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Wet Forming Leather – How and When to Apply This Technique

One of the earliest projects I ever made was a leather cigar holder. The project required the leather to hold the cigars tightly in place while still allowing them to be pulled out. This experience led me to wet-forming leather, as I could mold the leather into the perfect shape. It formed over the wooden dowels I used in place for cigars, creating pockets that fit the cigars like a glove.

Wet forming leather is a technique used in leather crafts to mold projects. It’s limited to vegetable tanned leather, as it retains any shape when dried. Leather saturated with water will be tightly pressed against an object until it dries, creating a custom-molded pocket, sheath, or case.

Wet forming leather can be used for various projects, from sheath-making to decorative sculpting. Let’s explore why you might apply this technique and how to do it. 

What Is Wet Forming Leather?

Wet forming leather is a crafting technique used to mold leather into a desired shape. Crafters can create sheaths, holsters, cases, and other goods due to vegetable tanned leather’s unique property of retaining its shape after drying.

By wet forming the leather around the object, each mold will create a perfect fit for any item. The wet forming process begins by soaking vegetable tanned leather until it is completely saturated. The leather fibers will soften, allowing it to bend more easily. During this time, the leather can be pressed against an object to create a mold. 

What We’ll Explore

  • Clearing up Myths & Misconceptions
  • Reasons You Might Choose to Wet Forming Leather
  • Variations or Styles of Wet Forming Leather
  • Wet Forming Leather Overview Table
  • Skill Level of Wet Forming Leather
  • Tools and Supplies Needed for Wet Forming Leather
  • How to Wet Forming Leather Step by Step
  • How to Get Better at Wet Forming Leather
  • My Personal Research on Wet Forming Leather
  • Helpful Insights on Wet Forming Leather
  • Key Takeaways
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A Wet Formed Leather Phone Case

Clearing Up Myths & Misconceptions

A large fear for those new to wet forming leather is damaging the leather. Continuously it is said that water will damage leather. While this remains true, wet forming leather uses the structural change to its benefit. What would otherwise be considered damage is now a powerful tool.

Soaking vegetable tanned leather in water will change some characteristics. It will be darker in color, firmer, and need conditioning. However, the leather itself will not be damaged, and the changes are intentional. Finished items will still need to be kept from water, as the same effects that benefit wet forming can also ruin a leather item.

Reasons You Might Choose To Wet Form Leather

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Wet forming leather is typically done for utility. An awkward object needs a snug case without becoming bulky, or leather must be rounded and stiff enough to keep its shape. Projects like holsters or sheaths may require wet forming if the item deviates from the standard shapes and sizes.

Custom-made leather armor may also benefit from wet forming as it can create a well-fitting unique piece, regardless of a person’s size. In many cases, wet forming may be a decorative choice. Valet trays or pockets can be created with a rectangular mold to make them stand out. Although they serve the same purpose, the defined shape and sharp curves can be a design choice for some crafters.

Additionally, wet forming leather can be its own artistic path using leather. When wet, the leather can be manipulated in varying ways to create unique sculptures that will remain once dried, supplying endless creativity for those looking to explore the possibilities of leather.

Variations or Styles of Wet Forming Leather

The two main styles of wet forming leather are with a mold and freehand. Wet forming with a mold takes two pieces of material to squeeze the leather into a shape. For example, a rectangular mold will have a piece with a raised rectangle, and the other will have the rectangle cut out.

The wet leather is placed on top of the raised area, and the second piece is put on top to squeeze it into place. Clamps are used along the border to ensure the leather forms as intended. Once dried, the molds are unclamped and removed to a finished molded rectangle. 

Free forming leather is done with more unique pieces. Wet leather is placed on a plastic-wrapped object. While not always necessary, the wrap helps give the item more space and protection from water damage as it dries.

Then, crease the leather along the object by hand to provide the shape. This process is repeated until the desired definition is obtained. Free handing when wet forming leather may not produce the most defined lines, but it can be done to more unique shapes or specific items.

