The Art of Leatherworking: A Guide for Beginners
Updated: Sep 21
This comprehensive guide for beginners will provide you with information you need to get started in leatherworking. From learning essential techniques to understanding the necessary tools, you'll be on your way to becoming a skilled leather worker in no time.
Introduction to the art of leatherworking
The art of leatherworking is timeless. It is a craft that has been going for thousands of years. The art of leatherworking not only allows a leather worker to create beautiful and functional items from leather, but also enables them to undertake leather repairs.
Whether you're interested in making wallets, belts, or even intricate leather designs, or doing leather repair, this guide will give you a start to your leatherworking journey. In this introduction, we'll cover the basics of leatherworking, including the different types of leather, essential tools, and the key techniques you'll need to know. So grab your leather and let's dive into the world of leatherworking!
Essential tools for leatherworking
To become a master of leatherworking, it's important to have the right tools. The right tools for the job will make your leatherworking life a lot easier - and you will get better quality from your work.
Read my comprehensive guide10 Essential Tools for Leather Work in which I go through what I would call a "starter set".
In a nutshell you will require the following to start you on the road to leatherworking:
A decent knife. Don't go for a utility knife. They are harder to use in leatherworking, especially for the thicker, tooling leathers. Add to your collection a cutting wheel if you are working on clothing leather as it is much easier to use on this type of leather.
Edge beveler. This is a staple tool used in leatherworking to bevel the edges of straps and belts. I generally don't use a beveler because I have developed a different way of rounding the edges off - or in some cases, I don't need to round the edges.
Mallet or poly maul. A mallet or poly maul (not a hammer). You should look for a poly maul or leather mallet. This is because a steel hammer will ruin your tools.
Leather glue. A good contact adhesive or water based leather glue will help assemble articles. In my workshop I have a rule: I don't use glue as a permanent way of bonding leather. I use it to hold awkward pieces together so that I can stitch them. What I am saying is, don't consider gluing as a way of assembling an article and expect it to last.
Measuring tools. Find a ruler and a measuring tape. Other tools like dividers also help.
A cutting mat. Well, you don't want to go cutting your table up now do you?
A stitching pony or clam. Either will do, but if you can afford it, go for a clam.
Hole punches. I use drive punches. Rarely do I use rotary or plier punches. They are awkward and you are restricted with these. Drive punches allow you to punch holes anywhere on your leather work.
Depending on what you want to do as you develop, you will be hunting for other tools. I would say that you should not scrimp on cheap tools. They will let you down and they won't last.
Choosing the Right Type of Leather
When it comes to leatherworking you will find the hardest thing to crack is choosing the right type of leather. There are so many products out there with different properties and it takes time to learn the differences. How they will finish, how they feel, the thicknesses, the 'handle' and other properties will influence your choice. Common types of leather to consider are:
Full-grain: This is the highest quality and most durable type of leather. It is made from the top layer of the hide and retains the natural grain and imperfections, giving it a unique and authentic look. Full-grain leather is often used for high-end products like bags, belts, and shoes.
Top-grain: This type of leather is also made from the top layer of the hide, but it undergoes a process to remove any imperfections or blemishes. Top-grain leather is slightly less durable than full-grain leather but still offers a high level of quality and is commonly used for furniture upholstery and accessories.
Split: Split leather (aka - suede) is made from the lower layers of the hide after the top-grain has been removed. It is less durable and has a suede-like texture. Split leather is often used for cheaper products like wallets, gloves, and linings.
Bonded: Bonded leather is made from leftover scraps of leather that are bonded together with adhesive. It is the least durable type of leather and is commonly used for low-cost products like book covers and upholstery.
Exotic: This includes leather made from the hides of exotic animals like snakes, crocodiles, and ostriches. Exotic leather is highly sought after for its unique patterns and textures and is often used for luxury products. Be careful with exotic leather as you may need a CITES certificate. Make sure you are buying legal leather.
When choosing the right type of leather for your projects, consider factors such as durability, appearance, and intended use. It's also important to source your leather from reputable suppliers to ensure quality, legality and sustainability. You may need to experiment with different types of leather to find the one that suits your style and preferences best.
Basic Leatherworking Techniques
Before diving into the world of leatherworking, it's important to familiarize yourself with and practice some basic techniques. Techniques are not something that can be written in a short article like this but lets start with a few essentials and tips:
Have a proper knife and ensure it is sharp. Learn sharpening and honing skills. A dull knife is just nightmarish when you want to cut leather. Keep your free hand BEHIND the cutting direction - ALWAYS, without question, without fail. Make this a rule and make it a habit and learn to cut by holding your work from behind the knife.
Learn to saddle stitch - period. You will need to hand stitch as a machine can't get to every part of certain articles. If you are going to use a sewing machine, you must ensure you get the right machine for the job. Standard bottom feed machines will not work well on leather, so you should consider a walking-foot sewing machine.
Finishing (polishing and burnishing) are skills and techniques you should learn also. It is the finishing that brings your article to "then next level", it makes your article look good. This post: Caring for your Leather is more about care - however, finishing uses the same principles.
Tooling is the process of creating decorative designs or patterns on the surface of the leather using stamps, engraving, carving, pyrography or embossing. These skills are where you can let your imagination and artistic flare go. Like with any artwork, patience is key.
Dyeing and Finishing
Dyeing and finishing are the final steps in leatherworking. Choose a high-quality leather dye or stain to add color to your projects. After dyeing, apply a leather finish or conditioner to protect the leather and enhance its appearance.
Practice makes perfect. Start with simple projects and gradually challenge yourself with more complex designs. With time and dedication, you'll develop your skills and become a skilled leatherworker.
Advanced Leatherworking Techniques.
Once you have mastered the basic techniques of leatherworking, you may be ready to explore more advanced leatherworking techniques such as:
Leather carving involves creating intricate designs and patterns by cutting into the surface of the leather. This technique requires precision and patience, as well as specialized carving tools such as swivel knives and bevelers.
Embossing is the process of creating raised designs on the surface of the leather. This can be done using heat and pressure, or with the help of embossing tools and stamps. Embossing adds texture and dimension to your leather projects.
Inlay is a technique where different pieces of leather are cut and fitted together to create a design or pattern (like marquetry). This can be done using contrasting colours of leather or by incorporating other materials such as fabric or metal.
Tooling is the process of creating decorative designs using various tools and stamps. Advanced leather workers often experiment with different tooling techniques to create intricate and unique designs on their projects.
Moulding involves shaping the leather into specific forms or structures. This can be done using wet moulding techniques, where the leather is soaked in water and then shaped, or by using specialized moulds and presses.
Advanced techniques require practice and experimentation. Don't be afraid to try new things and push the boundaries of your skills. With time and dedication, you'll be able to create stunning and complex leather projects. All leather craft, like so many crafts, also require patience. Don't rush your work, be deliberate and focused. You will waste less leather and less time!
I wish you the very best in your endeavours.
Contact me if you have questions or comments.