The Basics of Wet Forming Leather

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If you're wanting to learn how to wet form leather, you've come to the right place. But I have to be honest, at this point I am still experimenting with wet forming. I have however, made enough mistakes to write a helpful post. So here's everything I've learned so far, including both what I am good at and what I learned the hard way.

There are two popular ways to wet form: by hand and with a 2-piece mold. The first method, by hand, is literally forming the leather around something with a bonefolder, while using a second method, a 2-piece mold, presses down the leather for you. To be honest, both methods use a bit a lot of elbow grease. Hand forming is best used for one off items, where as 2-piece molds are great for something you're going to be making a bunch of.

You can use any veg tanned leather to wet form. Firmer leathers work better because they hold a shape better, but I've used medium temper leathers and they kept their form no sweat. The thicker your leather is the trickier it will be to get it to form around your object (mold or otherwise), but again any thickness will work. Thin leathers are very easy, and the difficulty seems to start around 5oz-ish.

Wet Forming By Hand: As I mentioned above, both versions take a bit of effort, but doing it by hand definitely takes more. Here's my process for wet forming by hand. I find that 5oz+ leather is not great to try to work by hand especially if your object is taller (more than an inch and a half. For example, making a knife sheath can easily be made this way, but making a bag will be a bit tricker because most bag designs would require a taller mold), but if you're persistent you can make it happen... just might be cursing yourself by the end, as was my case.

Soaking the leather in the tub

Soaking the leather in the tub

  1. Cut out the leather. You never want to set the leather onto your object, only to find you cut it too short, but you also don't want to have an excessive amount of leather either. Generally, having the least amount of excess while still covering the object is going to be the easiest on you. I know it's sometimes hard to figure out the exact amount of leather that will be needed to cover a 3D shape. In that case, always over shoot it, set it on the object and then trim it back again. Removing this excess will decrease the amount of wrinkles that come up when you start to form the leather and it will keep these wrinkles small which means less cutting and wrestling with the leather later.
     
  2. Soak the leather. There's not much to say about this step. Just soak the leather your using. To speed things up, you can work the water into the leather with your hands by rubbing the backside of the leather. Generally, I would let the pieces of leather soak for about 30 minutes and then use them. I let a few pieces soak even longer to see if it would continue to loosen the fibers of the leather, but it didn't seem to do anything.
  3. Form the leather. I start by working the leather over the object with my hand. Not really the specific details of the piece, but any the major edges. I do it a couple times over until leather loosely holds the shape of the object. At this point I clamp the leather down to a wooden board that is just a little bigger than piece of leather that I used. Afterwards I use a bone folder to work in the details and tighten the leather around the corners. To do this, I start at the top of the object and work my way down towards the wooden board. This will create bubbles of excess leather as you work downwards. Each time I get to the bottom, I will tighten the leather over the object by lifting the clamps, pulling the leather taught, and clamping the leather back to the board. Depending on the temper and weight of the leather, I will repeat the process over and over until I am happy with how it looks: typically 10ish times.

Additional Notes on Wetforming by Hand. There are a number of tricky things that come up when wet forming that I did not expect (or know how to deal with for the first time) I figured I would cover them here.

- Sometimes it takes longer than you would think to form leather around an object. And during that time the leather can start to dry out and become more difficult to form. In this situation, I have a sponge and a bowl of water on hand and use the sponge to rewet the leather.

- The great thing about soaking leather means it can take almost any shape you want, but that also means that you can easily leave accidental marks and indentations in the leather as you work it around your mold/object. Don't panic if this happens. The simple fix is to use the back side of a spoon and smooth out the area you accidentally dented.

These two cuts drastically reduced the amount of wrinkles around this curve. I cut close to the form because I am not using the leather at the base. 

These two cuts drastically reduced the amount of wrinkles around this curve. I cut close to the form because I am not using the leather at the base. 

