Working with Thin Leathers

Each piece of leather is unique and in general just has a lot of character. It’s what I love about leather. Somewhere along the way though, I had failed to apply that beyond just the look of leather. In other words, yes, each piece of leather looks different, and you can get many different kinds of leather that have been tanned differently, but that also means you need to treat them differently when working with them. I quickly found out that some of the skills I learned working with a very thick and stiff piece of leather, didn’t really apply to kinds of leathers that were thin and soft (even though it was still veg tanned). So let’s talk about working with thin leathers.

When cutting thin leathers: use a rotary cutter.

Unlike thicker leathers, soft leathers can snag if you don’t have a good balance between moving the blade downward and forward. This problem really only rears it’s head if your blade is dull, which is sometimes the case because I’ve yet to master sharpening. For this reason, I usually use a rotary cutter when it comes to thinner leathers. The blade itself is thinner than that of a round knife (especially a dull one) and has much less of a tendency to snag. If your blade of your rotary cutter is dull, they are easy to replace and easy to sharpen with a rotary blade sharpener. Alternatively, you could be really good at sharpening… I’ll get there one day!

When dying edges on thin leathers: use edge paint.

When I first started I don’t think I really understood the point of edge paint. It just seemed like something that was easier to mess up. Well no surprise, it actually has advantages, hence it’s popularity. The reality is that a lot of thin leathers, especially soft/supple ones just don’t burnish well. The fibers are simply too loose. So instead of using dye, that sinks into the leather and still allows you to burnish the leather itself, why not use something you sits on top of the leather and burnish that instead. This is the strength of edge paint. It adheres to, but doesn’t sink into the leather the way dye does, and is very easily burnished. It also tends to look much smoother than dyeing, unless you’re really proficient at sanding your edges smooth. That said, I find edge painting to be trickier than dyeing. As I mentioned, it’s easy to mess up, so make sure your using the right applicator (which Tandy sells for cheap). Before burnishing the paint you also need to make sure you build up a few layers of it. I plan to write a post about this a little bit later, but for now the general process is this:

When burnishing thin leathers: don’t use a burnisher.

Example of a mashed edge, even if a bit exaggerated.

This especially applies to thin leathers that aren’t soft and supple. Because of the downward force that a burnisher needs to create friction (especially when doing it by hand) the edges often get pushed down too hard and keep that shape because it’s a rigid leather. You can sometimes get away with it on very supple leathers, because they don’t hold shape well, but usually won’t burnish anyways. There’s a few ways to get around each of these problems.

Use a piece of canvas instead of a wooden burnisher. Often times I’m more pleased with my results from canvas anyways, but this is especially the case with thin leathers. The reality is that you can create a lot more heat with canvas with a lot less downward force. Basically, you can burnish with out mashing your edges. 

Using a wooden burnisher on a flat surface.

You can still use a wooden burnisher, but you’ll have to use it differently. To prevent a lot of force coming down on top of the edge, you can instead lay the piece of leather down and use the burnisher alongside it. This keeps the direction of your movement purely going across the edge, instead of into it. Do make sure to flip the piece of leather and do both sides of the edge.

When stitching thin leathers: cast the thread over your needle.

A lot of the times when you see a project made of thin leather, you’ll see one side of the stitching be very diagonal, but the other side be very flat. This is because the the threads don’t have a enough space to twist around the other before coming out the other side. One way I’ve heard it suggested to get around this problem is casting the thread over your needle before you start the stitch. It’s a little confusing, but it’s explained well here. After talking to some leatherworker friends and trying it out myself, I don’t think this always fixes the problem and think it may just be something you have to deal with. But, it is definitely worth trying out yourself. If you find a solution, let me know and drop it in the comments below.

Another small tip in addition to this: make sure you’re not pulling your thread too tight as you finish off your knot. On thiner leathers this can actually cause the leather to bunch. And in addition to your leather being ugly from bunching, your stitching will look uneven as well. So, tighten your knot with constant force, but not with all the force you have.

When beveling thin leathers: don't

Awhile ago, I had used a burnisher on a project made from thin leather and in addition to the edges getting mashed, the surface of the leather began to fold over. This can happen even if your using a piece of canvas. So naturally, I thought I’ll just use a beveler and get rid of it. Well… my beveler was a little bit too serious for a thin piece of leather, and I ended up just cutting off the entire edge. I know there are bevelers with a slighter angle that won’t cut as deep, but in general I don’t think it’s a good idea to bevel thin and supple leathers. Supple leathers especially don’t bevel well, and the process generally creates lots of snags. Instead I’ll usually sand those edges round with a high grit sand paper. It is a lot easier to make a mistake doing this by slipping and sanding the surface of the leather, so make sure you’re controlled when you do it. I start by sanding the top of the edge like you normally would, and then slowly angle my hand downward so I’m hitting the edge of the edge. I’m not sure that last sentence made sense, so here’s a picture to help out!

