Introduction: Leather Tool Kit
First Prize in the
Tandy Leather Contest 2016
What items would go into your ultimate portable tool kit? It is a fun question to think about, and even more fun to assemble.
This tool kit is designed to be carried under the arm like a book, and measures about 2" x 10" x 14". It is riveted and sewn from a couple thicknesses of tanned leather and goatskin, and closes with a heavy duty zipper. Finished with leather dye and ink, then protected with Neatsfoot oil and Atom Wax.
This Instructable covers laying out tool pockets, molding leather, sewing, riveting, tooling and carving, burning, and finishing a zippered leather tool kit. Each step includes the specific tools used, and is broken down so if you are just interested in one aspect of the fabrication, you can jump right to it. The numbering for the figures starts over in every step. This Instructable is really long, but written so you can scan the steps and overviews, or dig in deeper for details.
Step 1: Laying Out the Tool Pockets
- Flexible tape measure
- Framing square
- Mechanical pencil
- Steel flexible curve
Lay your tools out where you want them arranged, mark the height of the pockets, measure how much leather to cover each tool, then transfer the dimensions onto leather. Fig. 1 shows what the pockets will look like.
Decide how you want your tools arranged in the pallet (Fig. 2). The pallets are going to close over top of each other, so be mindful of arranging your tools so the thickest tools don't bang into each other when the kit is zippered shut. Also consider how frequently a tool will be used, and get your favorites where they will slide out of the pocket with the minimum of interference with tools pocketed above them. Now walk away, then come back and take another look at what tools you have laid out. This is a big project, and you might be using the tool kit for a long time. Do you really, honestly use every one of those tools? Weed out the herd, and keep it as space efficient and lightweight as possible.
With a good arrangement of tools worked out, decide the final dimensions for the pallets. For a good looking kit avoid discontinuities, you might want to arrange the tools and pocket depths so there is a continuous curve across the width of the pallets. Mark the length of the stitching between the pockets.
With the pocket depths laid out, measure how much leather to allow for each pocket (Fig. 3). A flexible measuring tape can be used to measure the thickest point of each tool. Be sure to use your fingertips (Fig. 4) to press the tape down completely. Since these tapes have metal tips, it sometimes works better to measure with the middle of the tape; try starting at the ten inch mark for convenience.
The measuring tape will measure the inside dimension of the pocket material. If you don't have one, a strip of paper will work. But don't forget to account for the thickness of the leather, and add that to the final measurement. Fig.5 illustrates why the additional width is added. When done exactly right, the pockets will be a very tight slip fit. For the longer tools, it can be annoyingly difficult to get them out of tight pockets, so mocking up a tool pocket on scrap pieces can help establish how much extra to add to each pocket to get the perfect fit for how you like to work.
Finally transfer the pocket dimensions onto leather. Space the pocket stitch lengths between the measured widths. It is slightly overkill, but Fig. 6 shows using a steel curve to help average a flowing curve for the pocket heights. Un-creased poster board will work as a flexible curve, it is just a little tricky to hold it with one hand, and trace with the other. Fig. 7 shows how the stitch lengths are transferred to the leather using the width measured with the tape.
With the leather marked, it is time to move on to molding a leather pocket.
Step 2: Molding a Pocket for Three Screwdrivers
- Leather hole punch
- Razor knife
- Mechanical pencil
- Scrap wood blocks
For tools that will share a single pocket, group them together and clamp a piece of wet leather over the tool handles. Punch holes in the leather for the tool shafts in advance. Scribe cut and sew lines after the leather dries.
Figure 1 shows a semi-bad picture of what this step will create. The idea is to get a piece of leather wet, then clamp it into a shape. When the leather dries, it will hold the shape. The photos show 1/8" leather, which is about the minimum thickness before the leather is so thin that it won't hold a shape.
Start by grouping the screwdrivers in their final position. Make a mark under the center of each shaft, then use a hole punch to create a hole big enough for each shaft (Fig. 2).
Soaking the leather in warm water will make it more flexible. The wet leather can be clamped over the screwdrivers. Start by clamping a piece of wood on one side, then stretch the leather over the screwdriver handles and clamp that side. A thin piece of hardwood is used to fit under the screwdriver handles. It may take several tries to clamp all three pieces, unclamp one piece, and work the corner into a smooth transition (Fig. 3).
When the leather dries, it will be molded to shape (Fig. 4).
The leather is soft and stretchy when it is wet. So don't try to cut the piece to the final size, then clamp, or it is almost guaranteed to come out crooked. Try cutting the leather about an inch over sized, then scribe a cut mark after it comes out of the mold.
For scribing, an inexpensive divider is ground with a cutting edge on the short leg, and a rounded tip on the long leg. (Fig 5) A belt sander works great for this, or a rotary tool will work (wear eye protection). Scribe a wide mark for cutting (Fig. 6). Then allow enough room between the side of the pocket, and the foot of the sewing machine when scribing a sewing line (Fig. 7).
