Recently, I have been fascinated with adding art to leather projects. What has stood out the most is leather carving. Talented artists can create amazing pieces utilizing depth and texture tools specialized for leather. Inspired by their work, I have begun practicing using leather carving tools in hopes of adding a whole new aspect to my projects.
Leather carving tools are specialized tools used to create an image in leather. Swivel knives, styluses, and various stamps can make complex images that add depth and texture. While leather carving tools can be purchased separately, starting at $4, basic sets provide the needed tools at $30 and up.
Understanding how leather carving tools can be used provides many options when crafting. By learning about the different tools and their uses, you can learn how to implement them in your next project.
What are Leather Carving Tools?
Leather carving tools are swivel knives, styluses, and stamps used with dampened vegetable tanned leather to create artwork. Each tool molds or adds texture to the leather in a different way.
When combined, carving tools can turn a flat piece of leather into a three-dimensional image with varying textures. Crafters can then choose how to enhance their pieces further with antiquing gel, acrylic paints, or hardware spots, making each project their own.
What We’ll Explore
- Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
- When You Might Use Leather Carving Tools
- Leather Carving Tools Quick Reference Table
- Leather Carving Tool Types and Variations
- Leather Carving Tool Characteristics
- Leather Carving Tool Pros
- Leather Carving Tool Cons
- Leather Carving Tool Manufacturing Process – How They’re Made
- Leather Carving Tool Costs
- Alternative Options to Leather Carving Tools
- Experienced Tips for Working with Leather Carving Tools
- My Personal Research with Leather Carving Tools
- Leather Carving Tool Care and Maintenance
- Helpful Leather Carving Tool Insights
- Key Takeaways
Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions
Leather carving tools are often showcased as an extensive collection of distinct stamps, resulting in highly detailed and textured images. While having the perfect stamp for each occasion is ideal, it is optional. Entire leather carving artworks can be created with a single swivel knife.
Basic carving tool sets provide shading and texture stamps that can rival even the largest collections when used with a swivel knife. The key is using each tool creatively. Stamps may seem limited by their shape, but they can be repositioned, angled, or have different amounts of pressure applied. Each action creates a different final look.
Similarly, this approach can be used for knives or styluses. Even household items like nails can be used for different effects. Leather carving is an artistic medium that is not limited by singular-use tools. Great artwork can come without the need for excessive spending.
When You Might Use Leather Carving Tools
Leather carving tools are best for adding images to leather. The stylus is used to trace designs onto the leather surface. Since it is not pointy, it does not cut into the leather and will fade away when not pressed deeply.
Swivel knives are the main tool for leather carving. With it, the lines can be drawn into the leather, with the thick blade moving the leather aside as it is pulled through. Stamps can be used to add shading or texture to a design. After the carving lines have been drawn, stamps will push down on the leather, adding depth.
Similarly, the wet vegetable tanned leather will take the texture of the leather stamp, allowing for endless options. Dr. Cleveland Edem K. Atiase, Priscilla Appiah, and Gordon Kwasi Alekey from the Visual and Industrial Art Department, Sunyani Polytechnic, in Sunyani Ghana, discuss leather as a non-traditional medium for sculpting, showcased carved artwork throughout history while providing information on their unique qualities.
Leather Carving Tools Quick Reference Table
|Leather Carving Tool
|Zinc, ceramic, or brass; ball bearing, various handle material
|Swivel knife – ⅜–⅝ inchStamp – Around 8mm
|Cost Range ($)
|$4+ per tool$30+ for kit
|Regular stropping and cleaning. Sharpened as needed
|In a moisture-free environment, blade cover on, and in a tool rack
|Adding images to leather
|How Long It Lasts (on average)
Leather Carving Tool Types and Variations
Leather carving has three main parts: the swivel knife, stamps, and stylus.
- The swivel knife – is the main tool used in leather carving. Its thick blade slices through leather’s surface while also creating a valley as it moves. In addition, the swivel action allows the blade to create smooth curved lines.