What I mean by "edge's edge."

Sanding the edge.

Sanding the edge's edge.

Sanding the edge's edge.

It’s really easy to get frustrated when you’re learning and working with different kinds of leather. You thought you had finally got your burnishing down (seriously it took me to long) only to fail at it on your next project that was made with a different leather. When you’re first starting it’s easy to think the problem is a lack of proficiency, which is generally the case, but do keep in mind it could be the type of leather. Hopefully these tips about beveling, stitching, burnishing, dyeing, and cutting thin leathers will help you keep your attention on what skills you need to keep practicing, as you work with many different kinds of leathers.

Getting the Most Out of Cheap Leather

Craftsman Oak is the cheapest version of leather that Tandy sells. And it’s no secret that it’s rough, but that’s a good thing when you’re beginning. The low quality is why they are so cheap, and cheap leather is great leather to practice on.

But just because you receive it in rough shape doesn’t mean you can’t make the best of it. While Craftsman Oak is a far cry from say, Horween’s leather (which will cost you a heck of a lot more), you can still create beautiful pieces with it. It just takes a little more coaxing.

I used Craftsman Oak a lot when I was learning. And I started to notice similar problems with each of them, and eventually learned how to deal with those problems. Hopefully this list helps you create beautiful end products, even though you are still learning with cheap leather.


Problem #1: Holes, Scars, and Folds

Top side blemish.

Top side blemish.

Check for blemishes on the underside as well.

Check for blemishes on the underside as well.

Solution: Any piece of cheap leather is going to have these defects, but these defects don’t  need to make their way into your project. If you’re creating something small like a wallet, it’s easy to cut around these defects no matter what cut of leather you purchased. If you are wanting to make something larger, like a bag, you need to get a bigger cut of leather. You’ll have a hard time finding enough space without blemishes on a smaller piece, even if it is technically enough leather for the project. When you’re inspecting the leather, prior to buying it, make sure there is enough distance between the blemishes to fit the pieces of your project.


Problem #2: Too Stiff

Solution: There are ways to lessen this, but just know you aren’t go to make an extremely stiff pieces of leather extremely flexible. It’s more like, it was once really stiff and now its just sort of stiff. Putting oil on the leather prior to sealing it with a wax cream will help loosen it up. There are a number of different oils you can use, but I like to use olive oil because I always have it around. Also, unlike some other oils, olive oil will not darken the leather too much.

Don’t be afraid to be generous with the oil. Depending on the leather, it will take a decent amount of oil to start seeing results. Just make sure you apply it evenly because it does darken the leather a small amount. Using a sponge is a great way to apply both oils and dyes.


Problem #3: Feels like Cardboard

This is the topside of two different pieces of leather. The one on the left looks as it should, while the one on the right almost looks like its the underside due to how coarse it is.

This is the topside of two different pieces of leather. The one on the left looks as it should, while the one on the right almost looks like its the underside due to how coarse it is.

Solution: First of all don’t panic. I remember getting a piece of leather that I had shipped to my house (go in to the store if you can), and thinking that the top layer had been skived off somehow. It hadn’t, it was just insanely coarse. Go ahead and dye it just like you would any other piece of leather and then make sure to be generous when you apply the carnauba cream. You may have to give it a few coats, but you can get it looking healthy again.

If it still looks and feels coarse after applying a few coats of carnauba cream, you can also take your slicker/burnisher and buff the surface of the leather by running it quickly back and forth across the top of the leather. This will give it a shinier look.


Problem #4: Messy Underside

Neither of these would be considered high quality, but you can tell the one of the left definition has messier fibers. Be sure to matte down the fibers in both situations.

Neither of these would be considered high quality, but you can tell the one of the left definition has messier fibers. Be sure to matte down the fibers in both situations.

Solution: I thought way to long about how to get a joke out of that problem title, no luck. Anyway, on really nice pieces of leather none of the fibers on the underside will be sticking up, but on cheap pieces of leather that is not the case. Some craftsman oak cuts aren’t too bad, but then again there are some that are really bad. If that is the case, just take a slicker/burnishing tool and run it back and forth across the back of the leather with gum tragacanth to matte down the fibers. It won’t be as nice as a quality piece of leather and after some use the fibers will stick up a little, but it still makes a noticeable difference.

These are just some of the things I did to get more out of the craftsman oak leathers. Adding oils and waxes, cutting around blemishes, and matting down loose fibers really helped increase the quality of my early projects. But I know there are more tips out there on how to work with this kind of leather. If you’ve come up with any, or heard of any, share them in the comments below - they just might get added to this list and, even better, help everyone here. 

