Intro: Introduction to Leatherworking
Leather is an amazing product that has been used by humans since really, the beginning of man. It's in clothes, shoes, bags, belts, holsters and really, pretty much anything you can think of can be made from leather.
Working with leather isn't as hard as some people fear it will be, but the craft of it has been around for such a long time, and people have been improvising tools to work with leather, literally as long as people have been using leather to make things.
Going into a retail leather supply store, you'll very likely wind up with sticker shock when you see how much some of the tools and leather itself costs. My goal with this Instructable is to help you decide what tools you really must have, what you can improvise on your own, and some alternatives to a leather specific retail store for some of your items. Some tools will only be available from a retail leather supply store, like Tandy Leather Factory. My goal is to help you understand enough basic terminology and the function of some tools, so that you'll be able to decide for yourself in advance of you of trying to make your first few items and realizing that you are missing something really essential, or that there is really a better way of doing a specific task and will make your life much easier.
There are a ton of You Tube videos and websites out there that you can visit to learn more about this hobby, but there are a few I'd recommend you spend the time watching. Below are the top 3 most helpful that I have come across.
Ian Atkinson: https://www.youtube.com/user/satansbarber
Arthur Porter: https://www.youtube.com/user/MrDallas1953
Step 1: Leather - Types
The one thing absolutely necessary to leather working is obviously leather. There are many different kinds of leather available to purchase, from veg-tan (more detail on what exactly this is in a sec...) to exotics like stingrays. From buffalo to kangaroo, you can buy it and make things out of it.
By far, the most common type of leather is called veg-tan. The "tan" part of the word "veg-tan" refers to tanning, which is the process by which the skin of an animal (after removal from the body) is treated so that it will not decompose and biodegrade (rot away and stink to high heaven!) therefore becoming a durable material that can be used to make things from. In the "olden days" I believe they used brains, urine and salt to complete that process, but now use chemicals that are vegetable based, which is where the "veg" in "veg-tan" comes from. The veg-tan that is available for purchase from Tandy Leather Factory and other suppliers is generally from cows. There are 2 sides (like a coin) a skin or finished side, and the flesh (suede) side where it was previously attached to the animal.
It is in an unfinished state, meaning undyed, and generally quite stiff, which is why you'll find it either laid out flat or rolled when you go looking for it in a retail setting. You cannot fold veg-tan for storage because with this unfinished state, it would permanently crease.
You can do many things with veg-tan, like dye it to a color of your preference, stamp it (using a metal implement struck with a mallet to impress a permanent image on the leather) sew it, brand it (burn an image or design into it) and tool it. Tooling is a multi-step process of cutting and stamping custom designs into veg-tan that uses both positive and negative space to create the image. It is a VERY hard thing to master, because one misstep with a stamp and a mallet, and you can permanently flaw your design. However, tooling in the way of the masters of this craft, is not necessary to creating a leather item. Many items use no tooling or stamping at all. But if they do, they started as veg-tanned leather.
There will be many different qualities among veg-tanned leather. The lowest (and therefore least expensive) will be thin and will also have marks on the finished side, where the animal may have been branded or have scars where the animal may have sustained an injury at some point in it's life. There may also be scars from bug bites that will be visible, or have holes in it where it was cut away from the animal. The highest quality hides (and mot expensive) will be unmarked to provide the most usable surface with the least amount of flaws.
Veg-tan leather is generally also sold by weight, which can be confusing because "weight" does not mean how much physical weight it has (like you would measure with a scale) but rather the thickness of the leather. The lower the number, the thinner the leather. Typically, you'll find them grouped as 2-3oz, 4-5oz, 6-7oz, 8-9oz, and so one, up to about a maximum of 12-14oz, which is a very thick leather used for saddles or ultra rugged items. Naturally, the thicker the leather weight, the heavier the actual hide will be. I know that particular definition of what "weight" meant confused me in the beginning.
Finished leathers are generally tanned in such a way as to make them more supple and will most often include dyeing to a specific color as a part of that process. Think of garments, wallets, purses, upholstery and similar. There are other finished leathers that are quite stiff, like buffalo, but I've not used them myself, so I won't be referring to that much since it is outside of my personal knowledge base. Many of these finished leathers are referred to as "chrome" tanned, because chromium is used in the finishing process. Many times, "chrome tanned" or "chromed" leather is used to refer to all finished leathers.
Finished leathers can be very heavy, but most that are designed for upholstery or garments are not very thick (usually between 2 to 4oz) and are sold by sides (half of a cow) rather than by weight, and the smaller units you can buy for a veg-tan project, like bellies aren't cut that way on finished sides because you need the entire side to get large enough pieces to upholster or make a garment or bag.
You cannot stamp, dye or create impressions very well, if at all, on a finished piece of leather, because much like adding a shellac or varnish to a stained wood, finished leather also has that "protective" element on the skin side, which is what makes it "finished."
For anyone interested in more details on the tanning process, I refer you to Wikipedia:
NOTE: I am not attempting to explain every different kind of leather possible here. There are a gazillion possible combination of animals and finishes to attempt to list or define every one. The majority of readers here are going to be using either veg-tan or an upholstery/garment leather, and so those are the ones I will be providing the most details about.
Step 2: Leather Sources
Choosing leather can be a very individual process. Only you know what your finished product looks like in your head, so you are the only one that can decide what leather will work with your project.
When you are buying veg-tan, there are different parts of the animal that are sold: sides, bellies, shoulders and more - they are different sizes and shapes. I refer you to Tandy Leather Factory's definitions and am including a photo from their catalog to explain it. (I assume since they are sponsoring the contest and the photo is credited to them, they won't mind me including it here.)
I think the majority of people who think about wanting to make something out of leather will think more about either choosing scraps or of upcycling and going to a thrift store or yard sale and pillaging parts from an old coat or couch. That isn't a terrible thing to do of course, and upcycling is always a good thing.
The reason WHY most people do this is because of the way that leather is sold. Generally it is sold by the square yard or by the unit (shoulder, bend, side, belly), and UNLIKE buying fabric where you can buy only the amount you want to from a larger bolt of fabric, you must buy a whole piece of leather - they will not cut off a portion from a larger piece and sell it to you. That can be quite cost prohibitive to many people, which is why they head to the scrap bin at Tandy, or buy remnants at a craft store.
If you want veg-tan, you're likely going to have to buy yourself an entire piece because there are very few large scraps of veg-tan available. (FYI - generally the least expensive single piece you can buy is a belly, probably around 4-5 square feet on average and will cost somewhere between $20 to $45 per piece.) Scrap leather is generally sold by the pound or package, rather than by square footage or type of leather. It's a way for manufacturers who purchase whole sides can recoup some of their costs. They punch out the predetermined parts they need and sell the remainders to a bulk buyer who then sells them as scrap. Tandy Leather Factory, uses nearly all of their veg-tan for the kits that they sell, which can include many small parts, so they have little "waste" with veg-tan, which means you probably won't find large scraps of veg-tan available for purchase there. Get yourself a belly for your first project, you won't be sorry that you did, and you'll have plenty of material to make your first item.
One of the nice things about Tandy Leather Factory is that their store managers are all brought to their home office and trained for many weeks in the history and use of leather and the tools to work with it. You aren't going to go into any Tandy and not have someone with experience there to answer your questions. Most of them offer classes on Saturdays that are either cheap or free so you can get some hands on training with them. They are quite a large chain, so if you have one in your area, don't hesitate to go it and introduce yourself. If you tell them what you want to make and ask them for suggestions, they'll be happy to help you find what you are looking for. AND, they have all of their tools available for you TO TRY, right there in the store BEFORE you buy them. You can test a dye, try out a stamp, see how a swivel knife cuts - they want you to like what you buy.
