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Leather Tooling Designs – Options for Creative Leather Art

Although I have plenty of experience working with leather, tooling is still fresh to me. Recently I have been exploring new types of leather tooling, attempting to incorporate traditional designs on more modern items. With so many options for tooling art, I decided to find more details about what makes a good leather tooling design. 

Leather tooling designs are decorative patterns and details that can be added to leather during the tooling process. The designs help guide crafters by providing the images to be added to leather. Anyone may create tooling leather designs to embed their personality in the craft. 

Leather tooling designs can be a great way to dive into tooling leather. With many design options available, let’s look at some popular choices used in leathercraft. 

What Is a Leather Tooling Design?

A leather tooling design is similar to a sketch; it is a guide for adding artwork to the leather by carving, stamping, and tooling. Designs can follow traditional styles with guidelines to assist in creating something beautiful. The other option is for designs to be completely custom. Tooling is an art form; breaking the rules can create a more interesting piece. 

See some incredible examples of tooling explained in this video:

What We’ll Explore

  • Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
  • History of Leather Tooling Designs
  • Leather Tooling Design Overview Table
  • When You Might Use a Leather Tooling Design
  • What Leather Is Best For Tooling Designs
  • Types of Leather Tooling Designs
  • Characteristics of Leather Tooling Designs
  • Pros of Leather Tooling Designs
  • Cons of Leather Tooling Designs
  • How To Use a Leather Tooling Design
  • How To Maintain Leather Tooling Designs
  • My Personal Research Into Leather Tooling Designs
  • Helpful Leather Tooling Design Insights
  • Key Takeaways
Tooling a Design on Leather With a Stamp - Leather Tooling Design - Liberty Leather Goods
Tooling a Design on Leather With a Stamp

Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions

With endless possibilities for tooling artwork, designs may sometimes be seen as a shortcut. To some, following design guidelines is less creative than creating one independently. While I understand this conclusion, tooling designs are more than an easy way to tool leather. Leather tooling designs, like any other art form, are a way to help crafters develop stills in tooling.

Crafters can begin branching out by learning test-designed elements and seeing how it looks on leather. Knowing the rules is the first step to breaking them, and tooling is no different. While some aspects of the designs will be kept, each crafter will develop their style by focusing on the art they enjoy. Therefore, leather tooling designs are not a crutch but a learning tool for a unique aspect of leather craft. 

History of Leather Tooling Designs

Leather tooling has been around for centuries, with intricate bookbinding being the most common. In medieval times, designs began to branch out; this is one of the earliest known times for adding floral design to leather. Although there are plenty of early examples, the Western-style tooling that is popular today was not around until the 1800s. 

At this time, cowboys used tooling marks as a way to identify and claim ownership of their various items. This evolved as decorative pieces became more common. Cowboys took pride in their saddles and chaps, using tooling to showcase their personal style. Today leather tooling designs are used in very similar ways, showcasing a crafter’s talent and style on each piece they work on. 

Leather Tooling Design Overview Table

CharacteristicDetails
Basic ToolingSmall, simple designs that are most likely organic, such as a flower or leaf. Used for learning the basics of leather tooling in a practical way.
Western ToolingPopular style using southern imagery mixed with patterned stamping, commonly used for larger items such as saddles, chaps, and holsters.
Sheridan ToolingCircular floral designs interweave with each other, providing a flowing pattern that can go on endlessly — a focus on detailed, organic lines. 
Floral ToolingA common image used in various leather tooling designs. Typically wildflowers with exaggerated leaves and stems. It can be incorporated into other tooling designs or used as a stand-alone image. 
Leather Tooling Design Characteristics

When You Might Use a Leather Tooling Design

Leather tooling designs are completely optional and yet still can still benefit plenty of crafters looking to add artwork to their leather projects. Tooling designs are a great practice tool for those looking to improve their skills. When strictly followed, they may also be used as a template, allowing tooling artwork to be added without creating a design from scratch. 

However, the most common reason to use a leather tooling design is as a reference when tooling leather. Since leather tooling designs have strong fundamentals, those skills can be transferred when creating personalized tooling art. Crafters can also look at staple designs to provide inspiration and help them determine the artwork’s size and placement.

Types of Leather Tooling Designs

Basic

Basic leather tooling designs can come in many forms. From border lines with a stamp pattern to simple flowers, the key elements of a basic tooling design is its simplicity. While other designs will incorporate varied pieces that will flow within one another, basic techniques are minimal. 

These designs are great for those new to tooling and looking for a way to practice fundamentals. Alternatively, any skill level can always use basic designs to add artwork to a project without overshadowing the item itself.

Western

The most popular style for tooling leather is the Western style. Western started as a necessity to help distinguish one’s personal goods. Beginning as small markings or border patterns stamped into the leather, they eventually became large intricate designs used on saddles and chaps. 

