Leatherworking Beginner's Guide

This comprehensive guide gives a step-by-step tutorial on how to use the seven basic leatherwork tools for beginners. 

Swivel Knife

One of the most important tools in leathercraft is the swivel knife. Although learning how to use this tool can at first be a difficult task, with practice it can be mastered to create clean curves on your leather pieces. 

Below are five steps to follow while using your swivel knife to get nice results. 

1. Sand Your Blade for Smooth Cuts

One of the things you’ll notice when you first get your swivel knife is that the blade is grounded to a particular angle. Manufacturers use grinding wheels to keep the blade sharp, as a dull blade will not produce high-quality results. If your knife does not stay polished, it will drag in the leather and create friction, making it quite difficult to control. 

To avoid this, I recommend you get a piece of really fine sandpaper and then work the swivel knife blade back and forth on the surface. It’s important to hold the tool flat on the sandpaper, so I would lay a piece of smooth wood below it. Push the blade back and forth until you start to see fine lines disappear and the blade develops a nice polish. 

2. Strop the Blade

Next, you will strop the blade to make sure it is not only smooth to use but also sharp to cut. To do this, I recommend purchasing a jeweler’s rogue, which is what jewelers traditionally used to buff jewelry and metals. By regularly stropping your knife with a jewelers rouge, you are removing the oils and minerals tanned in leather. These compounds can cause build-up on knives, creating friction when pulled through leather. From the stroping process, the blade ends up with very high polish on it. This then causes the blade to cut through leather smoothly with a sharp angle. 

3. Hold the Tool Correctly

Now that your swivel knife is prepared to cut, it’s time to learn how to hold the tool. I always tell beginners to lay it on a table with the blade upright, then reach down and pick it up slowly in the correct form. I would have my thumb resting on one side of the barrel and my middle finger just opposite of that. Then, my ring finger would rest against the side of the blade, and my little finger and the side of my palm would sit on the leather. All of these specific finger locations allow you to achieve balance while using the swivel knife. 

Once your form is correct, you will make cuts by tipping the knife away from you and pushing down with your ring finger. The ring finger provides all of the pressure, while the rest of your fingers are used to steer the tool and provide extra help.

how-to-hold-a-swivel-knife

4. Practice Straight and Curved Cuts

The swivel knife takes this name for a reason: it swivels. The top segment of the tool rotates, allowing us to make curvy cuts. These are especially useful for designs like round leaf edges or any sort of circle. While making these curving cuts, neither my wrist nor elbow bends; I am relying on my fingers. 

Remember to hold your hand perpendicular to the leather at a 90-degree angle for the best results. I like to tip my head to the side to make sure I am cutting on the correct lines with accuracy. If you instead hold your tool on a slant, your blade will cut under the surface of the leather, rolling up a ridge of material on the side. This is called undercutting, and it will distort the design, making future leathercraft steps more challenging. 

When making your first incisions with a swivel knife, I recommend you start with straight cuts. Once you master those without creating too much friction and avoiding undercutting, you can begin making S motions across the leather. When doing your S cuts, make sure they go from right to left and then back left to right. These curving S cuts will be used a lot in floral designs, particularly while creating classic canvas leaves.

swivel-knife-curve

5. Consider Depth for Design

Depth is another important factor to consider when learning leathercraft; how deep you make your incisions will alter how your design turns out. A good rule of thumb I like to follow is to cut into about one-third of the thickness of your material. So, if we’re working on really thin leather, like material we would use for a wallet, we want to cut with lighter pressure. On the other hand, if we are making a belt or a saddle, we use a heavy material requiring us to push our swivel knife down with more force.  

No matter what range of pressure applied to a cut, the technique and hand placement always remain the same. One final tip to keep in mind when using a swivel knife is to not connect the curves. This may seem silly, but if we cut all the way down into one another, we might make a nick in the line, and nothing can clean that up. Instead, we use stamping tools to create the illusion of a connection. 

