A quality leather knife can make the cutting and shaping of leather items a pure pleasure. Choosing the right one makes all the difference.
A leather knife is an essential tool used to cut and trim leather. The most popular types include the round knife (head knife), skiing knife, swivel knife, shoemaker’s knife, welt knife, paring knife, and channel knife. Each is available in a variety of sizes, and in all cases sharpness is key.
Which one to choose? Let’s dive into a bit about leather knives, and what’s important to consider when choosing one for the shop, or a specific project.
What is a Leather Knife?
A leather knife is an edged tool used to mark, trim, and cut through leather. The staple leather working tool is the knife. There are so many variations that are used in so many ways. In some cases the only tool one might need for leather craft project is just a knife.
They come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and uses. Steel is the most common material used to make knives, and among knives available, the quality of the blades can vary a lot.
As a cutting tool, the most important element of a leather knife is the sharpness of the blade. Next to that, is how long the sharpness of the blade can be maintained. Generally, stronger and higher-quality steels will cut best and hold their edge the longest.
Along with blade quality, the overall build and comfort of the knife are also important. An effective tool fits in the hand comfortably, has a balanced weight for the jobs being done, and an be handled steadily and effectively throughout the cutting process.
So very common in leather craft is cutting leather. In most things you’ll work on, cutting will be some part of the process or design. Rotary cutters are rounded blades mounted as a wheel, scissors for rougher cutting, and strap cutters for cutting long leather straps and laces. Within each type are various configurations, sizes, and qualities to fit your needs.
With all knives and bladed tools, proper maintenance is important. Leather can be a tough material, knives with sharp, well-cared-for blades will make the work much easier. and the end result will be much cleaner and professional looking. Now on the to the fun stuff and all the different types!
Types of Leather Knives
So where to begin? Like most things, simply. The most basic knives (such as utility and crafting knives) can go a long way. As your skills in leather craft evolve, you’ll get a better feel for what specialized knives might work best for the type of leather working you do. You’ll also develop a preference for what types/style you like best.
Leather Skiving Knife
A skiving knife is used to remove leather material to thin the leather out. This can be helpful when one wants to remove some of the leather though not cut totally through it. For example, when making a leather belt, some material might need to be removed from the area where the buckle is attached, so the leather is not too thick and bulky in the finished piece.
A skiving knife can be used to remove some of that material. They can also be used to remove material from edges, and in some cases, even to do full cuts. Sharpness and blade quality are key for skiing knives. Some Japanese leather knives are the highest quality of leather working knives available, and some Japanese skiing knives certainly fall within that reputation. Here’s an example of a skiving knife in use:
This is a handheld knife with replaceable metal blades. The blades come in different shapes, sizes, and angles for almost any crafting and cutting need. New blades are very sharp, reliable, and not too expensive.
To replace a blade, just unscrew the base of the knife, remove the old blade, put a new one in, and re-tighten the base. Xacto knives/blades are very handy for leather working. There are also a variety of handle types available to help ensure they fit comfortably in the hand.
Utility (Box Cutter) Knife
Box cutters can work great for leather working too. Some come with replaceable blades. Others come with multiple blades where once one is dull, just snap it off and the new, sharp blade is available. Often inexpensive, this is definitely a viable option when getting into leather craft. The fancier and more specialized knives can come later in the process.
Leather Round Knife (Leather Head Knife)
The leather round knife, also referred to as a head knife, is one of the most versatile knifes for leather working. It consists of a large, 1/2-circle blade that is sharp on the rounded portion. Since it has such a large blade surface and cutting edge, it can more effectively cut through thicker leathers than smaller knives.
Head knives also work well for thin leathers and detailed cutting. The maneuverability of the blade edge make it useful for cutting curves. The blade depth can also be controlled manually to set lines into the leather without cutting fully through. When thinking of the quintessential-looking leather knife, it’s usually a round knife.
Round knives come in many brands and qualities. Handle shapes are important too. You want to have one that feels comfortable in the hand, in all the various positions one might hold it while cutting. Given all of the assets of the larger, sharper blade, one must also be very careful when handling and using a head knife. with proper safety and use, it is excellent. This is another of the top leather craft tools to have. Here’s a video demonstrating how the round knife works:
Leather Swivel Knife
The swivel knife is used for leather cutting and carving intricate patterns into leather pieces. Usually made of metal, sometimes brass, they have a chisel-edged blade and are held upright in the hand. On the top is a curved piece of metal that acts as a finger rest, so the index finger can lay comfortably across the top and help control the angle and pressure applied to the blade.
