Leatherworking Beginner's Guide

Looking to get started in leatherwork? We are continually updating this page to make this the ultimate leatherworking beginner's guide to help you get started with basic leather tooling. 

Welcome! You've entered the wonderful world of leatherworking, which happens to be something we're pretty passionate about. We can't wait to help you get started on your first project!

Leathercraft is a fun and exciting hobby that can even become quite lucrative. However, as with many crafts, it can be a little bit frustrating at first and takes time and practice to excel. Don't give up! Elktracks is here to help. Our entire organization is about advancing and preserving the art of leatherworking, predominantly through teaching. 

We have a free, downloadable leathercraft basics video that will help you get started with leatherworking. There’s a lot of information in that video, so we've also broken it down here into a comprehensive, step-by-step tutorial with individual videos on how to use the seven basic leatherwork tools for beginners. 

This project focuses on tooling a popular Western floral design. We recognize that not everyone is getting into leatherwork to pursue this kind of traditional design, however this pattern is built specifically to help you get comfortable with the most common stamping tools. Use it to learn what's relevant to your interest, apply it to your projects, and practice, practice, practice. 

The pattern for this project is available in our Free Leathercraft Patterns section, along with many others. Below the tooling instruction, you'll find links for additional resources that focus on subjects like getting started with assembly and more. 

We also have pages dedicated to more intermediate and advanced lessons once you get the hang of the basics and are ready to pursue specific projects.

Without further ado, let's get started!



How to Wet The Leather

The first thing to understand about stamping is that you aren't working with dry leather. You're also not working with soaking wet leather. There's actually an optimal moisture level to try to reach in order to get the best results, and having the patience to learn what that is can have a quicker impact on the quality of your tooling than you might imagine. 

Getting the right amount of moisture in the leather is critically important. In leatherworking, we refer to the dampening process as ‘casing the leather.’

Before you get started on tooling, we encourage you to review our article "How to Wet Leather" that outlines some of the basics for finding the right moisture level for tooling. You'll also find a video embedded on the page that walks through the process a little bit more in depth.


How To Use A Swivel Knife

One of the most important tools in leathercraft is the swivel knife. At first, it may feel a little awkward to grip and you may find your hand getting achy in odd muscle groups. That means you're on the right track and just need more practice! 

When I teach classes, whether online or in person, domestically or internationally, the one that sells out more than any other is my Swivel Knife Finesse class. Whether you are new to the craft or have been doing it for 50 years, the swivel knife is the one tool that frustrates more leatherworkers than any other; often because no one ever showed them how to use it right! We're going to fix that today so that you can start with good habits.

Although learning how to use the swivel knife can at first be a bit challenging, with practice it can be mastered to create guidelines for your tooling, add some decorative flair, or even be the sole decorative element on your leather pieces. 

Below are seven simple tips to follow while using your swivel knife to get better results.


1. Honing your swivel knife blade

One of the things you’ll notice when you first get your swivel knife is that the blade is sharpened to a particular angle. Manufacturers use grinding wheels to keep the blade sharp, as a dull blade will not produce high-quality results. 

The potential problem this can create is that those grinding wheels tend to leave fine horizontal lines on the blade itself, which can cause small amounts of drag when you are carving. If you hold your swivel knife up to the light and look at the blade, you'll likely see what I'm talking about.

Fortunately it’s easy to correct this imperfection from manufacturing. I recommend you get a piece of ultra-fine sandpaper and then gently work the faces (not the tip!) of the swivel knife blade back and forth on the gritted surface. 

It’s important to hold the tool flat on the sandpaper, so I will typically lay a piece of smooth wood or another hard, flat surface under it.Push the blade back and forth until you start to see fine lines disappear and the blade develops a nice polish. 

Note: To be fair, you could probably skip this step and still do some mighty fine leatherwork. This is the kind of thing I do to fine-tune a new blade before I get started, but it's more for those who are looking to invest in their craft beyond a simple project or two.


2. How to Strop a Swivel Knife Blade

Before getting started with your carving, you always want to polish your blade, particularly if you've just honed it. New knives will have microscopic remnants of metal shavings on the blade, which can show up in your leather if you're not careful.

The process of polishing a blade is referred to as stropping, similar to what you may have seen old-fashioned barbers do to polish up their straight razors. The goal is the same: to get the smoothest. sharpest edge possible.

To do this, I recommend purchasing a white jeweler’s rouge (available at most leathercraft suppliers), which is what jewelers traditionally used to buff jewelry and metals. It will look like a large piece of white chalk.

