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  • Writer's picturePeter Smith

10 Essential Tools for Leather Work

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

As with any trade, having the right tools is essential for leather work. Whether you're a beginner or an experienced leather worker, there are certain tools that you'll need to cut, shape, and stitch your leather projects.


You can go cheap and you can go expensive... you get what you pay for.


Here are 10 essential tools to get you started on your next leather work project.


Index












 

Tool # 1. Knives

A good quality leather cutting knife is an essential tool for any leather work.


The most important requirement for a knife is not necessarily what shape or type of knife. It is that the blade must be sharp - and I mean really sharp. You should be able to dry shave with your blade without it pulling or scraping your hair.


A dull blade makes your leather work hard to do and you will battle with thicker leathers. It is also hard to get a quality, straight cut when your blade is blunt. Skiving with a blunt blade just won't work.


Learning how to sharpen and hone a blade should be part of your leather work skill set.


Good quality leather work knives, however do have other aspects that make your work easier.


A good knife will

  • fit your hand properly

  • be really sharp

  • have a hollow ground primary grind

  • have a 10 degree secondary grind

  • the blade will not be too thick

  • be made from good quality hard steel to maintain it's edge for longer

There are many different types of leather cutting knives, including straight knives, round knives, and rotary cutters.


The go-to knife for most leather crafters is what is known as the "round knife" or "head knife". My round knife was made by a skilled knife maker and I use my round knife for just about everything from cutting to skiving to bevelling and much more. It is my number one item in my leather work tool kit.


There are many discussions about "round knife" versus "head knife" and not a lot of them agree with which is which or if there is even a difference. Today, these names are used ubiquitously.


But... for the purist... there is a difference and that difference comes in the shape of the blade.


Both have been used for centuries by saddlers and leather crafters and are. They are designed to cut through very thick leathers.

 

Round Knife

A round knife is basically half a circle with pointed tips for intricate cutting.

This is an "all round" knife used to cut through thick leathers and has pointed tips for cutting curves.


See the video of my round knife made by a knife maker in Zimbabwe.

A Leather Crafters Round Knife
A Leather Crafters Round knife.

Source: C.S Osborne



 

Head Knife

A head knife is based on an oval.

This is also used to cut through thick leathers but as you see, the points are not as sharp as they are in the round knife.

A Leather Crafters Head Knife
A Leather Crafters Head Knife

Source: C.S Osborne

 

Skiving Knife

This tool is used to create a tapered edge. Tapered edges are useful when you want to join two pieces of leather. Skiving also makes the leather easier to fold and stitch.


Skiving leather requires practice and skill. Once you learn the nuances of how leather reacts to a blade (or is it how a blade cuts leather?) you will be able to skive confidently and evenly.


There are many different types of skiving knives, including straight blades and curved blades. This one below is a straight edge cut at an angle.


A good skiving knife will allow you to create professional-looking edges on your leather projects.

Skiving Knife
Skiving Knife

Source: C S Osborne

 

Other Knives for leather work

I have made knives for specific purposes. For example, I have a knife that I made just for trimming leather inlays on desks and writing bureaus.


There are many knives one can use for leather work, including rotary knives for those thin leathers such as lining leather, pig skins and skivers. My rotary knife is actually a steel pizza cutter with a small 3" diameter cutting wheel.

A selection of leather craft knives
A selection of leather craft knives

 

Stitching

Stitching Leather by hand requires at least 3 tools, needles, awl and stitch marker. Having a stitching groover and pricking irons help but are not essential.


When I make something, such as this barrel bag, I use saddle stitch, using those tools. You might get a little insight into how I make certain things in this Motorcycle Pan Seat project.

 

Tool # 2 - Awl

A leather awl is a pointed tool used for making holes in leather. It is an essential tool for any leather worker, as it allows you to create precise holes for stitching and other purposes. There are many different types of leather awls available, including straight awls, curved awls, and diamond awls. It’s important to choose the right type of awl for your project, as each type has its own unique features and give a different look to the stitching.


A good leather awl will allow you to create clean and precise holes in your leather projects, making them look more professional and polished.


Stitching Awl
Stitching Awl


 

Tool # 3 - Stitch Markers

Yep, even accomplished leather workers use stitch markers. Don't confuse stitch markers with pricking irons!


Tracing wheel to mark stitches
Tracing Wheel

Stitch markers generally mark the leather to help you get those even, straight and consistent stitches. You would use an awl to make the stitch holes.








