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Leather Tooling – A Classic Technique For Great Projects

Leather tooling may be an aspect of leathercrafting that many crafters actively avoid. I have yet to join the adventure of leather tooling myself, but I wanted to start getting my toes wet and learn more about the art. I’ll take a look at what leather tooling is, how to do it, and ways to work on improving at the skill. 

Leather tooling is the process of engraving a design onto leather, and it is usually done to add a decorative aspect to any leather good. Casing veg tan leather with water ensures that your tooled patterns stand out, and the design possibilities are endless. 

Perhaps you’ve seen tooled leather on social media or in catalogs, and thought, “Wow, that looks impressive, but it’s not something that I’ll be able to do.” Leather tooling doesn’t have to be complicated or too expensive. With just a few tools, veg tan leather, and some patience, the leather tooling world is waiting to be explored. Let’s take a closer look at leather tooling and what it’s all about. 

What is Leather Tooling 

Leather tooling is the process of engraving a design onto leather. This often happens through tools such as metal stamps, swivel knives, and spoons (hence the verb “tooling”). Leather tooling has a wide range of intricacies, with the most basic form being something like adding some simple initials to a piece of leather and the most advanced forms looking very close to art engravings. 

An Engraved Leather Book Binding - Leather Tooling Liberty Leather Goods
An Engraved Leather Book Binding

Uses for Leather Tooling

The most common use for leather tooling is decorating a piece of leather. Sometimes, it can be as simple as stamping some initials into a leather wallet. Other times, leather tooling can produce some incredible works of art that will feature on leather belts or journal covers. 

When it comes down to it, leather tooling allows the leathercrafter to infuse some artistic inspiration into the blank canvas of a piece of leather. It adds a unique, personal touch to the item being tooled, allowing leathercrafters to stand out among the crowd by virtue of their tooling style.

Some of the most common tools used in leather tooling are a marble slab, modeling spoon, bevelers, stamps, and swivel knives.

Types or Variations of Leather Tooling

According to Chris Groneman’s Leather Tooling and Carving publication, “leather tooling is generally thought of as the simple tracer and spoon impressions which are pressed into 3- and 4-ounce art and craft leather.” The main variations of leather tooling are stamping and carving.

With stamping, a metal stamp is repeatedly stamped into a piece of leather until a cohesive, unified pattern emerges. This is simple in theory, but creating clean pieces with this method can often take a lot of practice and attention to detail.

Carving involves using a swivel knife, a beveler, and a stylus — at the least. Other tools can make their way into the process, but the fundamental component of the carving style of leather tooling starts with swivel knife work to carve a pattern into a piece of leather. 

Leather tooling is a fairly easy skill to pick up but can take a lifetime to master.

A Brown Leather Belt - Leather Tooling - Liberty Leather Goods
A Brown Leather Belt

Tools Needed for Leather Tooling

Getting started in leather tooling can be daunting. After all, it can be hard to see an intricately tooled piece of leather on the internet and expect to be able to replicate something anywhere close to that!

However, according to Eleonore E. Bang in Leathercraft for Amateurs, the most basic tools needed to do some leather tooling are a marble slab or similarly hard surface for working, some water, a mallet or a maul, and some stamps that you can purchase at any leather tool distributor.

Although some of the most intricate tooling is done with swivel knives and modeling spoons, these are not necessary to begin a journey into leather tooling. Some of the most common tools used in leather tooling are a marble slab, modeling spoon, bevelers, stamps, and swivel knives.

These tools can be used in various ways and often in tandem to create intricate, creative designs. However, a helpful rule of thumb regarding tools used in leather tooling is only to buy what you need for your next project. It can be tempting to want to have all the tools before starting, but this will actually hamper your progress as a leather tooler! 

The Most Common Tools Used in Leather Tooling and Their Application 

Swivel KnifeCarve patterns into leather
Beveler (smooth, checkered, etc.)Provides depth and dimension to your pieces
StampsRepeated stamping creates unique patterns without carving
The Most Common Tools For Leather Tooling

Skill Level of Leather Tooling

Leather tooling is a fairly easy skill to pick up but can take a lifetime to master. Beginners are welcome to start their journey of leather tooling by picking up stamp sets and experimenting with how those stamps can work together to create a pattern. For example, some designs only require one stamp repeated across the surface of the leather. 

