A leather splitter is an essential tool for producing quality work in a timely fashion. I learned a lot about the options available while searching for the right one to meet my needs.
A leather splitter is a machine that reduces a piece of leather to a uniform thickness. From manual hobbyist varieties suited for small items to electric industrial varieties capable of splitting whole hides, they range in value from a few hundred dollars to several thousand.
I’ve been looking for a splitter to improve the quality of my work lately. Let’s check out the options I found out there.
Skiving or Splitting?
Leather comes in a variety of thicknesses for different projects. An entire hide can be split into thinner material, or just part of a piece of leather can be thinned, such as the edge of a wallet. Splitting creates a uniform thickness across the entire piece or section of leather.
Skiving creates a tapered edge of a desired width and thickness of a leather section. While a skiver and a splitter have two different primary functions, some machines can be used to do both with enough practice and finesse, but this dual usage has its limitations based on the machine.
What is a Leather Splitter?
A leather splitter is a tool used to produce a uniform thickness of leather. A very sharp blade is used to thin the leather to the desired thickness to achieve this. A machine generally has a way to safely hold the leather near the blade in a uniform and firm manner to produce the desired results.
This can also be achieved with a hand tool and granite piece as a work surface. The portion taken off the flesh side is called a split, while the face is called the grain.
When to Use a Leather Splitter
A leather splitter is a time and money-saving tool to improve work quality. Having the right leather thickness is vital to producing quality leather goods. Too thin and the product will wear out with normal usage; too thick and it might not be aesthetically pleasing or even function as necessary. Achieving a balance of these two extremes is thus vital to producing a good that will function well and as desired for as long as possible.
Splitting creates a uniform thickness…Skiving creates a tapered edge.
Types of Leather Splitters
Manual Leather Splitter
A manual leather splitter is the most basic type. A piece of leather is placed in the machine and pulled through by hand. It should have a quality cutting blade that’s easily removable for sharpening. A roller bar pushes the leather to the blade stopping at a set distance for a uniform cut; this distance is typically set using a screw.
A separate handle or lever moves the roller bar away from the blade allowing the leather to be placed in the machine flesh side toward the roller and move the handle back into place. Pull the leather toward you until the entire piece has been split. Turn the piece around and repeat on the opposite end to complete the process.
These machines will accommodate leather no wider than a few inches. The cheapest versions use disposable razor blades and are only good for lace or small straps. Slightly up from that, they use a larger non-disposable blade but don’t have a full-sized handle, making them less versatile and thus best for lace up to belts.
The highest quality machines have a wider tool steel blade for long-term durability and extreme sharpness. The sharper the blade, the easier to use and the thinner a split can be. A full-sized handle allows the user to taper the end of a strap in a controlled manner, also known as lap skiving.
With any of these, the blade should be aligned with the top of the roller bar or slightly off from that for the most accurate split possible. If space isn’t an issue, the machine can be permanently bench-mounted for faster and easier use. If space is limited, it can be mounted to a board for easier storage and clamped to the bench for use.
Hand Crank Leather Splitter
A hand crank leather splitter adds a mechanical advantage to make the process much easier and faster. It has a set of one or two roller bars connected to a hand crank via gears. The leather is split using this hand crank rather than pulled through it.
These machines can accommodate much thicker and wider pieces of leather because they aren’t limited by the user’s ability to pull the leather through the machine. The larger size requires a dedicated space on the bench.
Electric Leather Splitter
An electric leather splitter uses an electric motor to run a machine that splits the leather using a set of rollers to move the leather through the machine and a very wide blade to do the splitting. This increases the mechanical advantage considerably over only hand crank versions so that they can accommodate some of the widest and thickest leather.
They also allow for some of the thinnest possible splits because of the compression of the rollers and the blade’s sharpness. The thicker splits can be used as bolsters in items like thick sheathes. These machines typically have a dedicated work table accommodating the machine and motor.
Industrial Leather Splitter
An industrial leather splitter can split whole hides at high speeds. It is typically only found at tanneries or less commonly at select leather dealers and high-volume production shops. The tannery uses it to produce a uniform product from an inherently non-uniform organic material. A leather dealer will notify buyers they offer whole hide splitting when ordering if the service is available.
