Leather Working FAQ

Commonly asked questions about leather working.

Q. What is the best leather for carving with?

A. Vegetable tanned cowhide works best because it holds the carving impressions well.

Q. How do I set a Rivet?

A. At the minimum, a hole is punched then the rivet inserted. The cap is then placed on the rivet and hit with a mallet. Note: that this may cause some distortion of the cap so it is recommended to use a rivet setter.
Rivet setters consist of 2 parts - an anvil and a concave faced tool. The anvil has a flat side for use with single cap rivets and a concave side for use with double cap rivets. The base of the rivet is inserted into the hole in the leather then positioned on the anvil. The cap is then positioned with the concave faced tool atop it and is struck with a mallet to set the rivet without distorting the cap. See: Selecting a rivet setter.

Q. What is leather carving?

A. Leather carving is basically cutting a pattern into the leather with a swivel knife then stamping with a variety of tools to shape and texture the pattern. See: Basics Of Leather Carving.

Q. What is figure carving?

A. Figure carving is the carving of birds, animals, people, trees, and objects (as opposed to patterns). Much figure carving is done with backdrops such as landscapes. Figure carving takes more practice to become skillful, but is very rewarding. In general, figure carving also requires more stamping tools.

Q. What is basketweave?

A. Basketweave is a stamping technique for applying patterns that look woven. It most commonly seen on police gun belts, although it can be beautiful in many applications. See: Basketweave Technique.

Q. Can you suggest a good book to learn the basics of leather carving?

A. Yes, the Leatherwork Manual covers all the basics.

Q. How do I cut belts or straps perfectly?

A. Use a Strap Cutter. These are adjustable for width, fairly inexpensive, and easy to use. The only hard part is cutting the first straight edge. To do this you need a long straight edge (such as a metal bar or ruler). Lay the leather on some cardboard and cut along the straight edge with a sharp knife. It is helpful to have someone hold the straight edge while you cut it. Remember, the strap cutter follows this edge so if your first cut isn't straight, your straps won't be either.

Q. What is stropping?

A. Stropping is used to put a fine polished edge on cutting tools. All tools cut better when stropped. A simple inexpensive strop can be made by applying Jewelers Rouge to a scrap of leather (or a practice piece). Rub a thin layer of rouge on the smooth side of the leather. Hold the knife bevel flat to the leather and pull it across the leather. Repeat several times on both sides of the blade. When cutting, stop now and then to stop a few times. A properly stropped blade cuts smooth and easy.

Q. How do I know when my swivel knife needs sharpening?

A. If your swivel knife is not cutting smoothly and appears to be tearing the leather then it probably need sharpening. Unless abused, most swivel knife blades will rarely require sharpening. A good stropping should put a razor edge on the blade. If it cannot be stropped to a razor edge, or has nicks then sharpening is necessary.

Q. How do I sharpen my swivel knife?

A. You need a keen edge sharpener jig and a sharpening stone. The blade is removed from the knife and inserted in the jig. Next adjust the angle so the knife bevel lays flat to the stone. Roll the jig back and forth several times on the stone. Flip the blade and repeat for the other side. This may have to be done repeatedly for very dull blades. When you feel the blade is sharp, give it a good stropping.

Q. Can I use a hammer in place of a mallet?

A. No. A metal hammer will cause the plating on the tools to chip, eventually leading to a rusty, useless stamping tool. Always use a non metallic mallet when stamping.

Q. What is the best way to transfer patterns from books to the leather?

A. Tracing film works best. It is waterproof and translucent so you can see where you are positioning it.

  1. Tape the film to the pattern
  2. Trace the design with a pencil
  3. Case the leather
  4. Position the tracing film on the leather
  5. Trace the design with a metal stylus
  6. The design is ready for cutting
  7. Save the pattern for future use

Q. Can I use paper to transfer patterns?

A. Yes, but it is not recommended. Be careful that the paper doesn't get too soggy. If it tears you will have difficulty tracing accurately and since it is not transparent, you will have difficulty positioning a new copy over partially traced designs. Paper cannot be used more than once.

