Introduction: Tooling a Simple Leather Purse

Picture of Tooling a Simple Leather Purse

Tooling leather is a lot easier than you'd think, and the results can be beautiful. All you need are a few basic tools, some vegetable tanned leather, and a sponge with some water.

This is a sequel to my first instructable--Simple Leather Purse--which showed how to make this purse from scratch. This instructable shows how to take your leather project--whether purse, wallet, belt or key-chain--to the next level. Custom tooling your leather makes for great gifts (did you know the traditional third anniversary gift material is leather?) and, at least to me, it's a lot of fun.

A note on leather:

Vegetable tanned leather is the best for stamping. I don't know all the chemistry, but my basic understanding is that the cells in the leather are open. What this means is that if you put water on the leather, it really soaks it up... and then molds to whatever shape you change it to while it's wet. It's really a lot of fun to work with. I got about a square yard of it at Tandy Leather for $20.

A note on tools:

You don't need hundreds of dollars worth of leather working tools. Start small. The real essentials, in my opinion, are a swivel knife, a background tool, and a mallet or hammer of some kind. A shader of some kind is nice, too, but in a pinch you can use a spoon or anything with a flat to it. Here's a nice starter kit on amazon that has everything you need to get started. Tandy Leather also has some good starter kits that come with little pieces of leather and patterns.

A note on designs:

Get creative. People always do leaves and flowers--that's what I did too--but there are some other really nice designs you can do. Look for inspiration on google images (try searching for tooled leather saddles) and then try something new.

Step 1: Transfer Your Design to the Leather

Picture of Transfer Your Design to the Leather
There are a couple standard ways to go about getting your design onto the leather. 

Method 1: Transfer from a printout.
This is probably the safer way to go, and it's pretty easy to do.
  1. Print out a design.
  2. Get the leather a little bit wet*.
  3. Put the design on the leather, ink-side up.
  4. Trace the design (you can use a special tool called a stylus, or a pencil, or anything that will leave a bit of a dent on the leather).
*Wet the leather with a sponge on both sides, or run it quickly under the faucet. Don't get it sopping wet, like with puddles, because it'll start to get mushy. But you can put quite a bit of water on there.

Method 2: Freehand
I prefer this method, partially because I'm lazy, and partially because I like to make it up as I go. Usually I'll draw a sketch, decide what I like and don't like about it, and then draw a modified version on the leather. In this case, I got the leather a little wet so there would be a dent where I drew.

Step 2: Cut the Lines

Picture of Cut the Lines

Use the swivel knife to cut the lines.

Yes, you actually cut the leather wherever you want there to be a bold line or edge. Don't cut all the way through, but do cut about half-way. My first time tooling leather, I was so afraid of messing something up that I went really shallow with all the steps... and got a pretty boring, flat looking design. Be bold.

Warning: you may be tempted to stop after this step, because it's going to look pretty awesome already. Don't do it. Better things are yet to come.

The pictures show a good way to hold the swivel knife. It can swivel (thus the name), which allows you to cut really clean lines pretty easily. Keep it sharp.

Step 3: Bevel the Edges

Picture of Bevel the Edges

There's a special beveling tool that can do this. You can also use a spoon. I got this great tool somewhere (if anybody knows what it's called, let me know--the other end is a stylus) that has a nice, narrow little flat that works really well. I'm sure this isn't the intended use of this tool, but it works.

The idea is to bevel edges that you really want to stand out. Try beveling one side of a cut and not the other, or the outside of petals... or whatever needs beveling.

Step 4: Add Little Cutesy Stuff

Picture of Add Little Cutesy Stuff

To be honest, the real work is already done. There are about a bazillion cool little stamps you can use now, but go easy--too many of these can end up taking something elegant and making it look cheesy (to me, at least).

One good tool is a "seeder", which makes little circles that look like the seeds in plants or flowers. Another is a "camouflage tool", which can make cool little dimples in leaves.