This allows them to offer a much wider range of hide thicknesses without stocking more than one heavyweight thickness. The machine uses a large bandsaw to do the splitting and double rollers to feed the hide through the machine automatically.
Due to the large production volume, these splits from this kind of machine are then sold to other companies to produce bonded leather, a product made of powdered leather and glue. These machines take up a large amount of space as stand-alone shop items.
A bell skiver is an electric machine used to skive edges for sewing. The blade on a bell skiver is a large round blade that runs perpendicular to the user and spins at a very high RPM. The leather is slid into the machine from the left and moved over the blade to the right. Because the blade is round, it produces a tapered thickness toward the edge.
The throat, or depth, of the machine is extendable toward the back of the bell skiver. Setting the throat sets the width of the leather to be skived and makes the taper more gradual. While the purpose of the machine is to skive edges of a product, normally wallets and bags, the machine can be used to split smaller pieces.
Setting the throat to its maximum depth allows the user to split a piece just under twice the width of that depth. This requires practice and finesse and is useful on a limited number of objects.
The machine excels at producing a uniform and long skived edge in seconds instead of minutes, thus saving hours over a work week. These machines are heavy and either require dedicated bench space or come with a workstation.
Knife Leather Splitter
Various leather knives can be used to both skive edges and split small pieces like the end of a belt or watch strap. They work best as skiving tools. All types of leather knives and French edgers can be used for both operations.
A kiridashi is one such example. It is a straight-bladed knife that looks like a giant scalpel. With the flesh side down on the cutting surface, start a few millimeters from the edge and use a slicing or pushing and sliding motion angled down toward the outside edge. Repeat this process for the length of the edge to create a uniform taper.
In a pinch, a leather knife can be used to split a strap. With the flesh side down on the cutting surface, skive a couple of inches of one end, leaving the desired thickness at the edge (rather than skiving a full taper).
Turn the leather around, and this time lay the knife flat, parallel to the cutting surface. At the same time, pull the strap and push the knife in a slicing motion while making sure to maintain the blade parallel to the cutting surface.
Common Leather Splitter Attributes
|Type||Thickness of leather||Width of leather||Thickness of split|
Types of Leather That Split Best
Vegetable Tanned Leather
Veg tan leather has a firm temper meaning it has less pliability than other leathers. This temper makes it better suited to splitting than chrome or mixed process tans because it creates leather that evenly resists compression in a splitter, producing an evenly split hide. Other varieties might do ok with splitting, but the results are more variable and difficult to obtain.
Best Leather Splitters
C.S. Osborne #84 Leather Splitter
Like all C.S. Osborne tools, the #86 is well made and outclasses almost all other manual splitters. The #84 is everything the #86 is and more. Its 8” cutting blade has 2” over the #86. It also has a nice ergonomic handle for quick and easy raising and lowering of the roller to the blade. It has a nice and accurate thickness gauge along the track the handle glides in.
It has a thickness stop for easy return to the same thickness after inserting leather. The handle twists to lock it into place for easy and solid placement of the thickness setting. The blade is made of high-speed tool steel and thus has excellent wear resistance on its hollow grind and a frame made from the original cast iron molds from the 1800s; this tool will last a lifetime and more.
CowBoy Model CB 8020
The electronic motor provides substantial torque allowing this machine to handle 4–16oz leather with its 20” blade. It can also be hand operated if necessary. The machine weighs 250 lbs, so it isn’t going anywhere during use. It has a stand to accommodate both the motor and machine and is foot pedal operated. The motor takes the effort out of splitting, so even those with mobility or strength issues can use it easily.
Cobra NP-10 Leather Skiving Machine
The Cobra NP-10 is a wonderful bell skiver that will make production much faster. The machine can split wide straps and make perfectly skived edges in seconds flat. It can handle up to 16oz leather and split that down to under 1oz. It can handle both veg tan and chrome tan very well. It’s a pricier machine but can be financed on a monthly payment schedule.