Q. How can I get a professional looking edge on my belts?

A. This is a multi step process as follows:

  1. Use an edge beveler tool to reduce the angle of the edges. This is done on both front and back edges.
  2. Dye the belt and edges as desired.
  3. Optional, but recommended - Apply Gum Tragacanth to the edge and allow it to dry.
  4. Use an edge slicker to burnish the edge until nice and smooth.
  5. Apply any leather finish desired

Q. How is an edge beveler used?

A. Our goal here is to transform 90 degree corners into 45 degree corners. This will make later burnishing easier. Position the leather to slightly overhang a table edge. Hold the cutting area of the beveler against the corner of the leather. It should be held so that it will cut the corner off at about a 45 degrees angle. The beveler is pushed along the edge. Try to cut the entire length of each side without raising the beveler for best results.

Q. How is an edge slicker used?

A. Position the edge to be burnished to slightly overhang a table edge. The groove in the edge slicker is positioned over the edge and rubbed back and forth briskly. The friction will smooth and round the edge.

Q. Does Gum Tragacanth really work?

A. Yes. We find that edges with Gum Tragacanth applied burnish better, much faster, and with a lot less effort.

Q. Must I use a marble or granite slab when stamping?

A. No - any sufficiently hard smooth surface will work. We prefer a marble or granite slab on top of a poundo board since that combo seems to absorb the impacts well and minimizes noise and vibration. If you plan to do a lot of leather stamping, a marble slab and poundo board is a good investment.

Q. What does casing mean?

A. Casing is basically wetting the leather in preparation for carving. A sponge is used to wet the surface of the leather. Well cased leather tools easily. The correct amount of moisture is somewhat difficult to describe, so you should practice with some scraps to get the hang of it. We generally wet both sides of the leather, then allow the flesh side (smooth side) to almost return to its original color before tooling. On thin leather, apply water to flesh side only.

The term casing dates back to a time before plastics and when sponges were not a common item. Leather was soaked in a bucket the placed inside a leather case until the desired state was reached.

Q. How deep should my swivel knife cuts be?

A. For most carving the cuts should be about halfway through the leather.

Q. How do I hold the swivel knife?

A. The correct way to hold a swivel knife is to grasp the barrel between thumb and middle finger. Place index finger on top (in the U shaped piece). For additional stability place the fourth fingertip against the side of the blade. See illustration 5 here.

Q. How do I use a swivel knife?

A. Although it sounds complex, with a bit of practice you will be able to use a swivel knife without having to think about it. Practice on some scrap cased leather. Grasp the knife properly, tilt the top away from you and position the front blade corner where you want to start the cut. Apply downward pressure with your fore finger to control the depth of cut. Pull the blade towards you. Curves are followed by swiveling with the thumb and middle finger. Practice making straight cuts first, then S shapes, then C shapes, and finally complete circles with only two cuts.

Q. How do I end a cut that does not meet another line?

A. This is most common in floral carving. As you approach the end of the cut, gradually reduce the pressure with your forefinger to provide a smooth transition out of the leather.

Q. I am looking to make jewelry are the 3D stamps something I can use to make 3-d flowers to wear on a leather necklace?

A. These stamps will provide a multi level imprint of a flower (or whatever type of stamp chosen) to make a medallion style necklace. They will not make a fully 3 dimensional sculpture type piece.

Q. Can the leather stamping tools also be used to stamp a somewhat "soft" metal like sterling silver?

A. Officially we have to take the stance of no since use on metal voids any warrantee. We do have customers that use them for thin soft metals, but be aware that use on any metal may chip the plating on the tool. Furthermore various metals of the same type may have differing amounts of tempering and this may also affect results.

Q. Can the leather stamps be used for stamping metal such as copper or aluminum?

A. Although we have several customers that do this, we do not recommend it. These stamps have a plating on them that is not meant to impact something as hard as metal. Even a soft metal will damage these stamps.

Q. How is an embossing wheel used?

A. It is put in an overstitch spacer and rolled across cased leather to make the imprint.


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Disclaimer: The information presented here is accurate to the best of my knowledge and common leather working practices as of the time of this writing. These FAQ's are common questions asked our tech support department starting in 2000 and updated and rewritten in April 2012. The author and the publisher accept no liability for the use or misuse of any of the information presented these pages - they are presented for informational purposes and is used at your own risk.

Author: Bob Sherman

Publisher: Bobby's Craft Boutique Inc.

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