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Carved Leather – A Look Into the Art, Style, and Skills

As someone who is always looking at other’s work for inspiration, there is one part of leather craft that never fails to impress — those who take the artistry of the craft to the next level with carved leather. After admiring countless crafter’s work, I decided to try to improve my skills in creating carved leather art. 

Carved leather is three-dimensional artwork added to leather by cutting, stamping, and molding. This is possible due to vegetable tanned leather’s ability to retain its shape when dampened. Carved leather art pieces may also be used in leather projects, offering a personal flair. 

Carved leather can be a great addition to any project, helping it stand out. Let us look at how leather is carved and ways to utilize this fun art style. 

What Is Carved Leather?

Carved leather is vegetable tanned leather that has had three-dimensional art added to it. While dampened, the leather can be cut, stamped, and molded to create any design. Once the leather has dried, it will harden, helping lock in place any artwork.

Carved leather may be used in any project to provide a creative flair, helping items stand out. Alternatively, carved leather pieces can be colored and framed to become a standalone piece of art. 

What We’ll Explore

  • Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
  • History of Carved Leather
  • Carved Leather Overview Table
  • Types of Carved Leather
  • Uses for Carving Leather
  • Carved Leather Patterns and Designs
  • Tools for Carving Leather
  • Beginner Carved Leather Projects
  • Advanced Carved Leather Projects
  • How To Carve Leather
  • Tips for Crafting With Carved Leather
  • Pros of Carved Leather
  • Cons of Carved Leather
  • Leather Products Made With Carved Leather
  • My Personal Research Into Carved Leather
  • Helpful Carved Leather Insights
  • Key Takeaways
Carving Flower Into Leather With a Swivel Knife - Carved Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
Carving Flower Into Leather With a Swivel Knife

Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions

The beauty of carved leather comes from the depth of the images. Those new to carving may attempt cutting deep lines to achieve this look; however, it is made through stamping. Much like sculpting, leather has a third dimension to work with to help add depth. 

Beveling stamps may be used to press down the area surrounding a line. This seemingly simple step helps create shadows and texture. This step is limited by the thickness of the leather being carved, as thick leather will provide much more height to press down before damaging the piece. 

History of Carved Leather

Although there is no concrete evidence as to when people first began carving leather, artifacts from over 3000 years ago have been found. These include Egyptian tombs and Roman burial sites.

However, since leather tools date back to the Stone Age, carving leather occurred much earlier. Carved leather has also been found across the globe with groups such as the Spanish Moors, who decorated their homes and armor with carved leather.

Today, carved leather is popular in the American Western style of leather crafting. Much of the artwork focuses on traditional imagery of flowers and wildlife seen throughout the plains of the U.S. Carved leather is not limited, however, with Japanese and European crafting styles slowly incorporating leather art in their work.  

See some incredible pieces explained in this video:

Carved Leather Overview Table

CharacteristicDetails
Ballpoint stylusA tracing tool with a ball-shaped tip used to transfer designs onto leather without creating permanent marks.
Swivel KnifeA slanted, wide, pivoting blade that is used to cut lines into leather. The main tool used when carving leather.
StampsVarious images, symbols, and markings attached to a metal shaft. Used to add depth, texture, and images to carved leather.
Modeling spoonA dual-sided tool with small curved metal tips used in carving to smooth lines and trace onto leather.
Carved Leather Characteristics

Types of Carved Leather

Types of carved leather relate to the imagery and techniques used when creating the artwork. Traditional carving focuses on floral, Western, or wildlife. This is a product of the old crafters’ environments. Seemingly simple, traditional carved leather showcases composition and detail through shading and texture.

Similar to other artistic mediums, the alternative to traditional leather carving is modern carving. Although they use the same tools, they strive to accomplish very different goals when creating artwork. Modern carving may use unconventional images and new techniques to change the final look of their projects. This includes molding to help create a more three-dimensional image. Overall, modern carved leather challenges the standards set by the ancestors of leather craft. 

Carved Leather Patterns and Designs

There are no limits to what can be carved into leather, but there are common patterns most crafters start with. These include flowers, wildlife, and western imagery. With these designs being so popular, there are plenty of free patterns online for those new to carving leather. Printed patterns may be traced onto the surface using a stylus.

When looking to create a unique artwork, however, pre-planning will have to be done on tracing film. The film allows for crafters to draw whatever they want, with the ability to erase or make corrections as needed. When the design is perfected, it can be placed over leather, where it will be traced before carving the final design. 

Uses for Carved Leather

Carved leather is primarily an artistic element that can be added to leather projects. This includes images or patterns that can help a piece stand out from similar items. Carving leather may be a great way to add personalized details or recreate items when recreating a costume or prop. 