Step 3: Sewing Tool Pockets
- Leather punch
- Small ballpein hammer
- Singer 16-188
- Rounded tip dowel rod
- Size 92 brown nylon thread
- 3/16" rivets
Use the original paper tool positions to layout the stitches, then sew and rivet. Figure 1 shows the end result of this step.
Step 1 should have resulted in the top piece of leather for the pockets (Fig. 2). Cut a piece of leather for the back of the tool pallet, then transfer the pocket widths from the paper to the bottom edge of the back piece to mark the location of the stitches.
The part in Figure 3 is tricky. The leather is thick, and not very pliable. If you get the leather wet, it is easier to flatten a path for the foot of the sewing machine, but the foot will leave marks in the leather. Dry, the pocket adjacent to the stitch has to be pushed down while sewing a line perpendicular to the bottom edge, and without shifting the top piece of the leather (or sewing into your fingers). It isn't easy, and the example shown isn't factory perfect. Be sure to leave room at either end of the stitch to attach a rivet.
Figure 4 shows a general overview of rivets. You punch a hole through both pieces of leather, insert the rivets, and hammer them down. Since the rivets are in a ditch between the pockets, a short section of dowel rod can be rounded on one end, and used to strike the top of the rivet. The rounded end will help reduce marking on the tool pockets, but is soft enough not to distort the pattern on the rivet head.
For punching holes in leather, the end-grain of a hardwood block works really well. A common analogy for wood grain is a bundle of drinking straws. It is easier for the punch to slide between the ends of the straws, then to crush them along their lengths. It helps keep the punch sharper.
Step 4: Cutting the Design Into Leather
- Swivel knife
- Mechanical pencil
- Ballpoint transfer stylus
- Tracing film
Sketch the design on velum, scan, edit the scan to mirror the image for both sides, print the image, transfer to leather, and cut. Figure 1 shows the final result.
Art doesn't lend itself to procedures. It is an organic process where an idea is expressed on paper. The procedure is 1) imagine a design, 2) create design on paper. Kind of silly to describe it that way. So this part of the procedure is more about describing how to replicate the creative process that went into the design shown.
Find a design that looks like you want your final work to look like, and start sketching. Plan on using the eraser quite a bit. The velum is translucent, so it is easy to trace printed pieces from other sources. The design shown uses a vintage medical drawing of a spine, and a tracing of a microscopic photo of retinal pigment cells. You can see the cells as black shapes for the bottom layer of the design. A photo of an interesting design was used as a loose guide for the main design, but is completely freehand drawn (Fig. 2)
With a velum sketch, the design can be scanned, mirrored, and printed in the final dimensions. The artwork for this piece was stretched by about 20% to fill the leather shell, leaving room for stitching without intersecting any artwork. Print and adjust the scale until the size is right.
With a final printout in hand, the leather is cut to size. Leave 1/2" around the edges of the pallets to allow for stitching a zipper. The leather work piece is dampened to take an impression from the stylus. The printout is laid on the leather, then tracing film is laid over the printed design. The tracing film can be re-used, but if there are already impression on the film, it makes it really hard to see what lines have already been traced.
While tracing the design, be thinking about the motions that will be required cut the design, and where it can potentially be messed up with an errant cut. Just go over each line once, but press hard. Tracing takes a while, and will wear out your hand. As you slowly outline each design element, it is also a good time to start thinking about how the leather will be carved.
Most instructions recommend honing the blade on the carving tool with a strop. This was great advice 100 years ago, but now you can put a hard felt buffing wheel in your drill, and work the edge with some nano-particle diamond paste. To sharpen, put a piece of at least 800 grit automotive wet-dry on your flat stone block, push the bevel against the paper until it snaps in place, then grind in a circular motion. Lookup 'scary sharp' sharpening for more info.
The grind of the bevel on the knife is fat like an axe. A razor knife will slice right through the leather, but the fat bevel on a swivel knife offers more resistance as it goes deeper, so it is really indispensable for cutting in a design. The swivel knife takes practice, so if you have never used one, don't learn on a large expensive piece of leather. Practice on scraps, particularly practice making tight circular cuts that require pushing and pulling the tool in multiple directions.
Step 5: Tooling the Case
- Pear shader stamp
- Beveler stamp in three sizes
- Camouflage stamp
- Geometric stamp
- Texture stamps in three sizes
- Poly maul
Stamp the design as show in Fig. 1. The intent is to create the appearance of multiple layers.
For the spine, bevel around the outside edges. For the spinal disc, they should give the appearance of bulging, so bevel inside the lines of the disc to give that look. Spines are somewhat cylindrical, so use the shader to create an arc and increase the appearance of a cylinder.