Rather than splitting in one pass a better technique is to take several smaller thickness splits to make the process easier.
Leather Splitter Maintenance
Splitters come with high carbon steel blades and/or many moving parts that require regular oiling. High carbon steel will rust without maintenance. According to an article by G.P. Pilz and F.F.Farley published in Industrial Engineering and Chemistry, certain oils can be used for the temporary prevention of rust on steel.
A light coat of oil such as 3-in-1 oil now and then will prevent rust from forming. Just use a paper towel, rub the blade down with a few drops of oil, and use a dry paper towel to rub off any excess. Use the same oil to lube any moving parts or pivot points to ensure they stay in good working order. If the machine has oil ports follow the included instructions on how to service that to keep the machine in tip-top shape.
A splitter blade should come hair popping sharp from the factory. It also shouldn’t require extensive re-sharpening. Many companies offer sharpening services for a nominal fee if that is the case. These blades are typically very expensive, so springing for that little extra is worth it in many cases.
For regular maintenance sharpening in the shop, use a strop board as wide as the blade or high-quality knife steel to re-true the blade. Once initially sharpened, a ” dulled ” blade isn’t really dull; it’s out of alignment. The edge is razor-thin and essentially pushed over to a minor degree.
This out-of-true blade doesn’t perform as well and can make the blade feel dull. Use the steel or strop board once or twice a week to ensure the blade is true. If it still isn’t up to snuff, have it professionally sharpened. The lone exception is a bell skiver. These machines come with a built-in sharpener. To keep these round blades razor sharp, just follow the sharpening instructions included with the machine.
Check out this helpful video to better understand how to sharpen a splitter blade using a steel or buffing wheel.
How do you split leather at home?
In a pinch, a razor, or more preferably a leather knife or French edger, can be used to split leather, taking a little off at a time until the desired thickness is reached.
How do you split thick leather?
The thicker the leather, the more robust the machine needs to be to split it in one go. Rather than splitting in one pass, a better technique is to take several smaller thickness splits to make the process easier.
How do you set the splitter to the right thickness?
According to research by John Arthur Wilson and Erwin J. Kern published in Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, “the tensile strength of leather is not uniform throughout its thickness.” This means it’s really important to only remove as little material as possible to maximize strength and durability.
While most machines come with numbers to indicate a thickness, this doesn’t necessarily correspond with the thickness in ounces, millimeters, or inches. Scrap leather should be used to test the current thickness setting of the machine. Just run a piece through it and then check the thickness.
A leather thickness gauge reads the thickness of a piece of leather. This can be a handheld machine or manually with a piece of wood/metal/plastic. The machine reads thickness by pushing a bar down to an anvil, and a dial or digital readout tells the thickness in ounces, millimeters, or inches.
A manual gauge has either an elongated V or a series of notches on one side. The V allows for reading on a sliding scale in two units of measure, while the notched variety allows for precise measurement of a specific thickness. A set of calipers can also be used but only in millimeters or inches.
A wonderful tip for quick ease of setting the thickness on a splitter is to create a set of swatches out of stiff veg tan leather. The swatches should be tailored to the work at hand. One suggestion would be to incrementally go up by 1oz from 1–14oz.
- Cut a set of fourteen 3”x5” rectangles and set it aside.
- Use scrap leather and a gauge to set the splitter correctly to 1oz.
- Split one rectangle.
- Use a marker, pen, or stamp to mark that swatch with the current thickness.
- Repeat steps two to four going up 1oz at a time.
- Punch a hole in the corner of each swatch.
- Put the swatches in numerical order onto a key ring.
- Use to quickly set the thickness of the splitter by moving it back and forth in the machine. If using a powered machine, make sure it is *not* on so it doesn’t suck the swatch in and destroy it by splitting it. If the swatch catches on the blade, the machine is set too thin; if it doesn’t touch both the blade and the lower bar, it is set too thick.
While working with leather that is a full thickness might offer more strength, it lacks in the aesthetically pleasing value of strategically using a leather splitter to reduce the bulkiness of a leather good. Having the right machine for the job is thus really important because not all machines are created equal.
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