The downside there is that there isn't a lot of competition for them, so they pretty much set the market price for tools and often for hides. You won't get prices better on Amazon, because Amazon buys from Tandy and resells. There are other manufacturers of tools, but they aren't really designed for a beginner and are generally considerably more expensive than Tandy. In answer to those higher quality brands, Tandy has introduced their Craftool Pro line of tools. Check them out in a store if you get a chance.
There are tanneries all over the country, and you can buy leather hides online from quite a few sources. But it's unlikely that you'll find many for much for less than Tandy, particularly if you join their wholesale club.
But...if you don't have to have veg-tan for your project, there are some other sources where you can buy leather.
First, flea markets. Believe it or not, I've seen quite a bit of leather for sale at flea markets. Some of it is salvaged from couches, some from people who may have purchased scraps in bulk from somewhere, and some from hunters I guess, who have tanned and sell the hides on their own. Some people have gotten whole sides from somewhere and use them as "table dressing" and I've gotten leather that way - by looking not at what was for sale, but what it was sitting on!
Next is region specific - if you happen to live in Los Angeles or New York, there are garment districts in those areas where leather is available and they usually have very large scrap bins available or you can catch a close out. If you don't live in these areas, be sure to do a Google search in your area to see if there is a tannery or other retail outlet near you that sells hides.
But, the best place by far to get large scraps is from upholsters. They are often surprised by someone calling to buy their scrap, but I have gotten some really amazing and quite large scraps that have been enough to make bags or other medium to largish size projects from them, at a very steep discount from retail. (They've already charged their customer for the full price of they hides they had to buy, so the selling scrap is just extra dough for them!) Places that do auto upholstery will usually have mostly blacks, greys or occasionally a cream-ish tone - only rarely in colors other than that. Places that do furniture upholstery can have every color of the rainbow. They aren't going to give it to you for free, but I've only had one place ever turn my away out of hand when I asked if they'd consider selling me their scrap.
TIP: Yelp can be helpful finding places that do custom upholstery near you.
Step 3: Measuring & Marking BEFORE You Cut Your Leather
Once you have figured out what you are going to cut with, you'll need to either mark your leather or measure it, so you can cut it into your desired shape.
If you are going to mark leather to cut it around an item, say a phone or a knife, I highly recommend using CHALK. A box of white chalk is $1 at office supply stores. Get a pencil sharpener that has a big opening for kids fat pencils or crayons and sharpen your chalk to get a fine point on it. The advantage to using chalk over really, anything else, is that it is the easiest thing to remove so that your marks will not show on your finished project. I learned this one the hard way (of course!) when I had visible pen marks left on some pieces that I didn't think they would show on. There is chalk available in a square that you can get a fabric stores as well, but I still haven't run through the first box of chalk I got at the office supply store yet. If your chalk mark shows up, you can get a cloth towel (not paper towels, they crumble when you try to clean your leather) damp and lightly rub the chalk mark and it will disappear.
Pencils designed for drawing are the next best to use, but use them lightly, especially on the skin side of leather, particularly on veg-tan. Sometimes just pushing down with a pencil or pen will show on veg-tan, so you really want to be careful.
You can use really any writing instrument you want to, but be aware when you're marking of where that line will appear on your finished product.
If you are not using an outline of an object, then you'll want to measure your project. Once you know your measurements, you can use a ruler, measuring tape or yardstick to mark your leather to cut it to the desired shape.
Cutting Leather to Size
I've found that I prefer to have the measurement that I'd like to have for a piece, and rather than marking the leather, I use a cutting mat that has many connecting dots (See image for example) so that I can line up my ruler to the dots and know I am going to cut a straight line. I usually leave myself 1/4 of an inch extra room on the side of any cut to give me a chance to trim the edges of 2 pieces that will be glued together into a totally clean cut after the glue has been applied and dried. This will give the edge of your piece the best finished edge possible.
It is very much a personal preference as to the choice to mark around an object or template and then cut the leather, or to take a measurement of your item and decide where to cut based on measurements. Very often, it depends on what you want to make, and you'll wind up doing a combination of both things.
I'd advise that until you have cut a lot of leather, give yourself even an additional 1/2 inch on each side (if possible) so that you are leaving room to glue, fold or sew, and still have room to adjust if you accidentally get a bad or crooked cut. It's much better to need to trim a small amount, than it is to lose an entire project because you cut your piece too small.
I have many many rulers of all different kinds. The best choice when cutting leather is to use a metal ruler with a cork backing on it so it won't slip when you are cutting your piece. Plastic rulers are OK if that's all you have, but keep in mind that they are also easy to cut with a sharp razor blade, and you can wind up cutting off part of your ruler instead of your project piece, and if that happens, you've ruined your ruler and have to get a new one. So, it's better to spend a little bit more money and get a metal ruler with a cork back than just the cheapest ruler you can find.
Tandy is not the best source for getting the cheapest rulers. Part of the reason I have so many of them is that I found them in clearance bins at office supply stores, so the most I've ever spent on a metal ruler was $3 each.
As for what size ruler to get, I recommend having at least 2 6" , 2 18" and at least 1 metal yardstick. I also have a bunch of plastic triangles of different angles, half circles, and "bendy" rulers that are used to follow a curve of an item and then transfer that curve onto your leather. But by far, I use the 1 18" and 1 6" more than anything else. So, it's an office supply store to get the 6" & 18" rulers, but its the hardware store for the yardstick. You can sometimes get the all of them at the same location, but I didn't have that much luck, because I wanted to spend less than the usual retail cost, so I was willing to go to more than one place over time, to get the best possible deals.
Step 4: Cutting Leather
There are many different methods to cut leather. The best ways will give you a clean, smooth edge when you cut. The thicker the leather is, the sharper and deeper you will need to cut, and so it is best to use either a blade that you feel capable of sharpening, or a disposable like a utility knife that you can cheaply replace the blades in.
A leather workers most dangerous tool is a DULL KNIFE. The more dull the knife, the more pressure you put down to cut through, and although that knife may be dull when cutting leather, pushing down hard on it it will cut your fingers VERY WELL!
Shears or scissors are okay, especially if you are cutting something round, but few people who spend any length of time working with leather will use shears or scissors for much beyond cutting off parts from a hide, or snipping off some of the odd bits that stick up or out when you've rolled your piece of leather for storage. Shears or scissors will vary widely in price, with the most expensive place to buy them being sewing stores or leather tool stores, although those places will be selling the top quality brands, and that's what you'll be paying for.
Utility Knife / Razor Blade / Exacto (Craft) Knife
I don't recommend using the kind with the snap off blades when working with leather, but if that's what you have to use, then please be extra careful, especially if you are putting pressure on your piece while cutting.
A basic utility knife is probably the most common tool that people will use to cut leather. They are cheap to buy and cheap to keep fresh sharp blades in. If you are on a budget, this is your number one choice. You can buy a basic utility knife really anywhere - the supermarket, the dollar store or any home improvement or hardware store. You'll spend between $1 to max $10 depending on the handle. Replacement blades again run around $1 to $3 for a box of 5 blades. If this winds up on your list of tools, keep your eyes peeled no matter where you are shopping and you'll find replacement blades on sale. A nice thing about a utility knife is that no matter which handle you use, the blades are all universal. No one makes a "proprietary" utility knife blade, so any one you see on sale will fit into the handle you get for yourself. Again, Tandy is not the cheapest place to buy this item, you're much better off at your home improvement store for this item.
