Working on leather goods often involves cutting, stamping, and punching. The right leather work surface will help protect the tools and lead to quality pieces.
A leather work surface is the often flat space on which leather work is performed. Usually, these are strong, sturdy tables or work benches, layers with a cutting mat, cutting board, or quartz slab. These help absorb punching forces, while also protecting blades and the surface underneath them.
So which leather work surfaces are recommended for the side of the space and types of projects you’re working on? Let’s look more into some of the most useful options.
What is a Leather Work Surface?
A leather work surface encompasses the various work spaces and areas used for leather working. They can include tables, mats, stone slabs, and a number of other various materials and surfaces that help when crafting, tooling, or adding hardware to leather.
Leather craft doesn’t require too many surfaces, though there are a few very helpful ones that can make things so much easier. Generally, a sturdy table is essential. This is important as it will need to support the pounding pressure when hitting punches and stamps with a mallet or maul.
A smooth cutting surface is key, such as a cutting mat, or cutting board for leather work. And a strong pounding surface is helpful in absorbing shock and producing a clean cut. For this, a granite slab can work great. with just a few items, the leather working shop will be set to go.
Other work surfaces, while not directly flat, also include those we come into contact with. They can include leather work aprons, tools holders, cork boards, and leather weights.
An anvil is a steel or iron tool used mainly as a hitting surface for setting rivets. Most anvils are solid metal, while others can have hollowed-out areas that serve specific purposes. These can include grooves in for straightening metal pieces, or areas for loose hardware or accessory storage. Anvils commonly sit on top of tables or work benches.
Common anvils are solid and usually have a wide, flat surface. They also have a rounded, curved end, that tapers into a point. The flat surface is great for hitting on, as it absorbs a lot of the force. The curves end is great for hitting pieces on a unique angle or for shaping curved items.
Anvils are available in many sizes, often denoted by weight. They range in size from a few ounces up to 50+ lbs for larger ones. Here’s a homemade anvil used for leather working:
Leather Cutting Mat
Self-healing leather cutting mats are specialty-plastic mats comprised a several layers of material that serve as a cutting surface underneath sharp blades. To help ensure the longevity and sharpness of knife blades, it’s important to use softer surfaces underneath them when cutting. Harder surfaces could mar or disaffirm the blade.
Leather cutting mats work great as they are made of layers of materials that will all the knife to sink into them, though not cut all the way through. This protects the knife, and the work surface underneath (such as a desk or table).
Some leather cutting mats are self-healing, meaning when a knife mark is made during a cut, the plastics in the material will push together mostly eliminating the previous visible cut. In actual practice, different quality mats perform differently in the “self-healing” area, where some real do look like they haven’t been cut on, while others look like they’ve been cut on a million times 🙂
These mats often come in green and white, with other colors also available. Magnetic cutting mats are an option too. When cutting lighter or thinner materials, magnets can be rested on top of them, securing them from slipping when cutting.
If preferred, cutting mats are also available with measurement markings printed on them. This can make it easier when laying out materials and lining up angles for cuts. A cutting mat is usually a stable leather working tool to have.
Japanese Cutting Mat
Japanese cutting mats are a specialty leather working surface used for cutting and stamping on. They are approximately 1/4” thick, and can provide an “all-in-one” surface for leather crafting.
Where standard cutting mats are thin and great for cutting, sturdier surfaces are usually need to take the pounding of punching, pricking, and chiseling. For this nylon boards or granite slabs can be used. However, this style cutting mat can be used for all of those needs, making it a really useful and versatile leather working surface.
Japanese cutting mats are generally clear or opaque in color, and come in various sizes to fit different work areas and preferences. While generally more expensive than self-healing cutting mats, Japanese cutting mats offer more functionality for the leather worker. Here’s an example of a green japanese cutting mat featured along with a clear “Punch Pad” style mat:
Poly Cutting Board
Poly cutting boards for leather work are plastic boards used under leather punching and cutting tools to protect the blades. They absorb impacts and vibrations, and the softness of their material will protect both the cutting blades and the work surface underneath.