Where to Buy Leather When You're Just Starting

My First Experience Buying Leather

When I bought my first piece of leather, I was an idiot. Christmas had just ended and I had a little spending money to purchase the leather for my first project. So naturally, I opened up Google and typed in something like 'buy leather for leatherworking.' Tandy was the first search result. Once there I looked around their leathers and decided on a medium quality leather, because who wants to buy the crappy stuff. Finding a cut in my price range, I hit order, filled in my information and was done. I had successfully ordered my first piece of leather... sort of. The reality was I didn't even know what kind of leather I needed. I didn’t know which parts of the hide I needed (yup it matters… more than you’d think). I didn’t know what tannery to get my leather from, and didn't really even know that they used widely different processes. And then what the hell is chrome tanned anyways.

When the leather arrived it was perhaps the ugliest piece of leather I'd seen, and that's only been reinforced by my experience since. It was mangled, loaded with creases, bent, and the grain on the flesh side stuck out a good half inch. Since then I've learned a lot about purchasing leather, and have bought a lot cheaper pieces that are a lot better quality. So, now that I have a bit of experience under my belt, I wrote down some tips to help you not be an idiot too:

Buy cheap

Sometimes I get really excited about a project and dream big, which is great, except that it means I overlook how tough some of the details are. When you are new, you have to come to terms with the fact that you are going to make mistakes no matter how hard you try. Things you won’t even think of will go wrong… something weird like your brown dye coming out with a green sheen. Make your mistakes on cheap leather. There’s nothing worse than making an incorrect cut or screwing up the dying process on a piece of leather you just dropped $300 on. If you’ve got money to waste, feel free to waste it on a custom order from my shop, not on expensive mistakes.

Tandy is great for buying cheap leather.

Tandy Leather is a leather retailer for hobbyists located close to major cities in the US. Here is their website:

I view Tandy in the same way that I view McDonalds. When I was in college, spending a bunch of time learning and had little money for anything, $3 meals were greatest thing known to man. But all good things must come to an end, especially if they will end you. And so I don’t eat McDonalds any more because I don’t want to die at 30. Tandy is great for learning - it’s great because you can leather extraordinarily cheap, but just know the leather is cheap for a reason, and one day you will have to mature and branch out to keep growing as a craftsman.

Here’s a few things to know when buying leather from Tandy.

1. Their cheapest leather is called Craftsman Oak. That’s the one you want. It will have scars on it, spots where the leather got mangled in the machine, poor grain, and maybe even some brands on it. All those defects knock down the price and make it great leather to learn with. 

2. Tandy is always having sales. I don’t think I’ve ever gone to Tandy and not seen a cut of their Craftsman Oak on sale. Sometimes it's the single shoulder, sometimes it's the side, sometimes it’s the belly, etc, but something is always on sale. As I write this, they have double shoulders on sale for $60. Look for those sales - just make sure it’s the right cut for what you are doing.

3. Craftsman Oak leathers aren’t from the same place. They grab the leather that doesn’t make the cut from different tanneries and lump them together and sell them as Craftsman Oak. As is the case with all leathers from different tanneries, they don’t dye the same, don’t burnish the same, and generally have a different rigidity. Most these things can be dealt with. However, when you are learning and one day burnishing is easy and the next it’s suddenly unworkable, it’s very hard to track your progress. That’s why I suggest buying a larger piece of leather (sides work for this). A bigger piece of leather will be enough for multiple projects, which gives you a consistent experience with the leather and better track your progress.

4. Any other leather at Tandy is generally overpriced. Tandy does offer higher quality leathers, but I don’t suggest buying them there. Once you feel comfortable that you won’t make many costly mistakes, it’s time to buy from a tannery that works with smaller customers.

5. Go in if you can. This is one of the really great things about Tandy. They are all over and if you live close to a big city there’s a good chance you can find a Tandy nearby. When you go in, you get to check out all the variables yourself. You get to see for yourself how big the piece of leather is, which actually varies a lot. You can see how tough or how supple it is. You get to see what the gain on the back looks like. You get the idea.

6. If you cannot go in, or you are really trying to keep things inexpensive use Tandy Leather Outlet Note the outlet at the end. This is different than Tandy’s online store. It’s all the leather they couldn’t sell. And it’s incredibly cheap. I once bought a really ugly pre-dyed side of leather for $30. Sure it was ugly but I got so much experience out of it. Here’s something I made with it early on.

And that’s it.

Buying cheap leather is the best choice when you are starting off and Tandy is a really good place to find it. Hopefully these tips help you get the most out of your experience at Tandy. But even with the tips I know that navigating buying leather for the first time can be intimidating, so if you want any help at all just let me know by dropping your question in the comments below or sending me an email. I also know that I probably didn’t cover all the questions that you have about buying leather. What’s your one question about buying leather?

As I mentioned above, I still have a lot more tips for buying leather for people new to leatherwork that I will be writing about over the new couple of weeks. I post every Tuesday and Thursday, but if you want to make sure not to miss these posts, I encourage you to sign up for our newsletter.