Overall, the swivel knife is a tool important for beginners to learn and leather veterans to master. Creating clean cuts and curves with the correct form and right amount of pressure will produce high-quality results.

Camouflage Tool

When beginners start their leathercraft journey, they are usually given a very brief introduction to the camouflage tool. But, because this tool is essential to creating the smallest detail of your leatherwork, I prefer to give more extensive instructions. The camouflage tool adds detail, creates impressions, and adds depth to your design- three fundamentals that can create new meaning to your work. 

First, it is important to recognize that the camouflage tool is shell-shaped. It looks like a big eyelash because it has lines that radiate out from the shelled half circle. 

Personally, I believe we get the most use of the camouflage tool when designing a basic flower on your leather. The flower offers many different opportunities to add depth. We add depth to the petals, impressions on the stem, decorations on the leaves, and more.

In this guide, I'll be sharing the three main ways to use the camouflage tool that can be applied to almost any project, as well as the correct form to practice while holding the tool.

camouflage-tool

1. Full Impressions

The first way we use the camouflage tool is to create full impressions. We can create these full impressions by leaning the front edge of the device into the leather. This then allows the inside curve to bite into the leather deeply and then fade away.

When working on a flower piece, the tool can be used on the petals to create definition. Start closer to the seeds and strike the camouflage tool hard. As you move closer and closer to the edge of the petal, have your strikes decrease in force, so that the impressions get lighter and lighter. This creates a ribbed look running up the petal of your flower, which adds depth to the petal.

An important consideration to notice when working on your petal is spacing. We want to have nice and consistent spacing on the petals to illustrate our best work. This will help create an even and clean look on the petal. If we have different spacings on each petal, it will look rushed and careless.

To create a sharper bite on your leather, rock the tool back on its heel when striking it. This technique adds more depth to your imprint.

2. Corner Impression

To create a corner impression with your camouflage tool, you can angle the tool so just that the corner of the tool is creating an impact. Rather than creating a full impression on your design, using the edge ensures you are only adding a partial imprint.

There are two reasons you would use the camouflage tool this way. The first reason is to create some roundness and accentuate the curves of your design. But, more on the roundness aspect of the tool later. The primary purpose we use a corner impression is because we are attempting to create an indent that is not as wide as the tool itself.

For example, we can use the camouflage tool when creating impressions on the stem of the flower. Since the stem is smaller in width than the petals, we want to be careful not to take a bite out of the leather we do not mean to strike. So, we can hit the tool by only using the corner to make sure that we only create an impression on the stem.

how-to-how-camouflage-tool

3. Creating Roundness

The camouflage tool can also add roundness to certain parts of your design. The roundness is created by making partial impressions at an angle and controlling how you strike the tool. 

The angle in which you strike the tool at creates a ‘fade away’ effect, almost making it look like the impression is rolling into the center. Roundness is usually used on the scrolls of any flower or design. Roundness is also applied to a design's acanthus leaf, which is seen in a lot of leatherwork.

A general rule of thumb when using the camouflage tool on an acanthus leaf is to use it on the inside curve. I make sure to angle the tool so that I create a partial impression that is quite deep at the corner of the cut, but fades away from the corner of the impression.

Holding The Tool

Now, to get the most out of your impressions, you need to make sure you are holding the tool correctly. To do this, you have to hold it near the edge of the handle. Do not forget to hold the tool with a firm grip, which is a universal rule for holding all tools. 

The firm grip gives us control over the impressions we are trying to make. With control, we can choose the depth of the imprint and help create the look of fading away. The tighter the grip, the better the work. 

Conclusion

The camouflage tool is an essential tool to understand because there are so many ways we can utilize its features. When doing full impressions, partial impressions, or creating roundness with your texture, the most critical part is to use the firm group. By controlling the tool, we can make the most of our leather design. 

Pear Shader

When I first started leatherwork, I would watch videos on how to use particular tools and read on pointers for different topics. I vividly remember watching a video tutorial on how to use a pear shader. It looked seamless and easy; all you seemed to have to do was hit the tool into the leather, revealing a burnished spot.

