When I first started in leather craft, I tried to mimic what I saw online, and although my projects were similar, they needed refinement. I would see shiny burnished leather, while mine still looked fuzzy. So, I began learning to create a high gloss burnish to further my craft — a technique I still use today.
Burnishing leather is a technique that uses heat and friction to bring out oils in leather and polish and seal it. It’s a great way to finish edges or buff the leather’s surface to a glossy shine. Burnishing can be done with various materials and assisted by specialty paste.
Taking the time to create a high-shine burnish can help convey your products as luxury. I will discuss methods for burnishing leather to help you achieve a glossy finish time and time again.
What Is Burnishing Leather?
Burnishing leather is a crafting technique used to slick down and polish leather fibers. By using wood, canvas, or other materials, leather can be rubbed to create friction and heat, which activates the oils in the leather, drawing them to the surface and providing a glossy shine.
Meanwhile, the friction slicks down the leather, and the rubbing motion assists in polishing to bring out a shine. Burnishing is a popular choice for edge finishing, as it helps prevent the fibers from becoming loose or rolling over. This is not only practical, but the finished look can help create a more professional final product.
What We’ll Explore
- Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
- Reasons You Might Choose to Burnish Leather
- Variations or Styles of Burnishing Leather
- Burnishing Leather Overview Table
- Skill Level of Burnishing Leather
- Tools and Supplies Needed for Burnishing Leather
- How to Burnish Leather Step by Step
- How to Get Better at Burnishing Leather
- My Personal Research on Burnishing Leather
- Helpful Insights on Burnishing Leather
- Key Takeaways
Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions
A common misconception is that only vegetable tanned leather can be burnished. However, while it is by far the easiest type of leather to burnish, all leathers have the potential to be burnished. With the help of burnishing pastes, even the fuzziest edges can slowly be worked down to provide a slicked look.
However, chromium based leathers will often become fuzzy sooner than vegetable tanned leather, deterring crafters from relying on burnishing with other leathers and opting for edge paint or other finishing methods instead.
Reasons You Might Choose To Burnish Leather
The most popular reason for burnishing leather is to finish and seal the edges. Without this, leather edges will become fuzzy and roll over time. Burnishing not only prevents this but can provide a refined look by polishing the edge as well.
Leather can also be burnished on both its surface and flesh side. Burnishing the surface will bring out the leather’s oils, allowing it to be polished. This is commonly seen in footwear, where polishing oxfords or other shoes is key to keeping them looking nice.
The flesh side of the leather can benefit from burnishing by having any loose fibers pushed down, creating a smooth backside to the leather. This can be a great option for those not lining their leather products, as a burnished flesh side will look well finished.
Variations or Styles of Burnishing Leather
Three areas of leather can be burnished, each having a unique purpose — the surface, flesh side, and edge. Burnishing the leather’s surface creates a highly polished look that appeals to many. Requiring no burnishing products, the heat generated from rubbing the surface draws out the oils, which helps produce a glossy finish.
Burnishing the flesh side of leather has a similar effect but also provides some benefits. By treating the flesh side of the leather, the fibers are slicked down, becoming smooth. This helps create a higher-quality finish while also protecting the leather from water damage. Burnishing the flesh side of leather will require a burnishing paste or water.
Edge burnishing is the most popular type of burnishing found in leathercraft. Typically the edges of the leather are unprotected and vulnerable to becoming fuzzy or rolling. By treating the leather’s edge with burnishing paste, it can be slicked down, making it much more resistant to wear. Edge burnishing can help prolong a leather item’s lifespan, keeping it looking like new for longer.
Burnishing Leather Overview Table
|Area of Preparation||Details|
|Overall Level of Skill (1–5)||1|
|Time to Complete (minutes/hours)||5 minutes +|
|Workspace Needed||Can be done anywhere|
|Skills Needed||Flush cutting, sanding|
|Tools and Supplies Needed||Burnishing paste, wood slicker, or other burnishing tool|
|Key Helpful Tip||When possible, cut a new edge to provide a flat surface for burnishing|
Skill Level of Burnishing Leather
Burnishing leather at a basic level is a simple task requiring no additional leather crafting skills. Water or burnishing paste is applied to the leather’s surface that will be treated, and various materials can be used to rub it. This action is enough to slick the leather down and begin to polish the material.
For a glossier finish, sanding may be recommended starting at 220 grit sandpaper and progressing to 1000+. The smoother the leather becomes, the shinier the final edge will be. Sanding should only be done on the edge of the leather; both the surface and the flesh side can become damaged when sanded.
Tools and Supplies Needed for Burnishing Leather
Burnishing leather edges requires a few supplies to prepare the edge and create a high gloss finish. Edge bevelers remove the rough corner created when cutting leather, helping prevent the leather from rolling over. There are also burnishing pastes that can be of great help. Tokonole, or gum tragacanth, are some options, but water is often good enough.
For the tool used for burnishing, it is a personal preference. The key is to generate heat and friction smoothly. Typically a wooden slicker is used; however, various fabrics can also work. Felt, denim, and canvas are the most common, as their slightly rough texture creates additional friction.
Sandpaper is also recommended, as it can help smooth out the leather for a better polish. Ideally, sandpaper will start around 220 grit and progress until the desired shine is achieved.
Burnishing is a popular choice for edge finishing, as it helps prevent the fibers from becoming loose or rolling over.
