Leather is a versatile, durable material, and crafting with it is a practice that goes back to the dawn of human history. If you're thinking about getting started with leather work, or you're curious about the art, here are some of the basics.
Natural leather is made from animal hide, so its qualities vary widely depending on the type of creature and what part of the body it comes from. Animal free sources of leather are increasingly widely available, created from sources like polyurethane, recycled plastic, and natural materials like apple peels and pineapple leaves.
One of the most popular types of leather is called “veg-tan”. You’ll notice the word “tan” in the name, which refers to “tanning”, which is the process where the skin of the animal is treated after it’s removed from the body. This process stops the decomposition and biodegradation of the material, making it durable and easy to use. This process requires vegetable based chemicals, which is where the “veg” part of the name is derived from.
This type of leather is suitable for many projects. It can be dyed to a color, stamped, sewn, and branded. Veg-tan leather is typically sold by weight, which means that it’s priced by the thickness of the leather. The thinnest pieces are usually about two ounces whereas the thickest are usually around 14 ounces thick.
Measuring and Marking Leather
Measuring and marking are crucial to make the most efficient use of your material. Make sure your cuts are all correct by planning them carefully in advance.
Start with marking—white chalk is a common choice for this step, since it’s inexpensive and easy to remove with a damp cloth after cutting occurs. Use a wide pencil sharpener to sharpen a piece of chalk to a point. Don't use a pencil, as the pressure required will likely leave an imprint on the leather and you won’t want that mark on your finished product.
To get accurate measurements, lay your leather piece flat and use a ruler, measuring tape, or yardstick. If you opt to use a ruler, use one with cork backing to avoid it slipping around on the leather during the measuring process.
This is a delicate process, as you don’t want to damage leather in the cutting process. One of the best tools you can have is a cutting mat with a graph or connecting dots on it to help you cut in a straight line.
There are many different tools that can be used to cut leather. The thicker the piece you’re working with, the sharper and deeper the cut will need to be. Regardless of how thick the leather piece is that you’re working with, never use a dull blade, as it can cause wrinkles and rips.
Many people assume that scissors or shears are the best tool for cutting leather. However, this is rarely true. Unless you’re simply trimming parts from a hide or making something round, these are not the cutting tool of choice.
Probably the most commonly used tool to cut leather effectively is a basic utility knife. These are easily accessible, easy to keep a sharp blade on, and reasonably priced.
While it may be tempting to use an Exacto or craft knife for cutting leather, they’re not ideal as they’re not designed for the kind of pressure needed to puncture leather. Using them could lead to a ragged edge, which is usually less than desirable.
Another customary tool that works well is a rotary cutter. These allow for an easy cut and a sharp, clean edge. The downside to this tool is that it’s more expensive than a utility knife.
Essential Leather Working Tools
There are a few essential tools to have on hand as you embark on your leather working journey.
Non-Metal Headed Mallet
A wood or rubber mallet is a good tool to have on hand to use in leather working. Avoid a metal mallet as it could cause deformations during the process.
Pliers make it easier to navigate the sewing process that leather working requires. These allow you to grab the needle as needed if it gets lodged in the material.
Blunt Tipped Needles
These needles are necessary for sewing leather. Pointy needles do not work as they get stuck.
You’ll need to punch holes in leather the sew pieces together for basically any project. Invest in an Overstitch Wheel for marking stitch holes during your projects. One with interchangeable wheels is useful for projects of all shapes and sizes.
Keep a few dozen metal spring clamps on hand to use during leather working projects.
Glue is a necessary tool in almost any leather project. A non-water based contact cement is inexpensive and works well for almost every project, so have some of this on hand.
Have small, disposable paint brushes used for art projects ready to use with glue. These are inexpensive, so have at least a dozen on hand to use for leather projects.
This serves as a good introduction to the type of leather you’ll likely use in projects, cutting, marking, and measuring processes, and what tools to invest in to get started.