- Working around corners (rounded or otherwise) is the biggest pain in the ass when it comes to wet forming. It's pretty easy to work leather around a straight edge, but once you get beyond a 30 degree turn the leather really starts to bunch. There's two things that remedy this situation. The first is to keep the leather cut close to the edge of your mold. It's hard to determine exactly how much leather you'll need when you wet form, but I do my best to only have an excess of 1/4" when using a mold and 1" around the edge of the project when using an object. For example, if I was wet forming around a knife that measured roughly 2" x 8", I would cut a leather square at 4" x 10". As mentioned above, this will reduce the height of the bunching, and in most cases you will be able to just flatten down the leather when it starts to bunch. In some situations, especially if there is significant depth on your object/mold, it will take a little more elbow grease to make this work. When bunches start to form, I simply cut them out starting where the bunch begins at the base of the object and then cut outward to create a small triangle cut. Ultimately most of your corners will have many small triangle cuts and is a common method to get any material to lie flat around a curve or corner. These small triangle cuts give the leather the opportunity to stretch out instead of bunch up and goes a long way in helping the leather lay flat.

The general process of using a mold is the same as using an object, but there are a few tips that will help out tremendously when using a mold. Here's the general process:

  1. Cut out the leather (see above)
  2. Wet the leather (see above)
  3. Form the leather. I start this step the same way as before, using my hands for loosely form the soaked leather around the mold. After I have the leather formed into the general shape I will go back and trim any excess, making sure that the leather doesn't go beyond 1/4" of the end of the mold. After that I press the leather down using the top part of the mold, clamp it together, and leave it sit for 24 hours to dry. In my case, I had to go back and create those small triangle cuts to make sure the leather would lay flat.

Tips for making and using a mold

Here you can see me placing the frame over the form... or trying.

Here you can see me placing the frame over the form... or trying.

The hardest part about using a mold is making it. Unfortunately, I was not able to document the creation of the mold very well, but I will cover the general process and if you have any questions please ask me questions in the comments below.

Each mold is made up of two parts the form and the frame. The form is what you are forming the leather around and the frame is what presses the leather down over the form.

When creating the form, I used a larger piece of wood as the base and then screwed a smaller pieces of wood that was the desired shape of the leather into it. I then came back with a router to round out the corners. And finally smoothed everything out with sand paper.

When creating the frame, I used a jigsaw to cut out the shape that would fit around the form. Cutting corners with a jigsaw is not as intuitive as you might think. I suggest practicing a bit and looking up a few tips on how to do it well. (https://www.familyhandyman.com/tools/jigsaw-tips-and-essentials/view-all/)

When making the form or cutting out the frame, keep in mind the thickness of the leather you plan to use. The form should be the desired length & width, minus the thickness of the leather, while the mold should be the desired length & width, plus the thickness of the leather.

This was my first time using a mold and I learned a ton. Here's a list of things I made for myself for next time:

Even though I used triangle cuts here, my frame was not tight enough and a lot of folds formed around these corners.

Even though I used triangle cuts here, my frame was not tight enough and a lot of folds formed around these corners.

  1. Use hard wood - I tried to do this project on the cheap side, but in the future the quality of wood is one of those things I won't skimp on. I used soft wood for the form and the frame... and split the frame almost immediately. In addition the soft wood is more likely to warp due to the water and more likely get dented due to the pressure of the clamps. Next time I'll be using a hardwood and make sure not to cut the hole for the form so close to the edge of the frame. I may even double up on the thickness of the frame. Seriously, it took a lot of pressure to get it to lay flat, even after making triangle cuts and working the leather around the corner
  2. Keep the frame tight - I got a little sloppy with the hole I cut in one of the frames. There was one side that had a little too much excess around the corners. Guess where the leather bunched up the worst? Those corners. Things worked best when the frame was tight to the form, only leaving enough room for the leather.
  3. G clamps all the way - Again, I was trying to save costs, and bought a bunch of cheap spring clamps from Home Depot. Don't use those. They didn't open wide enough and weren't able to produce enough pressure to get the frame down over the form. In the future I'll be using G clamps.
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All the mistakes taken into account, I was still able to get to leather to mold well. Out of the three pieces I formed, only one ended up with wrinkles and I am pretty certain I can still work those out. I haven't finished the bag that I plan to use these pieces on, but once I do, I will be sure to post the finished project on Instagram and Facebook. As always, if you found this article helpful, you can say thank you by following me on either of those platforms.