However, as the intricacy of the pattern increases, more tools and techniques will become necessary. Here’s a video explaining how to tool a flower into some leather, which will be a good project for the beginner with a bit more experience.

Some of the techniques you’ll see in this video will start to shine a light on how intricate these patterns can get! 

How to Tool Leather

Here’s a step-by-step process that details how to tool leather (without any remarks on which designs to choose). 

  1. Start with a veg tan leather. The surface of a veg tan leather is pliable enough for tooling to leave a lasting impression. 
  2. Choose your tools. At the very least, you’ll want a mallet or maul, a stamp of some kind, and perhaps a swivel knife. Don’t forget to have a marble slab to tool on (or some equally hard surface will do)!
  3. Case the surface of the leather. This means applying water to the surface with either a spray bottle or a sponge. Make sure to avoid soaking the leather — apply just enough to moisten the surface. 
  4. Begin tooling! This can mean anything from stamping in the pattern you want to tracing out a design with a stylus and then cutting the main lines with your swivel knife. 
  5. Smooth the edges of your pattern. After applying something like gum tragacanth or Tokonole with a canvas cloth, you’ll essentially burnish the piece by rubbing it with the canvas cloth. This will give the edges a shine and make the design look cleaner. 

Tips for Leather Tooling 

  1. Take your time – Whether you’re making a tooled leather belt for yourself or a tooled leather journal cover, rushing is a surefire way to create mistakes you won’t be able to reverse. Plan out each step of the process, and take breaks when you need to! 
  2. Use veg tan leather – Sometimes, in leather work, you can get away with using different tannages of leather to make various leather goods. However, when it comes to tooling, you just want to use veg tan leather as it allows for the deepest, most lasting impressions when cased. 
  3. Parchment or wax paper can be useful for tracing designs onto the leather – When you’re getting to the stage of tooling and ready to work with some designs, it’s important to have one ready. Avoid marking directly on the leather if you can; instead, trace a pattern out on some parchment or wax paper. Then, use a stylus to apply the design to the leather. 

How to Get Better at Leather Tooling 

As with all skills, practicing is the best way to get better at leather tooling. Start with some cheaper veg tan and slowly work up to swivel knives. Once you get comfortable with some simple floral patterns, you can start moving to more intricate designs. 

Another way to get better is to watch other leathercrafters tool leather. YouTube is a wealth of information, and watching other crafters create patterns and bring them to life is often the fastest way to pick up tips and tricks. Often, crafters on YouTube provide tutorials that are worth following along. The more projects you complete, the better your skills will develop! 

Examples of Leather Tooling 

To get better at leather tooling, here are some helpful videos that can be a good start to your leather tooling journey. The videos include relatively simple patterns so that they can serve as a great starting point of reference for your next (or first) leather tooling project. 

Related insights

What leather is best for tooling?

Veg tan leather is the best for tooling. Unlike chromexcel or similar leathers with an altered surface, veg tan’s natural surface enables it to soak in water better during the casing process, allowing your tools to have a more dramatic effect when tooling. 

How thick should leather be for tooling?

Since tooling can involve carving with a swivel knife or stamp work, it is better to work with thicker leather. A leather thickness of 6/7 oz. should be right in the sweet spot of not being too thin but not so thick that it won’t be useful for some items like leather journal covers. A leather thickness of 3/4 oz. can work well too, but more care will be needed, especially when stamping is involved.

Can all leather be tooled?

Not all leather can be tooled (successfully). Leathers like chromexcel or other chrome-tanned leathers are likely not to absorb moisture well, which is a key part of the tooling process. Without moisture, the leather is not likely to take an impression well, which is the essence of the tooling process.

Final Thoughts

Getting started with leather tooling can be daunting and includes another dimension to approaching leathercrafting. However, the most important part of beginning leather tooling is to pick a simple project and start. As you get more comfortable with stamping leather, buy some cheap leather and a swivel knife and expand your repertoire. I have yet to start leather tooling myself, but I am looking forward to making it my next project! 

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