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Nov 16, 2017

It's Easier Than You Think: A Simple, Straightforward Guide to Getting Started in Leatherworking

created at: 04/16/2013

My journey in leatherworking started with disappointment. Disappointment in a pair of leather boots. I had purchased a pair of Steve Maddens from DSW for about $100. They didn’t last long... and I mean, they really didn’t last long. After a month of pretty irregular use, the grommets had fallen out, the surface of the leather had started to rip, and the dye was already starting to rub off. And as my shoe angst built, I thought, ‘I could make something better than this.’
Leather Working Overview
 
Angst aside, I was right, I could. And you could too.    
 

Seriously, it didn't take long before I was making leather items at a much higher quality than those boots, and it won't take you long either. Even though leather working is a lot less common than, say, wood working, it is actually super easy to get started. With starting costs being relatively low and easy to understand basic skills that are transferable to many projects, leather working is definitely a skill you should pick up. 

 
And you’re right, I’m biased. But give me a chance to prove it to you. Below is a list of basic skills that will help you complete most leather working projects. You’ll find that each of these skills are easy to understand, even if a bit tricky to master, and will quickly get you making some quality leather items, like laptop sleeves, journals, and more (those tutorials coming soon!). If you’d like to a more detailed explanation of the skills in the list below you can check out the Beginners Guide on my website: goldbarkleather.com
 
 

Cutting: 

The first thing you’ll do is cut out the pieces for your project. And this is something that’s pretty easy, but there’s a right way to cut and a not so right way. Because cutting out the leather is generally the first step in making a leather item and your cuts effect the difficulty of the steps that follow. Clean cuts ensure that burnishing is easy and your stitching lines are straight. Getting a clean cut is all about scoring, using a ruler that won’t slip, and having a sharp knife. 
Cutting Leather Step 1

First, trace out your project onto the leather using a scratch awl and ruler.

 

Cutting Leather Step 2

Next cut out each piece with a knife and a heavier ruler that isn't going to slip. There are a lot of different kinds of knives that work well when cutting leather. If you are just getting into leather working, rotary cutters work well.

 Cutting Leather Step 3

Finally it's insanely important to keep your knives sharp. Your cuts won't be as clean and you're prone to make more mistakes with a dull blade. Even if you're using a rotary cutter, make sure to keep it sharp. You can buy a rotary blade sharpener or replace the blade frequently.

Gluing: 

Gluing will keep your edges pressed together while you prepare the leather for stitching. You’ve been doing this one since first grade, so there’s not a whole lot to learn here. Applying the glue is not hard, but there are some ways that can improve how well the glue holds like sanding the area you’re gluing, making sure you glue only where you need with wax paper, and apply pressure when the glue is drying. 
 
Gluing Leather Step 1

First, sand the area that you are planning on gluing, especially if it's on the flesh side (surface or top side) of the leather. This will make it so the glue can sink into the leather a bit and adhere much better.

Gluing Step 2

Next lay down some wax paper and apply the glue with a paint brush. Getting glue in the wrong spot is a serious pain to try and clean up, so use wax paper to keep the glue where it needs to be.

Gluing Step 3

Finally, apply pressure while it dries. Often I will use binder clips, but make sure the leather you're using for your project doesn't get dented by the blinder clips. If that's the case, just lay a cloth over the edge and then clip on the binder clips. 

Hand Stitching:

This is probably the hardest skill to learn out of them all, but still pretty easy to pick up. Stitching a leather project together is a multi-step process. It involves marking out your stitching lines, punching your stitching holes, and finally saddle stitching the item together. Saddle stitching is a hand stitch that is widely used in leather working due to its durability, and learning it isn’t that hard. Check out these five simple steps to learn how to saddle stitch.
Preping Stitching Step 1

First, mark your stitching lines with a divider. If you're not sure how far to set your stitching in, a general rule of thumb is to have the distance between the stitching and the edge be the same as the thickness of the edge.

