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
Method 1: Transfer from a printout.
This is probably the safer way to go, and it's pretty easy to do.
- Print out a design.
- Get the leather a little bit wet*.
- Put the design on the leather, ink-side up.
- 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).
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!