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Basic Leather Working 101

Introduction

When we started the Creator Consortium, we wanted to share how we did things with the world. We wanted to help people get creative and crafty, whether you’re using your hands to sculpt and create physical things or wanted to create fantastic adventures around the coffee table – we were going to be there to give you an idea of where to start.

We’ve not done much of the physical crafting yet, so this is where we start.

This is going to be a three part series looking at how we craft leather from start to finish. The first part is going to be an overview of leather; what tools and materials you will need (or later on, want) with some basics planning ideas to keep your feet grounded before making any mistakes.

In future articles I’ll go into detail on how to create masks from leather, with detailed instructions and pictures:

  • By the end of part one you should have a good idea about what tools you will need, with optional extras.
  • By the end of part two you should have a moulded piece of leather in the form of a mask which should (hopefully) fit snugly to your face.
  • By the end of part three you should have a fully coloured and treated mask, ready for your party, masquerade or LARP event.

I may reference previous parts as we go or give you snippets to future parts as they’re required. There may also be some heavy editing of previous articles as I develop this glorified tutorial.

I’ll be exclusively using vegetable tanned leather as it provides us with a variety of choices and techniques. More on this later.

Firstly, I’m going to provide an insight into the uses and types of leather and ask some questions relating to your specific leather project.

Why use Leather?

Leather is a type of old world plastic. If you know how to manipulate it, you can get it to fulfill a variety of functions. There are some considerations before you start your project however: Is leather the best option for your project? Would there be an easier medium for you to use?

Pros:

  • Easy manipulation, no expensive tools or chemicals required
  • Sturdy material that can take some serious mechanical abuse
  • Variety of uses from small items to full costumes
  • Easy to use (when you know how).

Cons:

  • Not very forgiving, expensive mistakes can happen!
  • Requires a good aftercare regime
  • Storage concerns: spores, mold & degradation can prematurely eat and destroy your hard work!

If you still think leather is for you then read on for some further considerations.

herd of cattle in daytime

Environmental Impact

Leather was once locally sourced and used extensively before plastics were introduced. Unfortunately, now being a globalised industry, it comes with its own complications.

Cattle herds are huge in America, who are one of the largest producers of beef and therefore leather. The impact on the environment is several fold – cattle create methane, farmland and agriculture impact the local atmosphere, and global transportation methods create more pollution.

Some methods of curing leather use chromium salts. These salts are toxic to living organisms (they use chromium salts to denature DNA strands in genetic laboratories). Chromium treated leathers are usually more synthetic looking, with near perfect surfaces with (usually) thinner and very supple qualities. Presumably they are cheaper, quicker to make and easier to use in manufacturing.

Composition of Leather

Leather is essentially skin. When vegetable tanned leather is cured it can become rigid (for thicker leathers) or paper like (such as thin goat skins). The curing process essentially removes the water content without cracking the surface, leaving a smooth and rough side and providing many years of age to what should naturally decompose.

Collagen (face cream adverts talk about it all the time) remains present in the leather and it is this which gives the leather its rigidity. When we wet or soaked, cured leather like vegetable tanned leather we re-hydrate the collagen, making it flexible and less brittle. As the leather dries, if we have done our job correctly, the leather should hold its shape, allowing us to craft intricate and ornate pieces of work, such as masks.

Vegetable tanned leather is used by artisans and crafters all over the world for various projects. It is generally coarser and thicker leather but has a host of applications: in some older types of vehicles it is used for fan belts, it is used for safety attire, all weather clothing, and used as armour up until the second world war, it has a host of utility uses for belts, tool holders, satchels and bags. Vellum is still used in the UK to maintain official government records due to its almost ageless qualities – it is so durable that ancient Kings used it to chronicle their lives.

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Types of Leather

There are a variety of leathers out there. I’m going to provide a brief description of the main ones that artisans and small project crafters are more likely to use.

Vegetable Tanned – There is no surface treatment to this sort of leather, meaning it is ideal for tooling and dying. You can wet mould this sort of leather. A wide variety of uses.

Dyed Through Vegetable Tanned – These leathers do not possess  exactly the same qualities as regular natural tanned vegetable as sometimes there can be a dyeing finish, meaning you can’t necessarily carve, tool or wet mould the leather. However it is durable, and looks great for heavy belts and armour.

Splits – the leather is split and the bottom portion is dyed and treated again to create a smooth surface. You’ll find it’s cheaper but it cannot be tooled or dyed again.

Suede Splits – As above, but both sides are treated with the new upper side heavily treated to create a velvety nap. This is a very versatile form of leather but again it cannot be tooled or dyed further. 