How To Burnish Leather Step by Step
- Flush cut the edge to create an even surface before beginning to burnish.
- Use an edge beveler to round off the sharp corner left by the fresh cut.
- Apply water or a burnishing paste to the edge and let it dry for a few minutes.
- Rub your burnishing tool along the leather with light pressure to begin polishing the leather.
- Sand the leather with a progressively higher grit, and repeat steps three and four until satisfactory results are achieved.
In this helpful video by Weaver Leather Supply, Chuck Dorsett demonstrated how to burnish leather with a detailed step-by-step demonstration.
How To Get Better at Burnishing Leather
Patience is the key to becoming better at burnishing leather. The most significant improvements come from having a smoother leather edge. Flush cutting is a great way to provide a strong start for burnishing. However, building up layers through sanding and reapplying burnishing paste is the key to achieving a high shine.
Each time the leather is burnished, it should be sanded with a progressively higher sandpaper grit. This will treat any fibers that are still standing while also smoothing the surface. The repetition of this process will begin to produce better and better results each time. Simply, the more you burnish leather, although time-consuming, the better the outcome will be.
A. Temmler, E. Willenborgb, and K. Wissenbachb, from the RWTH Aachen University, Chair for Lasertechnology, in Aachen, Germany, has presented a potentially new way to burnish leather using lasers. This works by selectively melting small areas of the leather surface to provide a two-tone effect. Their study found using a laser to be more efficient than creating a burnished gloss by hand.
My Personal Research on Burnishing Leather
To research, I decided to focus on the types of leather burnishing products to learn if one was better. I used water, gum tragacanth, and a paste known as tokonole. I tested them on vegetable and chrome tanned leathers to see which produced the best burnish.
Using water to burnish is the most economical way and can perform surprisingly well on vegetable tanned leather. It could produce quite a nice burnish with a single coat and add contrast by darkening the leather. This did mean any spillover darkened the leather, which could be slightly seen on the surface when dried. Chromium tanned leather was a completely different result. The water seemed to do nothing to achieve a burnish. No matter how much I applied, I could not get a consistently smooth edge. Once it had dried, fibers would immediately stand up.
When I first started leathercraft, gum tragacanth was my go-to burnishing product. Testing it again, it was still impressive. It could create a slightly higher gloss than the water with a single coat but did not darken the edge. This was one characteristic I appreciated about the product.
No matter how careful I am, I always seem to have products spill over to the surface of my leather. With gum tragacanth, it will dry up if left alone and leaves behind no trace since it does not darken the leather as water does. On chrome tanned leather, gum tragacanth still struggled. It performed slightly better than water and could slick down fibers. However, the edge still felt very rough, and as I passed my finger over it, some of the fibers became loose again.
Tokonole is a recent product that multiple companies have started making. It is sold by Seiwa and comes in three colors; brown, black, and clear. Similar products are on the market, such as toko pro, but I used clear tokonole for my testing. With a single pass, tokonole exceeded the competition.
It was smoother and glossier on the vegetable tanned leather and did not change the color of the edge. However, tokonole takes extra time as it must dry for a few minutes before it can be burnished. In addition, it stains very easily. While I could quickly wipe away surface spills, it leaves a very noticeable dark spot if left too long.
Where the product really shined was when using it on chromium tanned leather. While the burnishing was not as nice as vegetable tanned leather, it was the only product to produce a good burnishing effect that held when dried. With patience and layers, it could be used to treat chromium tanned leathers.
When it comes to vegetable tanned leather, all methods worked wonderfully; however, gum tragacanth was my favorite. While it did not produce the best results, I really value that the product does not stain leather if spilled over to the surface. For chromium tanned leather, tokonole is the best choice by far. It was the only product to burnish the leather successfully and did not have fibers come back up when dried.
Helpful Insights On Burnishing Leather
How do you burnish leather surfaces?
When burnishing the surface of the leather, it may be best to avoid any additional products, as they may stain the leather. Instead, the leather should be burnished using only a clean cloth, felt pad, or canvas piece, rubbing the leather in a circular motion. This process is similar to polishing leather shoes and can help bring out the same shine achieved with footwear.
How do you make leather burnish?
Leather is burnished by generating heat through friction. This can be done with almost anything from your fingers to wooden slickers. Pastes and burnishing tools only serve to help maintain and polish the burnish using different waxes or oils. However, in a pinch, water works great to provide a burnished effect that will hold.
Should you burnish leather?
Yes, at minimum, you should burnish your leather edges when using vegetable tanned leather. Over time as a leather item is used, the edges will see a lot of wear and can become fuzzy or begin to roll over. A burnished edge will prevent this while providing a high-quality look to any leather project.
What is the best leather burnishing?
Vegetable tanned leather is the best leather for burnishing. While other leather types can be burnished, they do not last as long or become as polished as vegetable tanned leather will. This is because the moisture used when burnishing can slick down the vegetable tanned leather’s fibers. At the same time, the heat generated through the process brings the leather’s oils to the surface producing a glossy look.
- Vegetable tanned leather is the best type for creating a long-lasting, high-polish burnish.
- While unnecessary, burnishing creams can help achieve a high shine on leathers that are more difficult to burnish.
- Burnishing is created through heat generated from friction, so all burnishing tools can produce the same high shine.
Burnishing leather is a great option for making leather items more durable and look better by sealing the edges and providing a polish. This practice can be used on every leather project to create a more professional look while being a simple process that crafters at any level can add to their projects.
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