A unique way carved leather can be used is as a standalone art piece. The carved leather hide can be painted, framed, and enjoyed as a stand-out medium, offering a wide range of depth and texture not commonly found in other traditional mediums. 

Alternatively, carved leather pieces can be colored and framed to become a standalone piece of art.

Tools and Supplies for Carving Leather

Some common supplies used for carving leather include: 

  1. Water
  2. Tracing paper
  3. Vegetable tanned leather 
  4. Swivel knives
  5. Stamps
  6. Modeling spoons

Water and vegetable tanned leather are vital to the process, as markings will only remain in this dampened hide. Other types of leather may be marked but will fade over time as they dry. Tracing film is not required but helps trace a pre-drawn pattern onto the hide. Those confident may prefer to work with no guides in place. 

The tools used to create carved leather include swivel knives, stamps, and modeling spoons. A swivel knife is the most common tool used to add lines to the leather. The blade quickly widens from the edge to help create a valley, helping lines remain visible when dried. In addition, the swivel action of the knife allows for tight, smooth curves that may not be as easy with standard blades. 

Stamps are metal rods with patterns at the end, leaving behind various markings when plunged into the leather. These tools are useful for adding texture and depth to a carving. With a wide selection available, there is a stamp for every project. Modeling spoons are a key tool when carving leather to provide depth. 

The curved tool pushes leather down, helping adjust cuts and smoothing out areas to provide a more professional-looking piece. In addition, they can help mold leather to assist when creating depth in an image. 

Beginner Carved Leather Projects

Carved leather projects for beginners focus on simple designs to help newcomers practice their technique with swivel knives and stamping tools. Flowers are a very traditional way to start this process, requiring minimal stamps, and the organic shape helps hide imperfections.

Another great beginner project is creating a Celtic knot. While the image looks complex, it is simply a series of lines, providing great help for those improving their swivel knife technique. 

Advanced Carved Leather Projects

While there is no real standard for advanced leather projects, there are plenty of ways to showcase talent. Composition can be a subtle yet key way to make carved leather art stand out. By having elements flow in and out of a piece, the viewer can take in much more of the artwork. 

Depth, as well as detail, are other ways to improve. My beginner projects will keep these elements simple, but there is no limit to how much work a crafter can put into a carving. Various textures and three-dimensional depth may be a challenging way to improve carved leather projects. 

How To Carve Leather

  1. Dapen the vegetable tanned leather with water and allow it to dry slightly.
  2. Trace the design onto leather using a tracing film and a stylus.
  3. Begin carving the leather with a swivel knife. 
  4. Reapply water on areas as they begin to dry.
  5. Use various stamps and modeling spoons to add marking and depth to the image.

Tips for Crafting With Carved Leather

Crafting with carved leather can yield beautiful and unique results, but it’s important to handle the material carefully to maintain the carved design’s integrity. Here are some tips for crafting with carved leather:

  1. Case the leather overnight to have the best working surface
  2. Pre-plan projects using a tracing film to avoid mistakes 
  3. Apply light pressure when first starting to get a free for the leather
  4. Reapply water to areas that have become dry to continue carving

Pros of Carved Leather

Carved leather has several advantages, making it a popular choice for various applications in the world of leathercraft. Here are some of the key pros of carved leather:

  1. It offers a unique personalization for every item it is added to.
  2. It can be used as a standalone art piece.
  3. It will patina over time to highlight the imagery.
  4. It can be painted or colored to detail a design further.
  5. It may greatly increase the price of an item made using carved leather.

Evans Kwadwo Donkor and Muriel Ossei-Gerning, from Cogent Arts & Humanities, a leading multidisciplinary, peer-reviewed open-access journal Published by Informa UK Limited, discussed the possibility of using carved leather as a more sustainable product for cell phone cases. Their research found that the benefits of leather pair well with the desire for customization in a more environmentally friendly way, showcasing how carved leather may be used as functional pieces of art. 

Cons of Carved Leather

While carved leather offers many advantages, it also has drawbacks and challenges. Here are some of the cons or limitations of working with carved leather:

  1. Can only be done on vegetable tanned leather
  2. May stretch the leather out during the carving process
  3. Requires much thicker leather to avoid damage when adding images
  4. Mistakes made when carving leather are permanent, potentially ruining projects
  5. Carved leather is often stiffer, making it more difficult to create projects with

Leather Products Made With Carved Leather

Leather products made with carved leather encompass a wide range of items that feature intricately designed patterns, motifs, and textures carved into the leather surface. These products are often prized for their artistic and decorative appeal. Here are some examples of leather products that can be made with carved leather:

  1. Wallets
  2. Belts
  3. Shoes
  4. Bags
  5. Holsters
  6. Sheaths
Carved Leather Bracelets - Carved Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
Carved Leather Bracelets

My Personal Research Into Carved Leather

My favorite part of carved leather is the three-dimensional effects master crafters can produce. To help figure out how this is done, I looked at various examples and tips while attempting to implement them, trying to understand how they may improve carved leather artwork.