Clothing Suede, Nappa, Cow, Pig – Thin, supple and multiple uses but mainly for clothing. It usually comes pre dyed and is not suitable for most types of projects I will cover here. However, it is great for smaller projects that do not require much treatment, such as small clothing items or accessories.

Chamois – This is essentially split sheep skin and is the first thing most people think of when you mention leather. It has a host of uses and is particularly nice for buffing and polishing your car.

Saddlery – The bees knees of leather, this type of leather is pumped to the brim with waxes and dyes. It is incredibly tough and can be very rigid. It is ideal if you’re just cutting armour pieces to shape, but will require thinning at the edges for stitching. Being incredibly tough, it may take a substantial effort to prepare for stitching. People tend to use long rivets instead. You may be able to carve a pattern into it, but you will not be able to tool it.

Kid – for its thinness this type of leather is very strong due to its fine grain. You see it made into wallets or book bindings due to its fine but mighty nature.

Upholstery Hides – Huge hides! These make a great base for leather if you’re making large volumes. Again it cannot be carved or tooled, but it can be cheap if you bulk buy. I’ve made tabards from this sort of leather and studded those tabards with thicker leather plates to create simple armour.

Crafting Tools

You could really go to town and spend a lot of money to buy a huge variety of tools. In the early stages of any craft, you should only get the minimum you need to get by. If you have a precision craft knife, a stanley knife, a steel rule and some paper, pens and pencils you’ll get on without a hitch. Optionally, you could look at getting some of the following tools, but these are really for slightly more complicated projects. Where possible, I’ve provided a “cheap-cheat” alternatives, but you’ll find that getting the right tool for the job does have an impact as you advance.

My list of tools apply mostly to using vegetable tanned leather, if you’re using a different type of leather you may need a variety of different tools.

For Cutting Leather…

Cutting Knives – these are really cheap from most hobby and craft stores. Stanley knives or retractable knives and precision knives have different uses: Use precision knives to cut finer details and complicated shapes, such as eye holes for masks, and retractable knives for cutting big blocks or chunks of leather out.

leather crafting work LARP artisan masquerade armour

Metal Rule – this is, for me, an essential piece of kit for cutting leather shapes. It should go without saying that a metal rule will not get cut up like a plastic one. More importantly, it should have some form of guard to avoid cutting your fingers. When cutting leather, you will likely apply pressure, meaning that if you slip… well it won’t just be a plaster (band aid) required to hold your fingertips in place.

leather crafting work LARP artisan masquerade armour

Hole Punch – it’s not technically cutting leather, but a hole punch is pretty useful. You can get small kits which have various sized punches which you swap out and screw into place. You’ll need a mallet or hammer to use this. Avoid the type that is hand punched with a wheel of different sized punches – it just doesn’t work as well.

leather crafting work LARP artisan masquerade armour

For Carving and Tooling Leather…

Swivel Knife – this is a unique looking knife that looks a bit like a flat headed screwdriver. Swivel knives are used to cut and carve patterns into leather. You don’t need to go nuts here because using a swivel knife takes practice and patience. Some people get the knack of it early on. If you want to practice carving leather without buying one, get a small flat headed screwdriver and try it on a scrap piece of leather. More on this later.

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Image taken from LePrevo Leathers, http://www.leprevo.co.uk

Bevel / Foot Stamp – this little tool is used in conjunction with the swivel knife. After you have cut a line with the swivel knife you can use the bevel stamp (sometimes called a foot) to push one side of the cut down with a small mallet. The process involves moving the foot along the line while tapping the end with the mallet as you go in one smooth process. The result is an almost 3-D appearance. This is the basic technique for people wishing to tool leather and only really works on vegetable tanned leathers.

leather crafting work LARP artisan masquerade armour

For Stitching Leather…

Needles – you can get these very cheaply from haberdasheries. For working with leather you’re going to need thick needles with a larger eyelet hole. This is because simple cotton thread is too small for stitching leather pieces together. If you can afford it, an automatic stitching awl will save you a lot of time and effort, but they do cost more than just needles and thread.

Thread – thicker thread, ideally waxed will be suitable for most leather projects. Thicker threads will be less likely to cut into the hole they are threaded through, meaning you will add life to your final piece. If it is waxed, it will also not rot anywhere as quickly and provide a level of waterproofing to the holes it’s stitched through.