- Stamps – are often considered detailing tools in leather carving. They come in an endless shapes and patterns and are used to enhance a carving. The leather will be pressed down by stamping areas, creating depth and improving shadows. Stamps with patterns simultaneously add texture to the leather by leaving behind its mark.
- The stylus tool – is best used to trace designs onto the leather before cutting it. Since it has a rounded tip, the marks made are temporary. In addition, the stylus tool can be used to smooth leather carving by pushing the cut design with the tip. This can help open up a swivel knife cut to create a thicker, darker line.
Leather Carving Tool Characteristics
Most of the tools used for carving leather are made from metal. Styluses are typically single-piece tools made with zinc and knurling or rubber as a grip. While they can come in higher quality metals or have a more exotic grip, it is not required since the tools are not high impact.
Stamps are often made the same way as styluses, with zinc as a popular choice. However, purchasing a brass or a stainless steel variant is recommended for a longer-lasting stamp.
Swivel knives offer the most option of all the carving tools. Not only can the blade use different metals, high carbon, stainless, etc., but it can also be ceramic. In addition, the handle material and the finger cradle can vary greatly. Budget ceramic knives will use basic metals for the barrel, while higher quality ones can offer brass, resin, or other decorative materials.
Each tool has its own sizing based on its uses. For styluses, the ball tip sizing is general, often referred to as “fine, small, or large”. Swivel knives, on the other hand, can have many different sizes. The barrel can vary from ⅜–⅝ inch in thickness, allowing crafters to find what is most comfortable.
Stamps are also very different in size. While most stamps will have a diameter of around 8mm, their dimensions can vary since they can come in any shape. This is especially true for those looking for custom stamps to be made, as they can choose any size to their liking.
Within the different tools used for leather carving, each has variations. Styluses can have different style tips. Although the most common are rounded, they can also have a pointed tip, undercut, or spoon tip.
Swivel knives also have different blade styles, including straight or angled. As the name suggests, a straight blade is even throughout the cutting edge, while the angled blade will taper to a point. For some, this can be helpful when targeting small areas without the need to angle the entire tool.
Stamps used for carving can be broken down into two main types, shaders and textures. Shaders have a smooth tip that simply press down the leather when hit. Texture stamps will have patterns that, when hit, will leave behind markings. Both create depth for the image, but textures additionally add small details. This can be as simple as a bumpy surface to as complex as honeycombs.
Check out this helpful video of Bruce Cheaney creating a floral carving while demonstrating how each leather carving tool is used.
Leather Carving Tool Pros
The biggest benefit when purchasing leather carving tools is owning dedicated tools to perform unique tasks. While leather carving can be accomplished by almost anything, leather carving tools help make the process smoother and improve the results.
Swivel knives, for example, are unique to leather craft as the blade spins freely. This allows for curved cuts to be made much easier without the blade needing to be lifted. Stamps, however, can be used outside of leather carving. Alone they can provide ways to decorate leather.
Textured stamps are especially useful, with complex designs like honeycombs, being a standout pattern. When combined with a swivel knife, they allow for much more depth, bringing artwork to life through fine details.
When they are used in combination, carving tools can turn a flat piece of leather into a three-dimensional image with varying textures.
Leather Carving Tool Cons
Leather carving tools have some downsides. While they can be versatile and help improve leatherworking in other areas, they are limited by the leather itself. Leather carving can only occur on vegetable tanned leather that has been dampened; any other type of leather can not be used.
Tools themselves can quickly become expensive when trying to find the perfect stamp for each project. While many budget stamps are only around $4, quality stamps can cost up to $40. With the number of stamps available being limitless, this can quickly become an expensive collection.
Similarly, storing large amounts of stamps can be difficult. While tool racks are designed to hold a small collection upright, those dedicated to leather carving will find the space lacking.