Exacto or Craft knives are ok, but they really aren't designed for the kind of pressure you will need to cut through leather. The result of having to make more and more passes to cut completely through your piece means your edge is likely to get ragged, and cleaning that up can get to be a real pain. You're better off with a utility knife and fresh blade. You can get sets that include up to 20 styles of blades in a little case for $10 or less at hobby or craft stores, or around $5 if you happen to have a Fry's Electronics around you.
This is my personal preference for cutting leather. With a fresh blade, this slices through a 4-6oz veg-tan like butter and gives you a very sharp clean edge to work with. If you aren't familiar with a rotary cutter, it's like a round razor blade that rolls along a surface to cut it. They come in different sizes, but the most common is 45mm. They are more expensive to buy than a utility knife and can have handles that vary from manufacturer. You can expect to spend between $15 to $25 for a 45mm rotary cutter. You can buy them at Harbor Freight, WalMart (Best prices here and the best price on replacement blades too at $16 for a 5 pack of 45mm) Joann's, Michaels or any craft or sewing store. I don't recommend Tandy for purchasing this item. You'll get a better selection at a craft/hobby store, and it will be cheaper than Tandy too, especially since the craft stores ALWAYS have a 40-50% off a non sale item going on. A rotary cutter is a great item to buy with one of those coupons. Replacement 45mm blades are also interchangeable between handle manufacturers.
Because rotary cutter blades are on the pricey side ($17 for 5 at Walmart) many people will use a rotary blade sharpening tool to extend the life of their blades. I've invested in one, and it really does help to extend the life of a blade. Not forever, but certainly longer than without it. One caution, DO NOT attempt to sharpen a NEW BLADE. You'll wind up wasting that blade. You'll never get it sharper than when it comes from the factory, and you can risk nicking the blade which renders the blade totally useless, because it will always skip in the area of the nick. Google around for the best sharpener. I'd suggest getting one that has you remove the blade before you sharpen it. That is NOT what I got, because I thought my fingers would be safer not having to remove the blade, but I've nicked more blades with the one I got, because I'm not the best at knife sharpening in general. If you're great sharpening blades, you may be able to do this on your own, but I wouldn't suggest that, because of the circular nature of the blade, there is NO SAFE SIDE to hold it from, and you risk more damage to your fingers that way.
Leather Specific Specialty Knives
You may also choose to purchase a specialty knife such as a Head Knife from a leather tool maker. I know that the masters of the craft use them, but honestly trying to figure out how to sharpen a half circle blade and then rocking a blade to cut would leave me personally without some fingers. They are also generally expensive to purchase, opening at around $75 and going up over $100 per knife.
Skiving Blades & Knives
"Skiving" is a cut that takes away some of the flesh side of leather for the purpose of making part of it thinner than the rest of your project. This process is helpful if you are going to fold over part of your project onto itself - making the part you are going to fold over thinner will keep it even with the rest of your project when it is finished. Tandy sells 2 different skivers, but both use the same thin flexible razor-ish blades. Either will cost between $10-16 depending on sales and wholesale club. A 10 pack of replacement blades runs about $5 or less.
There are also leather specific specialty skiving knives you can buy, again starting off at about $50 and going up.
Step 5: Casing Leather
Casing leather is getting moisture back into the veg-tan so you can work with it, for tooling and for wet molding. I've seen several Instructables that advise either dunking your whole piece into water until they stop seeing bubbles, or holding it under running water until they stop seeing bubbles. That's really too much water unless you are using very heavy weight leather and doing a wet mold. To tool leather, you really need it to be almost dry again, so the wetter you get it, the longer you'll have to let it dry before you can tool it.
A very important note is that whenever you have wet your leather, regardless of the method you use) you want to wet it evenly across the entire piece. If you have multiple pieces, even if you are not going to tool or stamp the other pieces, you still want to wet those pieces at the same time you wet the piece you are going to tool or stamp on.
The reason for this is that when it comes time to dye and finish your project, the pores on only one piece have been opened up previously, and will absorb a different amount of dye than a piece that was never cased or made wet. This can cause you to be unhappy with your project if one piece is s slightly different color than the rest of the project. So, case or wet all of your project pieces at the same time.
Proper casing is really a trial and error thing, but I hope that the photos above will help give you something to refer to when you start casing your leather.
Casing for Wet Molding
Casing leather for wet molding will take more water than casing only for tooling. The amount of water you'll need will depend on the thickness of the leather you are working with, how old it is (the older it is, the drier it has become over time) and how intricate your molding needs to be. For example, if you are wet molding a gun holster that has several different planes, grooves and a bunch of small intricate parts on it, you'll want to be as wet as possible so that you can get all of that detail. If you're wet molding a square or rectangle that only has 1 plane and no intricate details, you won't need it to be as wet. It's easy enough to either add more moisture to it than it is to wait for a mushy/squishy wet leather to dry enough to actually mold. You really don't want to get your leather to the mushy/squishy point, because most people don't realize that the mushier it gets, the harder the leather will dry, and brittle leather is much harder to care for over the life of the item.
Casing for Tooling or Stamping Veg-Tan
To properly burnish (condense the fibers in the leather resulting in the mark being brownish and much darker than the actual piece) when you are stamping or tooling leather, you need to case it by applying moisture, but not too much. This is the hardest part, knowing when it's dry enough to get a good impression from your tool or stamp.
Everyone says essentially the same thing - after wetting the leather let it dry to the point where it looks almost back to the color it started. Um...OK. That is much more subjective than it seems on the surface! It's also why I don't recommend getting leather so wet in the first place.
So, my 2 cents on casing: Wet your leather from a spray bottle. Keep spraying until you have covered the entire piece, and it it NOT instantly absorbed and it starts to take a second or 2 to be drawn into the leather. Stop there for a minute and ensure that you have evenly coated the leather. If you haven't, spray the area that wasn't as wet until it matches the rest. Then turn the leather over. Is the back of the leather still totally dry? If so, turn it back skin side up and give it another coat of water. Flip over again. Continue doing this until you start to see some of the water soaking through to the back of the leather. Once that happens, STOP adding water.
Then, place your leather inside a plastic bag (Ziplock, Trash Bag or reused grocery bags are all ok, but ziplocks are the best for me) and let it rest for a couple of hours or overnight. This is going to let the moisture in the leather sink into the core of the leather evenly.
After you have let your leather rest, then take it our of the bag and let it get some air. This is where the subjective part comes in. The leather should look more like a dry piece (You may want to keep a dry piece out to compare it to) than it did when it was wet. It should also feel cool to the touch. Hold it up to your cheek. If it feels cool but dry then it's pretty much where it needs to be for you to be able to begin tooling or stamping.
Start with a very soft touch. If the leather "squishes" or looks wrinkly where you stamped, then it is still too wet to tool properly. Give it more time to dry, and then try again. If a soft touch seems to go well, try a medium strike. If that starts giving you that nice brown burnished look where the tool struck, then you are at the right place.
- If you are working on a large piece, you can keep the portion you are not currently tooling covered in plastic to keep the moisture in.
- If the leather gets to be too dry, give it a light spray of water, and let it rest for 10 minutes before starting to tool again.
- If you need to stop tooling, put your cased leather back into its plastic bag again until you are ready to work on it again.