Western leather tooling designs flow with the shape of the leather, incorporating floral and various pattern stamps. This style has evolved to incorporate southern imagery and is the basis for other tooling designs. Horses, cattle, and horned steer skulls are some of the more popular additions to this style of tooling.

Sheridan

The Sheridan style of tooling is defined as tight circular floral patterns in which the flowers and steams flow into each other, creating a potentially endless pattern. This style was created by  Don King, a saddle maker from Douglas, Wyoming, who studied under various saddle makers throughout his lifetime.

After King purchased his ranch in Sheridan, Wyoming, he began to develop his own style of tooling, focusing on highly ornate patterns to be used on prize saddles. His tooling craftsmanship became unmatched in the leather industry, making his style widely popular. King’s design philosophy is one of the most popular ways to elegantly tool leather. 

Floral

A popular theme in leather tooling is adding floral elements to an item. Floral tooling focuses on creating realistic wildflowers with branching leaves and stems. These popular organic designs allow them to flow along any piece of leather.

The smooth curves and varying sizes of flowers make a good choice for beginners when first learning leather tooling. Scale and shading are much simpler than tooling wildlife or other designs into leather. 

What Leather Is Best For Tooling Designs

The best leather for tooling leather designs is untreated vegetable tanned leather. Vegetable tanned leather is the only type of leather that can be tooled. After being exposed to water, the surface can be molded, which aids in adding much-needed depth to tooling projects.

While vegetable tanned leather can be dyed, natural or untreated leather is often suggested as the lines shown will be more prominent. After the tooling design has been added to the leather, untreated vegetable tanned can be dyed to provide color. Antiques may also be added to help add contrast to the tooling design. 

Characteristics of Leather Tooling Designs

Material

Premade leather tooling designs often come in a book or can be printed online. They will be on less opaque paper that can help trace a design onto leather. Alternatively, tooling designs can be created by anyone. 

Tracing paper can be purchased where designs can be drawn, to be then placed on top of vegetable tanned leather for tooling. While not recommended, it is also possible to tool directly onto the leather with no template to help provide guidance. This is more difficult as any mistakes can not be undone. 

Sizes

One of the best benefits of using leather tooling designs is choosing the perfect size for any project. Sizes can be small enough to fit on cardholders or coasters but may limit the area where for adding details. On the opposite end, saddles or chaps are a popular place to utilize leather tooling designs.

These large surfaces provide plenty of room to create intricate patterns with fine details throughout. Although the size of a leather tooling design is a preference, a good standard is choosing one that comfortably fits within the leather project and flows with the shape of the item. 

Variations

Potentially endless variations of leather tooling designs exist. Designs can be of different shapes, sizes, and styles without set rules. Leather tooling is nothing short of an art form where each crafter can develop their own unique style.

They can focus on small traditional designs or larger, more modern pieces. Don King was a prime example of how carving your own path with leather tooling can be both satisfying and rewarding. 

Tooling leather designs may be created by anyone to embed their personality in the craft.  Pull Quote. 

Cost

Leather tooling designs are affordable at little to no cost. For those creative, tooling designs can be drawn at home and traced onto the leather. Similarly, plenty of free designs are available online that can be printed. 

Leather tooling design books are also popular, providing various designs and tracing paper. While the books may cost $10 and up, they also provide lessons throughout, which is helpful for those looking to learn how to create leather tooling designs themselves. 

Pros of Leather Tooling Designs

Leather tooling designs are helpful when trying to spice up any leather project. They can be added onto any vegetable tanned leather with little to no cost in extra supplies. A good leather tooling design can take simple leather items and make them stand out with detailed artwork.

On their own, leather tooling designs are ideal for preparing leather for tooling. By creating a design, all mistakes can be worked out without ruining the leather. In addition, leather tooling designs may be used as a way to cover up leather blemishes.

Jennifer Tabi Sefaah, Eric Apau Asante, and Kwadwo Fosu Duako, from the Department of Educational Innovations in Science and Technology, College of Art and Built Environment, in Kumasi, Ghana, pointed the possibility of using this method if the leather surface had superficial damage. By utilizing a leather tooling design, patterns can be placed to cover the areas with the most flaws or plan on how to avoid them altogether.

If a tooling design template is purchased, it can be used for those with little to no experience carving leather. In these cases, tooling designs make for great practice. Tooling designs are also great for a crafter to make a unique product. By creating their own design, a crafter can inject their personal touch into every item they make. 

Cons of Leather Tooling Designs

The biggest con of leather tooling designs is their limitation with leather use. Vegetable tanned leather is the only leather that can be tooled. All other types of leather will not be able to benefit from tooling designs. Tooling designs are also a place where projects can easily be ruined. 

One slip of a knife during the tooling process can completely ruin the surface of the leather since there are no fixes for tooling mistakes. All other leather tooling design cons are subjective. One problem I notice is a design covering too much of a leather project. Leather projects require balance, and heavy amounts of leather tooling can quickly outshine a project making it too busy and distracting to the eye.