Leather Carving Tool Manufacturing Process – How They’re Made
All leather carving tools are made from metal. Molten metal is poured into molds that provide the tool’s shape. Once removed, it can be cleaned and polished and have knurling added to provide grip. This process is repeated for all the parts necessary.
While this simple process is enough for styluses and stamps, swivel knives are made from three parts — the blade, barrel, and ball bearings. While the same process creates the blade, it is ground down to the correct angle and thickness, then set aside for sharpening and polishing.
Barrels are created by drilling out the center of any material, which can then be modified to provide a more ergonomic shape. The barrel houses the bearing and knife pin, which holds the blade in place. Once all the pieces have been produced, the tool can be assembled.
The ball bearings are placed into the barrel with a yoke, locking the finger hold in place while allowing the blade to spin. The blade is then inserted into the barrel and locked into place with the knife pin.
Leather Carving Tool Costs
The price of leather carving tools can start relatively low at only $4 for basic stamps and styluses. Swivel knives start at a slightly higher price, $9. When investing in higher quality tools, these prices can increase significantly.
Brass or stainless steel stamps can cost up to $40 each, while swivel knives can be hundreds of dollars, as each part can use higher-end material or be customized with visual flair. A good alternative to purchasing each tool separately is purchasing leather carving kits.
Kits will begin at $30, and contain all the tools necessary for intro-level leather carving. While tools may need to be upgraded in the future, kits will provide you with valuable information on which tools are used the most.
Alternative Options to Leather Carving Tools
Leather carving can be done with almost any household item. Swivel knives can be replaced with box cutters or hobby knives. However, curves and depth control will be more difficult. Styluses can be as simple as a nail or a scratch awl. Both can have the tip rounded off if necessary to prevent scratching the leather surface.
Similarly, stamps can be replaced with many items, most commonly nails or printed alternatives. With each object having a unique texture, roughing up a piece of metal, or cutting it in various ways, can create improvised stamps.
Experienced Tips for Working With Leather Carving Tools
- Ensure the swivel knife blade is sharp and polished before beginning.
- Casing dampened vegetable tanned leather overnight will provide the best surface for carving.
- Cut design lines before stamping the leather to ensure an even work surface.
My Personal Research with Leather Carving Tools
Since my collection of leather carving tools is limited, I decided to use items I already had to create images. I tested various replacements for styluses, knives, and stamps, to see how much of a difference the tools make.
This was the easiest replacement to make when carving leather. A stylus does two main things; trace patterns onto leather and aid in detailing. My first replacement idea was a scratch awl, and it worked wonderfully. I could trace patterns onto my leather clearly, and the fine point let me mark or expand leather cuts.
The main drawback of using the awl was the marks it left were aggressive. Even when the leather dried, they did not go away. My second idea was to use my finger. While not as accurate, I could use a firm press to leave faint marks on the leather that I could then work from. I also tried a dull nail, a sewing needle, and a pencil. All worked equally, as well as the stylus that came with my leather carving set.
I felt I would have the most trouble with replacing a swivel knife. The knives I used in my daily crafting were much thinner, and the blades did not spin. However, I found a couple of alternatives in my old tool bag. The first was an X-Acto knife. The blade was much thinner but flexible, allowing for curves to be cut into the leather with precision.
Although the lines created were not as bold as with a swivel knife, they were comparable when I began to push them open with a stylus. My second option was a Japanese-style skiving knife. While it was much bigger than a swivel, I noticed the double bevel taper on the blade was similar to a swivel knife blade.
This resulted in wider cuts; however, I had to angle the entire tool to only use a small area of the blade, preventing me from achieving consistent curved lines. My final attempt was with a nail. It had a taper but was thin enough to be more precise.
This worked pretty well but had one big issue, drag. The nail was not sharp enough to cut leather cleanly, leaving behind bunched-up leather. I took the time to polish the tip, which helped quite a bit. However, it was still stiffer than using a swivel knife.
