Leather hole punches are vital to any leathercrafter’s tool set. I learned a lot of new information about punches while trying to find the right one to suit my needs.
A leather hole punch is a hollow tool that forces holes into leather. Typically made of steel, the machine comes in various shapes and consists of a cutting edge and a way to apply force to that edge. Leather hole punches range from $5-2500 depending on their intended use.
Having the right hole punch for the job is a must because the alternatives are limited in their scope and applicability. Let’s jump into what to look for in a hole punch and what can be achieved with these vital tools.
What is a Leather Hole Punch?
A leather hole punch is a steel tool used to put holes in leather. A hollow punch removes a piece of leather in a way that cuts a shape from the leather.
Different tool options are available and offer a wide array of how to put holes in leather, while various shapes and sizes provide diversity in how those holes can be used. A relative uni-tasker, the versatility of the tool comes from the various uses of the holes it creates.
How Do Leather Hole Punches Work?
A leather hole punch works by applying force to the cutting edge through the leather to a flat surface. There are several ways to achieve this. A revolving hole punch uses the action of pliers to apply force. A screw punch uses a downward push with the hand, much like an awl. A drive punch is struck with a mallet. A machine uses one of a variety of hand-operated actions to apply force.
Types of Leather Hole Punches
$6–90, Replacement tubes $3–30, sizes 3/32–5/16in
A squeeze punch is a set of pliers with a single punch on one side and a flat surface on the other. Slide the leather into the jaws, locate where the hole needs to be, and squeeze until the cutting edge meets the flat surface. The depth of the jaws limits where the pliers can be used to place a hole (1–2” from the edge).
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They come in a small range of small diameters and are best used for rivets, screws, grommets, or belt holes. Multiple sets of pliers are needed to cover the full range of possible punch diameters. Quality pliers will last long, and the punches are replaceable and interchangeable.
Drive punches have the versatility of being able to punch a hole anywhere on a piece of leather of any thickness.
Revolving Leather Hole Punch
$8–120, Replacement tubes $16, 7 sizes 1.5–5mm
A revolving punch is a set of pliers with multiple sizes of smaller punches on one jaw with an anvil, or flat surface, on the other. The punch side is a revolving wheel that can be turned to select the desired hole size. Once the punch size is selected, the leather is placed in the pliers’ jaws, and the pliers are squeezed close until the punch blade pushes through to meet the anvil.
A revolving punch is economical in terms of space and not needing to purchase extra tools, though since those extra tools are standard in most workshops, this is somewhat negligible. They’re easy to use if you have decent grip strength but might be more difficult to use with age or limited dexterity. They’re great for thin leather up to maybe 5oz/2mm but have difficulty beyond that.
They only come in small diameters with five to six punches in one set of pliers. They’re good for making holes for belts, watch straps, grommets, or rivets, but are limited by the depth of the jaws, typically no more than 1.5–2in. If you’re making a lot of such holes, you may want to look into a different option.
$5–270 Individual, $5–340 set
A drive punch is a round steel bar with a punch on one end and a striking surface on the other. The punch end has a cutout on the side for easy removal of the punched leather. They typically come in round, oblong (rounded rectangle), and square varieties.
A hard surface such as a piece or slab of granite, a chunk of mild steel, or a thick hardwood board, a thick cutting board, and a plastic mallet are also required to use a drive punch. First, place the hard surface on the work surface, then put the cutting mat/board on top and place the leather on top of that.
Then place the punch on the leather, cutting side down, and strike the striking end with the mallet. It’s important to use a plastic/rubber/rawhide/wood mallet because a metal hammer will quickly mushroom the striking end of the punch.
Punches are generally made of mild steel, so they can’t take a beating the way high-carbon tool steel can. It’s also very important that a thick cutting mat/board is used to protect both the hard surface and, more importantly, the cutting edge of the punch.
Not doing so risks dulling the cutting edge fast because the steel can’t take a beating and still hold an edge. Drive punches have the versatility of punching a hole anywhere on a piece of leather of any thickness. They have the widest range of sizes and can be bought individually or as a set.
Check out this helpful video from Weaver Leather Supply for more insight on the versatility of drive hole punches and how they can be used.
$10 set, 6 sizes 3/16–½in
Drill punches have a hex shaft instead of a striking end and are meant to be used with either a hand drill or drill press. They require the same setup as a drive punch (work surface, hard surface, cutting mat, leather). Secure the punch in the drill, then press downward through the leather while very gently squeezing the trigger or running the press at a low RPM.