Blades styles can vary from straight to angled, each benefitting different cutting style and uses. It can take some time to learn and master the swivel knife. Once familiar with the techniques though, one can craft some incredibly detailed and impressive decorative work into leather. Some of the most beautiful leather work is made with a swivel knife. Here’s a nice video showing one in use, in very skilled hands 🙂 :
Leather Flat Knife
The flat knife is a style of knife with a long, thin, metal blade that extends through a long, flat handle. The cutting edge is very similar to the xacto knife blades, with angled and flat edge options available. While xacto knives have disposable blades, flat knives have long blades that can last for years.
The edge can be re-sharpened for a long time, making it a good investment. The metal handle also adds a comfortable weight to the knife’s movement in the hand. The flatness of the handle helps gives it good control.
On of the most popular flat knives is the “L’Indispensable” made by Vergez Blanchard. It even offers unique angling to the blades better suited for right, or left handed users. Pretty amazing the precision is that accurate that left or right handed options are even available for a blade. This type of knife is worth checking out if you want to invest in a high-quality knife. Here’s a video of the L’Indispensable in action with a Chartermade blade:
Bevel Point Knife
Beveled point leather working knives have a beveled edge to the blade. This helps for skiving and edge trimming where you want a little more control over how deep the cut is and how the path of the blade moves through the cut. With practice, it allows for fine variations in cut depth.
For example, you might want to cut fairly deep into the edge and taper it up as you move forward. You might want to taper a cut out as you move along an edge, or even just shave a fine bit of leather from a surface when doing finishing work or other detail work. The beveled shape of the blade will help with this.
Curved Lip Knife
Curved lip knives, usually made of steel, are often used by cobblers doing shoe repair. Designed to be right or left handed for use, they have a uniquely shaped bent tip with a sharp edge. This allows for easy trimming of shoe and boot soles.
It is important to find one with a comfortable handle that fits well within the hand, especially given the thickness of soles and the effort used to trim them. This is not as common as other leather cutting tools, and usually intended for specialized uses. Here’s an example of the curved lip knife:
Trimming knives are used for finer, detailed leather work. They are available with both straight and curved blades. When cutting out intricate patterns, trimming thread, or working on smaller details these are handy.
Common work for them include edge, seam, and trim work. This is a great choice to have in the leather craft tool kit for frequent, smaller uses.
Sharp Point Knife
The sharp point knife features a long (maybe 6”-8”) steel blade with a curved end. This gives the blade more cutting surface and control over curved cuts, making it a great choice for cobblers and shoemakers.
This style knife also works very well when cutting through thicker, heavier leathers, as the larger blade surface makes that sometimes difficult task much easier.
Curved Blade Trim Knife
This is a specialized type of trimming knife that allows for more agility in cuts. It can make curved cutting easier, as well as more nimble movements through other detailed work such as edge finishing.
With practice, it offers flexibility in cutting style not as easy available with other knife types. Also, this trim knife can also be used for trimming threads and working on intricate patterns do to the blade shape.
Leather working straight knives have a long, straight blade. It might taper on an angle in from the tip, though the sharpened blade portion is straight. These knives work great for cutting very accurately in leather craft, and the blade can sit securely and deeply into the leather throughout the cutting process.
A comfortable handle is important on a knife like this, as the broader cutting style used benefits from resting well in the hand, and being able to work leather of different thicknesses.
Shoemakers knives are a specialized leather working knife. They are often made of solid metal and work for a variety of needs including overall cutting, skiving, scraping, large trimming, and shaping the soles of shoes.
These come in versions that are straight, or curved. The curved versions come in left-handed and right-handed styles, making it more comfortable and nimble for use. The straight versions are usually double-beveled to be used in either hand. Overall lengths are usually about 10”-12” long. Here’s a video discussing an assortment of shoemaker’s knives:
Rand Knife/Welt Knife
The rand knife/welt knife is another type of cobbler/shoemaker’s specialty knife. Available in right or left-handed versions, it has a uniquely angled blade that makes it useful for trimming the leather soles of shoes.
They are particularly helpful for trimming around the heel area, with thicker leathers. This is the kind of knife that might not get used often, though will help produce excellent, efficient results when it does.
Another cobbler/shoemaker’s specialty knife, the Channel knife is used primarily for cutting a channel into the insole of the shoe leather. The blade has a curve to it that helps it rest just right into and through the leather while cutting, making it easy and efficient for this specialized task.