Making Corded Bag Handles

Most of my time leatherworking is spent making bags. And tote bags are by far my best sellers. Tote bags are just insanely popular right now.

And because they are pretty popular, there are a lot of people who are selling them. Don't worry though, there are some easy ways to make your work stand out.

For instance, most of the tote bags I've seen have 1 of 2 different handles: a flat handle and a corded handle.

Flat handles are typically made with a single strip of leather stitched to the bag. They are quick to make, but don't wear very well.

Corded handles are a little more robust... and they look way better. They take a little bit more time to make, but aren't any more difficult. Here's how to make them:

MATERIALS

-a polyester rope
-3oz to 5oz leather strips
-thread and stitching needles (I use tiger thread)
-glue (I use siewa's)
-way too many binder clips (I used 30-40ish)
-stitching horse
-diamond chisel & hammer

STEP 1 - Determine Size of Handles

First you'll need to determine the length of the handles. This is generally decided by what is referred to as drop length. Drop length is the distance between the top of the bag and the top of the handles. If you plan on selling bags or doing custom work, this is one of the things you'll want to have figured out to communicate to your customer.

The end of the straps are just leather folded over itself. There's no cord in them as the cord is tucked back a bit. I typically have the ends of my straps between 3 and 4 inches in length, which requires 6 to 8 inches of leather because they are created by folding the leather back on itself. That means that if you want a strap that is 46inches long and the ends to be 4 inches, the cord should be cut to 38 inches long (which takes into account the 4 inch leather ends on either end) and the strip of leather should be cut to 54inches (which takes into the account the 8 inches of leather that will be needed on each end to make the leather ends). If that's all a bit confusing, here's a formula that will work every time.

Cord Length = Length of Handle - 2(Desired End Length)

Leather Strip Length = Cord Length + 4(Desired End Length)

Now that you know the length needed, you'll also need to figure out the width. Don't worry, this one is a little easier to explain. To find the width, I simply take a piece of scrap leather from the hide that I'm using for the project and wrap it around the cord. When you do this, make sure that there is an excess of 1/2inch to 3/8inch on each side to leave room for stitching. After doing this, whatever that width comes out to be is the needed width of your leather straps.

Step 2 - Glue the Handle

With the leather straps and cords cut out, you can now glue them together. Apply glue to the underside of the leather strips, but only put the glue where the cord will be. If you followed the previous steps, you'll have 8 inches on both ends that will remain unglued.

Then tightly pull up the leather on both sides, so the edges of the leather straps line up perfectly.

Once it's lined up, use binder clips to keep the leather together as the glue dries.

Step 3 - Fold the Endings

This is my favorite part because this is where the handles really start to come together.

Glue the endings and fold them upwards until they cover the end of the cord. You may need to tuck the leather into the indentation that is created, so that the edges line up perfectly.

If you're unable to line the edges up perfectly, you can always trim the excess, but with most leathers (especially supple ones) it shouldn't be necessary.  

Once you've folded the leather correctly, place a binder clip where the part you just folded over meets the cord.

Step 4 - Stitching

At this point, trimming excess leather is rather difficult, which is why I try to measure as precisely as I can in step one. If you feel you have too much excess leather along the edge of the strap, you can attempt to cut some of the excess off here. Just be warned that it is really difficult to get a clean straight cut. 

To start the stitching, I used a bone folder to create a line down the edge that is as close to the cord as possible. I typically run this line between the two points where the cord meets the ends that were created in the previous step. This leaves the ends unstitched, but I will rivet them to the bag later.

However, if you want to stitch the entire thing (ends included) you can. All you need to do is continue to run the line down one side of the ends. You'll start and end your stitch at the base of each end. Then you'll come back and make another stitching line on the other side of the end and stitch it with a separate piece of thread.