Japanese Screw Punch
$10–80, Bits sold individually or as a set, 5–10 sizes 1–10mm, $8–50
A Japanese screw punch has a mechanical action, most commonly made out of bronze, that rotates the punch 90 degrees as the handle is pushed down into the work surface. The punch head is interchangeable and comes with a set of small-diameter punches, making it comparable to the rotary punch.
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Start with the same setup as a drive punch (work surface, hard surface, cutting mat/board, leather). Select a punch diameter and ensure it is securely screwed into the base. Holding the tool perpendicular to the workpiece, place the cutting end on the leather and push straight down into the leather using your hand like you would with an awl.
Repeat this action one or more times until the cutting edge meets the cutting mat/board. Because the force is applied with downward pressure instead of grip strength, this tool can handle thicker leather pieces, but 10oz/4mm is still a struggle. The brass mechanism is prone to wear, and the punches are easy to lose unless stored together.
$32–38 Individual, 6 sizes ⅛–½in, Post $25
A die punch is a punch that screws into a post for use as a drive punch or a hand-operated machine for punching. Some companies sell die punches that can be used with both a post and a machine; others can be used with one or the other. Plier punches are typically screwed into place but are not necessarily called die punches.
$12–120 Individual, $60–600 set, Replacement tubes $8–50
A stitching punch is a T-shaped punch used in place of stitching chisels or pricking irons and awl. The tubes are removable for easy sharpening. These produce a round hole that some prefer for its aesthetic value and ease of stitching. Diameter, spacing, and the number of holes are different options to consider when purchasing.
$25–125, 3 sizes 3/5/7 hole, Replacement tubes $12–35
Brogueing is the small decorative hole pattern found on some leather dress shoes. It was originally used to allow water to flow out of the shoe in primitively constructed ghillie shoes. These evolved into the brogue we know today. A brogue punch is a T-shaped punch with a set of several small punches in two diameters that create the brogueing pattern.
This punch allows a very uniform and pleasing pattern to be easily laid out without having to individually punch dozens or even hundreds of holes one at a time. Once the holes are punched, the leather is backed with a solid piece of leather to create the iconic look of the brogue. The punches can be individually removed for easy sharpening.
Belt Four Hole Punch
$170, Replacements $28
A leather belt hole punch is a T-shaped drive punch with multiple punch heads spaced evenly in a line across the top of the “T.” These are used just like a regular drive punch but they create four holes at once and are used to punch the holes in the billet end of a belt, as the name implies.
This saves time and effort compared to other punch types except for machines. The holes are 25mm/1in apart, which is the standard spacing for belts. The individual punches are removable for easy sharpening or replacement. Available with either round or oval holes.
Leather Hole Punch Machine
$80–2500+ depending on the machine
A leather hole punch machine uses hand+machine action to punch a bunch of holes at once or in quick succession. An arbor press, a clicker press, or a dedicated hole punch machine can be a great investment if dealing in large volumes, but they are correspondingly expensive. They don’t have the same versatility as a drive punch, but they make quick work of belts or straps.
Amount of Leather Hole Punches
Punches come either as individuals or sets. Sometimes, they can only be purchased as a set, such as the drill punches. In others, one size gets utilized far more than the rest of the set, so it has to be sharpened and thus replaced far sooner than the rest. Sets may or may not offer a discount when purchased vs purchasing individually.
Common Leather Hole Punch Sizes
|Size (mm)||Common Use|
|.6-1||stitching holes, decorative|
|1.5-7||stitching holes, eyelets, grommets, strap/belt holes|
|7.5+||grommets, washers, conchos, patches|
Shape of a Leather Hole Punch
This is the most common punch shape. It comes in the widest sizes and has the most possible uses. From stitching holes and belt holes to leather patches, a set of round punches is a must-have for most leatherworkers. It can be bought individually or as a set and is available in all punch types.
The second most common shape of punch, an oblong punch, sometimes called a belt or a bag punch, is a rounded rectangular punch used for installing belt buckles with a prong. Not to be confused with an oval punch, though some manufacturers call it that. These are only found as drive punches, they can be bought individually or as a set.
Buttonhole, also known as keyhole or tailed, punches produce a round hole with a small slit off to one side. These are used with button studs or ball head rivets that slide into the hole and then slip into the slit to keep the flap closed.
These three shapes can be used decoratively and as alternative shapes for belt or strap holes. They are only found as drive punches.