Rub the rouge generously on the grain (smooth) side of a piece of leather, some scrap matboard, or a similar flat, smooth surface. Once you have a decent layer of rouge on the surface, you'll want to polish both sides of the cutting edge of the blade. The first time you do this, you might want to spend a few minutes stropping; you'll be surprised how much black oxidation is left behind on the rouge from the swivel knife blade. 

Important note: Always, always, always polish WITH the angle of the blade. Do NOT polish off the edge of the blade. This can happen if people roll the blade as they pick it up, and will make your knife difficult to work with. Focus on lifting the blade straight up after each stroke so it doesn’t roll under. 

You'll also want to strop your blade pretty frequently while tooling. You may only need to strop a few passes each time when tooling, but make it a habit to do so often and you’ll notice the difference in how the blade cuts.

When leather is tanned, the tanneries use a number of oils and minerals in the vegetable tanning process. Although this is desirable in high quality leather, your knife can pick up microscopic traces of these elements on the blade, which can begin to cause some friction and drag.

If you ever watch me carve, you'll notice I keep my stropping block right by me and polish my knife quite frequently to make sure it's working optimally.


3. How to Hold the Swivel Knife Correctly


Now that your swivel knife is prepared to cut, it’s time to learn how to hold the swivel knife correctly. 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. This is a finger tip controlled tool and this grip will let you control this tool with finesse.

You will make cuts by tipping the knife away from you and pushing down with your forefinger. The forefinger provides all of the pressure, while the rest of your fingers are used to steer the tool and guide it where it needs to go.


4. Practice Straight and Curved Cuts with Your Swivel Knife


The swivel knife takes this name for a reason: it swivels. The yoke of the tool rotates, allowing you to make both straight and curvy cuts. These are especially useful for designs like round leaf edges or any sort of circle. While making these curving cuts, neither your wrist nor your elbow should bend; you should rely on your fingers for the motion.

Remember to hold your hand perpendicular to the leather at a 90-degree angle for the best results. I will typically rotate my leather constantly and tilt my head to the side of my work to look in at an angle to make sure I am accurately cutting on the correct lines and that my swivel knife stays perpendicular to the leather.

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 and make 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, it’s important to practice both directions. These curving S cuts will be used a lot in floral designs, particularly while creating classic Acanthus leaves.


5. Consider The Appropriate Depth for Your 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 to one-half the thickness of your material.

So, if you’re working on really thin leather, like the material you would use for a wallet, you want to cut with lighter pressure. On the other hand, if you are making a belt or a saddle, you use a heavy material requiring you to push your swivel knife down with more force.



6. Avoid Connecting Lines with Your Swivel Knife

Another tip to keep in mind when using a swivel knife is not to connect the cuts. This may seem odd, but if you cut lines all the way down into one another you might make a nick in the line, and nothing can clean that up. 

Also, if two lines connect at the corner of a triangle shape this can sometimes cut the corner loose, causing it to roll up and look messy. 

Instead, cut almost to where the lines will connect, but leave a small gap. Know that you will be using bevelers and other stamping tools in later steps to create the illusion of these lines being connected.


7. Feather Your Swivel Knife Cuts

Although I could spend hours and hours talking about the best ways to use this one tool (and I have!), I'll leave you with this final tip before moving forward: 

Look at the photocarve pattern that came with the project for this demonstration. You'll notice that my swivel knife cuts don't just stop, but they fade out slowly. 

This is easier said than done, but an important skill to work on. Learning how to slowly relieve downward pressure to have your cuts taper out at the end rather than abruptly stopping can make a big difference on how clean your finished design looks. Compare your piece to mine and I bet you'll see the difference I'm talking about. It takes some practice to master, but can really have a huge impact on the look of your work.


Overall, the swivel knife is a tool important for beginners to learn and leather veterans to master. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of practice: get some scrap and just practice mastery of the movements, depth cuts, feathering, etc. If someone had really beat that into me early on, I would have saved myself a lot of trouble those first few years working with leather.

People look at my swivel knife work in awe and say "What knife are you using?!" The answer I always give them is that it isn't the knife that makes the designs work, but the hand holding it. I'd estimate that I've carved several miles worth of swivel knife cuts throughout my lifetime, and that practice is what makes it look easy.

Practicing creating clean cuts and mastering your curves with the correct form and right amount of pressure really can help you produce high-quality results.

 Want to learn more about running the swivel knife? Check out our video workshop Swivel Knife Finesse with Jim Linnell.


