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Burnished Leather – Great Protection and Style on the Edges

Leather working is a craft with seemingly no end for potential mastery, which is most apparent with burnished leather. Although I have been working with leather for multiple years, I am still searching for the perfect method for burnishing leather edges.

Burnished leather is leather that has been slicked down and polished. Although this technique can be achieved with water alone, polishing pastes are often sold to help create burnished leather. Burnishing leather protects the leather’s edges and provides a luxurious look.

I will discuss the different methods for creating burnished leather and their benefits so you can achieve better results and improve your leather projects.

What Is Burnished Leather?

Burnished leather is the fibers of leather that are slicked down and polished. This is done by generating heat through fiction, bringing the natural oils of the leather to the surface while pressing the loose fibers down.

This can be accomplished with just water; however, some products can assist in the process. Products containing a mixture of glue and wax ensure the fibers stay down while being coated. This wax surface can further be burnished into a mirror shine. 

What We’ll Explore

  • Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
  • History of Burnished Leather
  • Burnished Leather Overview Table
  • Burnished Leather Items
  • My Personal Research on Burnished Leather
  • Helpful Burnished Leather Insights
  • Key Takeaways
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Burnishing Leather with a Rotary Tool

Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions

A common misconception within the leather community is only vegetable tanned leather can be burnished. This simply is not the case. While vegetable tanned leather is the easiest to burnish and will keep its edge the longest, other leathers can benefit from the burnishing process.

Chrome tanned leathers are usually soft, making it hard to generate consistent friction, and it takes much more effort to bring the leather’s oils out. However, with enough patience and additional help from burnishing pastes, chrome tanned leather can be burnished in a pinch. Although it is not the best method for edge finishing that type of leather.

History of Burnished Leather

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While finding old burnished pieces of leather is improbable, the tools used to burnish have been found dating back to 40,000 years ago. Bone slickers made from deer ribs are some of the earliest leatherworking tools found.

These slickers would be used to press the leather fibers down, similar to burnishing. While most crafters no longer use deer ribs, similar tools can be found and are still used today.

Burnished Leather Overview Table

Leather TypeBurnishing Details
Vegetable Tanned LeatherEasiest to burnish and can be brought to a high shine using only water. Additional products such as Gum Tragacanth or Tokonole can improve the finish. 
Combination Tanned Leather (Latigo)Easy to burnish but may take more time than vegetable tanned leather. It can produce a high shine with additional products. 
Oil Tanned LeatherSome difficulty burnishing. Water alone will not provide a high shine, requiring additional products. It will quickly fuzz if not waxed properly.
Chrome Tanned LeatherDifficult to burnish, but it can be done. Requires burnishing paste, such as Tokonole, to produce decent results. It will quickly fuzz if not properly waxed.
Suede LeatherExtremely difficult to burnish, even with the help of pastes. While the edges will become slicked, the fibers will constantly become fuzzy.
Types of Burnished Leather

Burnished Leather Items

Burnished Leather Shoes

Burnished leather can appear on shoes in various ways. The most common is in the heel stack and around the welt. More recently, there has been a trend for using burnished leather for the uppers.

When burnishing leather’s surface, like the edges, the waxes and oils will be brought to the surface and darken it, allowing companies to create a worn patina look on new shoes. This is most often seen on the toe cap or heel area of the shoes.

Burnished leather is fibers of leather that are slicked down and polished. This is done by generating heat through fiction.

Burnished Leather Belt

Ideally, all leather belts will be burnished at the edges and their flesh side. This prevents them from getting caught when sliding through belt loops and reduces the mushrooming look as the leather ages.

The flesh side of the leather may also be slicked down to help slide along any fabric it may come in contact with. This can help the belt age better by preventing fibers from rubbing off during use.

Burnished Leather Boots

Similar to leather shoes, leather boots are also burnished in the welt and heel stack. Although more commonly, boots will leave their welt untouched. Derby or oxford styles are the most burnished boots. These similar boots are more formal with a finished look throughout. Additionally, both boots provide a toe cap that is a prime part of artificially creating patina through burnishing.

A. Temmler, E. Willenborgb, K. Wissenbachb, from the RWTH Aachen University, Chair for Laser Technology, in Aachen, Germany, has researched the possibility of using lasers to polish leather’s surface. In practice, this can result in shoes having high glossy patina simulated areas on an otherwise low gloss shoe, leading to a more authentic burnished look on any type of leather.

Burnished Leather Jacket

A burnished leather jacket is created solely for its look. It offers no additional benefits compared to an unburnished jacket of the same leather quality. The effect of the burnishing is made to create a worn or vintage look without requiring years of use.

