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Tooling Leather – Choosing the Proper Type for Great Results

Recently, I have wanted to be more creative with my leather projects and tried to improve my tooling. Initially, I started on random vegetable tanned leather scraps that I had, but I always felt like I was missing something. So, to improve my tooling material, I decided to research tooling leathers.

Tooling leather is a leather hide specifically made to imprint and carve. These are vegetable tanned leathers that are typically thicker to provide a deeper working area. The leather used for tooling can produce different results based on quality. Tooling leather can cost $6–$20 per square foot.

Let’s look at the various characteristics of tooling leather and uncover what makes one tooling leather better than the other. 

What Is Tooling Leather?

Tooling leather is a type of leather hide used for stamping and carving leather. It is specifically vegetable tanned leather, as it needs to hold the imprints left on the surface. Although natural vegetable tanned leather is the most common tooling leather, pre-dyed leather pieces can also be used. The thickness and quality of the tannage make significant differences in tooling leathers. 

What We’ll Explore

  • Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
  • History of Tooling Leather
  • Tooling Leather Characteristics Quick Reference Table
  • In-depth Characteristics of Tooling Leather
  • Pros of Tooling Leather
  • Cons of Tooling Leather
  • How Tooling Leather is Made
  • Production Stats for Tooling Leather
  • Cost of Tooling Leather
  • When You Might Leathercraft with Tooling Leather
  • Tips for Leathercrafting With Tooling Leather
  • Examples of Goods Made from Tooling Leather
  • My Personal Research on Tooling Leather
  • Tooling Leather Care & Maintenance
  • Helpful Insights on Tooling Leather
  • Key Takeaways
A Tooled Leather Pattern - Tooling Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
A Tooled Leather Pattern

Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions

While the materials don’t make a better crafter, they will make it easier to improve. It is commonly suggested that starting with cheaper material is best when introduced to leathercraft. While I believe this can be important to many aspects of the craft, tooling is not one of them.

Poor quality tooling leather will make the task much more complex and create bad habits to compensate. As a result, I believe using quality vegetable tanned leather when starting, will provide the best platform for learning how to tool properly. 

History of Tooling Leather

Leather used for tooling must be vegetable tanned leather to ensure the impressions left on the leather will remain. Vegetable tanned leather is believed to have been developed over 5000 years ago by the Egyptians.

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However it was only in the 1800s that tooling leather began to become popular, as cowboys wanted to express their individuality. Since then, tooling leather has been a staple of the leather industry as companies race to provide the best material possible. 

Tooling Leather Characteristics Quick Reference Table

CharacteristicRating
Natural or SyntheticNatural
Surface TextureCompletely smooth with natural characteristics from the leather. 
Available Thickness (oz/mm)2 oz (0.8mm) up to 16 oz (6.4mm)
Largest Workable Size24 square feet
Flexibility (1-10)3
Softness (1-10)3
Sewability (1-10)9
Durability (1-10)8
Ease of Maintenance (1-10)5
How Long it Lasts (Daily Use)Can last around 25 years when properly maintained
Available ColorsMost commonly found in earth tones such as brown, olive, tan, and black. Although it can be made in various other colors.
Waterproofness (1-10)1
Cost per Square Foot ($)$5–$20 per square foot
Ease of Crafting (1-10)7
Rarity (Common or Exotic)Common
Annual Production Volume180,000,000 square feet annually produced 
Biggest Exporting CountryItaly, India, and Brazil
Biggest Importing CountryMexico, China, Vietnam
Characteristics of Tooling Leather

In-depth Characteristics of Tooling Leather

Natural or Synthetic

Tooling leather is some of the most natural leather you can purchase. While techniques have changed, the process of making the material dates back thousands of years ago. Vegetable tanned leather keeps the natural surface of a hide. Including the blemishes that other leathers may remove. 

Surface Texture

The surface texture of tooling leather may vary, largely dependent on the hide. A flawless tooling leather will be smooth, with a very slight oil feel. However, because tooling hides are kept natural, wrinkles, scars, bug bites, and brands can all be a part of the surface, changing how it may feel.