How To Use A Camouflage Tool

When beginners start their leathercraft journey they are usually given only a very brief introduction to the camouflage tool. Because this tool is essential to creating some of the subtle but important details in your floral designs, I typically prefer to give a more in-depth look at the tool. The camouflage tool can be used for detail, to create impressions, and add depth to your design - three fundamentals that can really help enhance your leatherworking. 

The first thing to point out is that the camouflage tool is shell-shaped. It looks somewhat like a big eyelash because it has lines that radiate out from the shelled half circle. 

One of the places you can get the most use of the camouflage tool is when designing a basic Western floral pattern for your leather. The flower offers many different opportunities to add depth and detail with the camouflage tool: on the petals, impressions on the stem, decorations on the leaves, and more.

In this beginner's leatherworking guide, I'll be sharing the three primary ways I use the camouflage tool that can be applied to many different types of projects, as well as the correct form to practice while holding the tool.


How to Hold The Camouflage Tool


To get the most out of your impressions, you need to make sure you are holding the tool correctly. To do this, I recommend that you hold it low down near the face of the stamp rather than higher up on the handle; this gives you more control and is something of a "universal rule" for holding most stamping tools. 

For the camouflage tool, you want to make sure that you maintain a firm grip, which will give you more control over the impressions that you are trying to make. This control will help you achieve the intended depth of the imprint and help maintain even spacing when you are fading the impressions. More on that to follow!


1. Full Impressions with your Camouflage Tool


A good place to start working with the camouflage tool is to create near full impressions on the leather. In the image above I used the stamp parallel to the leather to show the detail of the full impression, however typically you'll want to angle it a bit. You can create these fuller impressions by setting the corners onto the leather and then leaning the stamp forward slightly, which allows the inside curve to bite into the leather more deeply and then somewhat fade away.

When working on a flower piece this tool can be used on the petals to create definition. Start closer to the seeds and strike the camouflage tool with some relative force. As you move closer and closer to the outer 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. The video above illustrates this better than it can be described in text, although that's probably true of much of what you are reading here.

An important consideration to notice when using the camouflage tool on petals is spacing. You want to have nice and consistent spacing to help create an even and clean look on the petal. If you have different spacing on each petal it can look rushed and careless to the trained eye.


2. Corner Impression With The Camouflage Tool

To create a corner impression with your camouflage tool, you can angle the stamp so that just one corner of the face is creating an impact (as pictured above under "How to Hold the Camouflage Tool"). 

One purpose you might use the corner impression for is to create an indent that is not as wide as the tool itself, such as on a flower stalk or stem. Since the stem has a more narrow width than the petals, you will want to tilt the tool appropriately to be careful not to make impressions outside the stem. These camouflage elements add texture and direction to the flow of the design. 

This effect is often used to create roundness in elements of your design. The angle at which you strike the tool creates a ‘fade away’ effect, almost making it look like the impression is rolling into the center. Roundness is often used on the scrolls in Western floral designs, as well as other places. These rounded impressions can also be applied in the details of an acanthus leaf, another popular element in floral patterns.


Conclusion on Camouflage Tool

The camouflage tool is an essential tool to understand because it is often the first tool you use when stamping on a piece, and there are so many ways you can utilize its features. When creating full impressions, partial impressions, or roundness with your texture, the most critical thing to remember is to maintain a firm group on the tool so that it doesn’t slip or shift. 

Once you've figured out how to use the camouflage tool in Western floral designs, you can get creative with it to create borders, dragon scales, and any number of other fun patterns.  

Want to learn more about mastering the camouflage tool? Check out our video workshop Tooling Essentials Pt. 1 - Camouflage and Pear Shading with Jim Linnell.


How to Use A 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 so 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 necessarily pick up and use perfectly right away. I remember the first time I used the pear shader: it looked like the leather had been caught in a hailstorm! But, with time, I realized what I was doing wrong and was able to improve.

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 the Pear Shader

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

I make sure that my thumb is on one side of the stamp, and on the other side I have all the other fingers holding it securely.  I also have my ring finger resting on the leather while holding the tool. So, when holding the pear shader, 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 Pear Shader

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

You need a tight grip because if you hold it loosely the tool will sit in the impression previously created after each strike and be difficult to walk smoothly. This creates an uneven surface with gaps between the impressions and makes the piece appear beat-up.


3. Striking the Pear Shader

I mentioned earlier how important it is to hold the tool correctly; now I want to go over the striking process. When striking the pear shader to make an impression, 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 pear shader after each strike?" is to move it about two-thirds of the width of the tool. 

