A leather burnisher or leather slicker is great for smoothing out the edges of leather goods. Let’s see how burnishing protects the leather and makes edges look great.
A leather burnisher, also referred to as a leather slicker, is a tool usually made from wood. They, via the heat generated from friction, help to smoothen and harden the edges of leather goods. Some burnishers are hand-powered, and some are electric leather burnisher machines. Shapes and sizes vary.
It’s helpful to have a burnisher on hand when crafting leather goods. Let’s explore more about the types available, materials they’re made from, and which works best for the type of work you’re doing.
What is a Leather Burnisher?
Leather burnishers and slickers (sometimes called leather edge slickers) are usually rounded or curved tools used to burnish (smooth-out) leather surfaces and edges through friction. They are made from hard substances (often wood) and use the heat generated from friction to help smooth the edges.
Since leather is a natural fiber that has been processed to have a smooth and even finish, when it’s cut, the edges will show the internal fibers and often be loose or “hairy” as the fibers stick out. These can more easily absorb moisture, dirt, and grim. Also, they sometimes look visually unappealing.
Here is a quick video showing how a burnisher works:
To help ensure a finished leather product that can wear well and be durable, it is generally good practice to smooth out, or burnish, the edges. This makes them hardened and strong. Sometimes, edges are even painted to seal them up. Many preferences and options are available for this, though burnishers and slickers are often used most.
Leather slickers, and burnishers, come in different materials ranging from plastics to exotic woods. There are hand burnishers, where you move it back and forth over the leather by hand it generates heat through friction and changes the leather surface.
There are also burnishing tools that use motors to rapidly move the burnisher over the leather to seal the edge. Leather burnishing machines and attachments make this a very easy task, and are dedicated machines as well as attachments that fit onto drills and rotary tools. Popular is the cocobolo leather burnisher for the Dremel tool.
The key to burnishing is heat generation and transfer. When the edge leather fibers are heated they join together and smooth out. So friction created by moving a burnisher back and forth quickly makes this happen. When choosing a burnisher material, keep in mind the different heat properties of that material. We’ll explore more of them below.
When to Use a Leather Burnisher
Burnishers (and edge slickers) are most useful when working on crafting new leather goods. Generally, that involved cutting and shaping leather, where the cutting will leave fresh edges, exposing the leather fibers within the leather hide.
These exposed fibers are usually best to do something with, so they look good on the finished piece, while also are treated in such as way that they provide a protective edge to the leather underneath. So often, hand burnishing leather is the way to go.
Leather burnishers often come with differently-sized grooves, that closely match the thickness of the leather being burnished. This helps round off the corners equally, leading to consistent results over time. So when looking for a burnisher, find one that has the groove sizes that will be most helpful to you.
An alternative to burnishing is to paint the leather edges. This will also cover the exposed fibers and leave a nice-looking finish. Though, its usually recommended to burnish the edges even before painting, as this provides an even, smooth surface for the paint to go on.
Which leather slicker tool will help most? Let’s check out the different types.
Types of Leather Burnishers
These burnishers are generally the least expensive. They can get hot quickly, which one should keep an eye on, as burnishing too hot or too quickly can burn the leather edge and leave unwanted marks. Generally, wood is preferred over plastic for leather slickers.
Wood leather burnishers are most popular, as the natural wood material on the natural leather material ends up being a nice combination. The wood doesn’t heat too quickly, and the composition of the natural wood finish does a good job of leaving a smooth result on the slicked leather edges.
The types of wood, as well as shapes and sizes vary. It’s most helpful to have the right sizes available for the thickness of the leather you’re working on. Often leather slickers have multiple groove sizes built into their designs, making it convenient to use one burnisher for different projects. Here is an example of a few quality wood burnishers at work:
Brass and other metal burnishers are very strong, though retain a lot of heat. One must be careful when using metal so as to not heat the leather edge too quickly and burn it, leaving unwanted marks.
These look nice, and can be very aesthetically pleasing. Metal burnishers can also be a little heavier than wood or plastic, though if used on a leather burnisher machine, rotary tool, or bench grinder, this shouldn’t be much of an issue.
Glass burnishers and slickers are available as well. Their smooth surface makes it helpful to put a smoothed edge onto leather. Also, glass doesn’t retain heat as quickly as other materials, which helps avoid burns on the leather edges. Glass versions are also used to smooth out entire grain sides of leather. Here is an example of that:
The generally look nice on the workbench, and personal preference in material choice. Usually, wood is the most popular, so a glass leather slicker tool might be a second or third burnisher to have on hand. After using it though, it might end up being a favorite.
