How to Break in a Leather Sailmaker's Palm
There’s a lot of discussion regarding the best way to soften a sailmaker’s palm. One commenter in an online sailing forum swears by using neatsfoot oil to break in his leather palms. Another commenter cautions against oil and says he soaks his palm in water and then shapes it to his hand. Yet a third sailor says neither oil nor water will do it — taking the time to sew with it a little every day is the only tried-and-true way to soften a palm. With all this contradictory advice, we thought the best way to answer the question would be to test these methods for ourselves and see which one we like best. Are all these softening techniques valid? Is one better than the others? Let’s find out together.
While a sailmaker’s palm is intended for ropework, hand sewing sails and marine canvaswork, it can also be used for other extremely thick or heavy-duty sewing applications. You can use a sailmaker’s palm for hand sewing leather, webbing or any sewing assembly that’s thicker than your sewing machine can handle.
The William Smith & Sons Sailmaker’s Adjustable Palm, sold by Sailrite®, is a combination seaming and roping palm. It’s intended for occasional use, meaning it’s not meant to be the only means of sewing your sail. The Sailmaker’s Adjustable Palm is for sewing parts of your sail that are too thick for your sewing machine to penetrate or where your machine can’t reach. Palms are often used for installing the sewn rings in sail corners, installing leather sail corner patches, using twine to secure sail slugs and slides, among other uses.
There are two other types of leather hand sewing palms. A professional seaming palm is used for sewing seams and patches — in general, lighter sail work. A professional roping palm is used for heavier work such as sewing bolt rope to the sail. In a roping palm, leather extends up the thumb so you can wrap the thread or twine around the protected thumb to pull it taut without cutting into your skin. Our leather palm softening techniques will work to break in either palm type.
The adjustable palm Sailrite carries has the extended thumb protection of the roping palm paired with the larger thimble (also known as the eye) of a seaming palm. Divots in the thimble fit the blunt eye end of hand sewing needles. It also features a buckle strap to accommodate a wide variety of hand sizes. When you open the packaging, you’ll notice the sailmaker’s palm is very stiff. The palm is flat, the leather is hard, and it doesn’t fit your hand comfortably. The rawhide underneath the metal thimble is so stiff it’s almost impossible to bend. You might find it very uncomfortable to wear your sailmaker’s palm right out of the package, making hand sewing your sails a tedious and unpleasant task.
Ideally, you want to soften your palm enough that you can mold it to fit your hand like a glove without losing the integrity of the palm’s purpose. The hardness of a sailmaker’s palm is what gives it the leverage to push the needle through your thick material application. The pressure of pushing the needle into the sail material should be distributed evenly over your hand so you do not get a sore spot where the eye of the needle pushes against your skin. You will be able to sew for longer periods of time without getting sore if your sailmaker’s palm remains stiff, but not inflexible and abrasive.
Method One: Leather Conditioner
The first method we tested was to condition a sailmaker’s palm with leather conditioner. There are dozens of leather oils and conditioners on the market, and not all serve our intended purposes. Some leather oils are meant to revitalize and polish leather furniture and shoes. Others are for leather car upholstery or horse tack. To make sure we purchased the right leather conditioner for our needs, we talked to Sailrite Sail Designer Jeff Frank. He recommended using the same type of conditioner you’d use to soften a baseball glove.
Materials You'll Need:
- sailmaker’s palm
- leather conditioner
- clean towel
- sandpaper and scrap leather (optional)
After researching the top baseball glove conditioners, we chose Nokona NLT Classic Glove Conditioner. Nokona is intended for bringing old, dried-out baseball gloves back to life, but it’s also used to break in new gloves. Even though we picked Nokona, there are several high-quality glove conditioners on the market with excellent user reviews. Choose whichever one you find appealing.
Using sandpaper to soften the edges of your sailmaker’s palm is an optional step. We decided to sand the edges of our Method One palm and not the second one to see how much of a difference sanding made. We practiced on a spare piece of leather first to decide which grit of sandpaper we needed. We highly suggest getting some scrap leather approximately the same thickness and stiffness of your palm to practice on.
After trying different grits, we decided on 80 grit. Gently sand the inside edges of the palm where the leather cuts into your hand. It’s not necessary to sand the topside edges. Sand the edges until they soften and dull. You should sand the palm before applying conditioner.
When you apply a leather conditioner to your item, it reintroduces moisture back into the dry leather. Stiffer leather, like that in our sailmaker’s palm, may take longer to loosen up. Leather conditioners are designed to keep leather supple, flexible and smooth. They are intended as a maintenance product to keep your leather looking new and lasting for a very long time. But will a leather conditioner soften a brand-new palm enough to mold it to your hand so you can use it without spending weeks or months to “train” the palm? That’s what we wanted to find out.
With leather conditioner, a little goes a long way. Don’t over apply it. You want the conditioner to soak into the leather. It’s also very important to only apply the Nokona on the surface of the leather palm. Do not apply conditioner to the underside of the palm as Nokona conditioner is not meant to condition split leather surfaces.