Available Thickness

Tooling leather is produced in a large variety of thicknesses, from 2 oz (0.8mm)–16 oz (6.4mm). Although the leather comes in different weights, the best leather for tooling is 5 oz and above. This is due to the potential for added depth when carving the leather. Thinner tooling leathers may also be torn when tooling if one is not careful. 

Largest Workable Size 

The largest size you can typically receive for tooling leather is 24 square feet. This is known as a side and is one-half of the entire cowhide. Tooling leather comes in many other cuts, including double shoulders, single shoulders, bellies, and panels. Small pieces of tooling leather may be more expensive per square foot, but it is a great option for those looking to use much less.

Flexibility

Tooling leather is a much firmer leather than others. Although being a vegetable tanned leather, it has a unique characteristic to help alleviate that; water. Wetting tooling leather will allow it to become much more flexible for a short time so that it may be molded into the desired shape. However, once dried, the leather will become harder than when first received. 

Softness

Tooling leather is not soft. It is stiff and firm with no real plush to it. However, the surface of the leather does not feel rough and is smooth, giving the impression of softer leather. Tooling leather will also become stiffer once tooled, as the process requires water that hardens the leather.

Sewability

Sewing tooling leather is easy and enjoyable. The firmness of the leather makes it simple to punch holes. In addition, the leather itself does not immediately close up on the holes. This combination makes it a breeze to pull the needles through. Once finished, the holes can be tapped down to produce a clean look.

Durability

Tooling leather is some of the most durable leather available. It is firm and typically thick, preventing tears. The natural surface is wear-resistant, as scratches, oils, and marks only add to the patina. The one weakness when it comes to durability is water. The leather soaks up water extremely quickly, causing discoloration, wrinkles, and can misshapen the leather.

Tooling Tan Leather With a Stamp - Tooling Leather - Liberty Leather Goods
Tooling Tan Leather With a Stamp

Ease of Maintenance

Tooling leather is more difficult to maintain than most leathers. This is because of how easy it will change colors. It can be cleaned and conditioned using the same products as other leathers but may darken. This can be a problem for those who prefer the lighter leather color. In addition, if over-saturated with cleaning products, tooling leather can begin to lose its structure. 

Lifespan with Daily Use

When using tooling leather daily, one can expect it to last decades, around 25 years if treated properly. This mainly comes down to tooling leather’s unique ability to be forgiving with scratches and marks. The surface of the leather has a very natural look that only gets better with age. This, combined with its natural durability, quickly makes tooling leather one that could last a lifetime.

Available Colors

The most common colors available for tooling leather are earth tones. Blacks, browns, and greens. However, it can also be found in more unique colors depending on the tannery. When choosing a tooling leather, many tend to use a natural color instead of dyed, as it allows for color to be added once the tooling work is complete. 

Waterproofness

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Tooling leather is not waterproof and is best kept away from water entirely. Tooling leather soaks up water extremely quickly and will mark the surface. Even being caught in the rain for a few minutes will cause dark splotches on tooling leather. Darkening the leather is far from the worst issue as well. Tooling leather, when saturated, will begin to lose its shape and can become disfigured. 

Cost

The cost of tooling leather depends on the quality of the leather. Some lower-end tooling sides can cost $5 per square foot. The higher end of tooling leather costs $20 per square foot, which is an extremely large gap between the two possibilities.

However, higher-quality tooling leathers will be much easier to work with. They will take water more evenly, cut more smoothly, and allow stamps to be more defined. 

Ease of Crafting

Working with tooling leather is fairly easy. It is a firm leather that won’t stretch while working with it. It is also not as oily as many other types of leather, so tools don’t slide around as easily when crafting.

The surface is smooth, with no ridges or bumps, allowing for clear guide markings and cuts. When sewing, the holes punched stay open longer than other leathers, making it easy to pass a needle through.

Rarity (Common or Exotic)

Tooling leather is fairly common in the leather world. It is nearly 10% of all leathers produced annually, 180,000,000 square feet. Almost all leather stores will have tooling leather available and may even offer leather from several different tanneries. This variety allows for a large price difference, making purchasing the leather possible at many price points, helping you stay within your budget.