When punching leather, it requires a tool to be placed on top of the leather and then hit with a maul or mallet. This drives the blade through the leather and makes the cut. When the blade passes through the leather, it makes contact with the surface underneath. If this surface is metal or very hard, it can damage the cutting blade and make it dull or ineffective.
Placing a poly cutting board for leather work under the leather when punching or cutting allows the blade to enter into the softer plastic. This won’t harm the blades, and the blade generally does not go through the plastic. This protects the work surface underneath.
These are a very common leather working tool to have, and are available in a wide variety of shapes, thicknesses and colors.
Hydroma Cutting Board
The Hydroma cutting board is made in Germany by the Roechling company. The boards are compression moulded, and resist chipping or cracking, able to withstand a fair amount of use. Thickness of the board is around 1”, which is much thicker than popular cutting mats.
The boards are recommended by Roechling for leather working cutting use, so the Hydroma cutting board might be worth looking at if you’d like a thick, quality surface for cutting on.
Novolene Chopping Block
A novolene chopping block is a synthetic material formed into a block shape that is used under leather punching and cutting tools to protect the blades. The soft, yet firm material provides a sturdy surface that also helps absorb shock when leather working tools are struck with mallets, hammers, and mauls.
Novolene blocks are generally available in several, rectangular sizes. The color is usually red. This is another option for the leather worker when considering what to use for blade protection and shock absorption for cutting, punching, and stamping activities.
Granite Slabs and Quartz Slabs
Stone slabs are blocks of stone used for shock absorption underneath leather punching, stamping, and cutting tools. The density of the material, especially granite slabs, helps absorb and distribute the hitting forces, while also providing a solid surface on which to perform these tasks. Sometimes, they are referred to as a leather tooling slab.
When stamping, punching, or cutting, a fair amount of downward force is applied through the tools via a hammer, mallet, or maul. This concentrated force is great as it allows the tool’s blade to cut smoothly through the leather. However, if the surface it is being performed on is shaky, it could cause less than desirable results or even damage the surface.
Stone is a very dense material, and absorbs shock well when used as a leather tooling slab.. When a granite slab is placed underneath a cutting mat, it is a great punching combination. The cutting mat protects the cutting blades, and the stone slab absorb the hitting force, evenly distributing it through the slab.
Granite slabs are available in a number of sizes and thicknesses, though they don’t need to be very large. 6” x 6” is fine, and 12” x 12” provides a bit more force distribution due to its larger size. they really only need to be a bit bigger than the punch or dir being used on top of them.
Quartz is a popular material for leather tooling slabs. Granite also works very well too, as it is a bit denser than quartz, making it’s shock absorption performance a little better too. Stone slabs can be purchased, or one might be able to get discarded stone samples from kitchen remodeling or home improvement stores. Here’s a quartz tooling slab among the top leather work surfaces:
Poundo boards for leather working are rubber surfaces that are used for bade protection or shock absorption in leather working. When cutting or punching with leather tools, the tool blades pass through the leather and onto a surface underneath. If this surface is hard, it could damage the blade. If this surface is soft, the blade goes lightly into the material, protecting the blade and the surface underneath.
The rubber poundo boards for leather working come in a variety of sizes, and are usually black in color. They can also be placed underneath a granite or stone slab when punching or pounding, to help with shock absorption. Here’s a look at the great poundo board:
Leather Tool Holder/Stand
A leather tool holder or stand is a device used to hold and organize leather tools for easy access. They can incorporate a number of holes for placing tools into. They tools stand upright and are easily picked up and put back
There can be multiple levels to the holder, tiered for access to differently-sized tools. They can also have various hole sizes incorporated so tools of different thicknesses or diameters have a secure place to be stored. For example, a maul would be much larger in diameter than a small punch.