This look is appealing for some as it brings out the aged look of leather, showcasing unique wear patterns. Leather is one of the few materials that get better with age, but those looking to enjoy an aged look without the aged problems will find burnished leather jackets are their best choice.

Chuck Dorsett covers the basics of burnishing a leather edge using a slicker in this helpful video by Weaver Leather Supply. 

My Personal Research on Burnished Leather

Burnished leather can be made with various tools, with no instrument being truly the best. I researched the most common tools people used to burnish and why they chose them. While I like canvas, I found many using the traditional wood slicker, felt, denim, and even their fingers.

Canvas

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Canvas is my favorite material to burnish with. I purchased a white sheet and cut it into various squares. By using white, I can see what canvas area has been tainted, allowing me to prevent colors from rubbing together and creating a dirty look. Using canvas also allows for burnishing in tight or small areas that stiff tools, like a wooden slicker, could not reach.

Wooden Slicker

One of the most commonly seen burning tools is the wooden slicker. They are laminated wood pieces with grooves cut out to fit varying leather thicknesses. When reading why fellow crafters picked these tools, there were two common reasons. First was the benefit of the grooves, and second was the material left no fibers.

The wooden slicker’s grooves can sometimes sit perfectly on the edge of the leather, allowing the entire surface to be burnished at once with each pass. They also offer a curve that can provide the leather with a more rounded edge. When mentioning other materials to burnish, crafters seemed to dislike the possibility of fibers from fabrics getting caught and tainting the edge.

Felt

Despite watching various leather crafters for many years, I was surprised to learn that some suggest using felt for burnishing. Various crafters say the softness of the felt stops pressure from being overapplied, like a sponge. Additionally, the felt generates heat quickly, which they claim shortens their burnishing time. While felt may be prone to loose fibers, these qualities make it an interesting pick for leather burnishing. 

Denim

Using denim for burnishing leather is mainly done out of convenience. Some of us may wear denim pants while working with leather and find the semi-rough material the perfect solution. For many crafters, it is.

When reading why people chose denim as their burnishing choice, many stated it was easily accessible and worked similarly to canvas, but instead of purchasing fabric, they could use pieces of old jeans or shirts; a rather resourceful idea. 

Fingers

Using fingers to burnish is nearly universal in leathercraft. Despite using canvas for most burnishing needs, I sometimes use my fingers when I am too lazy to get my fabric out. However, for other crafters, the real benefit is total control.

They can feel the force of pressure and see the burnishing process with every pass. From experience, it also allows total control of any paste or liquid used to burnish leather. Countless times my canvas builds up a lot of paste, and as I change areas, it falls onto the surface of my leather. 

Conclusion

Burnishing leather can be done with almost anything, and each material will have its benefits. Finding what suits your method best is key to producing the best outcome. Those caught in a pinch can take solace knowing household fabrics, or fingers, work just as well as specialized tools.

Helpful Burnished Leather Insights

What is burnished leather upper?

A burnished leather upper, typically a footwear term for the outside of the shoe, is a look created to mimic the patina leather undergoes. Burnishing the leather upper does not affect the quality of the leather and is purely to create a different look.

How do you make leather burnish?

Leather can burnish through the combination of heat and light friction. The heat from quickly moving a burnishing tool back and forth brings out the leather’s oils and waxes. The friction also helps generate heat by pressing the fibers down and creating a smooth, potentially glossy, edge. 

What is cow burnish leather?

Cow burnished leather is a marketing term that differentiates burnished leather from unburnished leather. This term is applied to the leather’s surface, as the edges of cow leather may be burnished. A burnished leather surface provides only a different patina look and does not affect the quality of the product. 

Do you burnish leather before or after dying?

You should always dye leather before burnishing it. This may sound counterintuitive as the dye will be rubbed, but the oils pulled to the leather’s edge will create a semi-seal, preventing dyes from penetrating the leather. In short, dye the leather, let it dry, and then burnish.

What can I use to burnish leather?

There is a wide variety of tools that can be used for burnishing. The most common is the wooden slicker. However, denim, canvas, felt, and even your fingertip can work for burnishing leather. The focus is on creating heat with friction, so a specific tool is unnecessary. 

Is burnished leather real leather?

Yes, burnished leather is real leather. Burnished leather is the same as unburnished with the additional look of patina created through burnishing. There is no quality difference between burnished and unburnished leather made from the same hide. 

Key Takeaways

  1. Burnished leather is best suited for vegetable tanned leather.
  2. Various tools and materials are used for burnishing, with no real best.
  3. Burnishing leather’s surface is purely for looks and does not change the quality of the leather.

In Closing

As crafters, we strive to create the best item each and every time. Burnishing leather is just one more way to improve our projects with a little more time and effort. The final look provides a luxurious touch to an already luxurious material.

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