Wet Forming Leather Overview Table

Area of PreparationDetails
TechniqueWet Forming Leather
Overall Level of Skill (1–5)2
Time to Complete (minutes/hours)24+ Hours
Workspace NeededWork, kitchen, or coffee table
Skills NeededKnowledge of soaking and creasing leather
Tools and Supplies NeededLeather, water, pre-cut mold (optional), plastic wrap (optional)
Key Helpful TipOnce dried, apply a leather conditioner to prevent dryness, and cracking.
Wet Forming Leather Details

Skill Level of Wet Forming Leather

Wet forming leather may seem challenging, but that is deceiving. It is something that feels natural and only requires little prior knowledge. Soaking the leather is straightforward, and free forming the leather is simply following the curves of an object. Much like tucking a sheet onto a bed, leather is repeatedly pressed to provide the definition.

For simple items, this may take as little as five minutes. Wet forming is a technique that one can pick up very quickly, even by those outside the craft. The skill comes from knowing what leather to use and how to crease it without scratching the surface. The leather and object will do the intense shaping.

Dr. Cleveland Edem K. Atiase, Priscilla Appiah, and Gordon Kwasi Alekey, from the Visual and Industrial Art Department, at Sunyani Polytechnic University, in Sunyani, Ghana, cover the use of leather as a material for sculpting. This highly technical art form mixes wet forming leather with other mediums to create pieces of artwork. 

Tools and Supplies Needed for Wet Forming Leather

The most important item for wet forming leather is vegetable tanned leather. This is the only leather type that can accomplish this task, making it necessary An object or a mold is also required. A mold is best for general shapes; therefore, an object may be preferable. Water is needed to soak the leather, as the vegetable tanned leather must be saturated to become flexible and retain its shape.

If the object you are planning to mold is delicate to water, plastic wrap can also be used to cover the item, protecting it without changing its shape too much. Lastly, clamps can be helpful but are not necessary when wet forming leather. They work best on molds and help the leather create a more defined shape when wet forming. 

How to Wet Forming Leather Step by Step

  1. Wet forming leather begins with soaking vegetable tanned leather until it is completely saturated with water. Cut a piece of vegetable tanned leather, and place it into a container of water. The leather must be larger than the object or the mold, as some shrinkage may occur. 
  1. After soaking the leather, leave it out to dry slightly. Similar to the prepping process for tooling, the goal is to have a damp, flexible piece of leather to work with, not a dripping wet mess. During drying, wrap the object to be molded in plastic tightly. This ensures no water will damage it while providing slightly more room with the finished product.
  1. Once everything is prepared, place the damp leather on top of the plastic-wrapped item and slowly press around it. This can be done carefully with the pads of your fingers or the help of a bone folder. Using a pointy tool can cause scratches in the leather while trying to press it around the object. This process can be repeated until the desired definition is achieved. 
  1. Leave the leather to dry overnight. If possible, place small binder clips to hold the leather in place to ensure the best results. Once dried, the item can be removed, leaving behind the molded leather.
  1. An optional but recommended step is to use a leather conditioner on the leather once it has dried. The water from forming the leather will leave the piece dry and stiff. Treating the leather with conditioner will not change its shape but will remoisten and soften the piece. 
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Chuck Dorsett covers wet forming in depth in this video by Weaver Leather Supply. Check out how to wet form leather and unique project ideas for using the technique.

How to Get Better at Wet Forming Leather

Practice is key to getting better at wet forming leather. With more experience, it becomes easier to tell when the leather is in the right condition for being molded. As you tackle more wet forming projects, you may also begin to understand the best methods for creasing the leather without damage.

Additionally, this will help develop more defined lines when wet molding an object. Lastly, improvement requires carefully watching how the leather bends as it creases, as some areas may require more attention to hold their shape than others.

Crafters can create sheaths, holsters, cases, and other goods by utilizing vegetable tanned leather’s unique property of retaining its shape after drying.

My Personal Research on Wet Forming Leather

One of the most important parts of wet forming leather is holding the leather around the material overnight. To figure out the best way to do this, I attempted three methods of wet forming leather: binder clips, tacks, and a vacuum seal bag. My goal was to see which technique produced the best results after being left to dry overnight. 