Next punch your stitching holes using a diamond chisel. The only trick to this is to make sure that your chisel is perfectly perpendicular to the leather. A slight angle one way or the other will make it so the stitching on the back side doesn't line up. This is especially a problem on thicker projects, like belts.

Stitching Step 1 Now to the hard part: saddle stitching. Once you have the needles through the first hole, take your the needle on the left side and push it through the leather. Then, with the right needle, come behind the left needle to make a cross.

Stitching Step 2Next, with the right needle still behind the left needle, pull the left needle through and rotate your hand toward you so that the left needle is now facing you and the right needle is facing the stitching holes. 

Stitching Step 3

Finally, put the right needle through the same hole you just pulled the left needle through. If you used a diamond chisel, each hole will be a diamond shape. This mean that each hole has a high point and a low point. For your stitching to look uniform you need to consistently put the right needle back through the hole at the same point in the diamond, ideally the point of the diamond that is closest to you. Once the needle is through, pull both tight. At that point, you've finished your first saddle stitch. On to the next one. Once you've completed your entire stitching line, you'll need to back stitch. Back stitching is a saddle stitch that goes backwards two to three holes to make sure the thread won't come lose.

If you're trying to learn stitching, it is ultimately a little bit hard to read how to do it. It's just something you have to see. If you're still having trouble understanding how to stitch (and I would be) you can check out this stitching guide, that also has a quick video to show you how to stitch.

Edge Finishing:

Once your project is stitched together, making sure to finish your edges will give your project a professional look. There are multiple ways to edge finish, the three main ways being: burnishing, edge painting, and edge turning. Burnishing is probably the easiest, and yields some great results. This process finishes the edges by melting the loose fibers together with heat created through friction. Basically that just means you rub the edges with a piece of canvas until it looks good. A simple burnishing process includes: beveling edges, sanding them, dying them, burnishing them with a piece of canvas cloth, and then finishing the edge with beeswax.
 
Burnishing Step 1First you'll need to bevel your edges. The reason for this is that the surface of the leather will start to fold over as you sand the edge. Beveling basically removes that part that would fold over. Beveling is super easy. All you need to do it run the beveler along the edge with a moderate amount of force.
Burnishing Step 2Next you'll need to ge the edges nice and smooth. Generally I hit it with a couple grits of sand paper. First, start with a 200 grit sand paper, this will even out any part of the edge that is not flat with the rest. Then, sand off loose fibers with a 600 grit sand paper.

Burnishing Step 3

Once the edges are smoothed out, it's time to dye the edge. I apply the dye with a wool dauber. But, dying the edge isn't something you have to do. If you want your edge to be a natural color, then don't dye it. Typically though, I will dye the edge with the same color I used to dye the surface. When you burnish the edges will naturally darken, so using the same dye provides a darker shade of the same color, which always looks good.

Burnishing Step 4

After the edges have been dyed, it's time to actually burnish. To do this, dip your finger in water and lightly wet the edges. Make sure not to soak the edges though. Leather becomes very pliable when soaked and can be molded. This is great for other things, but not so much when your burnishing. Once you've put water on the edges, rub a canvas cloth across it briskly until the edges start to darken and shine. You'll know you're done when you start to hear a tacky sound.

Burnishing Step 5

And finally, apply some beeswax to the edge. This helps keep the leather water resistant and makes the edges look dang good. After putting on the beeswax, make sure to buff the edges again with a piece of canvas. Then you're done. 

 See? It's not so bad. With a basic grasp of these skills, you’re already have the knowledge you need for your first project. Now's your chance to go make your first leather item.

 

 

Basic Skills of Leather Working

 

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Radu Vladislav on Nov 25, 2017:

so good. thanks for sharing! where do you usually get the leather?


Ken Mazikowski on Jun 21, 2017:

a swell tutorial on beginning Leatherworking. thank you. another subject i would like you to illustrate would be burning and decorating the leather that is with metal stamps etc.