But returning back to what I did: I took a diamond chisel and create my holes, making sure to keep the chisel snug against the cord and perpendicular to the leather as I punch it through.

I then stitched from one end to the other, edge painted the edges, and riveted the handles to the bag. I don't want to get into stitching or edge painting much because this is just about handle construction. However you can learn how to stitching and edge paint here:

As I mentioned at the top of the post, when I switched over to this kind of bag, it increased the quality of the bag dramatically. I'm really anxious to see what kind of bags you make with corded handles. Feel free to drop a link to some pictures of a bag you made in the comments below or share it with me on Instagram or Facebook.

DIY Leather Rack

I don't know about you, but I live in a small apartment, and while I am lucky enough to have an entire room dedicated to leatherworking, space is premium. 

One thing that has continually taken up too much room is the sides of leather, which were previously still rolled up in the boxes they were shipped in and leaning up against the wall. It was definitely not the best way to store the leather, especially the firmer leathers. It's also an eye sore and source of clutter, which can inhibit my productivity. So I decided to make a rack I could hang the hides on.

This rack cost me about $200 to make. It's a bit more than I was hoping to spend, but still a worthwhile investment for my work space. A good amount of that $200 was spent on the galvanized pipe, and I imagine you could find a cheaper alternative.

Just a warning: I am not a wood worker. But I thought this might be helpful for other leatherworkers, so here's how I made it.

MATERIALS

  • 3 - 4ft x 5.5in Oak Boards
  • 2 - 16.5in x 5.5in Oak Boards
  • Wood Glue
  • Wood Putty
  • Sand Paper (1000, 800, 600, 200)
  • Polyurethane (I used matte)
  • Wood Stain (I used walnut)
  • Screws #8 1.25in
  • 4 - 3/4in Elbows
  • 4 - 3in x 3/4in Nipples
  • 4 - 6.5ft x 3/4in pipe
  • 1 - 3.5ft x 3/4in pipe
  • 4 - Industrial Wheels
  • 4 - 3/4in Floor Flanges
  • 2 - 3/4in Tees 
  • S Hooks
  • Drill + Drill Bits
  • Rotary Sander
  • Clamps

STEP 1

A light amount of glue on the bottom of the 16.5in boards.

A light amount of glue on the bottom of the 16.5in boards.

Boards clamped together after gluing.

Boards clamped together after gluing.

To get started, I put a thin layer of glue on the bottom sides of the two shorter boards and placed them on the ends of the three longer boards. After, I placed clamps on the ends to allow the glue to dry. You'll save yourself a ton of sanding work if you wipe of any excess glue that squeezes out after you've placed the clamps.

I don't have a ton of wood working tools, but for easiest/best results, I suggest using a longer clamp to keep the three long boards pressed together as well. Those kind of clamps are expensive, so I just made sure to keep the three long boards pressed together as I clamped on the two shorter pieces.


STEP 2

Apply wood putty.

Apply wood putty.

Sand smooth.

Sand smooth.

Once the glue had dried, I put wood putty in some of the cracks between the boards. After the putty had dried, I used a rotary sander to smooth everything out, round out the sharp edges, and eliminate the excess putty. I started with 1000 grit and worked my way down to 200ish.


STEP 3

Laying on my dog's bed while I apply stain to the underside of the base.

Laying on my dog's bed while I apply stain to the underside of the base.

Brushing on polyurethane.

Brushing on polyurethane.

I wiped down the boards with a slightly wet paper towel to get rid of any leftover sawdust. I then applied one coat of walnut stain with an old t-shirt and allowed it to dry. Finally, I brushed on a layer of matte polyurethane let it dry, and brushed on one final layer. Once it was all dry, I hit it with an extremely high grit sand paper to give it a nice smooth feel.


STEP 4

Drilling pilot holes.

Drilling pilot holes.

Screwing in the wheels on the bottom side of the base.