Leather Paring Knife
Leather paring knifes really shine in the bookbinding craft. They come in a variety of sizes and blade types including rounded, angled, and straight. Here are a few of the main variations. And, a bookbinder demonstrating use of a paring knife:
French Paring Knife
French pairing knives generally have a semi-rounded blade with an upright handle. Here is a bookbinder sharpening a french paring knife:
Swiss Paring Knife
Swiss paring knives feature a similarly rounded blade, though don’t have the handle, just the extension of the metal from the blade to hold on to.
English Paring Knife
English paring knives look like very large leather cutting flat knives, where the end has an angled blade and the metal from the blade continues up and is essentially the handle. These knives are available both right-handed and left-handed versions.
German Paring Knife
German paring knives are a mix of the other styles. They feature a long blade with a curved end, offering the versatility and agility of a curved blade along with a straight portion that extends up until it reaches the handle, made of a well-finished wood.
Rotary cutters are tools with circular blades that can be continuously pushed or pulled to make cuts into fabrics, leathers, and many materials. Since the blades rotate, they can cut along curves very easily, making them a great option for more complex designs.
Rotary cutters also cut straight lines very well, usually when used with a straight edge as a guide. Blades are as share as other knife style blades, and can be sharpened often and replaces when necessary. This is a great tool when looking for something beyond a fixed blade knife. I find this to be surprisingly useful when making long, straight cuts.
Cut-resistant gloves help protect the wearers hand from cuts when working with or around sharp knives. The level of cut resistance can vary based on the materials, methods of manufacture, and intended level of protection.
They would be a recommended addition to your leather working tool kit, where both or one can be work, whenever appropriate. For example, if the right hand is holding a cutting knife and the left holding the leather, maybe wear a cut resistant glove on the left hand as that will be nearer the cutting blade.
Leather crafters have gone for centuries without them, and they’re not an absolute need. Though it’s always helpful to be protected if reasonable and in some cases these can help.
Leather strap cutters are a hand-held, wooden device with a mounted leather blade that cut long leather straps from larger pieces of leather and hide. For example, if you want to make a belt from a large leather hide, a strap cutter can be used to cut off a long length of leather in a consistent thickness. It can also be used for making leather laces, when set for thin cuts. Some versions are referred to as “ploughs”
There is a means to adjust the thickness of the preferred cut, usually marked with measurements for easy reference. Blades must be kept sharp, and are replaceable if needed. Once the thickness is set, the leather is lined up and manually pulled through.
As that happens, it is cut in the thickness set, and the result is the original big piece of leather, and a strap in just the width you want it. There is a classic design of this that has been around for years that is very common and useful. Here’s a great video showing how a leather strap cutter works:
Strap Cutter Machine
When doing higher-volume or repetitive strap cutting, a machine is available to definitely help. These come in both manually operated versions (hand crank) and electrically-powered versions to make this task easy and efficient.
The width of the cut is set, the leather positioned, then mechanically drawn (or pulled) through the cutter resulting in straps or laces just the way you need them. These are definitely more expensive than the hand-held strap cutters, though likely worth it if you plan on doing a lot of work that involves straps or laces. Here’s a video of a leather strap cutter machine in action:
Scissors usually have symmetrically-sized finger holes and are shorter than 6” in length. They can be held in the air while cutting, or rested on a flat cutting surface while making the cut. Leather cutting scissors are usually made with strong, sharp blades that can smoothly handle thinner and thicker leathers when cutting.
For thinner leathers and large hides, this can be an effective tool for cutting it down to size or cutting out shapes or patterns.
Shears are usually longer than 6” in length and have asymmetrically-sized finger holes, one is larger than the other to more comfortably fit four fingers. The thumb can comfortably rest in the smaller hole. Sometimes shears are intended to rest on and flow along the cutting surface for smooth, stable cuts.
Leather cutting scissors are usually made with strong, sharp blades that can smoothly handle the thinner and thicker leathers that require a bit of heft when making cuts. These work well for both straight cuts and cutting out shapes.
Thread scissors will most likely be helpful if you’re hand-sewing or machine-sewing a fair amount of your leather work. They are usually small, only a few inches long, with small, very sharp blades.
Their size allow them to get into tough-to-reach places and angles, who their sharpness will shear the thread quickly leaving a crisp end without frays. Thread scissors can also help during edging and finishing if you need to trim any extra long fibers that come up on the leather’s edge after a cut. Here’s a helpful video with a demonstration on and tips for using thread scissors:
Lacing cutters are specialized versions of strap cutters, in that they are intended only for lace cutting (very small, narrow widths of leather). They usually allow for cuts up to about 3”, and down to about 1/8”. This is good for most straps and strips that will be used for laces, belts, braiding lace, fringe, and tie-straps.