Step 5: Fill in the Background

Picture of Fill in the Background

This is a time consuming--but essential--step. And it's really simple. Take a background tool and stamp down all the background. Again, be bold. Kindof stamping down the background will make your designs kindof stand out. Really stamping it down (within reason) will make them really stand out.

Step 6: Add Finishing Touches / Edits

Picture of Add Finishing Touches / Edits

I decided, at this point, that I wanted some lines on my leaves. I also decided that one of my stems was too thick, so I cut a thinner one and background-tooled down the old lines. If you have similar mods to do, do them now. The next (and final) step is finishing the leather.

Step 7: Finish the Leather

Picture of Finish the Leather

There are a dozen ways to do this, and I don't know enough about them to give much advice. (I would love for some of the people with more experience than me to share their knowledge on finishes in the comments).

I experimented on scrap pieces with some clear coats and stains that came with a starter kit I had, but didn't like the results. I ended up rubbing in Neat's Foot oil with an old sock. This really isn't a "finish", per se... it softens the leather (I was afraid this might mute the tooling, but it didn't seem to do so), but it doesn't seal it. To me, that's ok. If the leather gets a little weathered and develops a bit of a patina, I'll be happy.

Step 8: Enjoy Your Masterpiece

Picture of Enjoy Your Masterpiece

Your tooled leather will look good for years to come. I still use the wallet I made in high school. After ten years of being sat on--and falling in the water, and having to be re-laced--the tooling still looks as good (or bad) as it ever did. My brother still uses a belt I made about the same time, and it's still in good shape.

Bonus Tip: If you want to take nice pictures of your leatherwork, set up some strong lighting from the side. This really brings out the texture and lets the picture show what's going on down there (the lighting in these pictures might be a little too strong, but you get the idea).

Thanks for reading!


arofiqy (author)2017-05-02

How thick is the leather?

solobo (author)arofiqy2017-05-04

6-8 oz (3/32 - 1/8" thick)

arofiqy (author)solobo2017-05-04

thanks, it's cool design and pattern.

solobo (author)arofiqy2017-05-05


Freakydna (author)2016-09-01

Hey ,

in trationial use wax or oil ..Honeywax....I mean Humans use leather so long and use wax longer as chemical stuff...Maybe better for ur healthy ;)

Freakydna (author)Freakydna2016-09-01

Lanolin (Wollfett), Bienenwachs, Orangenterpene, Rapsöl, Jojobaöl, Carnaubawachs

LeonardoPimentel (author)2016-06-19

Uau! Very very very amazing! god job boy.

solobo (author)LeonardoPimentel2016-06-19


measter3 (author)2016-04-30

Hey, this is a really good tutorial! The only thing is your link might be a little out of date. Those "cheap" starter tools cost 190 dollars :P. But that doesn't make this tutorial any less great! Good job!

solobo (author)measter32016-05-02

Thanks! I'll fix that link, ha.

mahsano (author)2016-01-29

Hello, it's nice . of course i do not know all of your device .however that's nice

solobo (author)mahsano2016-01-29


mahsano (author)solobo2016-01-30

if maybe show me the devices that we can use in this handwork

solobo (author)mahsano2016-01-30

Are you asking about the tools I used? There are pictures of all of them in the instructable I think?

Realityarts (author)2015-10-27

I really enjoyed the tutorial, it has given me the confidence to have a go, just need to get me a swivel knife. Thank you!

solobo (author)Realityarts2015-10-27

Awesome! Post a picture if you get a chance, I'd love to see what you make.

jayeshshinai (author)2015-03-25

Hi, I had a question. How do i add a small metal logo (cnc cut) on a leather wallet? Like in this picture.

solobo (author)jayeshshinai2015-03-25

Hmm, good question, I don't really know. I would probably try some type of contact cement or even superglue. I know they also have fabric glues for putting sequins and stuff on clothing that's usually pretty strong. You might try a fabric store or craft store (or upholstery store?) and ask someone there for a glue that's good for sticking metal to leather.

ruari.anderson.13 (author)2014-10-27

Your very talented!

