How to Prepare Leather for Sewing

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Introduction: How to Prepare Leather for Sewing

In this instructable I'll cover the different ways you can prep your stitching line and punch holes in leather to sew it. I was completely befuddled by this process when I first starting leatherworking, but after a few months of trial and error I feel much more confident in picking and choosing which process will work best. :)

I had a very hard time using an awl at first and I know I'm not alone there! So I spent a good amount of time researching and experimenting how to make sewing leather easier, which led me to finding new tools and techniques.

I've included several steps to teach you how to groove stitching lines into leather, use a stitching spacer, sharpen and wield an awl, use a punch for clean holes and even how to use diamond chisels.

Check out my other leather ibles for more leatherworking basics:

Step 1: Supplies You'll Need

Prepping your leather for sewing can take several different routes depending on the finish you want.

Here I'll be assuming that you've cut your pieces and glued them together so you're ready to sew. :D (Not sure about how to glue leather? Check out my instructable.)

Below is the full list of items (+ links to Tandy, where I bought them) I used in the making of this instructable so you can pick and choose which tools will work best for you:

Step 2: Using a Groover

A groover is useful in many ways:

  • marking a clear sewing path when stitching leather on a sewing machine
  • allowing stitches to line up nicer and sit slightly down in the leather for a smoother finish
  • keeping your spacing wheel line straight
  • easy lining up of a diamond chisel for punching holes

Using a groover is easy - you can use the edge of a ruler as a guide or use the included spacer arm.

Drag it along the leather while pushing down to groove it - I find I get better results when the leather is totally dry.

You only need to groove on the grain side of the leather.

Step 3: Using a Stitching Spacer

If you would like to make holes in your leather using an awl or a punch, it's a good idea to use a stitching spacer to mark where you'll puncture the leather.

Stitching spacers come in various sizes, so choose the best size for your project. :)

You'll get clearer results by dampening the leather and letting it dry before rolling the spacing wheel over it. Press down lightly while rolling.

P.S. if you want to do a trial run for spacing, barely press at all when rolling and roll on super dry, unconditioned leather. This way the wheel will make less of an indentation.

Step 4: Making Stitching Holes With an Awl

When I first started leatherworking, I found using an awl to be really tedious and hard. I'm still not the biggest fan of it, but things improved considerably once I sharpened the awl I was using! Most awls are dull as hell when you buy them - especially when ordering from larger companies. I'm still learning how to sharpen properly, but this tutorial from Armitage Leather helped me out considerably:

I used this sharpening stone and some oil to sharpen mine, and finished it on a leather strop to smooth it out. You want your awl to be sharp and diamond shaped. :D

You can use an awl by holding your work in a stitching pony (or your hands, if you're brave and well coordinated. I am neither.) and pushing the awl through the pieces of leather horizontally OR you can lay your pieces on a piece of cardboard and push the awl vertically into the leather and through. I prefer using the awl when the leather is laying on a surface - I get more consistent and straight results that way.

Make sure to use the cardboard underneath - if you don't you will damage and blunt the awl in no time.

Regardless of the orientation of the awl, you need to push it through as straight as possible to make sure your stitching looks nice and neat later. If you angle the awl up or down, chances are it won't line up with the stitching groove on the opposite side of your piece.

Try to insert the awl into the leather so the diamond puncture is at a 45 degree angle as shown in the photos. This will make your stitching much nicer.

Using an awl to make your stitching holes is definitely one of those things that you'll only perfect with practice. It can be daunting, but it's a nice skill to learn!

Step 5: Making Stitching Holes With Diamond Chisels

This is my absolute favorite way to make my stitching holes. They come out clean and consistent, and the slightly larger holes make sewing a breeze. The chisels also come in several different spacings and sizes.

Diamond chisels also make working with thicker leathers a bit easier, too. You can easily puncture through two layers of leather (I like to groove my pieces and glue them together first so no shifting happens) by doing one side, flipping it over, and lining up the chisel with the small exit holes and punching again.

