Tag Archives: Leathercraft

Experiments with Microbial Leather

I read a Popular Science article about Suzanne Lee and her work with microbial fabrics. When the article gave a recipe to try at home, I knew I just had to try it and compare the results to real leather to see if I can create my own supply of leather substitute in my own kitchen.

Growing the Material

I followed the instructions on the Pop Sci website. The recipe uses live Kombucha culture. Since I was new to the world of Kombucha, I was a bit unsure about some of the terminology, but I went with a live “scoby” culture. It didn’t take long to put the recipe together, and then I waited for a month, periodically checking the results.

Microbial Leather before drying
Microbial Leather before drying

After a month, I had a 0.2 inch thick mat of material floating on the surface of my container. It was wet, rubbery, and smelled like vinegar (which goes away after it has dried), but it held together nicely and didn’t need gentle treatment.

I left it out to dry, occasionally flipping it over to get even drying. After a week, it was dry and had shrunk from 0.2 (about 12-13oz leather) inches to 0.02 inches (about 1oz leather). Only the thickness shrank appreciably. The other dimensions remained roughly the same.

The Initial Results

Microbial Leather after drying
Microbial Leather after drying

The resulting material is a little rubbery compared to leather and has a slightly tacky feel, but it feels strong enough to use in leather projects. It picks up textures from the drying surface. I dried it on a sheet of parchment paper which wrinkled when it got wet, so my sample has a slightly textured surface which imitates leather somewhat – if I really wanted the effect, I would dry it out on some textured plates.

My first tests are going to test how well it takes to dying and finishing, but so far, this looks like it has promise as a substitute in garmet-weight projects.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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!

The Crystal Anvil Review, part 2

Corsair Armor Photo
The Corsair Armor is one of the patterns available.

This is a continuation of my review of The Crystal Anvil, a book on costuming, larp craft, and especially leatherwork. In part one of my review, I discussed the overviews and tutorials.  However, if you are interested in this book, it is probably because you are interested in the leathercraft patterns. So, what do I think? The patterns are a “must have” for anybody who is interested in leather armor or making leather pouches and accessories.

The book contains 50 leathercraft patterns. The patterns are in PDF format, sized for printing on A1 paper. You can either print it out across multiple sheets of paper or send it to a print shop. The files are not locked and are in vector format (not rasterized). This means that you can (and are encouraged to) edit the PDF in a vector image editor (I use Adobe Illustrator). This is a welcome change from either scanned images that are hard to manipulate or copy protections that make the product practically useless.

The patterns cover a pretty good variety of costume pieces and accessories. For costume pieces, it has:

  • Cuirasses (Chest) – Mostly for men, but one piece for women.
  • Paldrons (Shoulders)
  • Belts and tassets
  • Vambraces (Forearms)
  • Greeves (Calves)
  • Helms and headbands

And for accessories, it has quivers, bags and pouches

There are only a few areas that weren’t covered: gauntlets, footwear, and articulated pieces such as full arm pieces with an articulated elbow. They are all advanced projects and beyond the scope of this book, but I mention it only in case you want to buy the book specifically for one of those pieces.

All of the patterns are gorgeous. None of the patterns appear to be that challenging, but precision is required to get the rivet and stitching marks properly aligned otherwise the pieces will buckle when assembled. The instructions are straightfoward, the assembly isn’t that complex so you don’t need complicated instructions. Many of the pieces are made of overlapping pieces. These add dimension and interest to the finish piece, but require patience and precision to assemble correctly. Where needed, the instructions include a diagram of how the pieces all overlap. One advantage to the layered design is that you don’t need large areas of perfect leather. You can lay out the pieces to cut around imperfections in your leather.

The challenge in these patterns is fitting. Most of the costume patterns are made for men 5’10” tall. There is some discussion on how to size the pattern, but expect to make a couple of mock-ups with cardstock before cutting expensive leather. I think it would benefit a beginner to have some of the patterns provided in standard sizes, but a little courage and a lot of prototyping will take you far. I will talk more about fitting in a later post when I talk about my own armor construction. There is one set of women’s armor fitted to a female measuring 37-28-38. Altering female clothing, especially something as fitted as this, is very difficult. I believe future volumes of The Crystal Anvil will discuss this in more detail. Until then, I wouldn’t try the female cuirass unless you have experience in pattern alteration.

