Introduction: Leather Tooling Punches

Picture of Leather Tooling Punches
A simple method for making your own leather tooling punches.

I saw this idea in a '60s leather work book many years ago, it's great so the world should know. I haven't since been able to find the book, if anyone recognises it please post the reference.

Simply, you use metal files and/or a hack saw to work the head of a nail.

  • Nails

  • Metal file(s)
  • Junior hacksaw

For tooling leather:
  • Hammer
  • Base to hammer against (sturdy wood block)
  • Water

Step 1: Shape the Nail Head

Picture of Shape the Nail Head

The trickiest part of this is finding a nice design, it has to be fairly simple. Repeating patterns work well, squares, triangles, chevrons etc.

But today I fancy... Pacman!

Picture 1
File the nail head flat, then set to work on the edges...

Picture 2
The second picture shows the edge of the nail head has been filed so the top is sharper.

Picture 3
Then remove metal until your image is revealed. The use of a fine tipped permanent marker may help.

Picture 4
For Pacman I filed a wedge out of one side using the edge of a rectangular file then drilled a small hole with a fine bit. For the ghost three sides were filed flat, I cut in twice with the hacksaw on the base edge then opened the cut with a file.

-Drilling metal always requires a centre to be punched so the bit can bite!

Once shaped you can cut the point of the nail off with a hacksaw as this is the end you will strike.

Step 2: Hit With Hammer

Picture of Hit With Hammer

Once your punches are about ready, test them on some leather scraps.

Wet the working side of the leather. If you punch dry you don't get sharp edges and if you punch too wet then it's spongy and doesn't deform as well. Practice on off cuts before tooling your work, my examples aren't the greatest so if anybody has any hints and tips please add them in the comments :)

Step 3: Few Sample Designs

Picture of Few Sample Designs

Here are a few other designs I've made previously. The Oak leaf, acorn and mushroom were made to decorate a book protector (trees-paper-books, made sense at the time).

Interesting shapes can also be made from a bit of dowel, the end grain gives a stippled pattern which can be quite nice.


sinzu made it! (author)2016-12-14

I made it (before saw your ible). I used bolt which is a such much stronger and durable than nail, but it it much harder to work. I like your idea of pacman stamp :)

cbm104 (author)sinzu2017-06-25

Nice! :)

bigfoot03242 (author)2015-08-27

Very cool, A dremel and 20d nails the solution I used to create feathers and textures at least 25 years ago when I made my now ex- wife a pair of Mocs. Pretty much forgot about it until I started looking for Instructables on building myself shoes and saw your solution for tooling. I used surgical tubing on the shank of the nail it made hanging on to the tool easier.

Nils1895 (author)2015-08-10

I made a movie about it!

apewe (author)2015-04-14

creative.... I want to try it...

ClydeS (author)2015-01-22

Very cool. Thanks

dewanm (author)2014-12-17

awesome idea thanks

Jack Moran (author)2014-05-21

Wow this is exactly what I was looking for. Going to try this as soon as I get home

王思亚 (author)2012-08-07

So cute. Be very tired?

Denger (author)2012-01-12

Great concept, but now you've piqued my curiosity.  Why use a nail rather than, say, a hex head, square head or plow bolt?  Seems like a beefier piece of steel with a chunkier head would hold up better over time, and could be used to punch deeper designs.  Just sayin'.

I had always heard that cut flooring nails or cut clasp nails (shown below) could have their larger end shaped for punches, gouges, etc..  Since they are designed to go through hardwood into pre-drilled masonry, these are strong enough to be hardened using the heat/quench process discussed below.  They should hold a decent enough edge over time for working in soft wood or leather.

raysouth (author)2011-10-16

Also seeking Barons Leather Tools as folows:

# 805, zodiac bull-------- # 829 Steer Head------- # 983 Motorcycle-------- and other interesting tools.

Have found several sites that have good selection of the tools but none of those which I currently have a need for.
Any assistance will be appreciated.

God Bless.


raysouth (author)2011-10-16

Have made stamping/marking tools from everything I could find, to include, washers, bolts, screws, nails, wrench ends, pliers, hammers, stones, keys, and much more.
Each item produced some interesting effects, many when combined with others. Try rolling a large threaded bolt on cased veg tan leather. Nice effect. I used small 1 ton arbor press, available from Harbor Freight, for nearly everthing I have mentioned. Mallet works fine for many of the items as well. I am always seeking different items to use along with my commercially produced tools and it keeps this old man young, in some ways.
Try anything don't give up. You will have a ton of fun, especially when you create something that nobody else has produced.
Try pyrography on leather and another world opens up. Love doing art pieces on nveg tanned leather and then experimenting with dyes for color, from many different sources. Feel free to try it all and you will discover a niche.
LIVE, LOVE, AND HAVE FUN------------------

cordelion (author)2010-10-22

Why don't you case harden your nails? If you just harden the heads you get the best of both worlds. Hardened surfaces with a giving shaft.

Just (outside) heat up the finished head to a nice yellow straw color with a propane torch and then drop the nail in a bucket of used motor oil. Try it and see.


The mythbusters had it wrong, heating and quenching in oil is not case hardening, and will not work on steel that is low in carbon, as most general nails are. Case hardening is a method of heating the steel in a container full of carbon rich material (traditionally it would be leather, bone fragments, animal hair, etc.) for a long enough time to have carbon migrate into a thin outer layer of the steel piece. This carbon addition will let the thin outer skin be hardenable.

