Ok, so now you’ve learned about the different types of leather and grabbed the one that suits your needs. You’ve figured out which tools you will need and picked those up. Where do you go next? Well, now you need to learn how to use a leather work pattern.
Most people start out by downloading free patterns and making those. Creating a leather work pattern is an art in itself and it would just be needlessly difficult to try to learn to make templates while you also learn the leather craft basics.
Where to Find a Leather Work Pattern
A quick search on Google for “free leather work pattern”, “free leather work template”, or “leather working free pdf” or some combination of those magic keywords should find you an endless amount of patterns to try.
You can check out the templates I’ve made here. If you’re brand new to leather craft, I’d probably start with the Leather Cup Sleeve pattern or the Folded Card Holder. These are very beginner-friendly.
How to Use a Leather Work Pattern Once You’ve Downloaded It
Now that you have the pattern downloaded, there are several ways to use it. I’ve covered this in detail here as well as in this video:
In this post, we’re really only going to focus on using the PDF paper/cardboard methods and discuss 3D printing in another article.
This is the most basic and probably widely-used methods. You simply print out the pattern (making sure it is 100% scale), tape it down to your leather with masking tape and cut it out.
There are a few things to focus on to get a better-looking end result using this method, though.
Take your time! There is no need to rush it. Really focus on cutting along the line smoothly. A jagged edge will give you either pieces that don’t fit, or a lot of sanding to do later.
Paper bubbles up. It’s taped around the edge and the leather flexes as you cut it. The bigger the pattern, the more it bubbles up. One trick you can use is cutting a small hole in the middle of the paper and then taping that down to the leather.
Print your leather patterns at 100% scale. You really need to check the scale when you hit print. PDF’s are often scaled to fit the margins on a page. This scaling is usually minor (around 94% on my computer), but it can make a big difference in how the pieces fit together and how the finished product will function (think trying to fit cards into a wallet that was cut slightly too small)
These start out by printing out the pattern just like in the method above, but they should actually give you a better end result and can be used multiple times.
After your pattern is printed, glue it to a piece of cardboard, foam core, plastic… Really just anything that is fairly rigid.
Now cut this out the same way you do in the other method and you have a pattern that you can use again and again. Just toss it down on a piece of leather and scratch around it with your scratch awl. This will transfer the pattern directly onto the leather and you can cut it out from there, not having to worry about paper bubbling up or trying to see the lines through the masking tape.
Give It a Shot
If you’ve made it this far, you are now a leather worker! Make sure you hang onto your first project. It’s good luck. And let’s you compare it to each thing you make afterward. I guarantee you’ll be able to see the progress.
Its really easy to go down the rabbit hole looking at the fanciest and high-end leather tools. You’ll find that the price tag can quickly add up doing this. There are some really nice tools out there, but if you are new to leather work, you don’t really know which tools you’ll actually use yet. It is definitely in your best interest to get some half-decent beginner leather tools to figure out which tools you actually use, if you’re actually into leather working, and to learn the techniques and practice them using just basic tools. If you get good using very basic leather tools, you’ll be able to make anything and you’ll be able to truly appreciate it once you do upgrade.
What Kind of Leather Work Do You Plan on Doing?
The question “what leather tools do I need?” is a bit more complicated than it seems since there are many different types and styles of leather work, depending on the style you’re going for and what you’re making.
Try to really nail down what you want to make and it can save you a few dollars in tools that you may not need for the type of leather work you do.
For instance, you don’t need a swivel knife and a set of leather stamps if you aren’t tooling leather.
If you haven’t already, it would be worth your time to check out my How to Start Leather Working post on my Black Flag website as well as giving my related video a watch:
Beginner Leather Tools I Recommend
I’ll do my best to give you a list of tools and what they do here, but just keep in mind that only you know exactly the type of leather craft that you want to do and you may find that you need a tool or two that isn’t on this list.
Check the links for my recommendations, but by all means, shop around for what is best for you!
Leather Tool Starter Kits
You definitely don’t have to start with a kit, but it does take a lot of guess work out of the equation. This is how I started out and I found my Amazon kit to be good enough; although, there were a few tools in my kit that I never used, or just broke. There are a bunch of different kits available on Amazon and through a few leather craft supply stores.
If you are going to go the Amazon Tool Kit route, I’d give this one a shot. It has a bit of fluff that you may not use, but the basics are all there.
A scratch awl is like the multi-tool of leather work. I use mine so much. They come in handy for all kinds of tasks from marking your design on leather, to punching a small hole, to helping pry the lid off your glue when you made a mess with it and just put the lid back on instead of cleaning it properly.
I have a few of these kicking around my shop – all of them just cheap Amazon ones. You don’t really need to spend big money on one of these.
This is pretty straightforward but often forgotten. A metal ruler with cork backing is great. Several different lengths of rulers is a good idea. A construction square is also a good thing to have for drawing right angles.
Another no-brainer: you need one of these to cut your leather on or you will cut up your table. I have a big one of these and a small one and get way more use out of the bigger one. I’d recommend getting the biggest one you can.