- Don't leave damp leather in a ziplock for more than 48 hours. You'll be very grossed out (and probably mad) at the mold that appeared on the leather making it useless. If you started tooling it but can't finish it for some reason and need to leave it for a few days, it's better to let it dry out, and then re-case it before you start to work on it again. (Clearly, I learned that one from experience!)
Step 6: Essential Tools
A non-metal headed mallet. You can use rawhide, wood, rubber, polycarbonate or some combination thereof, or multiples. The reason you cannot use a metal head is because you should not strike your leather tools that are made of metal with a metal hammer. The barrels of the tools are not usually steel, but an alloy, so striking them with a metal hammer will cause the tool to deform.
Tandy sells a maul, that has a poly head and stacked leather handle that is weighted in the center, so that it gives you a stronger hit than most mallets, and since I began using one, I have found that I get better quality work done, with less effort. But, they aren't cheap, starting around $75 and maxing at $130.00.
But I have less expensive options as well. There is a small rubber mallet from the dollar store. This is great for tapping seams in leather, tapping glue joints, but is not good at all for any tooling or stamping. The head is just not heavy enough for it to make a good impression with a stamp. But for $1, it's a no-brainer to keep one on hand.
From Harbor Freight (or any other hardware store) I got a poly/rubber (dual heads that can be unscrewed and replaced if necessary) hammer/mallet for under $10. This was my primary mallet until I was able to save up and buy the maul. You'll get decent enough results with it, and spend less than a 1/10th the cost of a maul from Tandy.
I do also have a few metal headed hammers, including a ball peen hammer that I use on occasion to tap seams together. I've also struck my leather tools with a metal hammer, to see if it made a difference, like if it hit harder than a poly mallet. I even tried using a 3lb sledge to see if I hit a stamp with it, if it would make a heavier impression than the poly mallet. Surprisingly, the heaver sledge and the regular metal hammer made no difference to the stamp impression, but it used up a lot more of my arm muscles!
You will have to have a decent pair of pliers, for sewing. When you sew leather, you use blunt tipped needles because pointy ones would get stuck, and you pre-punch (Unless you're an old school mater craftsman - they use an awl technique that has them punching holes and keeping needles to sew with in the same hand - there is no way I can master that skill!) the holes you are going to be sewing through first. But they get stuck in the holes, and you need to be able to grab the needle with the pliers and pull the needle the rest of the way through.
Poly Cutting Board
You can get these anywhere, and it's totally not worth paying Tandy prices to buy a cutting board there, although they do have a neat little 6" square one. But you can buy small cutting boards at any Ross, Marshall's or similar discount stores for less than 1/2 the price at Tandy. You must have one of these when you are punching holes, or you will destroy your tool by having it land on a hard surface and you don't want to see the money you spent on a leather tool wasted because you didn't have it on the correct surface.
Hole Makers - SEWING
To make pretty much anything, you are going to need to punch holes to sew. There are many, many ways to do this, and it's going to be up to you to decide what's right. The most important thing is that your holes are 100% vertical through your project, and that your holes are evenly spaced. The leather specific tool for marking stitch holes is called an Overstitch Wheel. They come in several different sizes depending upon how many stitches per inch you want to have in your project. You can buy one with interchangeable wheels for $30 at Tandy, and I'd highly recommend the interchangeable one, rather than paying $20 for each size. Even if you don't think you'll need all the different sizes, you're still better off having the option for not much more money.
Tandy also has a set (one of the prizes for this contest in fact) that includes a stitching groover, the interchangeable overstitch wheel, needles, waxed thread and an awl. That set runs $36 to $60 and is the basic stitching set. The deluxe set adds beeswax, a different awl with extra blades and more thread, and runs $65 to $129.00. My personal opinion is that unless you're going to work to master the art of holding the awl AND your needles in your hand to punch the holes in, you're way better off getting the basic kit, and spending the different on a set of stitching chisels that will space your holes perfectly and punch them in advance.
Now, those prices are hefty for a beginner. It's going to come down to how well you can measure and mark without them as to how mandatory they are for YOU. If you're someone who can mark every X millimeters or inches, then you'll be fine. You can literally hammer a small nail through your project to make your holes. Or you can make them with an awl, or a dremel, or even better, with a dremel drill press.
For me, I'd find that my carefully marked holes didn't wind up truly vertical, even with the dremel drill press. This meant that my holes on one side of my project didn't line up on the back side, so they would be either too close to the edge, or too far. Highly annoying! But, after I got the Diamond Stitching Chisel set from Tandy, my holes would like up perfectly, and the quality of my stitching went up 1000% percent. So I think it's a good investment right at the beginning. They sell a set that has every size that screw in and out of a handle, starting at $42 to $70.00. If you can invest in that one, you'll be satisfied. If that's not possible, they also sell each size individually, starting around $8 to 15.00. I would get a 4 prong and a 1 prong in whatever size you think you'll use most, but I'd recommend the 3mm size to start off with.
Then, you can use the 4 prongs to mark out your stitching holes (press lightly but firmly enough that you can see the indentations on your project) and skip the stitch marking wheel entirely.
If even that is out of your budget, use a FORK (4 or more tines) to mark your holes, and then choose your method for punch the holes from there, and your holes should be evenly spaced.
Hole Makers - Rivets, Snaps, Grommets, etc.
Many times, you'll want to use hardware, either on a joint (like a rivet) or to close 2 parts (like a snap) or for decorations or conchos. I've seen a lot of people buy a rotary hole punch. It seems like a good idea, since you can rotate the head and get different size hole. But they cost about $20, which isn't bad, but I cannot get the hole to punch through...it takes more hand strength than I have to try to squeeze it hard enough to punch through any leather. I've had to try to hammer it through, and that just messed up my project. If you have Paul Bunion hands, well then go for it, you'll be fine.
For the rest of us, there are sets that have different size punches that screw in and out of a metal handle. At Tandy they have a Maxi & Mini Punch set. But, you can also buy sets on Amazon, at Michaels or other hobby stores as well. But here, Amazon is your friend. They have Chinese made punch sets for way cheaper than even the hobby stores and they can punch holes even into thin metal. Harbor Freight even sells a set that can be used with a drill. (I haven't tried that one myself, it seems excessive and risky to try on a leather project and I already had other sets when I found it. If you've tried it, let me know how it works in the comments.)
I think the set I got on Amazon cost all of about $12, and I use that way more than the mini & maxi punch sets I got from Tandy, because the Amazon ones are each individual punches, so I don't have to stop and screw in a new size, I just pick up a different punch.
You will need to get some punches. It's really the only way to get round holes in leather. You'll wind up using hardware at some point, and to insert the hardware, you'll need a hole. Spend the $12 on Amazon and you'll be perfectly fine, especially since they go up to a way larger diameter that in either the maxi or mini punch sets will.
Don't use the cheap tiny plastic ones from Harbor Freight. Go to Lowes or Home Depot and get the smallest metal spring clamps. They run about .20-.40 each, and you'll probably want to keep a couple dozen on hand. These clamps WILL mark cased veg-tan, so you may want to consider making yourself little pads to go over each little head of the clamp, or you can use long scrap pieces and make a scrap and project "sandwich" when you clamp your project and let the glue set.
You can also use binder clips from the office supply store on your projects, but again, they will leave a mark on veg-tan, and are harder to fit a protective piece of scrap on both sides unless you have really big binder clips. They'll do well enough though, if they are what you have on hand.
