Here are my notes so far on the basics of leather tooling (making impressions into leather). I’m going to be teaching a class at Northwoods Community College, which is an SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism) event next month.
Leather Tooling Basics
- Draw a design on paper.
- Get your leather piece: vegetable tanned leather only! This won’t work on leather tanned other ways.
- Wet your leather. Each of the methods below works, but the longer ones work better – you get deeper impressions in the leather. The leather will darken as it gets wet.
- Spritzing/wetting surface with water: super quick cheating method
- Short soaking: hold the leather underwater for a little while – maybe 20 seconds or so – until bubbles come out from the edges. Water will have started to soak through the leather, and the leather will become floppy.
- Long soaking: First, follow short soaking method. Then place leather in a container with about an inch or two of standing water in the bottom of the container, with the leather raised above the water. Leave it in this closed container for at least 4 hours. This will give the fibers in the leather time to fully swell in the damp environment.
- Once your leather is wet, handle it with care. If you scrape your fingernails on the surface or otherwise ding it, those marks will be permanent (though you may be able to cover them up with background tooling).
- Impress your design by tracing through your paper with an inkless pen/pencil/blunt awl. Before placing the paper design on the leather, wipe off excess water. Your leather should be damp, but not have water beading on the surface. As you trace your design, carefully lift one edge of the paper to check that your design is deep enough to see. If not, press harder when tracing.
- Cut your design with the swivel knife. Rest your index finger in the top U cradle. Grip the textured area with your thumb and middle finger. Apply downward pressure with your index finger, keeping the knife upright. Change direction by rolling the blade between your thumb and middle finger. Try not to tip the blade from side to side.
- Use bevelers to raise one edge/stamp down the other. Put your leather on a hard tooling surface (you want the impact to go into the leather, not the surface below). Place tip in the groove cut by the swivel knife, with the butt of the beveler on the side that will be pressed down. Tap the top of the beveler with a mallet.
- Do the lines in the correct order – with the “lower” edges first wherever two lines meet.
- There are differently sized/shaped belevers for different amounts of raising/lowering, and for tooling different spots, like tight corners.
- Use background stamps to stamp the background even. There are smooth background stamps, straight lines, cross-hatched lines, small circles, and random pebbled designs.
- Use specialty stamps to make patterns in the leather.
- As you work, you will need to periodically re-wet the leather, especially if you notice the leather getting lighter (drying). Spray the top of the leather or wet it with a damp cloth. As long as the leather soaks up the water, you can add more water. If water starts to bead on the surface, wipe it off – it’s wet enough.
- Note: Leather that has been wet (and then dried) will dye differently than the same leather that has not been wet at all. The leather will have lost some of its oils. So if you plan on dying multiple pieces the same color, but are only tooling on one section – wet them all the same amount anyway.
- Paper/pencil for making design
- Water source: spray bottle or a rag to wet the leather with + bowl of water. Also, container for the long soaking method, if you’re using that one. I use a big plastic tub with a baking cooling rack set inside (to keep the leather out of the water). Professionals often have a special wood container that has space for water beneath and a wood rack above for resting the wet leather on.
- Swivel knife
- Stamps: beveler(s), background, specialty
- Veg-tanned leather
- Hard surface to tool on
My current plan is to have a very simple design drawn on paper (maybe a star or something) for people to try tooling, along with scraps of leather (pre-wetted) for them to try this with. I have about five sets of tools for people to try doing this, and other people can watch. Students will get to keep their scrap of leather, but not the tools. It’s going to be a one hour class. We’ll see how it goes! It may ideally need to have a different length, but this is my first time teaching this class (first time teaching in SCA was at Pentamere Academy of Defense last month). Not only that, but I’m teaching two classes (both new!) that day. I’m keeping them both to one hour, because I want to do some other things that day.
It just occurred to me: because of this class, I now have (almost) full sets of leather tooling tools for others to borrow. (I need to go get a few cheap mallets, and then I should be golden.) That would probably make it easy to do leather tooling at an Artisan’s Row at a future event… intriguing. I wonder if my weaving/Japanese braiding friends would mind having the noise of leatherworking going on next to them, so I could sit next to them at Artisan’s Row and just hang out and craft… I need to think about this (and how it would conflict with fencing, etc).
Yay, teaching! I still remember being taught tooling after fencing practice a few years ago, and how amazing it was that someone would just bring their tools and teach me how to do something so awesome. I’m looking forward to spreading that joy further.