Well, it's actually not a tool you can pick up and learn right away. Ha, I remember the first time I used the pear shader, it looked like the leather was caught in a hailstorm. But, with time, I realized what I was doing wrong. 

When learning how to use the pear shader, practicing holding the tool correctly is crucial. Yes, it's important to stamp the pear shader with the right pressure, but if you want to make any progress in your leather skills, you have to learn how to hold the tool properly

Pear Shaders are one of the toughest tools folks struggle with. In this article, i'll be teaching leatherwork beginners how to hold the pear shader, put it to use, and the correct way to strike the tool. 

1. How to Hold

When gripping your pear shader, the most important thing to remember is the tighter, the better. Picture yourself as a rattlesnake coiling around its next meal. 

I make sure that my thumb is on one side, and on the other side, I have all the other fingers holding it. Also, I have my ring finger resting on the leather while holding the tool. So, when holding the tool, make sure the tool is hovering a little bit over the surface of the leather with the ring finger acting as a support system. 

2. Using the Tool

Now that we are holding the tool correctly, keep it in a tight grip. We can now start stamping the pear shader into our piece of leather. Since we are holding the pear shader tight, the tool will bounce right back up whenever we strike it. As you walk the tool along your piece of leather, each strike makes an impression before bouncing right back up. 

We need a tight grip because if we hold it loose, the tool will sit in the hole previously created after each strike. This creates an uneven surface and makes the piece appear beat-up. 

3. Striking the Tool

I mentioned earlier how important it was to hold the tool correctly; now, I want to go over the striking process. When striking the pear shader to make an indent, there are certain tips to keep in mind to get the best results. 

As you are using the pear shader, you do not want to move it a lot between each tap of the mallet. A general rule of thumb I tell anyone who asks me, "Jim, how much should I move my mallet after each strike," is to move the pear shader about two-thirds of the width of the tool. 

By doing this, you can overlap your indents to create and contour a nice and smooth piece, rather than having it look like my first time using the pear shader and create a piece of leather that was caught in a hail storm. Note: It's essential to make sure your leather is at the right moisture content to get the perfect burnish color. 

Final Advice

Holding the tool tight and moving two-thirds of the width of the pear shader are the main takeaways I want beginners to understand. These two nuggets of advice are what I wish someone told me when I was starting out. If I had someone show me a helpful step-by-step tutorial on how to use the pear shader, things would have been a lot easier when starting out. 

These two tips are what create clean and polished leathercraft. It's also important to note that the two main pieces of advice -tight and two-thirds- are also important when using other stamping tools. By understanding one, you get a good grasp on how to use the others. 

But, my last piece of advice is practice. I am a firm believer that practice makes perfect, and to get the best quality leatherwork, you need to make sure you practice. Like any other skill or hobby, you are not going to have perfect results on your first go around, but after practice and more practice, you will see improvement. You are allowing yourself to do your best work soon.

I would not be where I am today without practice, and with hard work, you can soon understand the wide world of leatherwork. 

Beveler Stamp

The Beveling Tool is a wedge-shaped tool that is beveled in shape. This tool is essential for beginners to understand because it adds dimension to leather pieces. You can see that one corner is longer than the other; the long corners do all of the work. 

We use this tool to push down the leather on one leaf or petal in your design which then allows the other leaf or petal to look like it is standing taller than the rest. It is an important tool to use in any design in order to create a 3-dimensional effect. 

In this guide, you’ll find seven tips to help beginners and pros alike learn the fundamentals of beveling.

Where to Use the Beveler

The main challenge of beveling is figuring out where to place your impressions. I think one task that beginners struggle with quite a bit is figuring out where to build layers in their design. This is such a struggle because every leatherworker has learned real quickly that there is no eraser. If you put beveling impressions on the wrong side of the line, there's no way to make those go away.

It's always good to stop and look and again, reference that pattern that you have for your piece. Ask yourself, what this is supposed to look like when it's done?