The cells in the lowest layer are textured with different sized texture tools. Remember to whack the small tools lightly and really come down on the large tools to get the same depth texture. The cells weren't beveled, but it may have made it easier to brush in the stain if they had been beveled from the inside out.
The sinewy stretchy features are interwoven. Where one element passes under another, bevel the intersection to give the appearance of the lower piece passing under the upper piece. Use the pear shader to create stretch marks.
The geometric tool is used for the design shown in Fig. 1 of step 2.
Step 6: Dyeing the Design
At this point in the project, good housekeeping becomes really important. Keep you work area wiped down. A drip of dye from an hour earlier can ruin artwork if a work piece is laid face down on the drip. Watch for dye on your hands and tools. Dye is insidious, don't wreck hours of hard work with one careless mistake.
- Windsor Newton brushes
- Silicone mat
- Disposable flux brush
- Disposable applicator
- Feibings dark brown dye
- Feibings light brown dye
- Feibings mahogany dye
- Feibings black dye
- Feigings British tan
- Feibings Edge Kote in dark brown
- Yellow illustrators ink
Paint the edges, then starting with the darkest colors, ink in the carved design with a brush. Figure 1 shows the final result of this step.
A stiff bristled brush works well for applying color to the edges. Just be careful to move the brush in a straight line, square to the front of the leather. If it gets pulled side-to-side, or rocked over the edge, the paint will well up and get on the front face of the leather.
The inside of the cells are black, on a field of mahogany. Fill any unpainted sections with the mahogany (Fig. 3).
English tan is a really versatile dye. Build up layers to shade, it will vary from nearly orange to a dark brown. Make the lower layers of sinew the darkest, and darken where one sinew stretches under another, fading to a light color. The parts that appear stretched the furthest should be stained the lightest (Fig. 4)
The spine is dyed with yellow dye (Fig 1). It would have looked better with a coat of brown.
Use the dabber to put black on the rough side of the leather, but beware: the black can soak through to the front side.
Step 7: Burning a Design Into the Tool Pallets
- Propane or butane torch
- Gears from an old alarm clock
- Infrared thermometer
- Fuel gas
Heat the gears to around 600 F, and press them into the leather to create a design. Figure 1 shows a close-up of the final result.
This part smells bad, but is really fun. About half the gears in an old alarm clock have some sort of shaft pressed on. Use the pliers to grab one of the gears by the shaft, and heat it in the flame of a torch (Fig 2). A laser infra red thermometer can be used to measure how hot the gear is. Around 600 F works pretty well. But after several practice burns, you might notice the brass starts to turn a dull red after some time in the flame. If you like how the dull red turns out, use that heat; or count a couple of seconds after it comes out of the flame then press it on the leather for a lighter image.
Press firmly, and rotate your wrist to burn all the way around the edges of the gear teeth (Fig 3)
Drop the hot gears in water to keep from scorching your work area or fingers.
Work out a design that looks good. Figures 4 and 5 show the final result. Try to arrange the gears so that they could actually drive something. It is artistic, not an engineering drawing. But it makes better art if it looks like part of a working apparatus.
Step 8: Final Finishing
- Terry towels
- Fiebings Atom Wax
- Neatsfoot oil
The wax dries softer than the oil. Use the oil on the pallets and the wax on the cover. The final result is show in Figure 1.
Follow the instructions on the finishes. Oil the outside case, then buff it with a terry towel. Finish the pallets with neatsfoot oil. The burning step will shrink parts of the leather, and distort the pallets. After oiling, gently clamp them to a flat surface to straighten them out (Fig. 2). Only use enough pressure to get the leather flat, too much will leave a mark from the board in the leather. The final pallets are shown in Figure 3.
Test things out to make sure you like the final result (Fig 4).
The zipper is sold for use in leather chaps. Two strips of 1" wide goatskin are sewn just to the edge of the metal zipper. The foot of the sewing machine rides on the metal edge of the zipper. With a widened zipper, stitch the zipper to the outside case. It is harder to manage in the machine, but sewing with the zipper closed will keep things aligned so the case closes neatly. Leave extra length to the zippers loose inside the case. It makes it easier to operate, on the end that latches, and allows the case to fully open.
The pallets are riveted inside the cover to allow for easy removal if a stitch comes loose, of a different pocket needs to be sewn in.
Step 9: Final Notes
Figure 1 shows some of the tools used to cut various pieces. The framing squares are useful for getting a square cut for the pallets and cover. Scissors work trimming jagged edges. Marking is done with very light strokes from a mechanical pencil. Pencil marks can be erased if they don't press into the leather.
Figure 2 shows a metal protractor. This is handy for mirroring angles, and can be used as a cutting guide.
Figures 3 and 4 show dividers. In Figure 4 the divider is used to keep the spacing of the rivets consistent. This would be an inconvenient place to try to measure with a ruler.
Figure 3 also shows the rounded dowel used to set the rivets.
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