By doing this, you can overlap your indents to create and contour a nice, smooth impression, rather than having it look like my first time using the pear shader and ending up with a piece of leather looking like it 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 on Pear Shading

Holding the tool tightly and moving two-thirds of the width of the pear shader are the main takeaways I want beginners to remember. These two nuggets of advice are what I wish someone had 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 for me back then.

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

As always, my last piece of advice is to 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. By practicing you are allowing yourself to do your best work on your final projects.

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

Want to learn more about mastering the pear shader stamping tool? Check out our video workshop Tooling Essentials Pt. 1 - Camouflage and Pear Shading with Jim Linnell.


How to Bevel A Line In Leather

The beveling stamp is a wedge-shaped stamping tool that is beveled in shape. This tool is essential for beginners to understand because it adds dimension to leather pieces. If you look at the tool, you’ll notice that there is a slope to the face of the tool. When you are doing beveling, the bottom edge of the slope on the tool will typically be inserted into your swivel knife cuts and use them as a guide.

We use this tool to push down the leather one side of a leaf or petal in your design, which then allows the other side of the 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 On Your Flower

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, as every leatherworker learns quickly, there is no eraser. If you put beveling impressions on the wrong side of the line, there's no way to make them go away.

It's always good to stop and look and, again, reference that pattern that you have for your piece. Ask yourself: “What is this supposed to look like when it’s done?.” In a floral pattern look for what elements (flowers, stems, leaves) are in front of other elements as well as background areas. The beveler works to bring these parts forward while pushing back the background. 

So, what should you look for on your pattern image 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, which indicates an impression was passed there. That'll tell you which side of line the beveling tool should be used on.


How to Hold the Beveling Stamp

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

The other thing that I would encourage you to be careful about when using the beveler 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.


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. When you wet your leather, wait until the color is almost back to where it was when it was dry, but with the leather surface still feeling 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 myself 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.


Creating Layering Effects with the Beveling Stamping

While beveling, you want to accomplish a layering effect; you want to make it look like one design component is standing or is laying behind the others. You do that by beveling the designs that are in front first. You’ve got leaves, scrolls, stems, and so forth, and 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 of Your Beveling

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 the swivel knife cuts are deep when you initially make them, but then taper out. This means that your beveling will fade out as you get to where those lines in the pattern fade out. So, you can alter your impression depth as you walk down a line. I fade out the force with 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 stamp,  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 again 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 leather is just right.


Want to learn more about mastering your beveling? Check out our video workshop Tooling Essentials Pt. 2 - Beveling with Jim Linnell.


How To Use The Seeder Tool in Leathercraft

The seeder 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: it puts seeds in a flower. Although this is its primary use, the tool is more versatile than it might initially seem. The seeder 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. 

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 Flower Centers in Western Floral Designs


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 can follow that even circle. 

For this first 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 your 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; you 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 look just about ready to pop loose.

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


Use Less Force When Striking A Seeder Stamp

Primarily what the seed tool does is add texture and makes the seeds stand out three-dimensionally. You don't want to use this tool with all that much force. Why? Well, the seeder is a much smaller tool than most, so hitting it hard could hurt or even punch through your leather. You don't want to hammer the tool in so deep that you create holes in the leather. If you mat down the leather too much while using the seeder it will look like you 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.


Using A Seeder Stamp for Border Designs

Another great thing you can 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 on Using A Seeder Stamp

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.


Want more insights on how to utilize your seeder tools? You might enjoy our video workshop Tooling Essentials Pt. 3 - Veiner, Mulefoot, Stop, and Seeders with Jim Linnell.


How To Use The Veiner Tool

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

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


How to Hold The Veiner Tool

One thing many folks struggle with when using the veiner tool is how to hold it. Just like other tools you will want to keep a tight grip, but what stands out about this tool is the angle you need to hold the tool at. In order to use the veiner tool correctly you need to make sure you are holding the tool at a steep angle. By using a steep angle you will be able to add flow to the leaf as well as a layer of depth.

In my many years of leather work, I’ve found that the main reason people don’t get the imprint they want is because they are holding the veiner tool perpendicularly. This ruins the ‘flow’ effect you want on the leaf and adds mistakes to the work we are trying to do.

So, now that you understand how to correctly hold the veiner tool, you need to know where to use it. By adding veins in the correct spots you can add great detail to your designs.


How to Use the Veiner Tool on 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 I use my veiner tool.