Exotic Wood Burnisher
Some woods are preferred for their burnishing results. Cocobolo is a very common wood used for this that is strong and durable. It also looks great with a dark natural color to it. Other woods used include paduk, vitae, ebony, pine, oak, maple, rosewood, and most any wood available.
They’ll have slight differences in end result, though in general do not vary widely. Of all of the leather edge slicker types, wood come in the most customer configurations of sizes, shapes, and colors. Some are tapered, some with grooves, some flat, some rounded, and others boxed-shaped.
If planning to hand burnish leather, instead of a rounded piece of wood or rectangular piece of glass, box slickers a rectangular, solid blocks of wood. The function the same way as other slickers and burnishers through friction created by moving the block quickly over the leather.
The shape and size of box slickers can be of preference to some crafters, based on what they’re working on and how they like to work. It certainly looks great, though ultimately comes down to feel and if one prefers a hand slicker or a leather burnisher machine as their preferred leather slicker tool.
Electric Leather Burnisher Machine
If you love burnishing, or need to often if you’re making higher-volume production leather work, an electric burnisher machine might be for you. It is essentially a motor with various burnishing mounts. Since it is powered by electricity, the about of manual effort on the crafter is very much reduced, mainly to holding the leather piece gently by the burnisher.
Dedicated tabletop burnishing machines might have attachments on each side of a motor to hold wood burnishers, sand paper, plastic burnishing tip, or an array of burnishing finishers. Rotary tools, such as Dremels, can also work very well as powered burnishers. They’re handles which makes maneuvering it around the leather quite easy. Here is an example of one with both sanding and burnishing wheels:
There are also attachments that fit onto a leather burnisher onto a bench grinder, so a tool one might already have can be used too as an electric leather edge slicker.
As another option, burnisher attachments for power drills are widely available. This can quickly make any home drill (corded or cordless) into a burnisher very easily. A leather burnisher for a drill press can also provide a more hands-free operation, allowing both hands to move the leather around the burnisher, instead of holding one is each hand.
Just remember, all that power can easily burn the leather edge! Burnish slowly, and safely 🙂
Burnishing Related Topics
Water Spray Bottle
Sometimes it helps burnishing when the leather or leather edge is wet first. Not too wet and soaked, but just enough to aid in the heating and smoothing process the burnishers do.
Having a common water spray bottle can be great here as a leather working tool, allowing the crafter to mist the leather areas just a little and then get to burnishing. This can be repeated as necessary, though it’s a convenient way to easily add a little moisture.
The bottles don’t spill easily, and some have an adjustable spray nozzle so you can choose how much water comes on in the mist. A simple but convenient way to wet leather to be burnished.
Burnishing Leather With Beeswax
When burnishing, the edged of the leather heat up from friction, matting and smoothing the fibers. The heat generated from friction can also be used to melt beeswax.
Beeswax is a popular edge finisher for leather goods, as once it dries, it provides a smooth, hard surface that protects the leather edges. On warm, burnished edges, beeswax can be applied. The slicker motions will help spread it out evenly over the edges. Once it dries, it should leave a nice, smooth, protective finish.
The edges can then be left as-is, or painted if preferred. Here’s a video demonstrating application of the beeswax onto the leather:
How Do I Finish Soft Leather Edges
Leather edges can be finished in a few different ways. The choice will mainly depend on the type of leather being finished and personal aesthetic preference.
Natural, thicker leathers with hard edges can be finished by sanding and burnishing. This will smooth the edge. The edge can be further finished with application of beeswax or edge paint.
For softer leathers, burnishing can be difficult since the leather moves so easily. In this case, painting usually offers the most pleasing results as it provides a uniform edge finish while also protecting the leather underneath.
How to Sand Leather Smooth
Leather can be sanded utilizing a leather sanding machine. These can be bench-mounted belt sanders, portable sanding machines, or bench grinders. It is important to consider the fineness of the grit of the sandpaper, and work from larger grits to smaller, more finer grits.
While sanding can be used, to a limited degree, when burnishing edges, generally, a leather burnisher or edge slicker will do more precise job.
A bunisher is a handy tool to have around the workbench, and you’ll likely find it useful on many different types of leather projects. If you’d like to see my favorite burnishers, click here.
Can I use a leather burnisher on a drill press?
Yes, there are burnisher and slicker bits that fit into a drill press. This makes it easy to apply consistent burnishing force, while also keeping both hands free to work the leather around the slicker bit. These are relatively efficient.
What is a Cobra Burnisher?
A Cobra burnisher, such as the COBRA MP Burnisher, is an industrial, bench-top, electric leather burnisher. They are very durable, variable speed, and have multiple wood and rubber wheels, and sanding sleeves available for different burnishing needs.