It might take several coats applied over a period of time to soften your palm enough to your comfort level. Make sure you let a coating soak in before applying another. Once the conditioner has soaked into the leather, you should begin flexing and shaping the palm, working the leather. Another way to shape the palm is to wear it after you’ve conditioned it. Even if you’re not working on a hand sewing project, create a practice project so you can sew with your palm and start loosening up the leather and fitting it to your hand.
Method Two: Soak in Water
The second method we tested was to soak the palm in a bowl of hot water until the leather became pliable enough to shape it. Though there are metal parts on the sailmaker’s palm, you do not need to worry about the metal tarnishing. Soaking your palm in water should not jeopardize the metal in any way.
Materials You'll Need:
- sailmaker’s palm
- bowl of hot water
- heavy object to hold palm down in water (if necessary
- clean towel
- sandpaper and scrap leather (optional)
If sanding the edges of your sailmaker’s palm, do this step before placing the palm in water. Fill a bowl with hot — but not boiling — water and submerge the palm in the bowl. If the bowl is deep enough the palm should completely submerge. If not, use something heavy like a coffee mug to weigh it down; all parts of the palm need to be completely under the water. Leave the palm in the bowl for about 10 minutes until the leather becomes soft and pliable.
Take the palm out of the water and dab off the excess water with a clean towel. While the palm is drying, occasionally flex and shape the palm to loosen it up. Buckle the palm to your hand at a comfortable notch on the buckle strap. Once the palm is shaped to your hand, gently remove it and set it on the towel to dry. Leather is elastic and stretches when wet; it will shrink back as it dries, though perhaps not to its original size.
While this method is by far the fastest way to break in and soften your sailmaker’s palm, soaking leather in water will cause the tannins in the leather to leach out. When leather that has been stripped of some of its tannins dries out, it becomes brittle and inflexible. So it’s very important to condition your palm before it completely dries out and stiffens past the point of usability. After our palm was mostly dried, we coated it thoroughly in a layer of the Nokona conditioner used in Method One and set it aside to dry overnight.
Results & Conclusions
Method One required several coats of the leather conditioner. We applied a new coat about every 30 to 60 minutes, and we flexed, twisted and worked the palm between applications of the conditioner. We applied four coats the first day and two the next day, flexing the leather and shaping it between applications. This method was more labor intensive but was perhaps safer for the leather’s integrity and longevity since we didn’t soak it in water and leach out the tannins.
Method One softened the leather and made the palm wearable, but it did not break in the palm as much as Method Two. The rawhide is still stiff and hard to bend; we were able to curve it slightly, but not as much as soaking in water. The palm is wearable but much stiffer than the Method Two palm. Sanding the edges with sandpaper helped soften them; they do not bite into the skin as much as they did right out of the package. If you want a palm that is comfortable enough to wear but still has stiffness and structure, Method One is what you’ll want to go with.
Method Two was definitely the quickest and easiest way to break in a brand-new sailmaker’s palm. It only took soaking the palm in hot water for 10 minutes, then shaping it and molding it to fit a hand. Once it was mostly dry, which took about 7 hours, we coated it with the leather conditioner and left it to dry overnight. When we checked the palm the next day, we noticed that the rawhide had darkened, along with some wrinkling of the leather. The leather also expanded a bit. So if you have a smaller hand, you might have to add an extra buckle hole for your palm to fit properly. You can use a hole cutting tool to punch a new hole in the buckle strap.
This method resulted in a sailmaker’s palm that is very soft and malleable. It’s easy to put on and is nicely shaped to fit a hand. Soaking in water allowed us to easily curve and manipulate the rawhide to wrap around a hand. Our Method Two palm already looks like it’s been broken in and has been used. Soaking in water did discolor the leather and rawhide, so conditioning the leather is a needed step to ensure the leather doesn’t dry out and become brittle.
Both softening methods work well enough to break in a sailmaker’s palm so that you can comfortably hand sew with it in a day or two. Soaking in water changed the shape of the palm more dramatically than applying multiple coats of a leather conditioner. Choose whichever method you feel most comfortable with. We recommend Method One for people with larger hands who don’t need the rawhide to curve around the side of the hand. Method Two is better for smaller hands or people who want the rawhide to be more formfitting and wrap snugly around the outside of the palm.
The most important thing to remember is that no matter which method you choose, it will still take some time to fully break in and soften your sailmaker’s palm. Just like breaking in a new pair of leather shoes — or a baseball glove — repeated use is the surefire way to break in your palm. Once you’ve broken in your palm and it’s comfortable to wear, remember to keep it well maintained so it lasts.
Keep your sailmaker’s palm stored when not in use to keep it clean and out of the sun. Oil or condition it at the end of every sailing season before you pack it away. Remember that leather was once an animal’s skin. Your palm needs to be moisturized the same way your skin needs lotion and sunscreen. The better you take care of your sailmaker’s palm, the longer it will last.