Although these patterns are made for leather, you could use craft foam instead. As I write this, it occurs to me that you could make some really cool sci-fi armor with these patterns and different colored foam . . . I may have to try that.

Patterns for armor are incredibly rare. Just studying these patterns taught me a lot about armor design and assembly. Having this book is like having access to a leatherworkers shop and being able to take apart finished pieces to see how they were made. It is a very welcome insider view for those of us who have no other access to a professional costumer. If you are interested in making your own armor, even if it is out of a different material, add The Crystal Anvil to your library. Even if you never plan on making one of its designs, the patterns can easily form a starting point for your own creation.

The Crystal Anvil Review, part 1

The Crystal Anvil CoverI collect a lot of books relating to my hobbies. It is hard to find good books that fit your needs. I plan on reviewing some of my favorites so you can see if they’ll work for you. I wanted to do a review of this book quickly since the author is starting to take pre-orders for the second volume and this is a book that I have found very helpful.

Early this year, a leathercrafting company, Lederkraft, offered the patterns for two of their leather cuirasses for free. Once I snagged the first pattern, I studied it to figure out how to build my armor. I’ll have more discussion on the building of my armor in later posts. The owner of Lederkraft, Alex Agricola, decided to close shop on Lederkraft and publish a collection of patterns, with other LARP crafting tips, in The Crystal Anvil series. While it is available in print, I own the ebook version, so that is going to be the basis of my review.

The book starts with an overview of costume, LARP, and cosplay.  These are fairly broad overviews, and you might be tempted to skip it  and jump ahead to the “meat” of the book. However, the author sprinkles bits of insight that he has gathered over his time working in the field and that makes it worth the time.

The next section of the book is dedicated to three fabrication methods: sewing, leathercraft, and 3D printing. Each section is a broad overview. Although he goes into details about specific techniques, do not expect this book to teach you everything you need to know about these methods. However, I do think that an overview like this is useful for a beginner. It provides enough guidance that you can think about the process of costume making which is a very important piece that many books and tutorials don’t cover. If you are new to costume making, reading this book early will help you identify gaps in your knowledge that you can research further.

The third section is dedicated to specific tutorials, they are:

  • Introduction to Cosplay – Mostly this focuses on the technical aspects of costume design, such as patterning and working with toiles.
  • Making Creature Ears
  • Leather Forming
  • Instructions for Making Leather “Weave” Armour
  • Building a LARP Sword
  • Painting and Modifying Nerf Guns

Some of these articles are written by guest authors. All of them are clear, concise, and well-documented with photos and diagrams. The Introduction to Cosplay covers the basics of design and fitting. This is the best description of it that I have seen outside of specialty books on the topic and is a topic that seems to get overlooked in other cosplay tutorials.

The section on leather forming takes you through the process of wet forming leather (fitting a wet piece of leather to a form so that it will maintain that shape when dry). I have a lot of books on leathercraft and I picked up a lot of ideas from here that I hadn’t heard before.

I have been researching LARP swords and this tutorial covers a lot of the same techniques that other tutorials cover. However, they discuss a sealing technique that is easier to work with and does not have the same problems as Isoflex or Tool Dip. I have yet to try it out, but if it works, it is a piece of golden advice. The rest of the tutorials are outside of my immediate interest, so I can’t speak too deeply about them.

Up until this point, The Crystal Anvil is a solid book. The overviews and tutorials are well crafted and are peppered with little pieces of advice that comes from years of experience. It’s those little nuggets of information that make the book so useful to me. There is a subtle difference between “teaching” and “sharing experience” – while many books do the former, few do the latter as well as this book.

However, the reason that I picked up the book was for the leather patterns. I’ll leave that for the second part of this review, because that is where this book really stands out. . .