Starter’s Guide to Leatherworking

When I was a kid, I did leatherworking with my 4-H group. About two years ago, I picked it back up, a few of my projects are in the above photo. Last year, one of my brothers was thinking about getting back into the hobby, but the amount of information out there is intimidating, especially when you are looking to start investing in equipment.  So I put wrote this guide for him and I thought I would share the info. These are, of course, just my opinions – if you go to an online forum, everybody has their opinions that they insist is “the one true way” but I think this is a reasonable starting point. I’m trying to break this up into the steps that I follow and the tools/resources for each.

Shopping for Supplies

I primarily shop at Tandy. I have since branched out to other suppliers, but Tandy is pretty good “one-stop shopping” to get you started. I recommend getting the Wholesale club gold membership. It’ll pay for itself very quickly. Also, Tandy has monthly specials. It’s great to follow them and grab tools when they are on sale even if you don’t immediately need it.

Choosing your project.

When I got started, I picked up one of Tandy’s starter kits which includes a few starter projects. They aren’t bad, but you’ll get more bang for the buck if you start with project ideas and then build your tool set to match your style.

If you can find a kit, it is a great place to start. Wallets and belts are great starter projects. If you buy a pattern, you will need to buy the leather and cut it out yourself, as well as buying any lacing or hardware that you need to assemble the piece. Tandy has some patterns, but also check their leathercraft library, which has some of their older patterns available for purchase to download and print at home.

Start small. Leather is pricey, wait until you have some confidence before trying larger projects. It is also a good idea to get a bag or two of scrap leather. It is great for practicing on. I keep a bin of scraps for testing tooling techniques, dyes, finishes, etc.

Tandy has a lot of good intro videos online. Especially check out the videos that are for the kits, they are good introductions. It’s a good place to start. There are a number of books that I can recommend, but I’d start with the videos first.

Match your tools to your need. I can’t think of any tool that I need for every project. Heck, I can think of projects that wouldn’t require a mallet. So, your priorities depend on your project.

Cutting tools

If you aren’t using a pre-cut kit, you need something to cut leather with. You can start with a utility knife, like one that you would use for cutting carpet. You probably already have one and it is easy to use. I have one of the fancier knives and a pair of leather shears, but I use the utility knife most often. The angled knife is very comfortable.

Punches

If you aren’t using a pre-cut kit, you will need something to punch holes for lacing, sewing, or attaching fasteners. There are a lot of options, you will need to choose based on the project.

Casing the Leather

“Casing” is the term used to describe the proper wetting of the leather. Too dry, and it is hard to stamp. Too wet, and it is “mushy” and doesn’t imprint well. Everybody has a different technique. I dunk the entire piece into cold water until the bubbles stop coming out. Then I set it aside and let it dry until it is about the color of dry leather, but is still cool to the touch. It is hard to get right, but when you do, the leather is a joy to work with. Tandy sells special additives and special natural sponges if you prefer to apply the water that way. You don’t need them, plain water and kitchen sponges work just fine. You might just want to pick up a pack of kitchen sponges, they are also useful for applying dyes and finishes.

Swivel Knife

Many designs require the use of a swivel knife. This is used for making cuts part way into the leather. You normally use this to outline objects before stamping to create sharp outlines. If you get a swivel knife, you will also need jewelers rouge and a strop to keep it sharp. you can make a strop out of a scrap of leather glued to a piece of wood, that’s what I did. The basic knives are pretty good, but you may want to get one that has an adjustable handle to fit your hand better.

Stamps

You can pick up a beginner set of stamps that are more geared towards western-style carving. Carving is what leatherworkers call the stamping process. Personally, I don’t use too many from the starter set. If you have an idea of what designs you like, you may be able to pick up tools that better fit your taste. The 3D stamps  are nice, but you may only use them for one or two projects. When starting out, look for stamps that you think you’ll reuse. Until you get a collection, you should decide on a design before buying stamps. Tandy frequently has sales on alphabet kits, you’ll eventually want one, so keep your eyes open and you might save 50%.