If you want to harden nails, you should first try quenching in water, as that will likely be best. If that doesn't get it hard use a brine, salt dissolved into cold water, with a bit of dish soap. That will get any possible hardness out of the nail. Although it still might not work.

nail face (author)cordelion2010-12-21

i feel stupid for asking this, but why motor oil?

cbm104 (author)nail face2010-12-22

The oil will rapidly cool the metal, much much faster than air and it won't boil like water would. As always wikipedia can explain better than me :)

You can get specialist quenching oils for industrial use but most people have a bottle of old motor oil laying around because it comes in handy from time to time.


whisperonthewind (author)2011-02-06

While looking into learning how to make a raised impression on thin wood panels, I ran across an OLD article (1961 - almost as old as ME) on using punches to make the design, shaving off the top to the level of the punched areas, then steaming the wood to get the pattern to rise. It never occurred to me to make my own punches, but I can see now that my plans are leading me into a lot of new territories. Anyone got any ideas on OTHER ways to make raised impressions on (or in) wood? I really like this idea (and the ghost!) but it's a lot more work than I was planning to do.

angryirishman (author)2010-12-29

my grandfather was a leather maker, the punches might have been in one of these magazines.( i inherited all his tools,along with all these magazines dating back to the early 60's) "make it with leather" "the leather craftsman", and "the leather crafters" magazines. hope this might help!!

cbm104 (author)2010-12-05

Wow! Thanks for all the comments! Hope you've all had fun making punches please post some photos :D
Thanks to the advice I've now tried heating some on a camping stove to see if longevity will be increased. And I've also used one in my soldering iron to try some branding, first go it didn't get hot enough but I'll try cutting it down a little so there's less metal to loose heat.

Have fun

Bukas (author)2010-12-02
yoshi1 (author)2010-11-26

Cool instructable!!!!

NCRattler (author)2010-10-21

Anyone looking for "Antique" books on Leather Making Tools and whatever, as well as books on many different subjects will find them on:
This is the same site that I downloaded my copy from and mistakenly placed my address on it and found myself completely inundated with too many requests to handle. Thank you all for your courtesy and consideration in this matter. It will be much faster for you to directly download it from the source. And, you will find a new source of Library books to download. This old mans fingers hurt from the typing. Thank you "Australia".
Good Luck in all your endeavors. Bill

woodNfish (author)2010-10-21

These are very nice punches and a neat idea. Thanks for posting it.

JediLoreen (author)2010-10-21

Cool idea. Love the Pac man, Ghost and mushroom.

Is that leather already dyed? I usually get the veg tanned leather, so I'm not familiar with the look of other tanning processes.

I don't think your leather was able to get quite wet enough to stamp as well as undyed leather.

woodvale035 (author)2010-10-21

never done that but can see what may be a help a little...
i would think that you could make a sleeve that could insert the nail comfortably into and have it just short of the length of the nail so you can hold it firm yet hammer the nail through it and this will save the nail from wanting to bend plus give better control and save hurting hands.
it may mushroom and get hard to remove from the sleeve so taking it out and removing any mushroomed metal will prolong life.
other method would be to have a sleeve with solid end to use as a striker that will also give person holding it grip and comfort as above.
great designs by the way...

hairybaroque (author)2010-10-21

This is a really nice Instructable, and very economical compared with buying 'Proper" punches!
I think it should be said, however, that 'Proper' punches are made from hard brass round or square section rod. It can be a pig to work (it really is quite hard) but it's easier to polish and you have a bigger 'wrong' end (because the rod is the same size at both ends) to hit with the hammer, which helps get the punch go in vertically.

TragicSnowfall (author)2010-10-21

Whoops! I'm guessing you hadn't taken that into consideration first. I make that mistake a lot on this sort of thing.

Ichmawida (author)2010-10-18

Could you adapt it to make punches for softer metals like brass? mabye you would need to temper it? its a good idea thought :)

masterpython (author)Ichmawida2010-10-21

You can't temper the mild steel that most nails are made of. If you had some high carbon nails or spikes they could work.

carpespasm (author)2010-10-21

Pots of gold, and rainbows, and the red baloons!

Doug Paradis (author)2010-10-18

I have made leather tools in the past, especially odd shaped pear shaders and bevelers. I have found that using bigger nails then you have here can make the tools easier to handle. I typically would make 2 different tools from a very large nail.

If you have the right equipment you can heat up the tip of the nail and upset it to give you a different shape to start with. I found that it helps if the finished tool tip is polished to a bright finish. 

The leather you are testing on doesn't appear to be vegetable tanned tooling leather, it appears to be chrome tanned leather. This will cause poor impressions.

I really like your PacMan set. Very neat instructable!!!

21GeeOff21 (author)2010-10-17

I don't have any experience working with leather, but could you also use these for doing small branded designs if you were able to heat the nails up enough?

matstermind (author)21GeeOff212010-10-18

if you don't go to hot, then yes

jessyratfink (author)2010-10-18

These are awesome! I especially love the little mushroom. :)

Nostalgic Guy (author)2010-10-17

A good idea for something you want to add a very personal touch to.
How do they stand up to repated use? I had some tooling punches that lasted the previous owner for many years before me & I had them for a several years before they were stolen.

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