Binder Clips

The first method I attempted was using binder clips. These were used in my workspace to hold pieces of leather together for stitching or gluing, so I thought they would work well. Applying the clips was simple, as they only needed to open and be pushed into place. Once dried, removing them was just as simple.

The final results were very good. The large surface area of the clips held the leather in place with plenty of pressure, creating a nice mold. The only downside was the marks left by the clips. While these may not be a problem since they can be cut off, I will cover the clips with leather to prevent the marks in the future. 

Tacks

The next method I tried was using thumbtacks to hold down the leather. They are a common household item used to hold up posters, so I felt they could be useful. The application of the thumbtacks was much more difficult than the binder clips. The tacks were challenging to piece through the leather and the backing board.

With persistence, I was able to place tacks all around the leather. Once dried, however, the results were not as good. The thumbtacks left holes that had stretched bigger, and the leather was much wavier throughout the edges. While the tacks did hold the leather in place overnight, their small surface area made for an inconsistent result. 

Vacuum Seal Bag

Using a vacuum seal bag was the method I was most looking forward to. When researching wet forming online, it was said to be the best way of getting consistent creases easily. However, it was tricky to get the leather in place. As I pumped the air out of the bag, the leather would move and need to be readjusted until half of the air was gone.

Once the leather stayed in place, the vacuum seal did a great job. I could see the leather tightening around the object with every pump. After leaving it overnight, the leather was still slightly damp when removed, but once fully dried, I could see why this method was so acclaimed. The creases throughout the mold were perfect and crisp. 

Conclusion

From the methods I attempted, I was a big fan of both the vacuum seal bag and the binder clips. The vacuum seal took more effort and could be finicky for objects requiring precision, but the final project is flawless once dried. Binder clips were easy, quick, and had great results, making them ideal for simple wet forming projects.

While the thumbtacks worked to hold the leather, the results were underwhelming. They were the most difficult to apply and had the most errors in the final product. Their small surface area created many pockets with less tension than others. When compared to the other methods tested, thumbtacks simply fell short.

Helpful Insights On Wet Forming Leather

How long does it take to wet mold leather?

Wet forming leather will take hours, as it needs to dry completely around the object it is molding to. In most cases, it is best to leave the leather overnight to ensure it is completely dry. However, those in a rush may get away with six to eight hours of dry time. The leather may still be slightly damp but should retain its shape.

What is a wet form?

A wet form creases the leather around an object or mold to retain a shape. Since vegetable tanned leather retains the shape once dried, custom pouches, holsters, or sheaths can be created with wet forming. 

Does leather shrink when it gets wet?

Yes, leather will shrink when it is wet. When working on a project requiring wet forming, cutting an oversized piece of leather is best to account for the potential shrinkage. Additionally, drying wet leather using heat can further cause the leather to shrink.

Do you wet leather before cutting?

Depending on the cutting stage, you may wet the leather before cutting. When wet forming leather, there are two cutting stages. The first will be an oversized cut molded around the object. This first piece will be cut first and then soaked in water. Once the leather has dried, the final cut will trim the excess leather, creating the finished product. Both cuts are necessary as leather may change size when wet.

Does leather stretch when wet?

Leather can stretch when wet. This is a critical element of wet forming leather, as the stretching helps create a tight fit around the object. Ideally, when wet forming leather, the piece should be stretched before being pinned down to keep the desired shape.

Key Takeaways

  1. Wet forming leather requires vegetable tanned leather, as no other type will work.
  2. Preparing the leather and letting it slightly dry, similar to tooling, is key when wet forming.
  3. There are many ways to use wet forming in leathercraft, from custom cases to leather sculpting.

In Closing

Leather craft is a unique hobby offering many different ways to work with your material. Wet forming adds an extra layer by allowing the creation of custom molds and the potential for sculpting. In a craft filled to the brim with expression, wet forming leather offers unique experiences for both new and veteran crafters. 

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