 

How To Use a Leather Tooling Design

  1. Measure out the area that will be tooled on the leather.
  2. Draw, or trace a tooling design onto tracing film within the dimensions taken.
  3. Case the leather to prepare it for tooling.
  4. Place the tracing film onto the leather, and transfer the design using a ballpoint stylus.
  5. Remove the film and begin carving the design into the leather.

How To Maintain Leather Tooling Designs

Once a design has been tooled onto leather, it is very important to treat it before further processing the leather. A leather resist is a good product to place on top of the tooling design before dyeing it to prevent the color from filling the tooling lines. 

Another alternative is to use antiquing gel to add contrast. The gel seeps deep into the tooling lines, adding depth through the darkness. As for the tooling designs, tracing paper can be saved and reused. Storing these designs in a hard folder is best to prevent them from being bent or rolled. While tracing a design, be conscious of the amount of pressure being used to prevent damaging the leather design. 

My Personal Research Into Leather Tooling Designs

The desire for every crafter when tooling leather is to make their piece with clear, darkened tool lines with depth. While most people understand how pressure and leather preparation can help influence the outcome, leather is often overlooked. For my research, I decided to look at three pieces of vegetable tanned leather to determine how they preserve a design that has been carved into it. 

Budget Veg Tan

My first test is on a budget vegetable tanned hide sold by Tandy. I could purchase an entire side for $60, costing less than $6 per square foot. The leather color was very pale before tooling and felt somewhat dry. 

During the tooling process, I felt some drag along the swivel knife as I pulled it through the leather, but otherwise, the process went smoothly. Once dried the leather had darkened slightly to a beige, but the swivel lines began to close up, and wrinkles were present on areas with looser grain. 

Herman Oak

Herman Oak is a leather brand often recommended when looking for tooling leathers. I was able to purchase a panel for $11 per square foot. When I first received the leather, I was surprised by how much darker it was than the others. This color difference did not bother me but could present some issues for those looking for lighter-colored leather. 

The leather felt smoother, and the flesh had a much tighter grain. Carving the Herman Oak leather was a joy; the blade went through the leather with no snags. When dried, the color was slightly darker, a light brown or dark beige, and the markings were much clearer.

There was little definition lost throughout the design, and the depth was similar to when I initially cut it. However, overall, this was a large improvement over the budget leather. 

Italian Leather

A common idea shared in leather craft is to buy the most expensive leather you can afford for the best results. I wanted to see if that remained true for tooling leathers. I purchased a panel of natural Italian leather that was close to $20 per square foot. I’ve worked with this leather for other projects, and I love the smooth feel and tight grain provided. 

When I tried tooling this leather, however, it felt mushy. I could create designs on the leather, but I found the leather wanted to drag along the blade more often. When the tooling design dried, it was messy. There were plenty of inconsistencies and wrinkle marks from where the leather caught the blade. 

Conclusion

I was surprised at the large role the leather used can play when tooling leather. Purchasing higher quality tooling leather, such as Herman Oak, benefited the final product. On the other hand, buying leather not made for tooling proved detrimental, regardless of how high quality the leather was. There are necessary qualities to provide a good tooling surface, such as firmness and a tightly packed grain. 

Helpful Leather Tooling Design Insights

What are leather tooling designs for beginners?

Like most parts of leather craft, there are varying techniques that require different amounts of skill, tooling being no different. Tooling designs for beginners are simple, less detailed objects with organic shapes. An organic shape can easily hide misshapen lines and is much less strict when using proportions. A popular tooling design for beginners is small flowers with stems and petals. 

What are Western leather tooling designs?

Western-style tooling is one of the most popular styles that began as ownership marks placed on cowboy’s supplies. At the time, they tooled wildflowers, barns, and other things they saw throughout their travels. Western tooling has remained popular, incorporating images seen throughout the Southern U.S. Floral designs mixed with patterned stamping or other imagery are common for Western leather tooling. 

What are leather belt tooling designs?

A key element of any good leather tooling design is how it fits in and flows with the shape of the project. Since belts are long and narrow, traditional tooling designs do not fit in as easily. This results in the need for a different type of tooling design. As a result, designs are created specifically to fit the needs of a belt, providing similar looks in a longer yet more narrow design. 

Key Takeaways

  1. Leather tooling designs are a great way to add interesting artwork to a leather project.
  2. Vegetable tanned leather is the only type that can be tooled and must be thick to provide depth.
  3. Tooling designs can be provided by templates found online, in books, or created by oneself.

In Closing

A large part of the leather craft is self-expression, and tooling can play a significant role. Leather tooling designs allow custom artwork to be added, further personalizing any leather project. Whether it be a traditional Western design, or a more modern look, leather tooling designs will help any artist shine through in their work. 

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