You will use a stylus to transfer patterns for tooling onto veg-tan. It really doesn't matter what kind of stylus you use to do this. I have old plastic tip styli from the PDA days, and they work well enough. I've also gotten wood dowels and used a pencil sharpener to get a sharp point on them. The steel styli you can get from Tandy will also work well for you, but it's not an absolute necessity to use theirs. If you need a metal point, you can use a dried out rollerball pen very well, as long as it's totally dry, so no ink will get on your project.
I've also found that old crochet needles provide a variety of sizes to use, and work very well as a leather stylus. You can find these at nearly every estate sale you could visit, or get some at the craft store, they are way less expensive than the styli designed for leather work specifically.
You really don't want the dishwashing kind. They have a textured surface on the fingertips to help you grip slippery dishes, but that will imprint on damp leather. You want the doctor kind of disposable gloves. In this era, you can find them at every hobby store, every drug store, every hardware store...they're really everywhere! I've found that the vinyl gloves are the easiest to get off, which makes them the easiest to use more than once. Then you can slip them on and off between coats of dye and not have to use a new pair every time.
I don't actually recommend using glove when you are gluing. There is no way to get the glue off the gloves, like you can off of your fingers. You can wash your hands, or rub hard on your finger to get a little glue off of them, but you'll find yourself with your glove glued to your paintbrush, or worse, your project trying to use gloves when you apply glue.
Step 7: Non-Essential But Helpful Tools
There are a zillion leather tools you can buy that do all kinds of things. But there are some that are made for very specific things, like snap setters, rivet setters, spot setters....you get the idea.
You certainly don't need to go out and buy every tool out there before you've even made anything. But, chances are, you're going to want to add some hardware to one of your projects eventually, like a snap or closure of some kind, or a decoration.
When you know you're going to use a specific kind of hardware, you can purchase the tool that goes with it. Some of the craft stores will sell kits that include small versions of the tools that are used to install them. That's a great way to go while you're building up your tools, and usually easier on the wallet.
Tandy does have some "universal" setter kits what will work for pretty much any kind of snap, or rivet. That's a decent investment ($14 to $33) and will give you the most options in the future for what kind of hardware you can use without buying additional tools.
There are some things that require specific tools, like pearl rivets, copper rivets or spikes. If you need those items for your project, then you'll need to get the tool that installs them. It is probably easiest financially to only add 1 different item that you don't already have the tool for, for each project you make. That way, you can build up your supply of tools on an "as-needed" basis and give yourself more options in the future.
An edge beveler takes off a small portion of leather on an angle from the edge of your piece of leather. Removing this edge helps you to make a clean and smooth burnished edge on your veg-tan products.
If you're going to work with finished leathers, you can skip the bevelers entirely. Finished leathers can't have burnished edges, so there is no reason to get a beveler.
But, if you are going to work with veg-tan, you're really going to want to get a beveler into your tool box. The middle size is a #3, and if that was the only one you had, you'd probably be fine the majority of the time. But, they do come in sizes 1 to 5, with 5 being the largest which takes off the most leather. I'd start with the #3, and then over time and as you may need them when you purchase your next hide that may need a different size, you can add the others to your tool box.
The French Edge Beveler sounds nifty, but really it's designed for thick leathers to create a 45 degree bevel where you want to make a mitered corner. You can use it to create a less steep bevel, but if you're not making boxes or using a baseball style stitch, you can probably skip this tool.
A swivel knife is used to cut designs into the skin side of leather when you are going to tool. You would only use a swivel knife on veg-tan. There are different sizes and styles of swivel knives, but unlike most blades, your finger stays in the same place while the blade rotates while you cut which is the opposite of what usually happens when you attempt to cut anything.
If you aren't going to jump in to tooling designs on leather, then this tool isn't needed. If you are going to tool, you may want to consider not using the swivel knife the first time you tool. Just make a deep impression with your stylus, and bevel the edge of that impression, rather than beveling from a line cut in from a swivel knife.
3D Stamps are used to create a single image, such as a flag in it's entirety. All of the detail of the flag is already in the stamp, and it can be impressed into properly cased veg-tan by striking the handle of the stamp with a mallet. There are about 100 different designs of 3D stamps available in the current Tandy catalog. This does not account for "retired" stamps which can be found on eBay or account for other stamp makers. But, Tandy has the best deal on their 3D stamps, which are $3 to $5 each, as opposed to some other stamp makers who charge up to $30 for a single 3D style stamp. Using 3D stamps are a great way to introduce yourself to custom making leather with a unique design, before learning how to tool designs in leather. The difference between tooling and stamping is that stamping has the whole design in a single stamp in about a 1.5" square, whereas tooling us using multiple tools to create an image that can cover a very large area. The individual tools used to "tool" leather are also called stamps, so it is important to understand the difference between a leather stamp (one among many tools used to create a total design or image) and a 3D stamp. (Which is smaller but has an entire design already completed)
The handle for a 3D stamp is generally narrow, and you can angle or pivot the handle of the stamp in different directions to get a deeper impression when struck in a particular area of the 3D stamp. Tandy also sells a Ram's Foot, which fits into the same stamp handle, but fits over more surface area of the 3D stamp, giving more pressure to the outer edges of the 3D stamp. They also have a Hefty Handle, which combines and replaces the traditional stamp handle and ram's foot.
Alphabet stamps are the easiest way to customize your leather items. The sets come in a variety of sizes and styles, and are stamped into cased veg-tan the same way as a 3D stamp.
Clamp On Light
I'm of an age now where additional light is helpful for me, especially when it comes to fine detail work. I was lucky and found a professional grade magnifying lamp on clearance at Staples that articulates over my whole work space. But you may do well with just a nearby lamp, or get a small but bright LED lamp that you can use in your work area. It's very helpful when you are tooling to make sure that your whole design is well lit, because shadows can play tricks with your eyes, and it only take a single wrong impression to mess up hours of painstaking work.
I have a clamp on vise that is a Dremel Brand that I found on Amazon. This works very well for me, because the "jaws" of the clamp are rubber, so they don't mark up my leather the way a metal vise would. It acts like a third hand for me, when I need one. If you use a traditional metal vise, I'd strongly suggest that you make thick leather pads over the metal jaws so you do not mark your leather while it is in the vise.
Step 8: Glue, Glue and More Glue!
Glue is essential to get a finished leather project when you are going to join 2 pieces of leather together, even if that joint will ultimately be stitched together, you still want to use glue first.
IMHO the best glue to use is a non-water based contact cement. You can buy this very cheaply, and you can get tubes of it at a Dollar Store, so there is no reason at all to skip this step. Gluing your edges together will help that seam or joint stay in place so that you can punch in your sewing holes, and know that they will be 100% vertical when you do. To properly use any contact cement, you apply the glue to BOTH pieces and then allow it to dry a minute or 2 until it becomes tacky to touch or looks a bit "shiny." If you accidentally leave the glue sit too long and it passes the tacky stage to just dried out, you can simply re-apply the glue right over where you glued before and go from there.
The tricky part is to use the least amount of glue possible, but still have good adhesion all the way to the edge, with little leakage out of the seam. I usually use a glue joint about 1/4 of an inch if I don't plan to further cut the edges, and 1/2 an inch if I intend to trim the edges of the project after it's been glued. If you don't leave an extra wide glue joint when you plan to trim the joined edges, you'll wind up cutting the only part holding them together, unless you sew the pieces together before you trim them.
I used to use just a small disposable paintbrush, that are $1 for 20 at Walmart and trash them after using once. Contact cement does not come out of brushes well, and that can cause more problems with the brush sticking to your project. You get about 20 brushes for $1, so you aren't spending a ton of money for them - it's not worth the time to clean the brush between uses. An alternative is cheap cotton swaps (like Q-Tips) from the dollar store, where you get 500 for $1.