These are super handy for drawing your stitch lines. Some people also use a groover to mark their line which actually cuts a little channel into the leather where your thread ultimately sits. I’ve tried both methods but prefer the wing dividers.
This is one of those tools where you have a bunch of options and ultimately it will come down to personal preference. I recommend starting with a simple diamond chisel. These are cheap, easy to use, and do a pretty good job. If you do go this route, just make sure you get a stainless steel set. The black ones have a coating on them and are hard to pull out of leather.
You will need something to hit your various punches with. For this, you need a mallet or a maul. Whichever you choose, it needs to have a soft head so that it doesn’t damage your tools. These are typically made of polyurethane, rubber, or rawhide. Do not use a hammer.
You nneed something to do your punching on so that you don’t wreck your punches. A rubber punching mat works great but you can also just use your cutting mat and a layer or two of thick leather. You just don’t want the sharp parts of your punches to hit anything that will dull them.
You will want an edge beveler to round the edges on your leather before you burnish it. If you don’t bevel the edge, it will mushroom out when you run your burnisher over it.
Edge bevelers come in different sizes which are usually denoted by number. The higher the number, the more leather the beveler will remove. Unfortunately these sizes are not standard across brands. I generally use a Palosanto edge beveler size 2. This is perfect for me but I prefer thicker leather somewhere in the 5-7 oz range. If you are working with thinner leather, I’d probably go with size 1. Some bevelers are sized by fraction of an inch as well. Honestly, I think this is probably a better way of sizing them.
This is a tool where I do not recommend wasting your time buying the cheapest one on Amazon. I had a cheap one for a while and they are terrible. Spend a bit extra and buy a half decent one.
The key to a really nice burnished leather edge is sanding. You will need to go through multiple grits to get the edge nice and smooth. Do not skip this step. Take your time and work your way through the different grits. I usually start at 120 and go to about 1000 or so.
Amazon is the best place to get sandpaper. They have a bunch of nice packs of different grits.
You have a lot of options when it comes to your burnisher. You can go with a cheap one on Amazon or spend a few extra dollars for something smoother. The smoother your burnisher is, the easier it will be to use. If you do buy a cheap Amazon one, spend a few minutes to sand it down to a really fine grit.
Using a good thread makes stitching easier and makes the finished product look better. Ritza Tiger Thread is by far my favourite thread but there are other good ones out there. You just need to find the one that works for you.
You will need a glue to stick your pieces of leather together before you stitch it up. I prefer a water-based glue; however, you can use contact cement or even double sided tape as well. This is another one of those things where you need to find what works for you.
There are a few different types of leather and for a beginner leather worker, trying to decide which leather to use can be a bit ominous.
In this post, I’m going to walk you through the main types of leathers you’ll probably start dealing with and the briefly cover a few others.
What are the Different Types of Leather?
I mean this really depends on how you look at it. Leather can have different grades, tannages, finishes, and processes which make for a lot of different types of leather. Why don’t we start with leather grades:
Generally speaking, there are 4 grades of leather.
This is the good stuff. It is the most durable leather that will, if taken care of, last for generations. The outer-most layer of the skin called the grain, is left intact, which is what makes it so durable. This is the layer that had to protect the animal from the elements and as a result, is the reason full grain leather is so resilient. One characteristic of full grain leather that is easy to spot is that it has visible imperfection naturally in the skin that make it unique.
Top grain leather is the next best thing to full grain. It’s still really resilient, but has a more uniform appearance on the surface that hides most of the imperfections that full grain features. This is accomplished by sanding of buffing those imperfections out of the grain and then applying an artificial grain to give it a more uniform finish. Top grain is sometimes called corrected-grain leather for this reason. It is still great leather, just slightly less durable than full grain.
Split leather is literally that: split. They take the back side (or flesh side) and split it off of the grain leathers. Since this leather doesn’t have the grain attached, it is significantly less durable. Probably the most common use of split leather is suede which has a napped or fuzzy finish. Split leather also sometimes gets a coating applied to it to try to mimic the more expensive grain leathers.
Let me start by saying just avoid this stuff. This is the lowest quality leather you can get. It is the OSB or particle board of the leather world. Made out of the remnants of leather from processing the higher grades, it is chopped up, mixed with polyurethane or silicone, and then pressed onto a fabric backing. The surface is then painted in an attempt to look like a grain leather. This stuff is not durable and it looks awful.
What About Genuine Leather?
The thing about genuine leather is that the term doesn’t really mean anything. It doesn’t denote the grade, process, or quality of the leather at all. Basically what it means is “this thing contains some amount of actual leather”.
Since genuine leather has such a vague meaning, it can be put on products made out of lower quality types of leather such as splits or bonded leathers. If you went to your local big box store and looked at the cheap leather wallets, I’d put money on them saying “Genuine leather” somewhere on the product. This is to intentionally mislead customers into thinking it is a quality item when it isn’t.
