Welcome! In this Instructable I'll be walking you through the process of creating a piece of non-functional leather armor. While you'll look pretty amazing, make sure that you avoid battlefields and oncoming traffic, because this isn't meant to provide defensive cover for your torso. The piece is patterned out to resemble a human ribcage, but the practices and techniques can be applied to almost any shapes or leather projects you could dream up.
Note: This has been submitted as an entry into the Tandy 2016 Leather Contest. If you found this helpful or inspiring a vote would be much appreciated! Happy crafting!
Step 1: Tools and Materials
What you'll need:
Box cutter or x-acto knife
Rags or Wool Daubers
Leather stamp (I used Tandy's M882 Craftool Matting Stamp)
Masking and painter's tape
Mannequin, dressform or very patient friend
Sewing machine, sewing awl or rivets
Tandy Eco-Flo leather dye or leather paint
Tandy Eco-Flo Super Shene Leather Sealer
Craft foam (I suggest getting a roll, or at least 6-7 larger sheets from your local craft store. The larger your project, the more you're going to need.)
Veg-tanned Leather (I used 7-9oz, you might use anywhere from a single to double shoulder's worth. The heaver the 'weight' of the leather the thicker and stronger it will be. 10-13oz would be a lot closer to real armor, but would be harder to cut and a little more difficult to shape. Anything thinner like 3-4oz would behave more like fabric, so keep that in mind when purchasing your leather!)
Step 2: Creating Your Pattern
Firstly, you have to create a pattern! To do this I found a form that was close to the size of the person who would be wearing the armor. If you don't have a form like that on hand sometimes you can compensate by removing material later if the form is larger than the individual, but it's much easier to add girth to the form with padding or fabric if it's too small.
I began by using painter's tape (these forms are expensive, make sure you protect them with plastic or some kind of protective layer!) to rough out where I wanted my ribs to lay on the form. I referred to medical texts and illustrations, but also let my imagination take over as necessary. This is a foundation step that will help make sure you stay true to your original layout as the process goes on, so feel free to take some time with this part. I made sure to mark my Center Front (CF) and Center Back (CB) on the form so that I could always check to maintain symmetry as my process continued. It's a great idea to mark where the waist of the person wearing the armor is to ensure that they have full range of motion when the project is done.
After I was happy with the layout I cut long rectangles of the foam and roughed out the bone shape I was looking to create and started pinning it on the form, using the painter's tape as a guide.
Step 3: Draping Your Pattern
After you're happy with the layout, you can start 'draping' what will become your pattern. You'll want to use a material close to what you'll be making your real armor out of, in this case 7-9oz leather from Tandy. Fabric would be too soft, and using real leather right off the bat could go south (and get really expensive) if you mess up too often, so I used craft foam that was roughly the same thickness as the leather. The foam has a small amount of stretch and a lot of flexibility, so it was a great stand in for the real thing. This foam is available at almost any craft store, and is inexpensive enough that you can go though enough of it to make a really solid pattern without feeling guilty about material cost. I continued cutting and pinning to the form until I had half of the ribcage created, and since I knew it would be symmetrical I only needed to create half of the pattern, which would be flipped and traced on the reverse side later (see tracing your pattern).
Step 4: Creating a 'Mock-Up'
This is where the art takes over for science - you'll want to take a lot of time cutting the foam to make sure you have shapes as close to your vision as possible. You can cut them all out at once in rectangles and then trace bone shapes over top to cut out later, or you can go ahead and trace bones and then fit them on the form. This is also the time to decide how the armor will be taken on and off - I chose to do a side closure with velcro because of time constraints, but you could do a lace-up or snaps if so inclined.This is where I spent the most time of the project, because you're creating what will soon be pattern pieces that will be traced onto your leather. You can keep referring to your images for reference, or you can let your imagination take over. I decided to add an epaulet to one shoulder, which isn't anatomically correct but turned out pretty funky.
I used a stapler and masking tape to secure the pieces of my pattern together enough for it to be tried on. This doesn't have to be very secure, as you'll probably have to make adjustments when it's on a real body. It's a great idea to have scissors, extra foam and tape on hand so that you can shorten and lengthen the 'bones' as needed. I decided to add a few support pieces at this point to keep the parallel pieces from shifting around and hitting each other too often. If you see any aesthetic changes that need to happen, such as trimming that needs to be done or scale that should be adjusted, go ahead and draw directly onto the foam with a sharpie or pen. This is a great opportunity to put marks on the armor that you can check later to ensure things are lining up.
Pay special attention to how the person moves in the armor - if they have a lot of action planned then you might have to give them more space at the waist, arms and neck than you originally thought. Don't be frustrated if foam tears or comes loose, that's a great way to tell where the leather will have to take a lot of strain. Things that are seen now are issues that you can prevent later.
Step 5: Refining Your Pattern
At this point you should start refining the foam pieces before cutting out of leather. For me this meant making some of the bones much thinner and more curved, as you can see by where I cut and stapled the foam piece back together. Pay special attention to any notes you've made or markings you've put on the foam! At this point I did an intense round of tracing anywhere that foam overlapped (the CF 'sternum' piece for example) so that I could refer back to it if I got lost. I also numbered all of my pieces to avoid bones getting mixed up or attached in the wrong places. After I had everything thoroughly marked I dismantled the foam mockup and used it as my pattern. I made sure to clean up my lines so that they would be very clear as I was cutting them out, and transferred all of my markings, from numbers to connecting lines.