When using diamond chisels, it's best to dampen the stitching groove first and let it dry. It'll make it easier to do.

Choose the spacing you want, line up the chisel with the stitching groove, and smack the chisel with a mallet. That's it!

The one downside to diamond chisels is that it can be a little tricky to get rounded areas and corners to come out perfect, but with a little planning you can make it work! Switching out the chisel to the one or two prong heads will help.

P.S. To keep everything nice and lined up, start each new row of chisel holes by overlapping with the last hole in the row. If you try to eyeball it you could end up with odd spacing. (see the last photo for an example!)

Step 6: Using a Punch to Make Holes

If you're going to be sewing your leather together using super thick thread or lacing, making your holes with a punch can speed things up considerably.

Using a stitching wheel or a ruler to help mark where your holes should be a go for it!

A rotary punch is a great value because you get many hole sizes with one tool, but for some pieces it might not get the job done. In that case, you might want to look into manual punches to be used with a mallet.

P.S. If you're having a hard time with your rotary punch not wanting to cut through thinner leather, put a piece of thick leather behind it before punching. This will help you get through.

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2 Questions

Hi Jessy, if my leather is pre-finished, should I still create a groove? Also, should I punch through both layers to be sewing together at the same time?

What is the best spacing for making a wallet? 3mm, 4mm, 5mm, or 6mm?

38 Comments

Any tips on keeping the diamond chisels at a vertical 90 degree angle? When i use mine the sew line snakes around on the back of the peice of leather. It makes it really difficult to sew things together sometimes and if two pieces are already glued together, then i have a clean side and an ugly wobbly side.

Here's another alternative. Years ago, I made several sheaths for some hand-made knives. Using heavy stock, and including a welt for the knife edge to ride on, meant the full depth of the sewing hole was about 1/4". After carefully marking the hole locations with a set of drafting dividers, I drilled each with a tiny twist drill in a drill press. It goes quickly, and unlike the awl or punch that just pushes material aside, it removes the material. I found that by just using a good strong thread (I used Dacron bowstring material) and pulling hard, the stitches lay neatly down into the leather without the need for the grooving. Just another technique to consider for heavy-duty work.

a rotary punch also removes material, also standard punches do a good job, with just move the material with a chisel just take an edger, (fine) and just run it up the hole line carefully and Lockett split its done, also I bet a safety skiver would work but be careful to not remove any regular material. I know that some leathercrafters like to skive down the stitching area when using thick leather and if you do that, make you holes first then skive, glue and stitch, when glueing use a modeler point or an awl to Line up you holes after the glue has been applied, it works great. Drilling the holes will work if you have a drill press but not every body has one, I don't and I used to be a machinist, I have several thousands of dollars wrapped up in my Leathercraft, I love Tax return time and I just spent over $900.00 this time around, and I just opened my business for custom leather goods.

I've had decent results using a cordless hand-held. What I've done is use a 1.5 mm bit in the drill driver, clamp the leather to a small board (I think they were actually supposed to be tops for stair railing uprights or fence-posts) witha small clamp, to keep it from moving, then simply drill through the two layers. The clamps I use are fairly tiny (clamp pads are roughly 5mm x 15 mm, max clamp opening is probably in the region of 200 mm)

Depending on exactly what you're needing stitch-holes for, I suspect gluing MAY make things easier, but I've had decent results simply by clamping.

I have drilled leather using a rotary tool, like a Dremel. That way I can work on odd shapes, like shoes, and drill them at any angle perpendicular to the face of the work. Plus small diameter bits work best at higher speeds.

The drill press with a fine bit is the way to go if you have thicker leather. Takes all of the "work" out of making holes. Waxing your Dacron would have helped with stitching too.

Thank you very very helpful

I love this! Beautiful explanation and photos! So happy to see you doing leatherwork also.

Why do you need to let the stitching groove dry before punching with a diamond chisel?