Pricking Awl – this nasty looking device is basically a pointed blade on the end of a handle. It will look like a vicious prison shank. They are used to create tiny cut marks which act as a guide for stitching. They also allow the needle to pass through the leather much easier than if you were trying to punch the leather with the stitching needle. I would not recommend stitching leather without first punching the holes with a pricking awl!

leather crafting work LARP artisan masquerade armour

For Colouring / Dyeing and Finishing Leather

Dyes – There are a variety of ways of colouring leather. The obvious method is to use leather dyes, which are alcohol based and miscible in water (meaning you can thin them down). I use Fiebings leather dye, which come in a variety of colours and shades. Leather dyes wet the leather, so you need to be careful with water moulded leather projects (which I will cover later).

Paints – Alternatively you could use acrylic paints, but these have a habit of cracking as they dry as solids. To avoid this, you can use flexible acrylic paints that contain natural resins or flexi-paints which are made with rubber or latex components. If you’re making something that is not expected to bend, you can just use regular acrylic paints, but I would suggest you water them down and work in two or more thinner layers.

Finishes – You are going to need to add something extra if you’re hoping to take your leather outside or use it for anything other than for display. This is really important if you’re going to use your piece in all weather, such as for LARP events. Even in the summer weather, you will need to protect the colours that you’ve so lovingly applied. Personally, I use a two or more layers of Carnauba wax cream and the thinner but highly waterproof resolene finish.

In conjunction these will waterproof and provide some level of flexibility to your piece, preventing excess moisture going in whilst stopping the leather from drying out and cracking. These make great aftercare materials too, so if you get into making expensive kit for LARP, it may be wise to sell the finishers alongside the main product.

Paint Brushes & Rags – depending on the size of your leather piece, you are going to need to apply that dye or paint somehow. For small pieces such as wallets, belts, scabbards and masks you can get away with artist brushes, for larger surface areas such as armour you may want to invest in a spray gun (you can buy these from model shops and may prove cheaper for short term projects). Rags are rags at the end of the day. Something like dishcloths don’t tend to come with a tonne of loose fibers so they won’t leave marks as you buff the leather up.

Optional pieces include:

Edge Smoother – this little wooden device is great at deburing the edges of your leather. Running it up and down the edge, with the leather in the nook will slowly polish and smooth the edge, making your final piece look cleaner and more professional. They can be expensive, so shop around for cheaper ones – after all, it’s a piece of carved wood.

leather crafting working LARP masquerade armour artisan

Boarder / Edge Cutter – this little device will add border edges to your leather, which can make a piece look finished and also carve a smooth line along the borer into which you can punch holes or run a stitching wheel into for later stitching… which saves time and effort…

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Where to Begin

So let’s assume you have all of your tools, paints and finishes ready. You’ve got your leather ready to go. But where on earth do you start? Well, I have two very important pieces of advice that you should always consider for every project you ever start.

Dream BIG, but think small

It is the best advice you can possibly get when I say: start small.

Leather is unforgiving in that if you make a mistake, you won’t be able to hide it. Unlike fabric where you could stitch a secret piece in, or hide a mistake behind a fold, leather is generally too cumbersome or thick for quick fixes. Of course, you could weather a mistake to make it look deliberate if you wanted an overall finish to match.

So, stay small for your first project. This will give you a feel for how leather behaves when you’re working with it. With that experience you can move to larger projects later.

Refine your idea with Cardboard

My next advice will also save you time and money: create a mockup piece first.

In my early days I had very little money so I had to be thrifty with my leather and consumables. Cutting out pieces of cardboard from cereal boxes and seeing how my design folded, glue or stitched saved me a lot of time and pain.

Buying your Leather & Tools

This is the hard bit.

If you live in the UK, you can get your supplies from eBay, but I would suggest you have a look at LePrevo Leathers. They are a large supplier but they are friendly and helpful people.

For other sellers of tools, you can get everything you need on eBay fairly cheaply. Most of it will be made in China, but if you’re starting out, you shouldn’t spend a fortune unless you’re absolutely certain you want to commit to this craft. Otherwise, shop around.

If you’re elsewhere in the world, you will likely have more local suppliers. Particularly in Asian and American nations, you’ll have the likes of Tandy Leather. If you’re in the UK, avoid Tandy Leather, it is generally over priced under the facade of being user and newbie friendly. That said, if you’ve got cash to throw around, go ahead!

(That said, they have supposedly repriced everything, so maybe have a sneak peek)…

So that’s it for now, in the next week or so there will be part two ready to go. I’ll link it at the bottom of this page and notify via our Facebook page, twitter account and likely various other media platforms. Alternatively, subscribe to us to get notifications!

@FerrisWrites for Twitter

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Next in the series we will look at a project in more detail, with steps on how to prepare and cut your leather to make a mask. It’s not rocket science and I’m sure there will be others with different ideas – that’s fine, lets put our heads together!

Until the next episode!

Mr Ferris