When using the veiner tool down the crease, two big things to keep in mind are spacing and rotation. You want to make sure you use a consistent spacing between each imprint to create a clean piece. Also, most of the creases in the leaves rotate, so you need to make sure you follow that rotation. 

To ensure my rotation follows a clean path, I like to turn my leather slightly with each imprint, which will make the impression run down the center of the leaf. Each impression folds into the crease, which is exactly what you want. This ‘folding’ effect only happens because we are using a steep angle.


Where To Use The Veiner Stamp on Scrolls

Another area of the Acanthus flower you can practice your imprints on are the scrolls in the design. As on 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 you are getting a spiral look on the scroll. This is exactly what you want: a nice flow that runs down the scroll.


Final Thoughts On Using The Veiner Tool

The most important thing to remember about the veiner tool is how to hold the tool correctly. You need to make sure you 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 you can use the veiner tool to detail any design.

Want a more in-depth tutorial on how to get the best results from your veiner? Take a look at our video workshop Tooling Essentials Pt. 3 - Veiner, Mulefoot, Stop, and Seeders with Jim Linnell.


How to Use the Backgrounding Stamps

The backgrounder tool is essential in leatherwork, and whether you are a beginner or an expert this article will provide you with tips to help improve your craft. The backgrounder tool really makes your design stand out as it ties everything together. In my eyes it makes my pieces 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” on a Leather Pattern?

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 and move into the foreground. The more you use the background tool, the sharper your design lines will be.


The Shape of the Backgrounding 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 shape of the tool was specifically created to work around detailing so it has a small point that can mat down the leather in between these detailed designs.


Consider Depth When Backgrounding on Leather Designs 

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.


Start Your Background Tooling by Outlining The "Background"


You’ll want to start your background overlapping on the beveling 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. Second, I can make sure that my background impressions are as deep as my beveling is. 

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


Overlapping Your Backgrounding Impressions

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 is critical for a clean 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. However, I advise against going over your impressions too many times as your sense of equal depth will be lost and your piece can end up with a mushy texture.


Final Advice on Backgrounding Your Leather Design

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. 

Looking for more details on how to be successful with your backgrounding? Check out our video workshop Tooling Essentials Pt. 4 - Backgrounding with Jim Linnell.


Decorative Cuts In Western Floral Design 

Decorative cuts are often the very last step in creating Western floral patterns, but what a difference they make! These very intentional and well-placed flourishes add even more flow to a design. All of the same principals covered above regarding feathering your cuts and other swivel knife best practices still apply here as well.

I generally recommend beginners to start by trying to replicate the decorative cuts that are in the photocarve they are working from, however, as you get more confident, you may develop your own style. I can actually look at some floral tooling and be able to identify the artist just by the style of their decorative cuts. 

Since many of the insights are review from the swivel knife section above, I'll advocate that you watch our video on decorative cuts rather than recap everything here again. That being said, this does not deemphasize their importance. Decorative cuts can really bring a design to life!


Final Thoughts on Your First Leatherworking Project



Congratulations! You've made it through the full tutorial. How'd you do?

If you first response is "well, mine didn't turn out like yours", my response would be "Of course it didn't!" I've been practicing leathercraft for over 50 years, so you need to measure your own success by how much you improved rather than how much it looks exactly like mine. Regardless of what it looks like, this might be THE BEST FLOWER YOU'VE EVER MADE! That's genuinely something to be proud of, whether or not it's perfect.

I want to address that too. You always want to do the best work that you can: take your time, focus, and really enjoy the process. However, it may not be perfect, and that's part of how you can tell it's handmade. Machines are perfect. People are flawed. We make mistakes. And that is part of what gives character to your piece.

And the way you get better, have cleaner tooling, and fewer flaws? I have the secret. You ready? 

It's practice. Practice is the secret to good leatherworking. And you've just taken an important step on your journey into leatherwork. I'm proud of you.

As a matter of fact, I'd love to see it. If you haven't already, join our Facebook Group Elktracks Studios Creations. It is a judgement-free zone where leatherworkers of all skill levels from all over the world share their work. You'll be quick to find that leatherworkers are some of the best folks in the world. 


Now that you've gotten started, you may want to take the next step in your leatherworking journey and invest in one of our other beginner videos. If you're struggling with a specific tool, we have videos that cover each tool individually. We also have guides on everything from lacing techniques, dying and finishing, and so much more!

Welcome to Elktracks Studio. We welcome you with open arms to this craft we all have a shared passion for. I hope you're as excited for your next project as I am.