heirloom-quality pieces, however, and for any enthusiast they are well worth the extra money. In recent years there has been a proliferation of cheap tools from China/Far East that fulfill the basic requirements. These may suit you when you are just starting out on your leather working journey, they are certainly far cheaper, but don’t expect them to last forever.
One of the tools you’ll use most often no matter which projects you choose, are knives. Make sure you buy one with a good-quality blade (or with replaceable blades) and a good sharpening stone. With a bit of research online you can find some great deals.
To really get started, look for a basic tool set, you will only need about ten tools. The essential starter kit should consist of stitching clamps, a diamond awl and harness needles; pricking iron (No.7 or 3-3.5mm stitch length); hole/wad punch set (2-25mm-1/16in); oblong or pippin (buttonhole) punch; scalpel; skiving knife; wooden strap cutter; clicking knife or round knife (whichever you prefer) and rivet setting tools. You should be able to purchase this whole lot for around £100-150 ($130-200).
Mo matter which tools you start with, practicing with leather working tools is an essential requirement. Work on smaller pieces or off-cuts so you can develop your hand-to-eye skills, especially on techniques such as saddle stitching and hand skiving. Handling the unfamiliar shape of round knives will take some practice to master, but it is all well worth it. And above all remember to enjoy the journey!