Screwing in the wheels on the bottom side of the base.

On the bottom side I drilled the pilot holes for the wheels and on the top side I drilled the pilot holes for the floor flanges. I put them roughly in the same area, so make sure that your holes don't line up on both sides. This can be achieved by rotating the floor flanges when marking the holes. For the floor flanges, I drilled the first hole 2in in from the long edge and .5in in from the short edge. For the wheels, I placed them 2in in from both edges, again making sure that the holes wouldn't line up on both sides. Finally, I screwed the wheels into place on the bottom side of the base.


STEP 5

The base of the leather rack where the floor flanges have been attached.

The base of the leather rack where the floor flanges have been attached.

The top of the leather rack where the leather hangs from. 

The top of the leather rack where the leather hangs from. 

Finally I put all the pipes together. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get a good picture of it all set up on the floor, but am hoping you guys will be able to see what I did through the first picture on this post and these two pictures here. The two 6.5ft pipes have the flanges on one end and the elbows on the other, Then the elbows have the 3in nipples attached and those are attached to a tee. Each sides tee is attached by the 3.5ft pipe.

Once I assembled the pipes, I then screwed the floor flanges into the wooden base. Finally I put grommets in my sides of leather and hung them up with the s hooks.

All in all this project was worth the time (which wasn't much) and money required to make it. It's been much better on my leather, which is no longer getting permanent creases in it from sitting upright in the box. And this rack doesn't take up much room at all, which is fantastic for the small size of my leatherworking room.

Add a Ton of Class to Your Leather Projects with Padding

One thing that is going to add a ton of class to your work is padding your leather.

It’s a skill that’s a lot like tying a tie. Not that hard to learn (sorry if your tie impaired), and it might take a YouTube video or two to help you figure out what you’re doing, but once you’ve got the basics putting on a tie is easy, quick, and adds a lot of class.

Recently I made this goal board to practice my padding, but mostly just for the hell of it. Because of the project itself, I wouldn’t describe the padding as ‘class,’ but it does look a lot better than just stitching the word goals into a flat piece of leather. To prove that padding really makes projects look classier, here’s a picture of a bag I recently made that is padded (see above). 

All that aside, I’ll be using this goal board to show you how to pad a project, because the skills are transferable to pretty much any leather project you’re hoping to pad.

I started this project by printing out the word in the font I wanted, then glued the paper to a piece of leather using a spray glue, and finally cut out each letter.

I started this project by printing out the word in the font I wanted, then glued the paper to a piece of leather using a spray glue, and finally cut out each letter.

Step 1: Choose the Size and Thickness of Your Padding

Whether are you are doing a weird letter project like I did, or you're padding a bag similar to the one at the top of the page, it's important to know to choose the right leather to achieve the look you're wanting.

You can pad your project by using two pieces of leather that are the same, with a different piece of leather sandwiched between. This is what I did the the briefcase. Other times, especially when using thinner leathers on the surface of your project, you'll want to have two different leathers picked out for the bottom pieces to go with your thin top piece. This way you're able to give the bag (or whatever you're making) some strength, while getting to use thin leather ( which really works the best when padding). This is what I did for the goal board, which is covered in a very thin pig skin.

Whichever method you choose, it's important to pay attention to the weight of your leather.

Thin Leather on Top (1-2oz or less): For instance, if you are using a very thin piece of leather for the top piece you can expect the padding to look just like it looked underneath the leather.

Thick Leather on Top (3oz+): However if you use a bit thicker of a leather, expect things to be less defined and a little more round. If you're doing lettering, the lettering will become bigger when you add the top layer, instead of being the same size.

For the Padding Itself (3oz-ish): I typically use 3oz leather for the padding, and have used 5oz leather once or twice in the past for a more dramatic difference. I think 3oz is the sweet spot though. Much smaller than that and there isn't much of a noticeable difference. Much more than that and it get's a little ridiculous looking and is hard to form the leather above around the padding. Keep in mind this is only a general guide line. For example, if you're just using 2oz leather, you might want to consider using padding under 3oz. 