im wondering:

whats the minimum thickness of the leather im mm? The shop i go in Hong Kong don''t say how many Onces their leather is? (Or as they only speak Chinese and I English we have a non-communicative clot stopping any understanding)

whats the minimum thickness we should leave at the deepest point of the design?'



solobo (author)ruari.anderson.132014-10-28


The leather I used for this purse was about 3/16" (5 mm). You can definitely use thinner for tooling, maybe as thin as 1/16" (1.5 mm). As far as the minimum thickness at the deepest point of the design, I'm not sure. Probably about 1/2 of the thickness?

dreynolds4 (author)2013-12-08

Nice tutorial.
There are a few different ways to finish the leather : most of them involve buying an extra product or two. Oiling the leather (with neatsfoot) does make it more supple , but if it gets wet you can end up with marks or it can mush up your nice design.
Fiebings 'antique finish' is great stuff for tooling. It's like a paste or gel - *use gloves or it will stain your fingers* - and rub a blob over your work, and rub it in with a sponge or rag. It will collect in the cut lines and make them really dark, and will stain the rest of the leather slightly. I use the Mahogany colour - a lovely rich reddy brown that goes well with the leather.

Their (fiebings) dyes are good too - the alcohol based ones 'professional' ones - are best and give even results. The solvent is strong (open a window!) but they give a more even result without streaking.

For both the antique stain and the dye, give it a day to dry and then a good rub with a rag to get the spare pigment off. It also gives it a nice shine.

If you want to give it more water protection, something like 'resoline' from fiebings (frak, I sound like a salesman! just that they are widely regarded as the best) is a thin liquid you brush over, then let it dry, then rub over with a rag. It will give it a slightly shiny finish that is water resistant (Not water proof!) and will really help protect it.

Another quick tip : the cut edges of leather, you can make them nicer: damp/wet just the edge, then rub a short section hard with a rag or a chunk or wood (called burnishing). The friction will make the leather very smooth and slightly darker, and it looks very professional!

solobo (author)dreynolds42013-12-08

Nice, thanks for the tips! I may try the 'resoline' to make it more water resistant. Thanks very much!

dmaurice1 (author)solobo2014-09-11

In my opinion with using the fiebings, i find you get a smoother finish if you pour a little into a plastic container and dampen a sponge dab your sponge into the fiebings and rub a little bit out of the sponge onto a piece of cardboard, then rub onto the leather in a circular motion.

solobo (author)dmaurice12014-09-11

Interesting, thanks for the tip!

mehlani (author)2014-02-14

This is gorgeous! I'm just learning leather crafting now and it's a bit overwhelming. Hopefully I'll get this stamping thing down.

solobo (author)mehlani2014-02-14

Sweet, hopefully this is helpful. Stick with it!

picturesofsilver (author)2014-02-02


solobo (author)picturesofsilver2014-02-14


MakeItWithJason (author)2014-01-07

This was an EXCELLENT 'ible. I will be using many of these techniques on my knife sheathes. Thanks. And, I'm following you.

solobo (author)MakeItWithJason2014-01-07

Sweet, thanks!

jaxboy (author)2013-12-15

Very nice job on the 'ible! I do have one question about an area that you spent not enough time on (IMHO). How wet do you get the leather, and how do you know when it is wet enough, but not too wet? I have tried tooling before, but with poor results. It seemed that I could not hit that sweet wetness factor. It was too dry one time and too wet the next. Thanks in advance for the advice.

solobo (author)jaxboy2013-12-16

Hmm, I don't know of a good objective way to tell if it's wet enough. I usually get a sponge fairly wet, then wet it enough that it easily changes to the darker color (on both sides). If water starts to puddle, I wipe off the excess. There have been several times that I've gotten the leather "too wet", but I haven't noticed the cutting or stamping being any worse when I did so. I've also worked for quite a while without rewetting, so that the leather probably got "too dry" while I was still working. At this point you have to stamp harder, and cutting is more difficult.
All in all, I'd say more wet is probably better, but it isn't super crucial.

