Swivel Knife Tips for the Beginning Leatherworker

Something I wish someone had showed me when first starting out is how to properly use the swivel knife. Learning how to work this tool is hard enough, but learning how to use it if were dull and not working right makes it even harder.

One of the first things you need to do is learn how to get it sharp and keep it sharp. Keep it polished up so that when you're working, it's not dragging in the leather and making it more difficult to control than what it would be.  Leather is tanned with a variety of oils and minerals, which can cause a build up on the knife and create friction when trying to pull the swivel knife through the leather. By stropping the knife regularly with jeweler’s rouge, you are polishing the blade to keep it working smoothly.

Stropping a Swivel Knife

Th next thing to note is that this is a fingertip-controlled tool. When you're holding this tool, what I show folks initially in a beginner's class is how to grab it, you hold it with just your fingertips. You place your forefinger into the yoke up to about the first knuckle and your thumb is on one side. Your other fingers are on the opposite side and I have my ring finger resting on the side of the blade here. That's pretty much the grip.

How to Hold a Leather Swivel Knife

Then I let the side of my hand here rest of the table or on the leather so that I get good balance with it. You make the cuts by sticking just the corner of the blade into the leather and drawing the knife towards you, making the cuts. It gets its name, swivel knife, because the body of the knife turns. That's what aids you in doing nice, smooth, curving cuts. When you're doing these swivel cuts, you do all of the rotating with your fingers that are along the side of the knife and then you do all the pushing down with that yoke, with the forefinger that's in the yoke up there.

Swivel Knife Finesse for Beginners

That's the basic grip and that will be something that you'll have to practice with because you probably don't use any other knife in that kind of a fashion. As you're cutting, you want to try to follow your lines that you've sketched on the leather as closely as you can. You want to put enough pressure on the yolk so that you get good depth in your cuts. I usually try to get the cuts to go maybe 1/3 to 1/2 the thickness of the leather. That usually gets you a maximum amount of depth out of a piece of leather when you're doing the other stamping steps. It gets the design really standing out.

You need to always keep your leather turned so you can see what you're doing. If you watch any of my videos, you'll see that I rotating the leather frequently so I can get a good look at what's I’m doing. Learning how to get good, clean cuts and learning how to do them accurately, is an important thing. 

What’s even more important than that is you gotta do it. You have to do a lot of practicing.

I wish somebody had told me that early on, too. I've practiced a lot over the years but if I'd had put some time and effort into practicing how to really use this tool properly, it sure would have made a lot of that a lot easier. It would have made my projects better.  It would have saved me a lot of furstration, if I had just practiced more regularly on some scrap leather.  Early leather instructors such as Lou Roth and Jim Gick would have their students practice just swivel knife control up to 30 minutes a day.  After 50 years of practice, I understand why they started their students that way.

You just have to be willing to take some time, take some scrap, and learn how to use your tools. Learn how to make them do what they're supposed to do. If they're not, then work at it until you can make them cut the way they're supposed to, but the hand holding the swivel knife makes much more of a difference than the quality of the tool itself. You just have to spend time practicing.