Leather burnishers are handy tools that help produce clean, finished edges on leather goods. Which type is the best? We’ll find out.
My favorite burnishing setup is a hardwood burnishing bit from Pro Edge (click here to see it on ProEdge) mounted in a drill press or desk-mounted rotary tool. The hardwood of the burnishing bit works well on the leather edge, while a desk-mounted fixed machine allows for stable operations and two hands free to work the leather around the moving bit.
Hand-held burnishers definitely do work, though require a lot of arm motion to generate heat through friction over the leather edge. When working for long periods of time, or on a big leather piece, a motorized burnisher is definitely a bug help. Let’s explore more about when it makes sense to use each.
When to Use Leather Burnishing Tools
Leather burnishers and slickers are usually rounded or curved tools used to burnish (smooth-out) leather surfaces and edges through friction. Since leather is a natural fiber that has been processed to have a smooth and even finish, when it’s cut, the edges will show the internal fibers and often be loose or “hairy” as the fibers stick out.
To help ensure a finished leather product that can wear well and be durable, it is generally good practice to smooth out, or burnish, the edges. This makes them hardened and strong. Sometimes, edges are even painted to seal them up. Many preferences and options are available for this, though burnishers and slickers are often used most.
They come in different materials ranging from plastics to exotic woods. There are hand burnishers, where you move it back and forth over the leather by hand it generates heat through friction and changes the leather surface.
There are also burnishing tools that use motors to rapidly move the burnisher over the leather to seal the edge. Burnishing machines and attachments make this a very easy task, and include dedicated machine as well as attachments that fit onto drills and rotary tools.
The key to burnishing is heat generation and transfer. When the edge leather fibers are heated they join together and smooth out. So friction created by moving a burnisher back and forth quickly makes this happen. When choosing a burnisher material, keep in mind the different heat properties of the material.
Wood leather burnishers are most popular, as the natural wood material on the natural leather material ends up being a nice combination. The wood doesn’t heat too quickly, and the composition of the natural wood finish does a good job of leaving a smooth result on the slicked leather edges.
A basic hand burnisher work well with some good old fashioned effort, like this generic brand (click here to see it on amazon).
For a harder wood, the Cocobolo wood, Kyoshin Elle version is nice (click here to see on RMLeather).
A generic hand burnisher is definitely a workable way to do burnishing. It essentially comes down to a smooth wood, and friction, to burnish the edge. Sure, there are more complexities, though in general, burnishing is an area os leather craft that does not have to be expensive.
I usually prefer machine burnishing. A generic burnishing bit can work OK (click here to see it on amazon), though you need to be careful of build quality. If the center metal post is slightly offset, the burnisher will wobble and not be very effective to use. I got a set like this and the center post was off a little on both bits. Not great.
For just a little more, you can get a hand-crafted, high-quality burnisher from Pro Edge (click here to view them on Pro Edge). This is the route I’d recommend.
Over time if you find you’re looking for a quality burnisher with various, and specific groove sizes, the Armitage Leather wood burnisher is one of the best (click here to view it on JustWood). The specific sizes make it easier to get consistent edges across different thicknesses of leather.
Brass and other metal burnishers are very strong, though retain a lot of heat. One must be careful when using metal so as to not heat the leather edge too quickly and burn it, leaving unwanted marks. Metal burnishers can also be a little heavier than wood or plastic, though if used on a burnishing machine or rotary tool, this shouldn’t be much of an issue.
Here is a generic option that can work if you do prefer brass burnishing (click here to see it on amazon).
Glass burnishers and slickers are available as well. Their smooth surface makes it helpful to put a smoothed edge onto leather. Also, glass doesn’t retain heat as quickly as other materials, which helps avoid burns on the leather edges.
If you’d like to try glass burnishing, here is a basic, all-glass one that works well (click here to see it on amazon). If you prefer having a nice wooden handle that provides a better grip, Barry King makes a very nice glass burnisher/slicker (click here to see it on RMLeather).
Exotic Wood Burnisher
Some woods are preferred for their burnishing results. Cocobolo is a very common wood used for this that is strong and durable. It also looks great with a dark natural color to it. Other woods used include paduk, vitae, ebony, pine, oak, maple, rosewood, and most any wood available.
For a quality, cocobolo hand burnisher with sized grooves and a curved point, the Kyoshin Elle is a great one (click here to see it on RMLeather).
Instead of a rounded piece of wood or rectangular piece of glass, box slickers a rectangular, solid blocks of wood. The function the same way as other slickers and burnishers through friction created by moving the block quickly over the leather. The shape and size of box slickers can be of preference to some crafters, based on what they’re working on and how they like to work.
Doldokki makes a very nice looking box slicker (click here to see it on FineLeatherworking). The shape provides more grip surface for holding it in the hand. And overall, it just looks beautiful, like a piece of art.
Power Burnisher Machine
If you love burnishing, or need to often if you’re making higher-volume production leather work, a power burnisher machine might be for you. It is essentially a motor with various burnishing mounts. Since it is powered by electricity, the about of manual effort on the crafter is very much reduced, mainly to holding the leather piece gently by the burnisher.
Dedicated tabletop burnishing machines might have attachments on each side of a motor to hold wood burnishers, sand paper, plastic burnishing tip, or an array of burnishing finishers. The COBRA MP Burnisher is a good example (click here to see on LeatherMachineCo).
Rotary tools, such as Dremels, can also work very well as powered burnishers. Their handles which makes maneuvering it around the leather quite easy. If you do go with a Dremel, ensure it is a variable speed model like the 3000 model (click here to see it on amazon). The variable speed will help ensure you’re not spinning to fast (hot), or slow (not enough heat) for the edge that you’re burnishing.
As another option, burnisher attachments for power drills are widely available. This can quickly make any home drill (corded or cordless) into a burnisher very easily. Just remember, all that power can easily burn the leather edge! Burnish slowly, and safely 🙂
I’ve tried burnishing with a bit in a Dremel. It worked, though was tough holding the dermal and the material, while burnishing. My recommendation here is a wooden burnishing bit in a fixed machine.
The machine can be a dedicated burnisher, drill press, or dremel mounted to a fixed surface. An example is the POWERTEC BF600 bench buffer (click here to see it on amazon). This tool has a 1/2″ threaded arbor, so be sure any burnisher bit used fits this arbor type (an example is the ProEdge 1/2″ shaft motor burnisher spool, viewable here). The key is having a sturdy, and steady burnishing tool that the leather can be pressed against. Preferably, this is with two hands so it can be moved around the burnisher, and different pressure applied as needed for the optimal edge burnish.
It can be to get lost in burnishing-land. But don’t worry! Like most tool decisions, start small, inexpensive, then learn what you like. A single Pro Edge burnishing bit used in a drill or tool you already have is a great start. You can even try using it as a hand burnisher if you’d like.