Thicker Leather

The most common response to getting extra depth out of carved leather projects is to use thicker leather. Having more leather to push down creates a higher distance from the valleys and peaks of the artwork. The contrast will also help cast shadows, allowing a piece to look more three-dimensional. I tested this by finding the thickest leather, 15 ounces (6mm), and attempting to create a large shadow from the lines drawn.

My first impression when using this technique was positive. I could stamp to create a larger dip than on other leathers. However, as I started to press further and further into the leather, it was quickly becoming more difficult. I tried adding more pressure to my hits as I stamped, only to damage the surface of the leather. Using thicker leather can definitely help create more depth, but it does not reach its full potential due to the resistance that builds up. 

Varying Cuts

Another unique suggestion that I came across was to vary the pressure I used when cutting into the leather. The goal of this technique is to create the illusion of depth by giving the viewer more areas to compare the deepest parts to. I attempted this using 8-ounce (3.2mm) leather and cut a gradient of depths as best as possible.

This technique worked fairly well; I could draw attention to deeper lines. I even made it a point to make multiple passes for the most depth possible. When the leather finally dried, some of the lightest lines seemed to fade away. Overall, the lines that remained visible helped create variance and an illusion of depth. 

Molding the Flesh Side

The last technique I saw was a crafter using their stylus to mold the leather from the flesh side. This pushed the leather up and allowed for incredible peaks in their work. When I tried this, I used 8-ounce (3.2mm) and 6-ounce (2.4mm) leather. 

I found success immediately when attempting this technique. I could quickly push the leather upwards but had trouble making defined lines. When I switched to a slightly thinner leather I was able to create more definition.

While creating depth with this method was simple, the process of molding it was time-consuming and took a lot more leather. However, with practice, I think this will become a favorite of mine when attempting to create a three-dimensional effect when carving leather. 

Conclusion

When attempting these techniques, it was interesting to see how crafters have used them to further their carved leather projects. Each of them had their own merits, and various levels of depth were created. For those looking to add more depth to their work, all of these techniques help. In addition, they may be combined with other methods, potentially innovating how crafters carve their leather. 

Helpful Carved Leather Insights

What is carved leather?

Carved leather is vegetable tanned leather with various images cut into the surface. This process requires the leather to be dampened to allow the leather to mold and hold markings when dried. The goal of carved leather is to create unique artwork with depth and texture not possible in other mediums, expanding on the creativity possible when working with leather. 

What is it called when you carve leather?

A more popular term for carving leather is “tooling.” This refers to adding imagery onto leather using various specialty tools. While the terms are used interchangeably, “carving” implies any tooled image with extensive depth. This can help define various leather art since tooling can be as simple as stamping a pattern. 

How do you carve into leather?

To carve into leather, the hide must be dampened and vegetable tanned. When moist, this type of leather molds easily and will retain its shape when dried. By using carving tools such as a swivel knife and stamps, images can be carved into the dampened leather. 

What tool is used to carve leather?

The most common tool used when carving leather is a swivel knife. This unique blade is angled to allow for accuracy but also quickly widens. The extra width of the blade helps push the leather aside, creating a valley and helping both define the lines cut into the leather and create space for paints and antiques to sit in. 

Do you carve leather wet or dry?

Carving leather should not be done wet nor dry but rather dampened. Dry leather will be difficult to mark and will often reject stamps. Wet leather, on the other hand, will be too mushy, leading to messy work. A dampened leather will be soft enough to work with but allow clean markings to be left while stamping. 

How thick should leather be for carving?

Typically, the leather used for carving should be thicker than average, at around 6 ounces (2.4mm). This will help make the stamp impressions clearer and allow for extra depth within a piece. Thinner leather may be used but may be unable to achieve the same final look. 

Key Takeaways

  1. Carved leather must be vegetable tanned for it to remain over time.
  2. The hide must first be dampened to allow for better molding and smoother cuts.
  3. Carving leather is a great way to add a personal flair to standard leather projects. 

In Closing

Leather is a unique craft that has countless ways to personalize projects. Carved leather is yet another great example of this. The ability to add artwork or other markings to leather showcases the possibilities of this beloved craft. 

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