Pros of Tooling Leather

Tooling leather is the only leather that can be decorated with tooling supplies. It can be carved, stamped, antiqued, and dyed, making it a good choice for those wanting to express their creativity. In addition, the leather is durable and easy to work with.

It patinas with time rather than degrades. It can be wet molded into any shape and hardened if necessary. Often seen in leather armor, tooling leather is what many consider the best type of leather available for its versatility. 

Cons of Tooling Leather

The majority of cons for tooling leather mainly come down to preference. Since it is a stiffer leather, it can be more difficult to work with. It darkens over time regardless of how it is used, and the natural marks on the leather can be seen as blemishes to some.

The largest problem with the leather is its lack of water resistance. Tooling leather will quickly soak up any water that comes in contact with the surface, darkening and potentially disfiguring the item. 

Even being caught out in the rain for a few minutes will cause dark splotches on tooling leather.

How Tooling Leather is Made

Tooling leather is a subset of vegetable tanned leather. Vegetable tanned leather is one of the most natural tanning methods that use tree bark and other plants for tanning the leather over a long period. The tannery places the leather in pits filled with water and their proprietary tanning combination and is left to sit.

Within the next 20–30 months, the leather is moved to different tanning pools that contain higher concentrations of their tanning solution. Once tanned, the leather can be dyed to the desired color or left natural, as is commonly seen. A finish may also be applied after the tanning process to help protect the surface of the leather.

Lina Falcão and Maria Eduarda M. Araújo, from the Chemistry and Biochemistry Centre, Faculty of Sciences, at the University of Lisbon, researched a new technique to distinguish different vegetable tanned leathers. Uncovering three different tannins used in the tanning process of various tooling leathers. 

Production Statistics of Tooling Leather

  1. Volume per Year:  180,000,000 square feet 
  1. Key country or countries where it is produced: Italy, India, and Brazil
  1. Biggest exporting country: Italy, India, and Brazil
  1. Biggest importing country: Mexico, China, and Vietnam

Cost of Tooling Leather

  1. Square Foot: $5–$20 per square foot
  1. ½ Hide: $40–$160
  1. Full Hide: $80–$320

When You Might Leathercraft With Tooling Leather

  1. If you plan on customizing your leather with dyes, stamps, or carved designs
  2. When you need a stiffer leather for a project
  3. If you need leather that can be molded into a different shape
  4. If you want to create a harder project, like armor
  5. When you want the most natural leather available for your project

Tips for Leathercrafting With Tooling Leather

  1. Avoid using dirty tools, as they will bleed into the surface 
  2. Wet the leather for 24 hours to achieve the best tooling results 
  3. Apply a finish to the leather to help preserve it
  4. Leave the leather out in the sun to speed up the patina process 

Joe Meling, with Weaver Leather Supply, offers a demonstration on how to prepare your leather for tooling in the video below.

Some Examples of Items Made From Tooling Leather

  1. Wallets 
  2. Notebook covers 
  3. Boots
  4. Handbags
  5. Watch straps
  6. Saddles
  7. Belts 

My Personal Research on Tooling Leather

Although I have worked with leather for years, I am still new to tooling leather. For most of my practice, I have been using various scrap pieces from other projects and always wondered why some came out better than others.

After recently learning how the quality of the leather can affect the tooling outcomes, I wanted to test this for myself. I took basic vegetable tanned leather found at my local leather store and compared it with a panel of Hermann Oak leather.

Method

Both leather types were natural vegetable tanned, weighing 5–6 oz. My goal was to see how they performed with water retention, carving, and stamping. To start, I saturated both leather pieces with water until they stopped bubbling and warped them in plastic to dry overnight. When I returned the next day, I saw a color difference in the leather, with the Hermann Oak being a few shades darker. 

Stamping

I start testing by stamping each leather with various sized designs, small, medium, and large. Both types of leather felt damp enough for this, and there was no difference in the effort required to leave a clean mark. However, as the designs got larger, I noticed the basic veg tan was beginning to lose a bit of clarity in the impressions. The mark was still nice but not as crisp as the Hermann Oak leather.

Carving

My next test was carving the leather. I wanted to draw various shapes to get the leather’s best feel. I started with a long straight line down the center of the leather and felt no difference. However, when I started drawing circles on the leather, the Hermann Oak brand felt smoother.