Mallet and Stamping Surface

When I am stamping, I place the leather on a marble board which is on top of a poundo rubber mat. At minimum, you need a hard surface. Marble is great, I had a old marble board that I used for baking before we got the granite counters in the kitchen. The poundo board absorbs some of the shock and keeps the noise down – nice, but not necessary when starting. The mallets from the starter kits aren’t that great. You can start with it, but you will appreciate something heavier. I normally use a maul, it gives me deeper and cleaner impressions. You really notice the difference when using 3D stamps or Letter stamps.

Edge Beveling and Slicking

Some people leave the edges flat. I prefer to bevel and slick them. A #3 beveller is good for most weights. I never had much luck with the plastic slickers. I think the wooden slicker is easier on the hand, performs better, and can handle more thicknesses of leather. I think it’s worth a couple extra bucks. Tandy sells Gum Tragacanth, which you apply to the edge to help with slicking. It’s pretty good but not necessary.

Dyes

The different dyes and finishes are confusing. So here is a basic rundown.

Dye

This will probably be your go-to coloring agent. You have a spirit or water base that soaks into the leather and brings pigment with it. Tandy has “Eco-Flo” dyes which are water based. I’ve gotten some good results with them. However, it is water based. If the leather gets wet and is not sealed really well, the dye may run. I have had problems when applying the first layer of protection – the finish can pick up and smear the dye. That said, I used these dyes for my belts and have yet to run into any problems in the rain. You can also pick up Eco-Flo dye packs. So it’s a good way to get started. However, I really like the Fiebling dyes. They are spirit based, so they stink like magic markers, but they have a very wide variety of colors and do not cause problems with water. They are more expensive.

Antique Gels

These are pretty cool. Basically it is a thickened dye. You apply it to the leather and then you wipe it off. The gel sticks into the deeper impressions in the leather. It’s very good for showing off your tooling. It also gives the product a more weathered look, hence the name. So far, I have only used Tandy’s antique gels – not too bad. If you are going to do a lot of tooling, you’ll want to have some of this.

Highlight Gel

Tandy is the only company that sells Highlight Gel to my knowledge. It is basically the same as Antique Gels, but it comes in a wider variety of colors.

Waterstain

I’ll have to admit, I haven’t used water stains in a project yet. I’m not really sure how they differ from Eco-Flo dyes.

“Acrylic Dye”

The most confusing term, this is paint. Tandy sells Cova Colors. It is acrylic paint formulated to use with leather, specifically, it is flexible enough not to crack when the leather is flexed. It is a paint, it doesn’t penetrate the leather and it covers up the grain. The only time I use paint is to create a metallic look on the leather. Normally, I use Liquitex artist acrylics.

Remember to pick up some daubers for applying dyes. I keep both medium and small ones around. The small daubers are probably best for your starter projects. Go ahead and buy a bag of 100. You will go through them.

Finishes

The purpose of a good finish is to seal the leather, provide luster, and provide some amount of water resistance. I’ve used Tandy’s satin sheen. It’s easy to apply, comes in a variety of glossiness, and works pretty well. For my armor, I wanted something with more water resistance and tried out Acrylic Resolene. I love it. It is a bit tricky to apply, but has a soft luster and is more water resistant than a lot of other finishes. There are a lot more finishes out there but I haven’t explored them yet.

Edge Finish

Many people apply a special edge finish to the raw edges of their leather. I tried Tandy’s edge paint on a belt, and it cracked and peeled off as the belt got used. For most of my projects, I bevel the edges, dye the edge with a regular dye, then I slick it and seal it with whatever finish I’m using for the rest of the project. The result is nice, but not as sharp as a proper edge finish. Recently, I tried some of Fiebling’s edge coat and it seems more flexible and less likely to peel, so I may try it on some future projects.

Sewing, Lacing, and Attachments

Woo hoo! We are at the final stage, putting the piece together. Basically, you can sew, lace, or rivet. If you are building a kit, you should have the tools needed. Otherwise, your project will determine the technique used and tools required. Each requires it’s own set of tools, so start with one (lacing is the easiest to start with) and build from there.

Ok, that’s my quickie intro. There is so much to learn, but hopefully this will get you started. I’m happy to answer (to the best of my limited ability) any questions you have. Good luck!

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