Second choice is a water based contact cement like Woodweld brand you can get at the hardware store.
But, I've recently discovered what I believe to be a 100% better glue application process than anything I tried previously. I found at Michaels pointy tips that go on to the top of 2oz bottles. Tips were $6 for 6 (2oz bottles are generally the size that small acrylic paints are sold in.) You can get empty 2oz bottles at the craft store ($6 for 6) or reuse some sample size shampoo bottles. You'll just have to make sure the threads line up with the pointy cap. You can use a funnel to pour from a large glue container into the 2oz bottle, or squeeze your dollar store tube of glue into the bottle.) This pointy top will put out a very fine line of glue. I use a safety pin in the top of the point to keep the hole open between uses, so the little hole stays open. Then, I use a new Tandy product, a reuseable glue spreader to take that fine line of glue all the way to the edge of the project. I find that I use almost 50% LESS glue doing it this way, and I get much less glue squeezed out into the edge of the seam.
Other Glue Options
Other people have suggested super glue on leather, but I'd discourage it. The super glue dries very hard, which means there will be very stiff parts of your leather, which can keep it from getting those lovely worn in spaces, and letting it naturally conform to whatever is put into it.
Some have used simple white glue (Elmer's) or wood glue. Both will do in a pinch, but again they dry hard, and are not flexible when dry.
NEVER try to use Gorilla Glue on a leather project! Gorilla glue is awesome and amazing, but because of it's nature it expands as it dries, and that would destroy your project.
Rubber cement isn't intended to be a permanent bond either, but it would work for a short term. When leather workers use rubber cement, it is usually applied to the flesh (back) side of a project piece intended to be tooled, to keep it attached to cardboard, wood or another firm surface to keep it from distorting while being tooled. The piece is then removed from the backing once tooling is complete. This type of glue is used for that purpose because it does not act as a permanent bonding agent.
Spray adhesive is a good thing to use with leather if you are laminating 2 pieces together, or gluing large areas. (Like a lining). But, if you are just doing a 1/4 inch seam, the spray adhesive cannot be applied to just a very narrow area as it comes out of a spray can, unless you've taped off or covered the areas you do not want the glue, which ultimately is a waste of the expensive spray adhesive.
Step 9: Finishing Cut Edges
Ultimately, it is your own choice to leave an edge unfinished on your project, or to finish the edge. Techniques vary depending upon the type of leather you are using. Veg-tan can have a burnished edge only, but finished leathers cannot be burnished, you must use another kind of edge treatment to get a finished look to them.
There are several steps involved to getting a good burnished edge on leather, and some will depend on if there is a joint (a place where 2 pieces of leather have been put together to create a single edge) or not in your project.
If you have glued 2 pieces together to form a single edge, you are most likely going to have some degree of glue spillage into that joint. Glue will not accept a dye or other finish on it, so you must get that glue off of your edge. Sometimes, you can just rub it off, if there isn't a lot. Otherwise, it's going to be time to get some sandpaper. It's best if you go only in 1 direction while you sand. Rubbing back and forth with the sandpaper is going to leave you with a hairy looking edge that is going to be harder to burnish. If you have a cheap rotary tool (the Harbor Freight $8 special) that doesn't have much power or torque to it, you can use that one your edge. Using a real Dremmel that does have a lot of power and torque can leave you with gouges and dips on your edge where the pressure was left in a single spot for too long. If you're really good with hand tools, then turn your real Dremmel down to the lowest setting and give it a go.
I've personally found that a fine sanding sponge will work the best, because it conforms to the width of your item, and gives you a bit to hold onto. You can also reverse it, meaning you can leave the sanding pad on the work surface, and then move your piece over it. This can be very helpful if you are trying to round an edge on your project. It's given me much better results to move my leather over the sanding sponge, than moving the sanding sponge over the corners.
If you left yourself enough room, you can also simply cut away the edge, which will leave you with the cleanest and smoothest edge.
Once you have gotten all the glue off of your pieces, then its' time to decide what to do with the corners. You may notice that not many finished leather goods have a right angle on them, they're usually rounded. This is going to happen eventually, but rounding the corners yourself can help give your item that professional look you'd like to have.
I always had a terrible time trying to get my 4 corners to match until Tandy came up with their Corner Rounding Tool. It's a little pricey at $30 to $50, but it's saved my sanity enough to warrant the purchase for me. If it doesn't matter enough to you to justify the cost of the tool, then you can use your sanding block or rotary tool to round over the edges, or use your utility knife to round off the corners, both of which are free to do. It's your item, so you can decide if you want square corners or rounded corners, and make them just the way you want them.
Once you've finished your corners, then it's time to decide if you are going to bevel the edges of your item. Beveling means taking off a small portion of the leather on both sides. DON'T MAKE THE MISTAKE OF BEVELING BOTH SIDES OF YOUR ITEM BEFORE YOU GLUE IT, or you're going to be quite sorry because the edges will never get to be as smooth as you want them to be unless you trim away that part.
You use a specialty tool called simply enough, and edge beveler to accomplish this task. Edge bevelers come in several sizes, but a good all-around one to use is the #3. (They go up to #5, with 5 being largest therefore removing the most leather.) It's a middle of the road workhorse for you.
Why does edge beveling matter? When you are burnishing your edges and compacting the fibers, an unbeveled edge will wind up getting "squinched" and you'll see little wrinkles, and instead of getting a smooth clean edge, that part that would be removed with a beveler leans to one side or the other, but will never actually lay flat. (I'll try to get a picture in here of what I mean, but it make not make it in time for the contest entry. I'll get it in as soon as I can.)
Once you have beveled your edges, then it's time to burnish your edges. The burnishing process compacts the fibers on the edges of your item, and in so doing, makes the edge a bit darker than the rest of your item, and gives it a bit of a shiny appearance.
To get a good burnish, most people will apply a product called Gum Tragacanth to the edge. You can apply this with Tandy's Edge Dye Roller ($15) or a cotton swab or paint brush, or even just your finger. Let the Gum Trag sit for a minute or 2, and then you're going to want to rub the heck out of it. Rub with what you ask? Pretty much anything will work. Tandy sells 2 kinds of Edge Slickers (1 wood & 1 plastic) and then a wood burnishing tool, which is really a large dowel with grooves in it. You can use canvas, denim, wood, plastic or darn near anything to burnish the edge of your product. I've got pretty much all of them. The Edge Slickers ($2.50 to $10) and "multi-size wood slicker" ($8 to $17) tools are inexpensive enough. If you are just getting 1, get the multi-size wood slicker. You'll get the most all around use out of it. But you can also buy dowels at any hardware or hobby shop, or popsicle sticks (you can easily cut a notch in one) or you can get fancy expensive ones that will attach to a rotary tool. I'd try out as many things that I can find around the house before I bought anything. You'll be surprised at how many things you can find that will work.
You don't have to use the Gum Trag, although it does help speed the process along. You can use water or a bit of dye to wet the edge...that's the really important part. Trying to burnish a dry edge will never work. The liquid acts as lubrication while you're using wood (or whatever else) to rub the edge and create heat and friction. We all know that lubrication is critical where there is friction, and leather working is no exception. I've also heard of people using a small portion of Vaseline, Saddle Soap or Mink Oil. The biggest problem I can see with those items is that it is REALLY hard to keep them only on the edge of your item...you're almost guaranteed to spill some over the edge, and the oils will darken the leather and can stop it from accepting dye, so use those with caution.
