There are many tools that are available commercially that are utilized in the leather working processes. There are also naturally occurring tools that are in your own back yard or laying around your home. Working with leather in general can be costly, but using alternatives to common tools can save some money. Specialized tools, on the other hand, are worth the monetary investment.
Sticks and Stones
Yes, it sounds odd when making this the first of the tools of note. Something that is quite plentiful for everyone despite their current surroundings is used in nearly every project that I work on. I love having flaws showcased within each piece I work on, and using sticks or stones can give a unique texture. Before tooling leather, if it is slightly dampened, you can lay it on a driveway and stomp on it to give textures. For a more precise placement of indentions while creating a texture, I also have a pile of stones that I am either able to drop on the finished side of the leather, or strike it repeatedly while turning the stone in different positions. My personal favorite is a chunk of a geode that my children and I found while panning for gemstones at Dan Nicholas Park. Tree branches and stumps also make excellent forms, simply soaking your leather, wrap it around the branch as a form and tightly wrap a towel around it. Lay the leather to the side in the sun and it will form to the branch as it dries. This is particularly useful when making cylindrical projects.
There are several types of mallets used in leather working. You are striking punches and stamps frequently in order to make impressions into the leather, so to have a quality mallet is a good idea. Mallets are made from hardened plastic, leather or wood as to not damage the stamping tools that you are striking. It is a good idea not to use a regular hard rubber mallet, as doing so will cause a more regular frequency of the stamps skipping, thus making duplicate impressions on your piece. My personal favorite is a hardened plastic, if for no good reason other than it will not absorb any finishes that I happen to get on it, and I do tend to make a mess…
Another piece of equipment that you will want is a good set of knives. Large rounded skiving knives are used to get the fleshy bits off of the inside of a piece of leather. A hook shaped knife blade (that looks rather like an Xacto knife) is used for precision cutting, the hook allowing for very precise cuts around curves. You are also able to use the sharp point of the cutting knife to trace a cut on thicker pieces of leather to reduce the strain in the cutting process (it can be quite a work out with scissors and shears). A swivel knife is used to trace out your lines for embossing. They make a V shape in the dampened leather that can then be worked back over to give a strong impression.
There are many different kinds of stamps available, depending on the pattern that you are attempting to create. Some stamps are angled to sit within a beveled line and tap in order to create an embossed edge. Others have patterns that you can utilize for shading patterns or run around in borders such as stars, flowers, hearts or circles. To use a stamp, you simply press the patterned side to the dampened piece of leather and tap it with your mallet. For single strike tools, like stars, a single strong tap is usually enough to leave an impression. For embossing a line, you will move the stamp back and forth slightly along the line that you are embossing in a smooth rhythm to reduce the distinctive tool marks. To leave behind a pattern, such as a basket weave pattern, you will line up the edge of the stamp with where you have left a previous mark, then repeat the pattern all the way across the piece of leather.
There are a couple of different kinds of hole punch, and I do have several. Spring loaded hand punches allow you to make a single hole while holding a piece up. This is useful if you are unable to lay a piece flat on the table to punch it, for instance if you are trying to make a new hole in your belt because you ate at a buffet. Other hand held punches of varying sizes are readily available to punch on the table. There are also stitching punches that make a series of small lines through the leather. When lining up the punch properly, you get a series of holes to push a stitching needle through to get a uniform line of stitches. The number of prongs for stitching varies, and you are able to get from one prong to sixteen prongs. I tend to use a four prong punch the most, it tends to perform better around corners. I also have a spring loaded hand punch with four prongs, in case I am unable to lay a piece flat to work on it, which is particularly useful for working on formed masks.
Without a doubt, the modeling tools are my favorite and they get a lot of use. Some people look at me with puzzled expressions when I tell them “it was mostly done with a spoon”, but I find that my modeling spoon works very well in gradually molding a cut line for figure modeling. The spoons that I use are double sided and have a rubber grip. Differently shaped heads are available for the spoons, but my favorite is leaf or oval shaped so that I can get fine detail in my modeling. Each side of the spoon has a different sized head on it, and the rubber grip makes long periods of tooling easier on my fingertips, as the pads of the fingers tend to compress after extended amounts of time.
