Nick and Dustin sat down with Jeb Haber to go over everything that you need to know to get started with leatherworking.
Have you got one of Wazoo’s super sweet Leather Cache Patches? This high-quality product was designed by Jeb, and he also designed our burnable business cards. Jeb’s site, Together Made, is devoted to supplying new leather workers while building their skills with kits and tutorials. In this SKILL Series Video, Jeb outlined what tools, materials, and knowledge you need to get started as a leatherworker.
Getting Started with Leatherworking
The Together Made kits that Jeb sells use a progressive learning approach to teach leathercraft, which means that they are perfect for beginners. Each kit contains all the tools and materials you’ll need to complete fun projects, and if you want to level up your tool kit and knowledge, simply purchase the next kit.
But if you're not using a kit for guidance, it’s important to think about what you’re making and what leather to use before starting any project. You can get plenty of knowledge and quality tools from Jeb’s kits, but what leather working tools do you need to get started? The list below is enough has everything you’ll need.
Basic Leather Working Tools
Like woodworking, leathercraft requires tools that are used to cut, join, detail, and finish projects.
1. Working Surfaces
You’ll not only want a sturdy surface to work on, but you’ll need a cutting matt. Cutting matts aren't just important for protecting your working surface, but they provide a quick way to measure material.
Leather working requires stamping, punching, and chilising material, and all this pounding will ruin your cutting matt. Therefore, a punching mat is crucial for protecting your work surface.
2. Leather Cutting and Percussive Tools
A sharp knife is a must have tool for turning pieces of leather into desired shapes. Cutting material is usually the first step of most leatherworking projects, and pattern knives with breakaway blades work great
Exacto knives are also very useful, and it’s not a bad idea to get one on hand.
Leatherworking requires lots of pounding, and a rubber or wooden mallet is a crucial tool for this.
3. Leather Joining Tools
Before creating your stitching holes, it’s important to make sure that they will be straight and uniform down the length of your seam. Stitch grovers can be adjustable and are used to mark a line that follows the leather’s edge.
An awl has many uses in leather working, but one of it’s chief functions is making marks in groves to guide your stitch chiseling.
Once your groves are set, it’s time to make spaces for the thread to pass through. This is done by punching evenly spaced holes into the leather along the groves, and the stitching chisel is the tool for this job.
These needles have rounded tips that aren't meant to puncture material, just pass through already made holes. They are made to work with leather, so you can count on them being strong enough for your projects.
Waxed polyester thread
Pieces of leather are typically joined by stitching them together, and the best material for doing this is poly thread. This strong thread is waxed to help it pass through stitch holes, and Jeb is a big fan of Tiger Thread.
When stitching leather together with poly thread, it’s best to finish the ends by burning them rather than tying them. Therefore, a lighter should be kept handy.
4. Leather Finishing and Detail Materials
Set of Belt punches
Belts are one of the best projects you can make with leather, and having a set of punches to crucial for making holes
If you want to customize your pieces with letters, numbers, and symbols, then be sure to add some stamps to your toolkit. These iron percussive tools imprint images which can be used to make unique patterns on your projects.
Slicker for burnishing edges
A leather burnisher, or slicker, is a tool that’s used to smooth out leather edges. The process uses friction to not only make pieces look nicer, but to also to protect them from wear and tear.
These tools are used to fine trim pieces of leather, and they can be kept sharp with small stones.
This versatile tool is great for not only folding creases and opening small pockets, but according to Jed, “this is the little tool that you use to erase your mistakes.”
Projects like book covers and wallets require leather to be shaped along creases, and so the edge creaser is a must have tool for your leatherworking kit.
Leather can be smoothed out and made uniform in the same way that wood can, but it’s important to be careful with the grit you use. Jeb uses 150 for general leather sanding and finishing.
It’s important to make sure that your leather projects have a nice finish. Saddle soap provides protection that is both durable and eye pleasing, plus the Fiebing's brand that Jeb uses smells really good.
Types of Leather
Mineral Tanning vs. Veg Tanning
The process of turning raw animal skin into useful leather involves a process called tanning, and most commercially available leather is tanned in one of two ways.
Mineral tanning, also called chrome tanning, uses chemicals, salts, and acids to produce useful products. 80-90% of all leather is tanned this way, and the process produces toxic waste as well as using lots of water.
The other method is called vegetable tanning (or veg tanning), and it is one of the oldest known methods to tan leather. It involves using organic plant matter like tree bark, and veg tanned leather is what Jeb recommends for all your projects. With proper care, this natural leather can hold up for many years.
Finished Types of Veg Tanned Leather
Veg tanned leather comes in three main varieties that differ in thickness and has a smooth side and a grain side. It’s crucial to pick the right thickness for your project, and luckily Jeb’s Together Made kits include the perfect leather for you to complete the tutorials.
This classic looking type of leather has a finished flesh side and a grain side. It’s stuffed with plenty of greases before being finished with wax which makes it smooth, flexible, and durable. It’s the perfect choice for making things like belts and straps.
Jeb tells us that this leather is not as stuffed with waxes which makes it better for wet molding and forming to objects. And if your skills advance to the point that you're tooling leather, this is the stuff you’ll want to use.
Harness leather is similar to bridal leather, but has a different wax content.
Leather Cuts and Grades
Cowhide will have different characteristics depending on which part of the body it’s harvested from. For example, a cut of skin from the belly will make softer leaether than the harder hide from the back. Therefore, it is important to pick the right cut for your projects.
Another consideration has to do with the grade. After leather is tanned, it is mechanically separated into layers which differ in quality. Top grain leather is the uppermost layer and is distinguished by wrinkles, scars, and other natural features. Full grain is the top layer that has not been buffed or sanded. Full grain is the best quality grain, and it is what Together Made uses in all their kits. Split grain is poorer quality leather that does not include the top layer.
Leather thickness is measured in ounces, and it’s important not to confuse this with a measurement of weight. Jeb tells us that belts are typically 10-12 ounces, sheaths are 7-10 ounces, and wallets are usually 4-5 ounces. It’s important to pick the best thickness for your project, and this knowledge can be gained and honed with Together Made kits.
Where to Get Leatherworking Supplies
Jeb sources all of Together Made’s veg tanned leather from Wickett and Craig. They have been specializing in veg tanned leather since 1887, and Jab has nothing but good things to say about them.
But before you go shopping online, remember to visit any local leather supply shops in your area.
Working with leather is one of the few ancient skill sets that is still relevant in the modern age. Therefore, leathercraft is not only a fun hobby and potential side hustle, but also a great way to connect to your ancentrial creativity. Be sure to watch Jeb’s belt making demonstration, and also visit Together Made to start building your leather skills today!