Up to two dozen or more specialty shapes, mostly in small sizes (3–6mm), can generally be found as a set. These are used to place decorative holes in something like a multi-layer belt with a contrasting color background that makes the hole stand out visually. These are only found as drive punches.
What to Look for In a Leather Hole Punch
Punches should be steel. “High carbon,” “drop forged,” “mild,” and “steel” are commonly seen in product descriptions.
A mirror finish on the tapered outside of a punch means the tool won’t stick in the leather after punching a hole.
The highest quality punches/pliers are made of drop forged high carbon steel. These will last a lifetime. Lower quality doesn’t necessarily mean bad, but they will typically just say “steel” or sometimes not even that.
These will be cheaper and need to be replaced more often. According to research by Katea Luaibi Hamid, Nader Majed Moustafa, and Amer Fadhel Noori published in the Journal of Mechanical Engineering Research and Development, the carbon content of steel affects its durability.
Punches typically come factory ready, to a point. While they will work out of the box, it is best to sharpen or hone them before use and every so often as the tool dulls. This is to both make for easier punching and removal from the leather. A mirror finish on the tapered outside of a punch means the tool won’t stick in the leather after punching a hole.
A cloth buffing wheel, high grit sandpaper, or emery cloth, small files, or sharpening stones can all be used to achieve a nice mirror finish. Smaller diameter round punches can be put into a drill chuck and sharpened by running the drill while placing the cutting edge on sandpaper or emery cloth.
Will a hole punch go through leather?
A leather hole punch should always go through leather with relative ease. Pliers should require moderate pressure and rotation back and forth for good measure.
Depending on leather thickness, drive punches should require 1–3 moderate whacks with a mallet. Machines do the majority of work using mechanical advantage. If it needs more effort than this, the punch likely needs to be sharpened.
How do you punch a hole in leather without a leather punch?
There are a few alternatives to using a punch to put a hole in leather. Small diameter holes can be punched using a nail or scratch awl. Drill bits or rotary tool bits can be used to drill small to medium-sized holes.
Large diameter holes can be traced and cut out using an X-Acto knife. An oblong punch can be cheated by punching two small holes a short distance apart and then using a knife to cut out the leather between the holes. A buttonhole punch can be cheated by using a round punch and then a leather knife to cut the slit.
How much does it cost to punch a belt hole?
|Method||Seconds per 6 holes||Price||Price per 1000 belts||Hours to complete|
|Drive punch jig||13||$46.89||$0.05||3.61|
|Self centering machine||9||$2,306.50||$2.31||2.50|
|Self centering guide hand press||31||$795.01||$0.80||8.61|
This table is for illustration purposes only. The price column represents the total one would pay to punch holes. For “pliers,” that means just the price of the pliers without replacement tubes or anvils. For “drive” and “screw” it’s the price of the tool plus additional items needed to use that tool, and so on.
For mathematical purposes, 1000 belts was selected because doing a larger amount made the “price per” column come out to zero. The pliers and screw punch may or may not last to 1000 belts, but the machines and requisite dies will last longer than 1000 belts. The machines also have other uses, so a price per belt number is only one consideration when contemplating such an investment.
The time to punch six holes was determined by finding a video of each process and counting the seconds it took from start to finish. For a more uniform time, the hole locating was measured at 18 seconds using the drive punch video and used as a standard addition to the drive, screw, drill, and hand press times because each would require that as a step in the process. Seven seconds was added to the rotary and self-centering guide times for the same reason.
The self-centering machine and jig times are raw because they do not require any extra setup other than sliding leather into the jig/machine. The drive punch jig is made of plywood with holes drilled in it and a cutting board base for easy punching and is just as wide as the belt is. This allows it to act as both a template and makes it self-centering.
The most interesting takeaway from this table is that the jig saves almost as much time as an expensive machine for 1/49 of the cost. In a professional shop where many of these options are available, this table is helpful for determining the best way to do the task of punching holes but can also be useful for picking between two or more new purchases.
Professionals should check out the four main types of depreciation methods from the Corporate Finance Institute for an in-depth explanation on how to calculate depreciation to get a more accurate assessment when considering how to consider the value of a possible investment for their business.
There are many ways to put holes in leather, and even more uses for those holes and punches make this process a breeze. For my money and needs, an inexpensive set of small round punches and a set of decorative shapes will offer the most versatility for my shop. Most interestingly, I found that a jig will be a wonderful addition to my toolbox and reminds me that in the future, the best new tool might just be one I make myself.
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