Slickers and Creasers
Slickers are very useful in that they are designed to burnish a finished edge on your work. My favorite style (shown to the right) is able to fit different sizes of leather in the grooves that you see. You can also utilize the pointed end to work in larger details in to a piece. As these style tools are used, they begin to develop a darker finish in the wood between absorption of dyes, waxes and friction in general and will begin to transfer a darker finish on the edge being worked on. As with a molded eraser with pencil, the yuckier the better. Creasers are used to work in folds into your piece. This is particularly useful when working with placing a seam that requires a hard fold. Creasers can be found in plastic, bone or in this case horn variants. When using a creaser, you are able to work in the same discoloration as the slicker gives, but it is more used for the actual forming process than the finishing process.
A good set of stitching needles is another unsung necessity. Lower quality needles tend to snap off at the eye if you are forcing through thicker material. Stitching can be done in a single line, or in tandem strands, so having sharp needles is a must. The needles that I prefer to utilize have a small blade-like tip and can cut through the leather if I need them to. When double stitching, I tend to lean more toward a pair of needles that are thinner so that they don’t bind on each other. These are all heavier duty than a regular cloth sewing needle, as the density of leather is much tougher to move through.
Awls are used for punching holes through the leather one at a time. You can use them to scratch a pattern on the surface of the leather as well, but my preference on a scratch awl is to make pin pointed marks on the leather to make sure that my holes are lined up properly when doing overlapping pieces. I also utilize a stitching awl, as it helps relieve stress on my hands after long periods of work. Stitching awls use a lock stitch, wherein you pull a length of thread through the back side of a piece, then by making a small loop on your next hole, you can pull through the loop and knot the thread as you go.
It is very important to have a hard surface to pound on. There are synthetic pieces that are available, but I prefer a quartz, marble or granite slab as it provides a sturdier base to strike with. Fortunately, I have a stone top table that I use as a work surface. I also have a smaller quartz slab that I use on tables other than my stone one. Unless you are using a synthetic surface, you will want to cover any stone tops with a pounding board as well so that your tools will be protected. Striking an edged tool into marble will dent or even shatter the tool.
Thread and Lace
Typical thread as used on fabric tends to wear down when used in leather, so we utilize a wax covered thread. There are linen and synthetic varieties available, and I have seen sinew thread used off and on as well. The thread is comprised of many strands woven or spun together to give a thicker surface. The thread is then coated with a thin layer of wax and spun into a spool. Stitching lace can also be utilized to give a different kind of character to the stitching of the piece that you are working on. Lace usually will require you to punch a larger hole though, so I will more times than not use waxed thread of the synthetic variety for its durability and so that there are no large gaps in which water might seep into or through seams in the case of pouches or bags.
Some projects utilize alternative fasteners, usually so that you do not have to worry about a stitch being weakened or breaking. Snaps and rivets are easily found, as are “Chicago Screws” and conchos. Traditional rivets have been used for many years, since they are relatively easy to set in the leather or in metal. They utilize a technique that bends metal over a washer in order to secure two pieces of material together. Chicago Screws and conchos are certainly not period, as they utilize a screw back that fits into a threaded chamber. While they are not period, they hold the same look of rivets with the modern convenience of being able to unscrew them to make adjustments to your piece. I equate this as the leather worker’s duct tape – had these been available in period, they would have been used in place of traditional rivets. Conchos are used in the same manner, but can include many cast images.
There are many kinds of glue available, but the most common is a form of rubber cement. Rubber cement makes a permanent bond between two pieces of leather, and is used a little differently in order to get an ideal bond. In wood working, as an example, you can put glue on a single piece of material, then stick it on another piece of material to reinforce a bond. With contact or rubber cement, you apply the glue to both pieces that will be glued. You then let it set for a few moments until it becomes slightly tacky instead of wet. When you adhere both of the treated pieces together, a very strong bond will be created and almost instantly become inseparable.
On occasion, I use standard super glue as well. If I am using super glue, it is usually with the knowledge that it will be a temporary bond or I have the intent from the offset to break apart the bond. Super glue can be used for a strong bond, but if any shock or vibration comes to the piece, such as normal tooling or setting rivets, the brittle material will break apart. I generally do not recommend using it as an adhesive medium.
Dye and Finishes
There are several types of finish that are available, both oil and water based as well as alcohol based. Each type of finish is used for different types of projects, and each leather worker has their own opinion of which works best for them. I have actually utilized used motor oil, vegetable oil and tempura paint in projects before, but tend to favor water based leather dyes or finishes. Different forms of sealers, waxes and conditioners are also available so that the finish of the piece remains protected. Wax conditioners can add a degree of moisture back into a dry piece of leather, and will protect it from water damage very well. My preferred use is a product called “Aussie Conditioner” that uses a blend of beeswax in it. The finishing process itself can be quite intricate, so I will cover different techniques later in this journal.