Many people will make burnishing a multi-step process. They start with Gum Trag and an edge slicker (see photo, it's the round circles) which will grab the edge that you beveled, and then rub the burnished edge with beeswax and switch to a wood burnisher, then apply more beeswax or a polish, and finish off using canvass or denim.
There really isn't a wrong way, it's about getting the appearance that satisfies you. For me, I know I'm done when I can rub my finger along the edge and not feel any rough patches or catches along any of the edges. If you're feeling a lot of "catches" or rough spots, you can sand the edges lightly with fine sandpaper, and then reapply your lubrication of choice and burnish again.
There are also edge paints or something called Edge Kote and these products come in different colors, so if you've dyed your leather, you can pick a complementary or contrasting color for your edges. Again these can be applied with a cotton swab or small paintbrush, but by far, the easiest to use is Tandy's Edge Dye Roller. The trickiest part of dying an edge with a contrasting color is spilling that color over the edge. Believe me, I've ruined more than 1 piece because I didn't realize I had spilled the Edge Kote over the edge and it dried before I could clean it off.
One thing to remember before you start assembling your item, is to think about the interior edges, where you aren't going to be able to get a burnishing tool once it's been glued and sewn together. You'll want to burnish those interior edges BEFORE you assemble your item. To figure out which edges those might be, lay your items out like you're assembling them, and see which ones you won't be able to reach well after assembly.
Finished leathers cannot be burnished in the same way that veg-tan can. This drove me banana's because I really like a finished edge on my items! So, I wound up scouring the web for alternatives. Often the edges of finished leather are thinned out (skived) and then folded over on itself, so there is no raw edge. I tried that, but I cannot get the edges skived evenly enough and it takes me forever, so that's really not a good solution for me, unless it's on a super thin (like paper thin) lining material.
You'll also still need to either cut or sand your edges to get any excess glue off. With finished leathers, I usually give myself the extra room, and prefer to cut the edges, rather than sanding them, but that will be personal preference for you.
I did see a You Tube video of a guy that looked like he had some sort of heating element that he was ironing the edge, which got me thinking. So, I got out a wood burner and some beeswax. That gave me the best edge I'd ever gotten. It took forever though. I'd apply a super thin amount of Edge Kote, let that dry, then go over the edges with the beeswax. After that, I used the flat square tip of the wood burner to melt in the beeswax. It would often take several "coats" of the beeswax to get it the way I wanted it, but I felt like it gave the best land most professional look.
Other people have also used a decoupage product called Mod-Podge (comes in either matte or gloss) on the edges to finish them, using a dye if necessary, then the Mod-Podge. That worked also, but I found myself never fully satisfied. There were still too many rough patches on them for my taste.
Tandy also has a relatively new line of "Professional" Edge Paints. I actually like this product a lot for my non veg-tan products. It has a bit of a "rubber" or elastic quality to it, a bit like tool dip. It usually requires a few coats with a light sanding between coats to get it perfect, but it's way better than an unfinished edge for me. This is what I use almost exclusively now. It also comes in a clear, so if I'm using a finished leather and I want the edge to be the same color as the rest of my item, I just use the clear paint and it works better than the Mod-Podge for me.
Step 10: What About Dremmels?
Rotary tools can be quite helpful in leather work. You cannot use them to cut leather really, unless you had really really hard thick leather, and even then, I don't think I'd try to cut it with a Dremel.
But when it comes to arm breaking repetitive tasks like burnishing edges, a rotary tool can be very handy. A nice thing about rotary tools is that all of the actual tools are interchangeable amongst manufacturers. (Although I have heard that some of the Harbor Freight ones sometimes have challenges with the smallest or largest size tools. YMMV on that brand)
I use the sanding drums and felt pads the most for burnishing. And, I prefer to use the $8 Harbor Freight rotary tool for burnishing. It is so under powered that I have no worries about it gouging my products. At its highest speed, I can stop it with my fingers. But, it makes it perfect for burnishing. I tried it with my real Dremel, and would wind up with dips and grooves or worst of all, skip marks on my items, where the Dremel flew off my edge onto the face of my product. I also nicked the heck out of a table. Some of that is probably "operator error" meaning I probably had it on too high, or wasn't holding it quite right, because the real Dremel can be fairly heavy after holding them for an hour.
A flex shaft can make your work lighter with the real Dremel, because then you don't have to hold the whole body of the tool while you are working. But I don't think there's enough power in the $8 HF model to even turn a flex shaft! Harbor Freight does have a $25ish model that is probably more on par with the real Dremel, but I personally haven't tried it, so I can't say anything about how it might compare.
Another potential use for a rotary tool is with the Dremel Drill Press. ($50ish) You can drill the holes you marked with an Overstitch Wheel on your Dremel drill press. (I wouldn't recommend a full size drill press, unless you're really confident and can get a really TINY drill bit into it. You can install virtually any full size rotary tool into the drill press, it doesn't have to be Dremel branded to work.
There are also some people who are excellent artists who will use very fine carving bits, and carve designs into their veg-tan items. I've never tried it myself, but I have seen some people's work online, and if you're an artist, really good with wood carving, or are willing to try anything, this might work for you too.
For those of you on a budget, I'd get the $8 Harbor Freight version and some extra sanding drums to go with it. You'll save yourself some sore arms by letting this tool to the hard parts of burnishing for you.
Step 11: Dyes & Finishes
If you are using a finished leather, then you won't need to dye or apply a finish to your leather, but only decide what, if anything, you want to do to complete your edges.
On your veg-tan, there is a whole world of possibilities out there for dying leather. You can use pretty much anything that will stain YOUR skin to dye leather. Of course, the best choices to use that will give you the best results are going to be leather dyes.
Leather dyes some in different types, some water based some alcohol based. Believe it or not, some states regulate the types of dye available to you, so your best bet is to go into a Tandy Leather Factory store and see what is actually available to purchase in your state. They will let you test out any dye on a scrap so you can see what it will look like on your project, or they'll often have swatches you can look it. My opinion is that it's best to ask to test the dye on a small piece of leather THAT YOU BRING WITH YOU from your project piece. Not all leathers are created equal, and you want to know what the dye will look like on YOUR leather and the only way to know that is to bring a scrap of yours to test it with.
Dyes are sold in small bottles up to gallon sizes, and generally, a little bit goes a long way. If you are buying a water based dye you can thin out the dye with water, or you can mix dyes together to create the perfect custom color for yourself.
If you don't want to purchase leather dye, the next best thing to try would be shoe polish. After that, that RIT dye powder that you can mix with water. But honestly, if you're going to buy the RIT Dye, you're spending the same amount as a small bottle of leather dye anyway. You can try calligraphy liquid inks, coffee or tea's for more "natural" colors.
But, other than for the purpose of try it just to see what would happen, the cost of leather dye isn't prohibitive enough to warrant searching out crazy alternatives.
Finishes are important, just like it is when you stain wood. The finish seals in the dye and give it some protection from the elements, and keeps the dye from rubbing off onto your hands while you touch your project. You can buy a finishing product that matches your dye purchase. If you bought say, Tandy's Professional Waterstain, you would want to get their Professional Waterstain Finish to go with it.
There is so many choices when it comes to dying and finishing leathers, or you can choose to leave your leather natural and undyed, and let it naturally pick up the oils from being handled and touched and age on it's own.