If you are starting out, choose markers or irons that will give you 5, 7 and 9 stitches per inch, then experiment with each on different leathers.



 

Tool # 4 - Harness Needles

There are different types of needles so be careful when you are buying. A saddler or leather worker doing hand stitching will use what is known as a harness needle. They have a slightly rounded point (as opposed to being sharp). Being rounded makes it easy to thread your needle through the hold you make using an awl.


Saddlers Harness Needles
Harness Needles


 

Optional Tool: Stitching Groover

Stitching Groover
Stitching Groover

A leather stitching groover is a tool used to create a groove or channel in leather for stitching. It is an essential tool for any leather worker who wants to create clean and professional-looking stitches. The groover works by cutting a small channel into the leather, which allows the thread to sit flush with the surface of the leather. This not only looks better, but it also helps to protect the thread from wear and tear. There are many different types of leather stitching groovers available, including adjustable groovers and fixed groovers. It’s important to choose the right type of groover for your project, as each type has its own unique features and benefits.


 

Optional Tool: French Pricking Irons

Pricking Irons for leather work
Pricking Irons


Pricking Irons generally cut through the so you don't need to use an awl. This is something that can be useful when stitching some difficult articles such as soft bags.






 

Tool # 5 - Stitching Pony or Saddlers Clam

These are used to hold your work when stitching.


There are many types of stitching ponies, clamps, table mounted clamps and saddlers clam (yes, clam not clamp).


For the purposes of this article, I would recommend a saddlers clam. You will have far more flexibility with a saddlers clam than you will with any of the other alternatives.


The choice will depend on what you mainly work on and on how comfortable you are with using of them.

Saddlers Clam
An English Saddlers Clam

For example, this traditional English saddlers clam is one you need to learn to use and get used to. This is my go-to item for holding leather work. It is two pieces of wood assembled in such a way as to clamp the work for you.




A French Stitching Clam
A French Saddlers Clam

A French Stitching clam, on the other hand is not sprung like the English clam. The leather is held by using your legs to close the clam onto the leather work.






In my view, there are no special advantages or disadvantages between the French saddlers clam or the English saddlers clam. They are used in the same way (held by your legs at an angle) and you need to perfect your saddle stitching technique. It's all down to preference at the end of the day. They both take getting used to as in both cases you can't see the back of the work, which, when you get used to that way of stitching (saddle stitch), will actually give you better results than using other clams, clamps or ponies.


A Stitching Pony
A Stitching Pony

I have rarely used a stitching pony. This is useful for those small jobs and one you can use on your dining chair when you want to work indoors.





A Leather workers bench mounted clam
Bench Mounted Clam


This is a bench mounted stitching clam. I found this useful for holding smaller articles such as pockets for roofer's pouches like this one.


I can stand at the bench and move around the project. My one has more joints in it so it can swing around at different angles and height can be adjusted also.




 

Optional Tool: A "Third Hand"

We have all said "I wish I had another pair of hands". Sometimes you just need a little extra help.


A fairly heavy weight is a good item to have in the workshop to hold leather down when you are tooling or cutting. Mine is a 14lb (6kg) old iron weight that I found in an old antique dealers shop.


To protect my work, I have lined the bottom with a soft leather.


Iron Weight
Iron Weight

 

Tool # 6 - Hole Punches

Hole punches are essential. Ideally, you should get a set ranging from 5mm up to 15mm hole sizes.


You can get rotary punches, plier punches and drive punches. I use drive punches for 95% of my work. Occasionally I use a plier punch and very rarely do I use a rotary punch. If you want to save on outlay, go for the drive punches. The reason I say this is that there are many projects you will do where plier or rotary punches can not reach where you want to make a hole.

Rotary Leather Hole Maker

The Rotary Punch has 6 tubes. The head is rotated so that the size required is sitting directly on top of the anvil. Insert your leather and squeeze!


The limitation with these is that there is not a lot of space between the hole punch and pivot point on the tool, so we are good for straps like belts but anything else needs a different solution.


Leather Plier Punch

Plier Punches are easier to use but... you need one for each size of hole you work with and that can get expensive.


Like the rotary punch there is not a lot of space between the hole punch and pivot point on the tool, so we are good for straps like belts but anything else needs a different solution.


Leather Drive Punches

Drive Punches are used with a poly maul.


Mark where you want your hole, place your leather on your cutting board. Select the punch size you want and with the sharp end on the leather, give it a firm whack.