Lacing cutters come in both hand-held, and table-top versions. The table-top versions usually secure and mount to the table, making it easier to pull the lacing through firmly. This is especially helpful with more frequent or high volume work where efficient, consistent results are desired. Here’s a great demonstration video on the lacing cutter:
Leather Clicker Press
A leather clicker press is a tool that applies tremendous force to a small area in order to cut out designs in leather. They fit on a tabletop, have a base, usually several cutting board surfaces, and a lever that drives the press.
Due to leverage, when the lever is pressed by hand, it generates literally tons of force onto a very small ares through a die. The dies are metal, and pre-formed into a shape. For example a rosette, a shape, or even wallet pieces.
The benefit of a leather clicker press, with its related dies, is that a specific cut in leather can be done much faster than by hand. They can also effectively cut through thicker leathers with ease. Clicker presses are relatively expensive, though for the leather worker that is producing similar products in volume, it can certainly help with scale, productivity, and efficiency. And save a lot of physical effort 🙂 Here’s the Mighty Wonder clicker press in action:
Leather Cutting Dies
Leather cutting dies are pre-formed, metal shapes with a sharp cutting edge, used to cut shapes out of leather. They are laid on top of leather material, and struck with a maul, mallet, or hammer. The force drives the sharp edges into the leather, resulting in a cut out piece in the shape of the die.
Dies are helpful when one finds themselves cutting many of a similar pattern out by hand. An example is a wallet maker with a great design. They need many pieces to produce a lot of wallets, though cutting them out one by one by hand can be time consuming.
Leather cutting dies can be custom made to any shape or size. Generally they can be put into a clicker press for even easier cutting, or manually stuck by hand. Although there’s usually an initial investment to make or purchase a die, if it will get used often it is usually a worthwhile investment. Here’s an example of how some leather dies are made:
What is a moon knife used for?
A moon knife was originally designed for use in scraping and cleaning leather hides. It’s wide blade shape made it easier to cover the surface of the hide. Today, though, moon knives are commonly used for some specialized construction work, and also in the kitchen for cooking.
Can you sharpen a knife with leather?
Leather can be used to fine-sharpen a knife. Essentially, a knife needs sharpening then the very, very fine edge of the blade becomes rougher from cutting through substances. The Looking under a microscope, the smooth edge might have little burrs and rough spots in it.
Depending how rough it it, it might require use of a metal knife sharpener. This will help smooth our those burrs and return the blade to a more smooth, sharp edge. After using a typical knife sharpener, the blade can be smoothed-out, and “sharpened” even more using finer sharpening methods.
Leather can be used for this, where the knife blade is drawn across the leather to further smooth out and sharpen the blade When a sharpening compound is added to the leather, it can enhance the sharpening results even further. The fine, but rough elements in the compound help make the edge of the blade very fine, smooth, and sharp.
Can you over strop a knife?
In extreme cases, yes, a knife can be over stropped. Generally, when sharpening and stropping a knife, the amount of metal removed from the blade in the sharpening process will depend on the material used for sharpening it, and how fine the material is. More will be removed with a harder surface, such as a metal blade sharpener.
When using leather to strop, which is a relatively soft material with a fine surface, it will help refine an already-sharpened blade edge. Though, after the point at which it has provided as much refined sharpening as is technically possibly by it’s material characteristics, it will not sharpener even more. At this point, continuing to strop will simply, and very slowly, remove more of the metal edge.
It would take a lot of physical effort to do much wear to a blade with over stropping, so it mores becomes less effective after a certain point, than it does in over-wearing out the blade.
Why does leather sharpen knives?
Leather helps sharpen knives by smoothing out burrs, nicks, and micro-abrasions on the blade. This smoothing out leads to a much cleaner edge, which helps it become sharper and more effective when cutting through materials.
A leather knife is one of the most common and helpful of all leather tools. Likely, you’ll find one or a few that become trusty, reliable tools use very often on your favorite projects. If you’d like to see my overall leather tools list, click here.
How do you cut thick leather?
Thick leather can be most easily cut with a leather knife or a strap cutter. There are large, sharp knives intended for straight or curved pieces of thick leather, such as shoemaker’s knives. Also, Strap cutters work great for belt and strap cuts.
How do you strop a knife without leather?
A knife can be stropped with a few methods without using leather. Those sometimes include balsa wood, cardboard, or paper wrapped onto a solid surface to provide strength behind it. Then strop as usual to help sharpen the blade.