Leatherworking may well be the oldest craft in history. The first people tens or even hundreds of thousands of years ago would have needed shelter and clothing.
Leatherworking is the art of making useful items from leather, using a variety of tools. Some enjoy leatherworking as a hobby, others have made it into a profession. Kits are available online for those who want to try their hand at leatherworking.
Leatherworkers tend to get asked many of the same questions by people who are interested in the art of leathercrafting. The word “Leatherworking” is a large umbrella that covers a wide range of products and techniques. Let’s lift the umbrella and explore.
What Is Leather Working?
At its most basic level, “Leatherworking” is the art of turning leather into usable goods. Leatherworking is an overall term used to describe a variety of skills that crafters utilize to manipulate tanned leather into a finished product. At its very core, crafting leather can be done with a sharp blade for cutting the leather pieces to size, an awl or sharp pointed tool to poke stitching holes, a stitching needle and thread for bringing those pieces together.
People have been tanning animal hides for tens of thousands of years. Leather has been used for a wide range of needs including shelter, clothing, various accessories and artistic expression. Leather working as a craft has not changed all that much over time. The speed at which we can accomplish certain tasks due to advances in technology has increased, but the actual art of leathercrafting, not so much.
Today, advances in science and chemistry have given us a much better understanding of the tanning process along with better dyes, paints, adhesives, thinners, cleaners, deglazers, paints, conditioners, oils, etc… There are certain tools such as the “Bone Folder” that have essentially remained the same for thousands of years. Yet, other tools such as the bell skiver machine, have become very advanced and made the leatherworking process much more efficient.
“Leather has been used for a wide range of needs including shelter, clothing, various accessories and artistic expression.”
Some tools, such as an airbrush have also aided leatherworkers in their craft when a gradient or ombre technique is required in the dyeing process. Laser technology was just invented in 1960. Today, machines use focused lasers to cut and emboss logos and other artistic designs onto nearly any medium, including leather.
Leatherworking as a craft, embodies a wide variety of skill sets. Depending on the item being made, certain skills and techniques may be more useful than others. Making a strong leather belt requires a great deal of edge work and punching holes for the buckle to attach.
Making beautiful designs in the leather on a saddle requires a steady hand and a great deal of concentration for the “Tooling” process. Making a bag or a jacket with a lighter weight chrome tanned leather requires skills in tailoring and sewing. While the skill sets required to make each of those items are similar, the type and thickness of the chosen material has an effect on the skills and techniques that are employed to make them.
Is Leather Working a Good Hobby?
Leatherworking is a wonderful hobby. It builds strength, dexterity, and hand-eye coordination. It is also a wonderful creative outlet. There is no limit to what a crafter can create with access to the right tools, the skills to use those tools properly, a source of materials and an imagination.
One may find a particular skill within the art of leatherworking they prefer and lean into that skill set more than others. Leatherworking is not for everyone though. It is important to understand that as a hobby, leatherworking can get very expensive.
The prices for tools, the chemicals, the countless accessories such as buckles, snaps, rivets and other hardware not to mention the leather itself can get a bit overwhelming.
“There is no limit to what a crafter can create with access to the right tools.”
Leather Working as a Profession
Leatherworking, as a trade in many ways, requires much more focus, more tools, and specializations far beyond those one might experience while doing it as a hobby. While an overall, well-rounded set of skills may allow for the most versatility, many professionals find a niche product for a particular customer base and hone their skills to provide those products for their market.
Someone who makes leather apparel and fashion accessories may understand how to make a work-boot, but not have developed the skills required to be a cobbler. There are many factors to doing leatherworking for a living. Some of the questions that need to be considered go beyond leatherworking, and incorporate career and business planning expertise.
What to Think About When Starting a Leatherworking Business
- Am I going into business for myself or am I looking for an established shop where I can learn and grow my skills?
- Do I have a network of potential customers beyond friends and family that will buy my products?
- Do I have a solid business plan that clearly lays out my financial responsibilities and expectations?
- Do I have the ability to consistently source materials for the products my customers want to buy?
- How do I plan to advertise my goods and how will I get those ads in front of my desired demographic?
- Am I opening a storefront or am I selling my goods online and shipping them to my customers?
- Am I planning to hire another leathercrafter to fulfill incoming orders and/or keep my shelves stocked?
- Am I selling directly to my customers or will I be making my goods for an established retailer?
- Am I flexible and able to pivot with the market as it shifts with new trends even if I continue making the same kind of product?
- Am I solving a problem? ie: Am I filling a void in the market?
How to Start Working With Leather – For Beginners
The best thing about leatherworking is there are many avenues to getting started in it. Getting started does not require a large expensive outlay of money on a shop full of advanced tools. In fact we would advise against that idea.
Finding an experienced leatherworker is a great option, they often have tools, tips, materials and can offer advice on what techniques work better to get the most out of the experience. There is a library worth of books written on every facet of the craft as well. The online resources are growing daily as leatherworkers post videos and blogs showing their work, giving feedback and asking questions.
Leather supply retailers such as Weaver and Tandy offer project kits that include the leather, hardware and tools required to complete a simple project that offers a newcomer to leatherworking a taste of the craft.
