Cutting leather is one of those things we don’t think about often, because it seems so elementary. But here’s a few things you can be intentional about to create cleaner cuts and save time when prepping your edges for burnishing.
1. Sharpen your knives… a lot. This is one of those things I dreaded doing most, but dull knives make terrible cuts. It seemed tedious, which is sometimes is. And it seemed like it would take forever to learn, which is also true. But it will make you better and you need to get in the habit of doing it. Start small and commit to sharping your knife for 5 minutes before every leather working session. Overtime you will build a skill for it. Make sure to check out this video to ensure you’re doing it right. If you’re using a rotary cutter the blades are obviously replaceable and you can buy sharpers for them that make sharpening easy. For beginners rotary cutters are great, but don’t let the idea of sharpening by hand prevent you from switching to a knife when the time comes. Using a knife gives you a lot more control and is well worth learning.
2. Make templates. When I first started leather working I measured and marked on my leather using a ruler and no template. This is dumb on a number of levels: you’re prone to mistakes, you haven’t thought through the entire project so you’ll think of things you need too late, and any mistake you make will be on leather instead of poster board. Instead make a template on poster board and make it neat so you can use it to trace it onto the leather with a compass or something similar. All my lines and therefore cuts were much cleaner after making this simple change.
3. Score. You should use a ruler to keep your cuts nice and straight, but sometimes rulers slip. This generally happens when you put too much force on my knife to achieve my cuts. There’s two things you can do to fix this. One is sharpening the knife (seriously go do it). The second is scoring the leather. Once I’ve traced my pattern onto my leather, I will run the knife over the lines lightly (still using my ruler to ensure a straight cut). After doing this I’ll then make my cut all the way through the leather. If your ruler does slip your knife will usually stay in the groove and prevent an expensive mistake.
4. Prevent your hand from rolling. Keeping your edges nice and flat will make beveling and burnishing that much easier. Ensure they are flat by keeping your blade perfectly perpendicular to the leather as you are cutting. This seems like common sense, yet your hand with naturally turn inward the further the cut gets away from you. Don’t over extend your arm as you cut to prevent this from happening.
5. Wet your edges. This is technically a beveling tip, but beveling is technically cutting… right? Anyways, some leather's grain (or surface), especially on soft leathers, will start to bunch as you bevel. This makes your edges look jagged instead of clean. Wetting your edges just before you begin beveling will keep the grain of the leather from puckering.
6. Rotate leather as you cut rounded corners. Cutting rounded corners can be tricky with out a punch to create a clean edge for you. If you’re using a knife, you can create smoother edges by rotating the leather as you cut the corner instead of moving your knife around the corner. If you’re right handed, push down on the leather with your left hand and turn your hand slowly and smoothly clockwise while pushing your right hand forward. If it still looks a little blocky you can always come back and sand it, but better to get it right the first time. For those of you who are sewing cloth bag linings, this same skill is used to make rounded corners.
I really hope these tips help make your cuts cleaner. If I left anything out, be sure to let me know in the comments. And I love to see some before and after pictures of your cuts!