Basic Leather Carving
Key LW Techniques
Leather Working Basics
There are two types of leather - stamping leather and non-stamping
leather. Non-stamping or garment leather is used for seat coverings in
vans and cars, furniture, clothes, shoes, purses, etc. It is usually
dyed to a color other than tan. Stamping leather is tan and usually
thicker than non-stamping leather.
Garment and Stamping Leather
Non-stamping leather scraps and vinyl can be obtained quite easily in
fairly large quantities from businesses that decorate the interiors of
vans and private airplanes, or upholster furniture. On most projects
that call for non-stamping leather, vinyl can be substituted.
Stamping leather is more difficult to obtain. It usually must be
purchased from stores such as Tandy or the Leather Factory. Some general
craft stores will have limited supplies of leather craft materials.
The most economical way to purchase leather is to buy a belly or
shoulder. Watch for sales. The disadvantage of buying a large piece of
leather is that you must cut it to the shape you want. Cutting can be
done either with a VERY sharp knife or leather shears. Square and
rectangular shapes are easy to cut. Anything with curves is more
difficult. Try to cut with a smooth, continuous motion rather than many
short cuts. A beveller is used to round the edges to make them look
Next, you need to know how to stamp the leather. First, let's look at
some of the tools you may need. There are probably many different ways
to categorize stamps, but for the discussions in this book, we will
divide them into two types. One category of tools makes images of
identifiable objects such as animals, plants, flowers, Boy, Cub, and
Girl Scout symbols, letters, and numbers. They are usually at the center
of the project. The other category makes images that are used for
decoration. They usually don't have specific names, they are just pretty
or fancy or decorative. Combining different stamps can make an endless
variety of unique designs.
1/4" Letters, Southwest, 3-D Stamps
A mallet is used to hit the stamp. Buying mallets for a group can get
expensive. However, mallets can be made from a piece of dowel rod and
branches of hardwood trees about 2 inches in diameter and 4 to 5 inches
long. Drill a 3/4 inch hole halfway through the middle of the branch
(mallet head). Use a piece of 7/8-inch dowel rod about 9 to 10 inches
long (five can be made out of a 48-inch dowel). Taper one end of the
handle so that it fits snuggly inside the hole. Add some wood glue and
pound the handle in place.
You will also need something to place the leather on before stamping.
You don't want to mess up tables, desks, or floors. Scrap pieces of 2x8
lumber about a foot long are adequate for this.
A sponge and bowl of water are also handy for wetting the leather.
The larger the stamp the harder or the more times you have to hit it
to make an impression. The larger object tools (sometimes called 2D or
3D) are particularly difficult especially for kids. One method that can
be used is to tip the stamp to one side and hit it, tip it to another
side and hit is again, continue around in a circle until the impression
is to your liking. Be sure to hold the stamp and handle firmly on the
leather while hitting it. Otherwise, the stamp will have a tendency to
bounce and you will get multiple images.
When you are using these stamps, one side of the impression will
frequently be darker (deeper) than the other due to uneven pressure. To
correct this lean the handle 1/4" to the side with the light impression
and hit the stamp again.
Another method is to build a leather press. You will need one piece
of 4x4 about 2 feet long, one piece of 2x4 about 2 feet long, two pieces
of 2x4 about 10 inches long, one 1/2 inch carriage bolt 7 inches long
and 4 wood screws about 3 inches long. Drill and assemble as
illustrated. The critical part is the stamp holder. First drill a 5/16
inch hole 1 inch deep into the bottom of the lever. Next drill a 1/2
inch hole 1/4 inch deep. Insert a 5/16 inch dowel 1 1/8 inch long into
the center. Glue in place with wood glue.
The important thing is that the stamp must be flat about 1/16 inch
above the base. A flat piece of metal about 2 or 3 inches square can be
placed at the point where the stamp would contact the base. If the metal
plate is not installed, the stamp will eventually indent the wood making
for an uneven impression. An uneven impression may be corrected by
rotating the stamp and leather 180 degrees, carefully align the stamp
and press again.