Ian Atkinson has an awesome video on YouTube (See first page here for link) that reviews a whole bunch of different dyes and finishes. Check out that video and you'll get an amazing amount of knowledge about finishes and dyes.
Or, do what I did, and bought was on clearance and used that for everything until I felt confident enough to know about what I was looking to be able to do when I made my next purchase.
Stains can be applied just like a wood stain, with a cloth. Or you can use a wool dauber, a paintbrush, or my personal favorite: a very lightly dampened sponge. The bottle of dye you get will have their recommend application device, but you can experiment to see what gets you the result you like best. Don't take the bottle literally, just because it says to apply with a dauber doesn't mean that's the only possible way to get the dye on.
After applying your dye (however you get it on) you'll need to use a clean rag to wipe of any excess. Even if it doesn't feel like there IS excess, you'll still want to rub firmly with a clean cloth and try anyway. You'll see some of the dye come up, I promise! After that, you'll want to give your dye time to dry before you even consider applying a finish. A few hours at the least, up to a full 24 hours.
Apply your finish ONLY after you have given the dye a chance to dry. Finishes vary widely from pastes to sprays. It's up to you to decide what you think is going to be the best, based on how you are going to use your product. I'll let you explore the web and figure out what possibilities there are, and what will be best for you.
For me, I find that I use a spray bottle and Tandy's Professional Waterstain Gloss more than any other finish, regardless of whether or not I used actually dyed the product with the matching type of stain. Being able to spray it on give is the most even coat and least amount of streaks. YMMV, and you'll have to experiment to see what will work best for you.
But the last step after applying a finish is to buff the finished item. I use scrap wool by hand most of the time, but if you have a large piece, you could use a buffer, like your would with a car. This friction is going to seal up the fibers in your product and give it a nice gloss whether by hand or with a buffer.
Step 12: Creating a Workspace
Unless you intend to become a professional leather worker you probably won't need to set up a permanent workstation for yourself. You can use your regular workbench, with a few modifications, a desk, a portable table, or even your dining room table if you want to. There are a few things you will want to keep in mind if you are going to set up in your house.
First thing is to protect the surface upon which you are working! Your family will not think kindly of your hobby if you dye your dining room table, or leave huge scratches across it our big gauges in it from cutting or pounding on it. Of secondary consideration to your family, but most importantly to you, is how sturdy your work surface is.
I started off using a folding plastic card type table, and couldn't understand why I wasn't getting very good results for stamping, skiving and other things. I checked around online and got some tips from other leather workers, and found out that my plastic table was just to flimsy to give me a good solid work surface. It was okay for cutting, and for gluing, dying and letting things dry. but not suitable for tooling, stamping or punching holes.
For those activities, you really must have a solid surface upon which to work. If you're working at your dining room table, you'll want to do your stamping, hole punching and tooling on a corner right over a leg of the table, because that is where it is the most stable.
To do any tooling or stamping, you will need a granite, marble or very smooth concrete slab upon which to work, because if the surface under the leather "gives" you will never be able to get that firm strike with your mallet that it takes to get a good tooling impression.
I headed over to my local re-use it store, and decided to give up the leather recliner in my office to make space for a leather working desk. I spent all of $10 for an old wood desk with cabinets on both sides that allow me storage space for a bunch of my tools. Most people are going to be doing this more as a hobby, and so won't need as much permanent working space.
You'll also need a tarp or drop cloth (preferably a water resistant one) that you can put down to protect your furniture. Cheap vinyl tablecloths work well for this, since the vinyl side is resistant to moisture and the occasional spill of glue or dye.
A few pencil cups from the dollar store (empty and cleaned soup or veggie cans also work well for free) to hold your tools, and enough space to cut your leather pieces, and you're good to go.
You're going to want to make sure that when you put down your granite that you make sure that you aren't going to mark up your table, so consider putting it on top of yesterdays newspaper, or be 100% certain that the bottom is smooth before you set it on your table. When I started off, I didn't realize how critical that granite square was going to be. Once I realized that it was important, it was expensive, so I used a big piece of concrete that was the seat from a garden bench, so it had a really smooth surface. This worked well enough, but was pretty ugly and larger than I really needed, so at the first opportunity (and sale) I bought a granite 12" square at Tandy.
After I got the desk for my leather working, I went off to a counter top store to see what they might have as scrap. I was able to get a couple of 3' sections of marble and quartz for free, that transformed the top of my desk into a very hard and easy to work on leather counter top. Most of the counter stores will have 12" pieces that they use as displays. You can always ask them if they have any that are for items they no longer carry, and you'll probably be able to walk out with a couple of pieces for cheap to free.
Now when it comes to punching holes, you'll want to keep a poly cutting board on hand. You most definitely do NOT want to try to punch holes through your leather with your granite right underneath. That is a sure way to destroy your tools! A poly cutting board will let your tool sink into it and not damage your tool. It IS ok to put your poly cutting board on top of your granite however, and then punch your holes. You'll get the best results that way.
Since leather working involves a lot of small hardware (snaps are made up of 4 small pieces, rivets 2 small pieces, etc.) you'll probably want to get yourself a divided box to store those items. I usually try to keep the tool that goes with the hardware in the same divided box as the parts.
Helpful Things You Can Get For FREE
Triangular Fed Ex Shipping Box
Since you cannot fold veg-tan leather, it must be rolled up for storage. (Or laid flat, which is too much for me to find room for) This can crate some storage issues, until I discovered that the triangular Fed-Ex shipping boxes can be cut in half, formed into their triangular shape, and then put 6 of them together to for a hexagon and taped together to form a stand to hold your rolled pieces of leather. I have 2 of these in the knee hole of my desk that hold some of my upholstery place scraps, and more of them in a closet that holds my larger rolls of veg-tan. You only need 3 of the boxes to make your hexagons.
I find it much easier to portion out a little bit of glue, dyes, paints or whatever. I can always pour back into the larger container any excess, but especially with glue, keeping the large container open and dipping into it just makes a big mess. The solution is ketchup / condiment containers, especially the ones with lids. You get them all the time, so all you have to do is rinse them out and keep them. You can also buy new ones at Walmart for $2.50 for 50 cups and lids if you don't want to rinse out the free ones. You can always ask a store manager at a food joint if they mind if you take a couple extras with you after you buy a meal. Most likely they won't care very much as long as you're not trying to pocket their entire supply!
If you eventually buy larger sizes of glues or dyes, you'll very likely wind up putting some into glass jars to use them from. Your pickles, spaghetti sauce and other foods that come in glass jars can be re-used for this. Or, you can find someone who you know has babies, and ask them to keep their baby food jars for you. (If you did this, it might be nice if you left Mom a container to put them in that you can pick up when it'f full.)
Step 13: Conclusion
I am FAR from being a master of this particular craft. But, I get better and better with every item I make, and I know that I work on a budget and I know a lot of other people do to. And, it can be hard to have to learn essentially a new language, when you start talking about leather working. It can be hard to keep up if you don't understand many of the terms people use to explain things, and harder still to know what tools do what, and how you can use them, so you know what you really should have on hand, and what you can improvise. I hope I have helped you to understand some parts of the hobby that you may not have known, and you feel confident enough to begin a project for yourself.
I feel like I've probably left out more information that I've included, but since this is designed to be an introduction to leather work, and not the entire history and list of possibilities I need to stop somewhere. :-)
I hope you have enjoyed this Instructable, and if you have please consider voting for me in the Fall 2014 Leather Goods Contest.
If you have any questions, please feel free to ask away in the comments, I'll be happy to answer anything I can.