Before leather is split into the above grades, it needs to be tanned. There are a few different ways to tan leather, but the main two are vegetable tanning and chrome tanning.
Vegetable Tanned Leather
Vegetable tanned leather, or veg tan, is made using a process that is literally ancient. There are records dating this process back as far as 5,000 years.
Vegetable tannins are extracted from tree bark, roots, and leaves to create a liquid that the hides will soak in, called tanning liquor. The hides will spend several weeks to several months in these baths until they become veg tan. Because of this long tanning period, veg tan is one of the most expensive types of leather.
Veg tan can be left natural or dyed and waxed and it tends to have a stiff, firm temper. Natural veg tan absorbs water really well and can easily accept a stamp or be molded.
Chrome Tanned Leather
Chrome tan gets its name from the use of chromium salts to tan the hide instead of vegetable tannins. It takes way less time to make than veg tan. Start to finish, it can be completed in a day, making chrome tan much more affordable than veg tan.
Chrome tanned leather tends to have a soft temper and be pretty flexible. It’s also water resistant, making it one of the better types of leather for bags, clothing, boots, etc. It also tends to come in a wider variety of colours. A down-side of chrome tan is that it is difficult to stamp or burnish. To get a nice crisp stamp, you will likely need to add heat. To burnish it, you’ll need to use a lot of elbow grease or a burnishing machine.
Oil Tanned Leather
Oil tanned leather isn’t actually tanned in oil. It’s actually just chrome tan that is then finished using oils and waxes. This makes for a very durable and beautiful leather. This is also one of my favourite types of leather.
There are more ways of tanning leather but many of them are either a combination of veg tan and then re-tanning using the chrome tan method (think Horween’s Chromexcel or latigo leathers), vice versa, or the more obscure methods like brain tanning.
Are These The Only Types of Leather?
Definitely not! As you’ve probably gathered if you’ve made it this far, there are a number of different combinations of processes that can make a ton of different types of leather. And we haven’t even discussed exotic leathers or the coveted shell cordovan which comes from the back end of a horse. There are also different finishes such as nubuck which is a grain leather that is finished to look almost exactly like suede.
There are so many combinations that I could never list them all here.
Great, So What Type of Leather Should I Use?
Ideally? All of them. The best way to figure out which leathers you like to work with is to try them out. Obviously if you’re just starting out, it probably isn’t feasible to just buy all the leathers, though.
For a complete beginner, buying their first leathers, I’d recommend a cheaper natural veg tan if you can find one or a good oil tanned leather (I really like SB Foot). This, of course, depends on the type of leather work you plan on doing. If you are unsure of the type of leather work you plan on doing, check out my post on What is Leather Work.
If you can, some leather suppliers will cut hides down and sell by square foot which makes testing out a bunch of different types of leather a bit easier.
I guess answering this is as good of place to start as any. So what is leather work? It’s the art of taking leather hides and turning them into something amazing. These goods can be wallets, saddles, boots, clothing, purses, furniture, backpacks, and whips, just to name a few.
Leather work is a pretty general term that covers a wide variety of styles, skills, and types of crafting done with leather. Someone can be an expert in one area of the craft and a complete beginner at another. For instance: I’ve been doing general crafting for 2 years. I’m by no means an expert, but I can pretty effortlessly put together small goods like wallets, knife sheaths, small bags, etc, but I have never even tried tooling leather. I’m pretty sure when I try it, it’ll look ridiculous. The same would be true if I were to try making a saddle or pair of chaps.
There are a bunch of different specialties within leather work that you can pursue once you have the basics down.
What is Leather Work to YOU?
This becomes the real question. Everyone needs to get the basics down. We all need to understand and practice the fundamental leather work techniques but once you have those, what kind of leather work are you going to get into?
Chances are good that if you are reading this, you have some idea of the type of leather work you are interested in. If you are requiring some inspiration, though, I’d recommend getting on Instagram and following some leather workers and related hashtags. There are also some great communities out there that are quite helpful. I’ll drop some links at the bottom of this article.
How To Get Into Leather Work?
Ok, so you’re going to take the plunge, but don’t know how to get started? It’s one of those things where you can do all your research and due diligence but ultimately, you’re just going to need to take the plunge and start buying a few tools and cheaper leathers to see if it’s right for you.
To start, I’d recommend reading a ton, watching leather workers on YouTube and getting into leather craft communities. You can learn a lot just by seeing what other leather workers are talking about.
Check My Video on Getting Started in Leather Work
This video is one of my quickest growing ones. I go over what to do before you’ve even bought anything and I’ve had a ton of positive feedback on it.
Also check out my blog post from my main website about this video for a bit of added info here:
Leather Working Resources
As I said earlier, there are a ton of great resources online to learn what leather work is and how to do it. You just have to do a bit of digging.
To you aspiring new leather crafters out there, I hope this was of some value to you. It’s my goal to get you from the idea face to the making awesome stuff phase of your journey. Keep checking back as this site evolves into an authority on how to leather work!