There are two sides to leather. A flesh side, which is usually rough,
and a skin side, which is smooth, and you can see pores. Stamping is
always done on the skin side of the leather.
Flesh and Skin Side of Leather
Before stamping leather, it is necessary to wet it slightly. This can
be done either by wiping the smooth or skin side of the leather with a
damp sponge or with a spray bottle. Get it uniformly moist, but not
dripping wet. The leather is wet when the surface turns a uniform darker
shade of brown. Let the leather dry until it turns a lighter tan. It
should still feel moist to the touch. Now it is ready for stamping.
Judging the correct dampness of the leather takes practice. Get some
scraps and have fun.
When you stamp the leather the stamp should penetrate slightly into
the surface leaving a darker brown at the bottom of the impression. If
the impression is very light and not very deep, then the leather is too
dry. If the impression is deep and has no dark brown at the bottom of
the impression, then the leather is too wet.
Leather can also be painted. Permanent markers, paint pens, and
acrylic paint all work well. The markers and pens are easier for younger
children. It takes a steady hand and patience to paint with a brush.
Some ideas on things to make are coasters (3 to 4 inches round),
medallions (coaster using leather lacing to make it a necklace),
bookmarks (1x6 inches), neckerchief slides, wristbands, and ornaments.
Many shapes such as hearts, octagons, circles, ovals, arrowheads, and
crosses can be purchased at general craft or leather craft stores.
Rings can be glued to the backside of the leather with hot glue. A
"D" shaped ring works best because of the larger area for glue to adhere
A sealer called "Super Sheen" (see photo below) can be applied after
the paint has dried to encase the leather in a protective barrier. This
gives the leather a darker appearance and a shine and prevents the
leather from getting wet or stained. A sealer may not be necessary
unless you anticipate the piece getting abused.
Holes can be punched in leather using a leather punch. One good hint
with a hold punch is to always place a second scrap piece of leather
beneath the piece you want to punch. This way the punch will go
completely through the masterpiece and into the second piece of leather.
Without the second piece of leather, the punch frequently does not go
completely through and it is difficult to cut through the last thread.
In addition, the second piece of leather protects your punch from
hitting the hard metal anvil and dulling it. Notice the nail in the
piece of leather in the photo below. This comes in handy to remove holes
from the punch.
If you are doing lacing, use one of the tools shown below to make the
work go easier and faster. Be sure to use a scrap piece of wood under
the project or you will have a design on your work surface. The four
prong tool is placed on the leather near the edge (1/8") and hit with a
mallet until it is completely through the leather. Remove the tool and
move it down the edge to do the next wholes. Place the first tine in the
last hole to get even spacing. Use the one tine tool finish up or get
into hard to reach places. They make tools for different sized lacing -
be sure to get the size that is right for your project. Also pictured
are waxed thread and large eyed needles.
Top: black waxed thread, large-eyed needle, artificial sinew, Super
Middle: metal ruler
Bottom: nail, modeling tool, thonging chisel, leather shears, large
stamp handle, small stamp handle, beveller, edger
In general, remember these helpful hints:
- Any mark on leather is permanent, there is no eraser. Drop a
stamp or marker or make a letter backwards, and you just gave it
- Choice of tools: 3D stamps (use press if desired), letters and
numbers, tools without handles, tools with handles can be combined
to make borders, objects; and don't forget about markers and paint.
- Technique: Double check that the stamp is correctly positioned -
remember letters will be backwards - check top, left side. One
suggestion is that you have a scrap piece of leather that you can
use to determine if the stamp is in the correct orientation. Hold
stamp firmly, hit square firmly - stamps tend to bounce. Hit small
stamps lightly, large stamps hard. If stamp is uneven, replace
carefully; slant to highlight part of stamp that was too light.
- Work slowly and carefully. If you hurry, you will make mistakes.