Remember that if you've done half of the pattern like I have that you'll be flipping the piece over to the back when you're tracing the undraped side on the leather.
Step 6: Tracing Onto the Leather
Now that you have a workable pattern you're ready to trace onto the leather. I knew from the start that I'd want to dye or paint the leather, so I used an orange pen to trace. I prefer this because I find that red and orange ink is very easily hidden by darker dyes, instead of the intense marker lines of a sharpie or black pen. If you want to leave the leather 'raw' or untreated you should be very careful, as marks and indentations are hard to hide once they're made. I did number the backs of all of the pieces according to the pattern pieces they were cut from, making sure to get their orientation correct to avoid accidentally cutting pieces upsidedown.
You won't need any extra room or 'seam allowance' around the pieces, so this is a good time to practice conservation of leather. I used lots of scraps from previous projects, but if using a new hide you'll want to be thrifty with how much you use. There shouldn't be any overlap of pattern pieces. You can lay them out and trace them all at the same time to be cut all at once, or lay them out and trace/cut as you go. Remember to flip your pieces if you're tracing for the opposite, undraped side of the armor.
You don't want to transfer the markings from your pattern pieces onto the leather, especially if they'll be showing on the final piece, so make sure you keep your pattern paired with your newly cut leather piece for reference.
Step 7: Cutting the Leather
Now that you have your pieces traced out, it's time to cut them out of the leather. You could use leather shears or scissors to do this, but I preferred to use a box-cutter with a lot of spare blades on hand. You want to make sure you switch your blades fairly often, otherwise they can start to add a lot of resistance when you're cutting the leather, which might result in you losing control of the blade and cutting into another traced piece, or worse, yourself. The sharper the blade, the better control you'll have over the cutting process.
I like to pair the pattern pieces with the cut leather and set them aside in a stack to avoid them getting lost in the jumble. It's a good idea to hold onto scraps that result from your cutting for repairs, sudden changes or future projects!
Step 8: Tooling the Leather
I wanted to make sure the the leather had some texture and didn't look too smooth, so I found a leather stamp with a pebble texture I thought would look good in the 'shadow' areas of the bone. I used a damp cloth to get the leather slightly wet, and then used the leather stamp and a rawhide mallet to impress the texture of the stamp onto the leather. Make sure you have a steady table surface to hammer on and that you take stretch breaks for your hands often!
This is also a great opportunity to give your piece some shape - you can use the dampness of the leather to help give it shape, which I decided to do with my 'sternum' piece. Before the leather was totally dry I raised the center to give it some dimension, which worked well on the final assembled ribcage.
Step 9: Checking Before Assembly
Now that your leather is cut, tooled and shaped it's a good time to triple check that you have all of your pieces accounted for, your edges are clean, and that you have your chosen closures on hand. I decided to dye the piece after assembling, but some prefer to add dye and paint before stitching.
Step 10: Assembling the Armor
After the dye has dried, you're ready to start assembling the armor. I decided to use an industrial sewing machine with nylon thread, but you could just as easily rivet or hand-sew it together with sinew. I used the pattern markings from the foam pieces to make sure everything lined up the way it had when it was on a body, and then used painter's tape and clamps to hold the leather in place as I was sewing. Using pins would have left extra holes in the leather, and with this thickness the pins would likely have bent before the leather could be secured. I made sure to sew very slowly to keep my stitches clean (well I tried, anyway!) and that the thread was staying strong. It was at this point that I sewed in the velcro for the side-closure to make the armor truly wearable.
I added a line of stitching around each bone because I thought it looked pretty cool!
Step 11: Dyeing the Leather
Now's the time to think about the color you want the ribcage to be. The goal was to keep the armor in shades of brown, so I sampled various Eco-Flo dyes until the desired shade was found. Make sure you work in a very well-ventilated area, especially if you're using a toxic dye. Always wear nitrile or latex/medical gloves to protect your hands from the leather dye. I poured out my desired amount of dye into a disposable plastic cup and worked in small batches to dye all of the bones. Dipping a wool dauber, which is that ball of fluff with a metal stick attached, or an old t-shirt rag into the dye, I applied the dye in a circular, buffing motion. You want to avoid 'puddles' of dye being left to sit for too long, because that will absorb quickly enough to make that area much darker than the rest. You want to apply the dye fairly quickly to ensure it coats the leather evenly. If you want to emphasize the darkness of certain areas, like I did with the textured 'shadow' areas, you can add another layer of dye to that area with a dauber or paint brush. Usually the dyes dry lighter than the bottle color, so make sure you let it dry completely before making that call.
After I was happy with the color and intensity of the ribcage I sealed it front and back with Tandy's Eco-Flo Super Shene, which helps add a nice finish to the leather. Using this makes sure that the leather is protected, and also that color from the dye doesn't transfer onto clothing or skin when it's being worn. You can get shiny and matte sealant in a few different varieties of each, but I decided on the matte finish, which dries almost invisibly. I applied it in the same way as the dye, in a circular, buffing motion.
Step 12: Finishing the Armor
Now comes the moment of truth - try on the armor again. If all has gone well then you have an aesthetically pleasing (if not functional) leather armor piece. If a bone is askew or needs to be shifted, you can take out the stitching and re-position it before stitching again, preferably through the same holes as before.