Leatherworking A to Z: Leather Crafting Techniques to Know

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Just like with any new skill, there’s a lot to learn when you’re getting into leatherwork. What tools do you need? How do you use them? What are the different kinds of leather? With so many new terms, it’s hard to keep it all straight. But don’t worry — our blog series, "Leatherworking A to Z" is a glossary of important and well-known leatherworking tools, techniques and terms. Scroll on through to learn about the main techniques used in leather crafting. 

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Beveling — Beveling refers to the process of removing 90-degree angles from the edges of leather using an edge beveler. This gives leather edges a rounded appearance. Bevels can vary by size and angle to create the desired look. Beveling edges provides a professional finish to leather goods; it also makes it easier to burnish the edges.

Burnishing — Unfinished leather edges, like unfinished fabric, will fray over time. Burnishing uses friction to smooth and polish the edge, creating a slick edge that won’t fray. Burnishing can be done using water, wax or gum tragacanth. There are several ways to burnish leather edges: with a designated burnishing tool, usually wood with grooves to slot leather edges into; with heavy canvas; or with a mechanized burnishing tool or dremel.

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Dyeing — You can dye or stain full pieces of leather, or just leather edges. Dye penetrates the actual fibers of the leather. Dyeing full pieces of leather is easiest with unfinished, vegetable tanned leather; this will allow you to achieve whatever custom color you need for your project. You can re-dye already dyed and finished leather, but you will need to remove any finishes using a leather deglazer. If using dye for your leather edges, you should dye prior to burnishing. When dyeing edges, avoid the finished surface as much as possible.

Edging — See beveling.

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Hammering Stitches — Setting stitches after sewing ensures the stitches sit level with the surface of the leather to prevent abrasion. Use a mallet or hammer with a non-textured head so as to not mar the delicate surface of the leather.

Hole Punching — Use a rotary punch (or a punch and mallet) to make precisely placed holes for lacing, belts or installing hardware.

Measuring Leather Thickness — Use calipers or another gauge tool to measure the thickness of leather at a given point to determine its suitability for a particular application. In general, thicker leathers are more durable. Thickness may vary across the entire span of a hide, so it is usually indicated with a range. Pieces can then be skived to a uniform thickness.

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Painting Leather — Whereas dyeing penetrates the actual leather fibers on both surfaces and edges, leather paint (including edge paint) sits on top of the surface. Paint is the only way to achieve a lighter color than the natural leather; leather cannot be dyed lighter. There are specialty leather paints that are designed to adhere to leather and be more flexible so the paint doesn’t crack or peel. Use a deglazer on the leather you intend to paint and finish with a leather sealant for best results. Edge paint comes in a wide variety of colors, so you can blend your edges in with the rest of your leather project or paint the edge in a contrasting color.

Roughing Leather — Use a roughing tool or sandpaper to scuff leather surfaces prior to applying glue. This promotes better glue adhesion.

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Saddle Stitch — One of the most common hand stitches for leather, a saddle stitch uses two needles and one piece of thread to create two lines of interwoven stitches. This means that even if one of the threads breaks, the stitching stays intact. Saddle stitches form a zigzag pattern that run from the bottom of one stitch hole to the top of the other.

Sharpening/Polishing — Dull knives are both dangerous and difficult to use. Proper knife maintenance is important for leatherwork to ensure clean, precise cuts. Sharpening knives and edge tools regularly using a leather strop or a sharpening stone will eliminate knife dragging and ragged cuts.

Skiving — Skiving is the technique of shaving or thinning leather for layering pieces to avoid bulk when creating pockets for bags or wallets, or to remove bulk along edges where pieces are joined together. Skiving can also be used to remove leather to make folding leather easier.

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Stamping — Stamping leather involves the use of specialized tools, sort of like punches, that imprint a design onto the surface of the leather. Vegetable tanned leather is ideal for stamping, as the leather is stiff enough to hold the imprint (chrome tanned leather is too soft to tool). Dampen your leather prior to stamping to ensure a clean, precise imprint. When stamping, work on a secure, protected surface (such as a cutting mat) and do not use a metal hammer or you can damage your tools.

Stitches Per Inch (SPI) — When hand stitching leather goods, stitches per inch refers to the size of stitching chisel or pricking iron being used to make stitch holes. Stitch length can be shortened or lengthened to suit the look of the project. In general, smaller stitches are regarded as being finer and higher quality. To find the number of stitches per inch, you can divide the number of millimeters in an inch (25.4) by the length of the stitch in millimeters. For example: a 3mm pricking iron equates to 8.5 stitches per inch (25.4 / 3 = 8.5).

Thinning (Splitting) Leather — This is the process of dividing an entire hide of leather into two or more layers; when done at the tannery level, this process creates top grain leather and suede. For leather crafters, splitting leather is, much like skiving, used to get the thickness needed for a particular application. It can be done by hand with a sharp knife, or with a machine.

We hope this article helped you learn more about the world of leather crafting. Be sure to check out our other blogs on leather terms and tools. Sailrite is your go-to source for leatherworking tools and supplies.