Some leather tool holders have uniform holes, such as those that store metal stamp sets. Holders are available in different sizes from small, 12-hole versions, to larger 48+ hole versions.
Leather tools can also be stored in tool boxes or tool drawers. In general, a stand can be most helpful as all tools are always visible and within easy reach.
For a step-by-step guide to building your own, click here to see my leather tool holder project.
Helpful Items for the Leather Work Surface
Here is an easy-reference table with paid links to items that I trust – these are a great place to start when setting up your crafting workspace.
Cork Board Tool Holder
A cork board tool holder is a material used for holding leather working awls and sewing needles. Cork is a natural, firm material that is easily penetrated by sharp objects. Once inserted, the firmness of the cork generally supports and holds those objects in place.
Leather awls and needles can have very sharp points, and in the case of needles they can be very thin and hard to pick up. Sticking these types of tools upright, into a cork board holder, helps store them tools with their sharp tips embedded into the cork. This is a little safer. It also makes it convenient, as the tools can be easily picked up, used, and returned to their location.
Cork board tool holders are available is a variety of sizes. Usually a helpful shape for leather working is a round, 4” – 6” cork board embedded into a wooden base that sits flat on a desk or work surface. If one finds they have a several awls and many needles all around their workspace, a cork board holder could be a helpful leather working tool to have.
Leather weights are small metal devices used to hold leather in place when cutting, stamping, or punching. Have smooth, polished surfaces so they will not mark or mar the leather when placed on top of it. They are often made of brass or steel.
When cutting thin leather materials, they can easily shift. Placing metal weights on top can help hold them in place for a stable, more even cut. When cutting thicker leather materials, they might have a natural bend to them. Placing leather weights can help flatten the material into a more even working surface. Leather weights come in various sizes from a few ounces to a few pounds.
Many things can be used as leather weights, as long as their surface does not scratch the leather. If you’re looking for well-balanced, nicely-machined, and high-polished weights, dedicated leather weights could be a helpful addition to the leather craft tool list. Here’s a discussion and recomendation on leather tooling weights:
Leather Work Apron
A leather work apron is a layer of material worn to protect the clothing underneath it. They generally cover just the front of the person wearing them, and are usually made from leather. A loop goes over the head and secures it behind the neck. A second securing tie goes around the waist.
Work aprons help keep dirt and debris from the work being done from getting onto the person doing the work. They can also protect the wearer from tools that might accidentally get dropped while working. For example, an awl rolls off the table and falls onto their lap. Where a sharply pointed awl might scratch, the apron would provide a layer of protection.
Leather work aprons are available in various sizes, materials, qualities, and finishes. While denim and canvas are options, leather is usually most popular both for the look and for the function of the material. For a detailed look at all the types, click here for my article about leather aprons.
Some leather aprons also feature various pockets, offering places to hold frequently-accessed tools, pencils, or rulers. While not an essential tool to have when starting out, a leather work apron can be a helpful addition as you become more familiar with leather working and develop preferences for working style and tool storage. And, they look really, really cool 🙂 Here’s a great demonstration on how to make a leather work apron:
It doesn’t need to be expensive to have a proper leather work surface. Also, it can be achieved in just a small space, and even one that is only and easy to setup for leather working. As you get more comfortable in your leather work space, the right surface layout and configuration will be easy to identify. If you’d like to see my overall leather tools list, click here.
Do I need to use a cutting mat under leather punches?
In general, yes, a cutting mat should be used under leather punches. A fair amount of force is sent through the punches when they’re struck. This force goes right into the cutting edge. a mat can absorb this and help preserve the blade.
Will a poly cutting board work for leather working?
Yes, a poly cutting board is a relatively inexpensive and effective option to use for leather work. They’ll help maintain the cutting blades of punches, while also absorbing some force. They’re generally available in multiples shapes and sizes.