So, what should you look for on your pattern to indicate where to use the beveler? Look for the darker lines in your pattern. The line you cut into the leather is always darker on one side; a darker side indicates an impression was passed there. That'll tell you which side the beveling tool should be pressed down.

Holding the Beveling Tool

Another challenge that beginners face is figuring out how to have your beveling impressions come out nice and smooth. In order to achieve this, leatherworkers must hold the tool correctly and walk it down the material, overlapping imprints. We accomplish that walking effect by holding the tool so that it's just barely touching the leather. We are again overlapping each impression by at least half the width of this beveling tool so that we get a nice, consistent, and even beveling.

The other thing that I would encourage you to be careful about is to not lean the tool. Make sure that you're holding it straight up and down. If you lean it to the left or the right, then the edge of the bevel will leave an impression, giving you a bit of a ding in the leather. If you have lines in your pattern that are very close together, you can sometimes lean the tool slightly towards you. This helps us in some of the smaller, tighter spaces. However, for the most part, just hold the tool straight up and down and don't lean it backward either.

beveler-tool

Find the Right Moisture Content

Moisture content, as always, is critical with this tool. If your leather has the correct dampness, your impressions will give you a good burnish color. In order to get this burnish color, you need to have the right moisture content in the leather. Make sure the color has not been altered too much, but that the leather still feels damp to the touch. It may be just a little bit darker than normal, but if your leather is properly cased, it will dry out after your impressions are made, returning to its original color featuring your designs.

Angle Your Leather For A Clear View

When I'm using the beveler or any other stamp, I keep the line that I'm beveling between me and the tool. This way, I'm looking straight down at where the tool is making its impression. Once I reach a curve in the design and I can't see exactly where that beveling is happening, then I'll stop and turn the leather a little bit so I can see what's going on. It’s important to keep your leather turned with all of the tools so that you can actually see what the tool is doing. 

Layering Effect

While beveling, we want to accomplish a layering effect; we want to make it look like one design component is standing or is laying behind the others. We do that by beveling the designs that are in front first. We've got leaves, scrolls, stems, and so forth. In each case, one lays on top of the other; they don't all lay at the same level in our design. So with the beveling tool, we go along and we push down the leather on one side of these lines to give us that three-dimensional effect.

Consider Depth of Impression

Another tip that's really important is how deep you bevel. A rule of thumb I generally like to follow is to imprint about one third the thickness of the leather. This level of depth will really make the material stand out, which is the goal of the tool. A lot of these cuts are deep when we initially make them, but then they taper out. This means that my beveling will fade out as I get to where those lines in the pattern fade out. So, you can alter your impression depth as you walk down a pattern. I fade out the force for which I’m hitting the beveling tool when I want the design to only pop out slightly. By following this technique, you can ensure a nice smooth design that has a natural flow.

Utilize Various Sizes

I would recommend for beginners to start out with a Beveler 98, as you can do a lot of great designs with this size. However, as you get into larger designs or smaller patterns, you may want to invest in various sizes of beveling tools. This is not a one size fits all type of tool; it's sometimes hard to make a large tool fit into a place that a small detail has to go. Additionally, different sizes come with different textures, so consider the texture your pattern requires when purchasing more bevelers.

Overall, the most important tip is to practice, practice, practice. I measure my beveling success by how my leather reacts to my tools; if I'm getting good burnish, good depth, good color, that tells me my leathers just right.

Seeder Tool

The seed tool is one of the seven basic tools that every beginner should learn to master. Like many of the basic tools, the name tells you what it does: puts seeds in a flower. Although this is its primary use, the tool is more versatile than it comes across. The seed tool can also add a focal point in the center of our scrolls and any other design. Additionally, it can be used for border work. Similar to the beveling tool, its impression pushes down one piece of leather, so that the other side stands out, creating a three-dimensional effect. 