I could make tight turns with less resistance and didn’t feel the need to go as slow in these areas. Overall, the change in feeling while carving with a swivel knife made me more confident in drawing lines. 

Water Retention

While working, I found myself rehydrating areas of the leather very similarly. Although the Hermann Oak leather was darker, I do not believe it was due to the water.

Both kinds of leather performed well in this test, and it may have been more of a testament to how I pretreated the leather. I did note that the edges of the basic leather were slightly drier than those of the Hermann Oak leather, and the basic leather did dry quicker overall.

Conclusion

Once both leather pieces dried, the differences became much more apparent. The Hermann Oak leather remained very similar to how it looked when first tooled, while the basic leather lost its definition with time. It was now obvious how the leather quality would impact my final results.

However, one thing I did not expect was the confidence a higher quality leather gave me. I didn’t struggle carving circles into the leather, and the boost in confidence and improved results were more than enough to convince me that higher-quality leathers make a difference. 

Tooling Leather Care and Maintenance

How to Clean Tooling Leather

Tooling leather can be cleaned using the same leather products used for other leathers. However, before applying cleaning products, it is recommended to use a horsehair brush to dust off the leather. Saddle soap and a clean rag applied in a circular motion will clean the leather most effectively. Avoid adding too much soap to the leather to avoid excessive darkening. 

How to Condition Tooling Leather

Conditioning tooling leather is the same as cleaning tooling leather and is typically done after the soap is applied. However, you can dust a leather product and apply a conditioner if a deep cleaning is unnecessary.

Apply leather conditioner with a clean rag in circular motions. Much like soap, avoid putting too much conditioner on the leather. Tooling leather will darken when cleaning or conditioning, regardless of the amount applied.

How to Store Tooling Leather

It is very important to store tooling leather away from sunlight, as it is the most susceptible to UV rays. It also should be stored in a mild environment with no excessive moisture or heat. Heat will cause the leather to dry out and crack, and moisture may cause tooling leather to become disfigured.

Helpful Insights on Tooling Leather

What is a tooling leather?

Tooling leather is vegetable tanned leather, typically in a natural color and thicker weight. Vegetable tanned leather is the only leather that can be imprinted and carved. The natural color will allow crafters to see their work more easily, and the leather can be dyed to the desired color afterward. Thicker leathers help crafters create more depth in their tooling designs. 

Is tooling leather real leather?

Yes, tooling leather is vegetable tanned leather. Veg tanned leather is naturally tanned leather regarded as some of the best due to its rustic characteristics. 

Is tooling leather hard?

The process of tooling leather is easy to pick up but much more challenging to master. Stamping involves simply hitting a stamp into the leather with a mallet. While carving uses a swivel knife as a pencil to draw design lines into the leather. More advanced crafters will combine both techniques to create depth in their designs.

Do you wet leather before tooling?

Yes, although it is possible to tool dry leather, the leather needs to be damp to get the best outcomes. It is possible to dampen leather as you work, but most tooling experts suggest soaking the leather and letting it sit covered overnight to dry.

How long do you soak leather before tooling?

For the best results, it is suggested to soak your leather until the bubbles stop. The leather piece can be set aside until dried and then tooled. However, leaving the leather sealed to dry overnight often produces the best results for tooling.

How do you keep leather from stretching when tooling?

Leather will stretch while tooling if it is still wet. To prevent this, ensure your leather has ample time to dry. Visually the color of the leather should lighten nearly back to its original color.

What is a leather tooling kit?

A leather tooling kit is a collection of tools used for tooling leather. This includes various stamps, a swivel knife, and most likely some designs to practice tooling. Tooling kits offer an easy introduction to tooling while providing the basic shapes most crafters use.

Key Takeaways

  1. Tooling leather must be vegetable tanned leather to be tooled.
  2. Different tannies will produce different tooling leathers that can drastically change the results.
  3. Tooling leather is relatively durable, with one weakness — water. Water will darken and can disfigure the leather.

In Closing

Tooled leather is a classic look in leatherworking but requires classic leather. Tooling leather offers that ability while also being used for other projects, as it remains a quality leather for crafting.

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