 

Tool # 7 - Poly Maul

A Poly Maul is a hammer, the head of which is made with nylon so that the tools are not damaged as they would be with a steel hammer.


I use a 16oz maul, which is heavy enough for all the jobs I do in my leather craft workshop. It is a barrel shape, which makes it easier for tooling.


Leather Crafters Poly Maul
Poly Maul

 

Tool # 8 - Cutting Board

Do yourself a favour and get a decent sized cutting board - at least an A3 size. A cutting board will save your blades and punches from getting blunt.


You can get "self healing" boards, commonly used by many crafters, however, I have purchased a Nylon board because it has less resistance on the blade.


The nylon board is not ideal for drive punches, so I have a poly board, which is softer and ideal for hole punching.

Artists / Crafts Cutting Board
Cutting Board

 

Tool # 9 - Stone Slab

A stone slab is used for setting rivets, tooling and other jobs where a good solid surface is needed. As they are heavy (and made from stone) I suggest putting the slab onto a hard rubber mat. This softens the blow to your workbench.


It is important that you don't have any bounce on your work surface. A good solid work bench is ideal. Bounce can cause all sorts of problems like rivets going out of alignment or losing quality on your tooling.

Stone Slab for Leather work
Stone Slab

 

Tool # 10 - Measuring Equipment

Look at my profile board and you will be forgiven for thinking that I have an obsession with measuring equipment. Well, actually I do!


I have several rulers in varying lengths - all of them steel and all with both metric and imperial measures. I have a vernier caliper, retractable measuring tape, tailors measuring tape, a couple of Squares, a clicker wheel, calipers, dividers, leather thickness gauge and even a stick-on bench ruler and other measuring tools.


It's a matter of "the right tool for the job". Having the right tools for measuring has saved me from a lot of headaches.


I can measure circumference, diameter, radius, length, inside, outside, thickness, small bits, big bits, angles, curves, shapes and profiles... you get the idea.


A lot of my work is leather repair and restore. I also make things from scratch. When I am repairing, I am often measuring existing parts. When I am making, I have to make patterns and therefore measure all sorts.


Get yourself a decent metal (rust proof) ruler at least. And, then with a 1000 grit sand-paper, smooth off the corners and long edges so that you don't mark your leather.


Measuring Equipment
Measuring Equipment

 

Tips

You can get lost and confused when looking for good leather tools as there are so many variations of them.


When choosing tools consider the following points;

  • The type of leather you are working on. Thick veg tanned leather requires a good knife, as explained. Thin leathers such as lining and clothing leathers or skivers are easier to cut with a rotary knife.

  • Where you are working (on your dining table or in a workshop). If you are working on your dining table, a heavy hammer will do you no favours!

  • Try to work on a sturdy workbench, especially if you are punching, tooling, putting in poppers (or doing anything requiring a hammer).

  • Will the tool fit your hand? Awls for example should be small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. When saddle stitching, you will be holding a needle and awl in one hand. Having the ability to swap between needle and awl easily makes life easier. An awl with a big bulky round handle just won't work for you.

  • The type of work you are doing. If you are making flat objects such as wallets or belts a stitching pony will work. If you are making bags you might consider using a saddlers clam.

  • Cost. If the price is really low then you might want to look again. Some tools are really expensive and some are cheap and won't work well. Better to go for the middle if you are on a budget.

  • Are the metal tools made from quality metals and are they rust proof. Chemicals from certain leathers can tarnish certain metals.

  • What are the ratings for the product you wish to purchase.

  • Look on YouTube for product reviews. These not only show what you are buying but how they work and of course the opinions of the reviewers will help.

  • Learn how to sharpen and hone (yep, there is a difference). Dull knives make cutting work so much harder to do.


Last tip, look after your tools and they will look after you.

My tools are my life. If they don't work for me (or I lose them), I can't work! My knives are sharp enough to save with, my tools are rust/glue/paint/wax/polish/dye free. I keep my tools clean and ready as I don't want to stain my leather with rust or dye or some debris from another job. My bench is always clean for the same reason. I don't worry about marking my leather on my bench. First, it is a stone kitchen worktop and second, it is always clean.


I have always said "the state of a person's desk is a reflection of the person's mind and quality of work".


I hope this article has helped you a little in choosing your tools.


You can always contact me if you have questions or need more help and I will be happy to impart my knowledge and experience.

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