How to Finish Leather Edges
One of the final steps in producing high-quality, professional-looking leather goods is deciding how to finish the edge of your project. Once you’re comfortable with the basics, there’s a lot of room for customization in the finishing process. Each leatherworker will develop their own taste and preferences for the best products and techniques for edgework. Here, we’re going to discuss three of the most common ways to finish the edges of your leather goods.
Step One: Sand
Regardless of how you proceed with finishing your edges, the first step will always be to sand the edges. Especially where multiple pieces have been glued together, sanding ensures a straight, flush and smooth edge. This step will also remove any excess glue that may have seeped over, which could potentially ruin your edge finish. Working from a low to high grit when sanding is the key to a mirror-like shine; when in doubt, sand more.
Step Two: Bevel
Beveling is an important finishing step, especially when burnishing. By removing the 90-degree angles, the leather edge takes on a more rounded appearance for a more professional-looking finish.
Once the edges are flush and square after sanding, run a beveler along the edge. These tools come in a variety of sizes; choose the appropriate size that corresponds to about 25% of your leather thickness. Bevel both the grain and flesh side of the leather for best burnishing results. This ensures the leather won’t mushroom or fold when you burnish.
Step Three: Burnish, Paint or Dye?
The three main approaches to edge finishing are burnishing only, dyeing and burnishing, and painting. Each of these methods seals and protects leather edges and provides a professional-looking finish. Choosing what’s best for your project depends on the type of leather, the application and your personal preference.
Burnishing is the simplest way to finish an edge and works best on veg tan leather. It seals the raw, cut edge and creates a water-resistant barrier. Because no pigment is added to the leather, burnishing brings out the natural colors of the leather. Burnishing does darken the edge slightly and leaves a glossy finish.
To burnish, apply water, wax or gum tragacanth to the leather edge. Rub a burnishing tool vigorously back and forth with a good amount of pressure; you want to create heat to work the wax or gum into the leather fibers. This compresses the leather fibers and seals the edge against moisture. Leave the leather to dry and cure naturally. For additional shine, buff the burnished edge with a piece of canvas.
For a more in-depth look at burnishing leather, check out our blog, “How to Burnish Leather” (#300565XHT).
Painted edges are best suited for leathers that are thin, supple, pliable and generally do not burnish well like chrome tan, bonded or exotic leathers. Veg tan leather can be painted as well. Edge paint is available in a wide array of colors to complement or contrast with the finish of your leather project. Unlike dye, paint sits on top of the edge rather than sinking into the leather fiber. Multiple layers of edge paint can help fill in gaps and level uneven edges for a smooth finish.
Because painted edges aren’t burnished, you don’t have to bevel the leather for the sake of the finish. If you like the look of beveled edges, just be aware that it can make it more difficult to get a clean, precise application of paint. In place of burnishing, edge paint can be finished with a sealant for additional protection against water and abrasion.
This method of finishing leather edges is the most laborious of the three. It takes three or more layers of paint to achieve a smooth edge. To start, sand your leather project until it is smooth. Bevel here if desired. Apply the first coat of edge paint using a brush, roller applicator or an awl. This first coat should be fairly thin; you want just enough paint to start filling in the leather fibers. Let the paint dry; alternatively, you can speed up the curing process with a heat gun, hair dryer or electric edge creaser. Once set, sand the edge smooth and apply another layer of paint. Alternate sanding, painting and curing until the edge is smooth and has a consistent coating of paint. Leave to dry naturally. Finish by applying beeswax to the edge and buffing with a canvas cloth or by adding a sealant.
Like paint, dye adds color to an unfinished leather edge. Leather dyes penetrate the fibers of the leather for a more thorough color, unlike edge paint, which sits on the surface of the leather and is more likely to wear with time. Dyes are most commonly available in more natural or neutral shades and can be used on the surface of leather as well as the raw edge. Because dye itself does not create a seal on the leather edge the way that paint does, edges should be burnished after dyeing. This two-step process ensures consistent color and proper dye saturation, as well as a finished, sealed edge.
To prepare leather for dye, sand the edge until smooth and then bevel. Run a leather burnisher over the edge to lightly seal the edge and remove any lint. Apply the dye with smooth, consistent motions using a brush, dye pen or wool dauber. Use multiple coats to achieve your desired color. Remember that burnishing the edge will darken the color slightly. Once the dye has dried completely, follow up with your preferred burnishing method for a smooth, glossy finish.
What's your favorite leather finishing technique? Share your tips and tricks in the comments section below. And be sure to check out our other blogs on popular leather techniques. We have information and resources on how to burnish, bevel, skive and more — plus all the tools you need to start your leather crafting journey.