Alright, now you can hopefully make an educated choice on how to choose the right leather for a padding project. If you're still having trouble making a decision, my personal rule is the more flexible the top layer is the better.

Step 2: Cut Out the Leather

After that I set the 3oz letters on to a 5oz piece of leather, making sure they were centered and spaced correctly.

After that I set the 3oz letters on to a 5oz piece of leather, making sure they were centered and spaced correctly.

This part is pretty straight forward. However, when you're deciding the length and width of your padding theres a few things to keep in mind.

The bottom piece will always be cut to the size you need for your project. If you need a 4x16in gusset, then the bottom piece will measure 4x16in. It's preferable that this piece is the most study piece of leather of the 3 pieces used. If you have a whole hide, cut this piece out from what was the back of the cow.

For the top piece of leather, I always cut it out bigger than I need. It's difficult to account for the extra length and width needed to cover the padding, and therefore better to make a piece that's too large and trim it afterward. It's helpful if this is a stretchier piece of leather. If you have a whole hide, cut this piece out from the belly area.

The middle piece of leather use for padding depends on what kind of leather you are using for the top piece:

Thin Leather on Top: As mentioned above, if you choose to go this route, the padded area will be the same size after you put the top layer on. This means you want the padding to be right up to where you stitching line will go. As an example, I usually set my stitching about 3/16th in. In this instance, the padding I cut out would be 3/16 shorter than the piece underneath it on every side. As a side note, I would avoid setting your padding too far back because it looks really odd.

Thick Leather on Top: For this you'll want to make the width and length of your padding a bit shorter to compensate for the thicker leather on top. If I'm using 5oz piece of leather, which is about 1/8in in thickness, I will take 1/8in off every side of the padding.

Step 3: Glue it All Together

Once the letters were glued on and that glue had dried, I covered the entire project in glue and placed a very thin pig skin on top.

Once the letters were glued on and that glue had dried, I covered the entire project in glue and placed a very thin pig skin on top.

You'll want to start by gluing the padding to the bottom piece of leather. Once the glue has dried, cover those pieces with glue and set the top piece on top. If you're using a thicker leather, I typically wet the surface a bit to help it bend around the padding a bit easier.

Step 4: Bone Folder

I then formed the leather around the letters using a bone folder and allowed the glue to dry. From there I marked my stitching lines, created the holes, and stitched the project. To finish the project, I trimmed off the excess pig skin and burnished the edges.

I then formed the leather around the letters using a bone folder and allowed the glue to dry. From there I marked my stitching lines, created the holes, and stitched the project. To finish the project, I trimmed off the excess pig skin and burnished the edges.

Once the top piece is placed, you'll need to make sure that it is formed to the padding underneath. All you need to do to pull this off is use a bone folder and press the leather around the padding. After it's been formed around the padding, make sure to apply pressure to the edges while the glue dries.

Step 5: Stitch


If you are stitching padding, the stitching is pretty straight forward. The only thing to keep in mind is making sure your stitching is up against where your padding ends.

I thought stitching wouldn't be that difficult for the lettering. I was wrong. So I figured I'd share some of the things I learned while doing it.

1) Make sure your font is big enough. If my font would've been much smaller the stitching would've gotten ugly.

2) Create holes at the corners first. If you don't make sure the clearly define the corners of each letter (for the letters that have a corner) then they end up not really looking like letters. I created the holes on the corners first and then spaced the holes in between as evenly as I could.

3) Be Aware of Inside Curves. This was especially the case with the 's.' On those tight inside curves, you have to make sure that your holes are placed perfectly. They need to be placed so curve still looks like a curve while maintaining your evenly spaced stitches. If I did this again, I would start on the inside curves of the 's' with my stitching.

Whether you're making some weird lettering project like I did, or you're adding padding to something to make it a little classier, I'd love to see what you're making. If you want, drop a link to your instagram account in the comments below, so I can check out your stuff. Or you can just tag @goldbarkleather in one of your photos.