How someone gets started in leathercrafting depends on what they are hoping to make. Typically, someone has a project in mind when they venture into the world of leathercrafting. Some get started making belts, bracelets or even watch straps. Others begin by making a bag to carry their things. Many people get into the craft to begin tooling leather. The art of leatherworking has something for everyone and many different avenues into the craft.
Here is an insightful video diving into how to begin and get started with leatherworking:
Leather Working Tools
There is a wide array of tools that leathercrafters use on a regular basis. A quick internet search will turn up a plethora of lists and videos on YouTube filled with an overwhelming amount of information and suggestions. Certain tools are common among every leathercrafter, none more so than a sharp cutting tool.
Next is the “Awl”. It is a leatherworker’s best friend, and serves a variety of uses in the shop, including punching holes in the leather for stitching.
There is a long list of tools leatherworkers employ while crafting leather. Let’s look at some of the more common tools:
Crafting Knife, Utility Knife, Box Cutter, Rotary Cutter, Round Knife, Scalpel, etc.
There is a very long list of blades and knives that could be listed here. Some are more common and more versatile than others but they all serve the same function. The main concern is that your cutting implement has an extremely sharp edge.
Cuts narrow lengths of leather from a wider piece of hide.
Used for cutting wider strips of leather into thin ¼ -⅛ inch (6.35 – 3.175mm) wide lengths of leather lace.
To skive leather is to reduce its overall thickness.
For cutting brass/copper rivet posts.
Removes the top and bottom corners from the edge so that the slicking tool does not mushroom out the leather during the burnishing process.
For making holes.
For marking stitching lines, hardware installation or decorative areas for tooling.
Aids in marking the leather for holes, hardware and tooling.
This one serves a couple of uses. It is more of a marking tool than a cutter though. It only cuts into the top grain layers of the leather to allow for “tooling or “stamping”.
Available online, they can typically be purchased with 1-12 individual prongs that mark the location where an awl is used to punch all the way through the leather.
Utilizing a guide, the groover removes a thin line of leather from the very top layer of the leather marking a line for punching through the stitching holes.
A decorative tool that just adds something special to a leather project, The creaser is used to leave a thin, permanent groove line along the outer edge of a finished piece of leather.
Made with a rawhide, nylon/plastic, polymer head so that striking punch, setter, and stamp handles does not damage the tools.
Steel and brass hammers are used for various other tasks such as setting brass/copper rivets. Never strike a tool handle with a hammer.
Creates round or oblong holes for tasks such as mounting hardware while making things like belts, straps and more.
Rounded and Pointed end punches will be used for nearly every strap/belt that is made.
For punching stitching holes.
There are a large variety of needle sizes and types. Each of them has a use and Leatherworkers will acquire a variety of stitching needles over time.
Thicker than standard thread, it is more durable against the abrasive leather fibers.
Originally made of bone or wood, a slicker is used to burnish the edges of a leather strap or the sides of a leather panel.
Used for burnishing the fiber side of leather straps and panels.
Running canvas cloth along the edge of leather acts like a very fine sandpaper and helps in the burnishing process to create a smooth edge.
An important step to the burnishing process. Making sure multiple layers are flush before burnishing the edges.
Leather Working Kits
There are several ways to be introduced to working with leather for the very first time. The easiest of them might be to purchase a “Beginner’s Tool Kit” or a “Beginner’s Project Kit”, both available now at nearly every leather supply store. The tool kits contain a basic set of leatherworking tools that can be used to craft basic leather goods.
Leather Working Projects
Project kits are becoming more popular and even include the required leather pieces to complete the project along with a basic set of tools. For beginners, there are a growing number of build-along videos available online that show every aspect of working with leather and how to get the desired results from a project.
Leather Working Techniques
Techniques vary from crafter to crafter. The wide variety of techniques that are used to complete a leatherworking project is what makes it an art. The technique that one crafter utilizes may not be as easy or comfortable for another crafter. Each person needs to figure out what works best for them to get the best results from their craft.
Helpful Leather Working Insights
What Is Working With Leather Called?
Leatherworking or Leathercrafting are common designations for the craft/art of creating leather goods. Certain leather goods may designate a different title such as “Cordwainer” or “Cobbler” for shoe/boot maker. Saddlers make saddles for riding horses. Certain processes within the art of leatherworking also have their own designation. For instance creating artistic designs on a piece of leather is known as “Tooling”.
Is Leather Working Hard?
The degree of difficulty is relative to the person doing the work and the task they are trying to accomplish. Physical impairments may add a bit of difficulty to a project as will a lack of space in which to work along with the material chosen for the project. Generally there are ways to get around nearly any obstacle, helping to make the task somewhat easier to complete.
Leathercrafting can be a delightful, relaxing, rewarding, even financially prosperous endeavour. A leatherworker’s dedication to their craft and attention to details are more important than the tools they use. However, better tools make certain tasks more enjoyable to complete.
Making something from leather does not require a vast knowledge of the craft. There is a wide array of resources available online. For more in-depth articles on the art and science of leatherworking, please check out our other articles.