I suggest starting off with the S724 seeder, as it is the size that can be used with the widest range of designs, and has an easy grip to it. Read on to learn how to fill in flower seeds, how much force to use, and how to create borders. 

Seeding Flowers

When you’re using this tool, keep in mind that the first row of seeds really makes your flower achieve a sense of depth. I always recommend that leatherwork learners put their first row of seeds in on the outer layer of the circle. By putting these seed impressions around the outside initially, we create a guideline for ourselves. Then, the rest of the seeds follow that even circle. 

For this layer of seeds, you will want to be holding your tool at a pretty sharp angle. This is because the more angled your tool is, the more raised up our impressions will look. In fact, it usually looks like these seeds were actually beveled on one side, further providing depth. This steep angle is crucial; we don’t want the seeds to look like they are a sunken hole in the middle of the flower. The end goal is to create a cluster of seeds that are just about ready to pop loose.

After we imprint those outside row seeds, we can then come back and fill in the open area. To do this correctly, we fill row after row of seeds starting at the outside and work down toward the center. Make each impression directly next to each other, touching sides, but try not to overlap any seeds. 

seeder-tool-flowers

Use Little Force

Primarily what the seed tool does is add texture and makes the seeds stand out three-dimensionally. We don't want to use this tool with all that much force. Why? Well, the seeder is a much smaller tool, so hitting it very hard could hurt your material. We don't want to hammer the tool in here so deep that we create holes in the leather. If we mat down the leather too much, it would look like we are instead using the background tool, which has an entirely different effect.  

A general rule of thumb is to layer the outside impressions with more force because your seed tool will be at an angle, but once we finish that, keep your taps very light for the following impressions.

Border Designs

Another great thing we use a seed tool for is to create really neat border designs. For example, if I wanted a border on my piece of leather, I would begin with using the swivel knife to cut straight lines. This way, the simple dots you later add with your seed tool can follow this parallel line—avoiding unwanted curvature. When creating your border, you can either align each impression right next to each other to create a pearl chain effect, or, you can slightly overlap each impression for a more fluid border. 

Final Thoughts

The seed tool is one of the simplest tools to practice, as the name pretty much speaks for itself. Once you get comfortable with how much force to use for each impression, your flowers and borders will come out neat and beautiful. 

Veiner Tool

What I love most about the basic tools for leatherwork is that the name kinda tells you what they do. This makes our job a lot easier! An important tool used to create texture is the veiner tool. The tool's primary purpose is to add veins to leaves. 

By holding the tool correctly we will successfully add designs to leaves and scrolls. This tool is perfect for any beginner and will add a new layer of dimension to any piece.

Holding The Tool

One thing many folks struggle with is how to hold the veiner tool. Just like other tools, we like to keep a tight grip, but what stands out about this tool is the angel we need to hold the tool at. In order to use the veiner tool correctly, we need to make sure we are holding the tool at a steep angel. By using a steep angel, we are able to add flow in the leaf and add a layer of depth.

In my many years of leather work, the main reason people are not getting the imprint they want is because they are holding the veiner tool perpendicular. This ruins the ‘flow’ effect we want on the leaf and adds mistakes to the work we are trying to do.

So, now that we understand how to correctly hold the veiner tool, we need to know where to use the tool. By adding veins in the correct spot we can add great detail to our designs.

Leaves

The most common place to use the veiner tool is on leaves. My favorite design to use the veiner tool on is the Acanthus flower because it's simple, so it’s great for any beginner or experienced worker looking for practice.

The leaves on the flower will have a crease running down the middle. On one side of the crease I like to use my camouflage tool and on the other side I'll use my beveler to add depth. Then on the beveled side, we can use our veiner tool.

When using the veiner tool down the crease, two big things to keep in mind are spacing and rotation. We want to make sure we use a consistent spacing between each imprint to create a clean piece. Also, most of the creases in the leaves rotate, so we need to make sure we follow that rotation. To ensure my rotation follows a clean path, I like to turn my leather slightly with each imprint.