Shading stamps were no issue when replaced. I tried pin punches, tool handles, and even simply pressing the leather down with a kitchen spoon. They all worked to varying success, with the spoon not creating as much depth.
The more different part of stamps was attempting to apply textures onto the leather. While I was able to use grainy metal, like a roughed up nail, most of the textures I could create were muddy. Rocks, nails, and wood all left marks, but lacked clarity and depth.
I also had great success finding replacements for my leather carving, showcasing how ingenuity can strive in an artistic setting. In fact, stylus alternatives made my tool seem pointless, as I already had items to do their job. Swivel knives and detailed stamps were the hardest to replace.
While my knife alternatives did a good job, they lacked the ease of use of a swivel knife. Stamps, on the other hand, I could not find a great alternative. While I have seen crafters have great success printing or carving their own, I did not have the tools to test it. In my case, purchasing a quality stamp seemed to be the best option.
Leather Carving Tool Care and Maintenance
How to Clean Leather Carving Tools
Like cleaning most other leather tools, carving tools can be cleaned with water and a rag. The most important part when cleaning is to completely dry the tools before placing them in storage. Any moisture can develop into rust, jeopardizing the tool. For hard-to-clean spots, isopropyl alcohol can be used.
How to Maintain Leather Carving Tools
The stamps and styluses used for carving leather only need a little maintenance. They will simply need to be cleaned occasionally to prevent staining a project. Swivel knives, however, must be stropped often to keep them sharp and polished.
To do so, a leather strop with a polishing compound should be used. The blade will pass along the strop, removing imperfections and creating a sharper tool. A sharp blade helps prevent drag when using a swivel knife.
How to Store Leather Carving Tools
The most important part when storing leather tools is to ensure they are all moisture free and kept in a dry environment, as moisture can cause the tools to rust. Knives used for leather carving should have a blade cover placed on them when not in use to prevent injuries.
Since leather carving tools can take up a lot of space, a tool rack is recommended. This allows for the tools to be held upright in a single place. This organization tool will showcase all the stamps without digging through a random drawer.
Helpful Leather Carving Tool Insights
What tools do you need to carve leather?
While you can carve leather with various tools, the three most commonly used are swivel knives, styluses, and stamps. Swivel knives are the most defining carving tool, creating thick, deep lines that the other tools build off of. Stamps and styluses are great tools for adding detail, further improving a carving design.
Can you carve leather with a Dremel?
Yes, a Dremel tool can be used to carve leather. However, it is best to keep the tip small when using a Dremel. When the surface of the leather is cut away, the structure suffers. So while Dremels may remove leather, they can also damage it recklessly.
- The three main tools used in leather carving are swivel knives, styluses, and stamps.
- Dampened vegetable tanned leather is the only leather that can be carved.
- There are many household items that can be used in place of traditional carving tools to great success.
Leather carving can take any project to the next level by adding custom images. Carved leather can rival any traditional medium, with each tool providing additional ways to add detail to a project and the added benefit of adding it to an item that will be carried around and loved.
- Leather Cutting Tools – What to Use and When for Results
- Leather Edge Beveler – Making Leather Goods Look Great
- Leather Splitter – A Valuable Tool for Consistent Results
- Round Knife – What to Look for in This Leather Cutting Classic
- Leather Knife and Cutting Tools – How to Choose Wisely
- Leather Punch – Making Holes the Clean and Easy Way
- Leather Hole Punch – Choosing and Using the Right Types
- Leather Strop – My Experience on Types, Selection, and Use
- Leather Die Cutter – Types and Materials for Great Results
- Skiving Knife – Types and Options For This Everyday Tool
- Leather Skiver – The Fun Tool for Thinning Out Leather
- Choosing the Right Leather Scissors for Each Project
- Swivel Knife – The Right Types and Blades for Accurate Crafting
- Leather Piercing Tools – My Insights on Options and Their Use
- Leather Skiving Machine – My Suggestion for Fast Production
- Leather Clicker Press – Sizes, Strengths, and Benefits