jaxboy (author)solobo2013-12-16

Thanks so much for prompt and informative reply. I guess I wasn't hammering the punches evenly when I had less-than-desirable results. I have been making sheaths and holsters for many years, but didn't work the leather of them because of my previous poor results. Your very informative 'ible has made me rethink working my products. I usually put my 'brand' on my work (a punch that I use to identify my work), and that has usually turned out ok, so now I am going to branch out into more elaborate working of the leather, thanks to you.

solobo (author)jaxboy2013-12-16

Sweet! Good luck, and post a picture if you get a chance... I'd love to see your work.

GrfxGawd (author)2013-12-08

You might want to try using paints on your leather carving sometime. I used to do effectively portraits in leather.If you can work it and get fair depth and shading, adding a bit of color to the carving creates a very interesting mix of depth and subtlety that neither alone accomplishes. You can go from heavy opaque color, to exceptionally subtle tinting and shading and highlighting. I would usually apply the Tandy clear finish and sealer over the top afterwards to protect the carving, leather, and paints. It can in some cases impart too much shine, you can either dilute it some to get a less shiny appearance, or use a slightly rough surface to "buff" it afterwards muting the gloss and giving a softer less bright sheen to the project. I managed to achieve some results more than once deemed "astonishing" by others, but I've seen master craftsman, both exceptionally skilled at carving, tooling, and painting create works that have an interesting combination someplace between photo photo realism and sculpture.

solobo (author)GrfxGawd2013-12-08

Wow, that sounds really neat. I can see how it would add another dimension to the standard 2D painting. I would love to see a photo of some of your work!

Good tip on roughing up the clear finish. I didn't like the shininess on one of my test pieces, but maybe roughing it up would have helped. Thanks!

GrfxGawd (author)solobo2013-12-11

Sometimes just running a damp cloth over the protective finish before it dried knocked down a fair amount of gloss.

I'd love to post pictures, but a previous marriage all but erased everything I produced. There's nothing left from then to show, sorry. As in like, scorched earth nothing left.

solobo (author)GrfxGawd2013-12-11

Bummer. Any suggestions on type of paint to use?

GrfxGawd (author)solobo2013-12-12

At the time we were just using what was stocked by Tandy Leather. Thinning it as desired or needed. There's so much out there I'm aware of now I hesitate to suggest any of them. Just buy something reputable and see if it works well for your use. Like a lot of things, you may search a while before you find something that really hits your sweet spot. And you may find that it eventually changes, maybe even more than once. It's part learning, part changes in the market and what's available, and possibly a bit of whim mixed in. (We doesn't include the first ex, other family members and I did tooling and leatherwork.)

solobo (author)GrfxGawd2013-12-12

Cool, thanks.

PACW (author)2013-12-10

$20.00 Square Yard? Are you positive?

solobo (author)PACW2013-12-10

"Only fools are positive" (Robin Williams, FernGully, 1992)
Ha, I'm pretty sure; that's what I have written down at least. It was in a bin of big scraps that I think were half off.

dididb (author)2013-12-09

Lovely,nice done!

solobo (author)dididb2013-12-09


The Rambler (author)2013-12-09

Very neat. I haven't tooled any of the things I've made so far, but I have a project waiting to be my first tooling project as soon as I knock out some other more time sensitive projects. Thanks for this, I'll make sure to reference back to it.

solobo (author)The Rambler2013-12-09

Cool, glad it's helpful.

TinCan (author)2013-12-09

I went to Tandy and got a starter kit! Thanks a lot!

solobo (author)TinCan2013-12-09


Ricardo Furioso (author)2013-12-09

Great work. Thank you very much for sharing your work.

I was just thinking what a great gift Instructables is.
People like you put a lot of effort into showing what they do, and how they do it, and what they use, and shoot pictures and write descriptions and tool lists and materials lists.
And they ask nothing from their students, but a kindly "Thank you."
Thank you.

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