This then will make the impression run down the center of the leaf. Each impression folds into the crease, which is exactly what we want. This ‘folding’ effect only happens because we are using a steep angle. 

veiner-tool-design

Scrolls

Another area of the Acanthus flower we can practice our imprints on are the scrolls on the design. Like the leaf, it is important to use the correct form to get the effect we are going for.

When using the veiner tool on the scroll, a general rule of thumb is to have the edge of the veiner tool at the bottom of the scroll while having the other corner of the tool point towards the inside, or tightest, point of the scroll.

As I go around the scroll, I make sure that the corner of my veiner tool always points towards the middle of the scroll. I have to rotate with my tool and rotate my design. By doing so I keep the middle of the scroll in my eye-sight so I can see what I am doing.

After a couple of imprints, you will notice how we are getting a spiral look on the scroll. This is exactly what we want. We have a nice flow that runs down the scroll.

Final Thoughts

The most important thing to remember about the veiner tool is how to hold the tool correctly. We need to make sure we are holding the tool at a steep angle to create seamless lines that  emphasize the length of the piece. 

As I always say, the best way to learn this is to practice. By practicing the steep angle we can use the veiner tool to detail any design.

Backgrounder Tool

The background tool is essential in leatherwork, and whether you are at a beginner or expert stage, this article will provide you with tips to improve your craft. This tool really makes our design stand out as it ties everything together. In my eyes, it makes my piece really come to life. 

Although there are many unique versions of this tool, I tend to stick with the most basic version: the A104-2. If I recall correctly, this is actually the same model that came in the beginners kit I bought around 50 years ago. High-quality tools really do last and can still get the job done!

What is Considered the “Background”

The background of your design is in all of those openings; those gaps in between your design’s flowers, leaves, borders, etc. We want to put a different texture in those areas and flatten them out further so that the focal points can actually stand out. The more you use the background tool, the sharper your design lines will be. 

holding-backgrounder-tool

The Shape of the Tool

When starting off with your background tool, you’ll notice that a lot of these background areas are really fine, narrow, tapered areas. Hence, the background tool was designed to be able to reach into those crevices. The tool has a small point so it can mat down the leather in between these detailed designs. The shape of the tool was specifically created to work around detailing. 

Consider Depth 

First, you need to consider how deep you want your background to be. The depth that you want to accomplish here needs to stay consistent with how deep your beveling is. If your piece does not have the same depth throughout, it won’t come out looking clean and professional. A general rule of thumb I use across all leatherwork to achieve this consistency is to cut into one-third of the thickness of my leather. 

Outlining

You’ll want to start you background overlapping on the outside of your chosen background area. I recommend this for two reasons. First, I can make sure I don’t mistakenly take a bite out of the edge of my leaf, or any other design, if I lose focus. Also, I can make sure that I am impressing as deep as my beveling is. 

After we have clearly used the background tool on the outer edge of our leather, we come back in and flatten all the inner sections. This way, the leather all comes down to the same depth, achieving the maximum effect. 

backgrounder-tool-border

Overlapping

After outlining, it’s time to overlap. The goal with this overlapping is to get the background leather to be nice, even, and consistent. Because all of your individual impressions will be noticeable after one round of outlining, overlapping it critical for a final product. Continue making impressions that lay over one another to create a sense of fluidity. 

A great advantage of the background tool is that if the background doesn’t come out perfectly, you can smooth over and adapt it. I advise against going over your impressions too many times as your sense of equal depth will be lost and your piece can end with a mushy texture, 

Final Advice

Backgrounding is typically the final step in our leather stamping,  so nothing is going to come along and clean up a mistake. If you accidentally take a bite out of the edge of a leaf or stamp somewhere it does not belong, there’s no real way to cover it up. Therefore, I recommend really taking your time at this stage to keep your work neat and tidy.  As long as you follow these steps and work with patience, the background tool is sure to really make your designs stand out. 

 

With this basic guide to leatherwork, your project will be up and running in no time.

beginners-leatherwork