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.

A Basic Guide to Burnishing

There are literally hundreds of ways to clean up the edges of your leatherworking projects. And most established leatherworkers have their own unique way to do their edges. Some spend a really long time getting a nice glossy and smooth finish, others prefer a more matte look that usually comes with using some sort of heating and edge paint, while others just keep them the way they are for a rugged look (I generally steer people away from unfinished edges, while some like the look, those edges will quickly fray). To find what you like, I really encourage you to do some google/instagram searching on different leatherworkers' shops and find a product you like. A lot of leatherworkers have posted guides on how they do their edges, and if they haven’t, most are easily accessible. The leatherworking community is a extremely helpful and generally willing to offer advice to others learning the skill, so don’t be afraid to reach out. You wouldn’t believe the countless people I’ve asked for help, and the immense help I’ve gotten while learning.

Even though everyone has their own flavor, below is a basic guide to burnishing edges.  A lot of people will add to this process and some do less than it, but doing this when your starting will keep your edges looking great and ensure you’ll be developing the skills you need to have when making your own edge formula.

Step 1: Cut Correctly

When you don’t make good, clean, and well measured cuts, your pieces won’t line up when you go to glue them together. This is common sense, but when just starting, there is a big temptation to rush it because 'cutting things out should be easy' and you’re eager to see the finished project. I get it, I’ve been there. But slow down, endure the frustration that sometimes accompanies learning something new and make good cuts. This is going to save you a lot of time and frustration later. Here’s a post that has some good tips for getting clean cuts.

Step 2: Glue

This is another thing that seems simple because you’ve been doing it since the first grade. And don’t worry, it's as simple as it seems. There are few things to be mindful of when you’re glueing though. One is to glue all the way to the edge. If you haven’t done this, your edges will start splitting apart during the burnishing process. The second is to keep in mind that the glue dries pretty fast, so don’t glue the entire project, and then put it together. Do a bit of gluing at a time, then place the pieces together, and then glue some more. Finally make sure to keep your glue straight. If you’re sloppy and over glue the item you're making (especially if it’s something like a wallet or bag than opens up) will not have the dimensions you'd planned for. If you do accidentally do this, you can rip it back apart but it’s not great on the leather. Cement glue is used for glueing leather. I use Seiwa Leathercraft Glue. 

Step 3: Cut again

At this point check your edges to make sure everything pretty much lines up. If things aren’t perfect that is okay because it will be cleaned up during the sanding process. Do make sure there isn’t an edge where one piece is noticeably longer than the other. If you find one, now is the time to take a knife and cut it back so the edges are flat.

Step 4: Bevel

If I’m going to use a stitching groover I use it before I bevel, when the edges are flat and lined up well. After I’ve done that I use a beveler. This helps to round out your edges. They won’t be perfect at this point, but it preps the leather to be rounded out by sand paper. If you don’t use a beveler before you burnish, the edges will start to fold over on themselves during the burnishing process. If you’re not sure what these two tools are or you don’t know what they do, you can read more about them here.

Step 5: Sand like a Maniac

This is what glue looks like when it needs to be sanded off. Click to enlarge photo.

Some people are pretty fanatic about how much they sand their edges, using lots of different grits to create their edges.  I use three different grits and I’ve been pretty happy with the result. When sanding make sure to only sand a short distance. This will help to keep your hand flat while sanding. As with beveling and cutting, the further your hand gets from your chest the more it starts to roll. I start with a 150 grit sand paper to shape the edges. This takes your edges from being more angular (from the beveling) to a round shape. While using this grit of sand paper there are two things you need to focus on. First the two pieces of leather that make your edge are sanded down to the same level and that they are rounded out. The second is that you sand off any access glue. You can see the glue when sanding because it will darken the color of the edges. Make sure you sand until the glue is completely gone. Any glue that is left won’t take the dye. After that I use 600 grit to get rid of any fibers that are sticking up. And finally I use 800 grit to get it nice and smooth.

Step 6: Dye

Generally I use the same dye that I used on the top side of the leather because edges naturally darken when being burnished. Applying dye to edges is a bit tricky because you only want to hit the edges and not the already dyed leather. Tandy has wool daubers that work alright, but I find it hard to control where the dye goes sometimes. Alternatively you can cut a small square piece off a sponge and clamp it with a wooden clothespin. 

Step 7: Burnish with A Wood Slicker

This is the part that is going to take some practice. Don’t worry though, you’ll feel like a champ once you get it down! Wet a short distance of your edge with a small amount of gum tragacanth. Set the edge inside the notch on your burnisher, making sure the notch you choose doesn’t pinch the leather as you are trying to burnish. Then run the burnisher briskly back and forth across the edge with out over extending your hand. Make sure to not put too much pressure on the edge itself. All you are trying to do is create heat through friction, not mash your edges. Do this until you hear a tacky sound. The sound is hard to describe, but you will know it when you hear it. Once you hear it you’ll know your edges have been burnished well. They should look glossy at this point.

Step 8: Apply Beeswax

I find this last step adds a nice shine to your edges. It doesn’t take long to do it and beeswax is really inexpensive. All you need to do is rub beeswax on all the edges and then buff it out with a small piece of canvas. At this point you've finished and your edges should look similar to the picture below.

The edge of a card holder I recently made. You can still see imperfections on the edge, but they're getting there. My desk, however, is a complete mess. 

The edge of a card holder I recently made. You can still see imperfections on the edge, but they're getting there. My desk, however, is a complete mess. 

Burnishing edges are difficult and was definitely a source of disappointment on my early projects. Finding edges that I liked and keeping those in mind as I wrestled with my crappy looking edges really helped me push through to learn the skills I needed for good looking edges. Keep being mindful of the details as you practice and learn and you'll soon have impressive edges.

As I mentioned above, I know there are a lot of ways to do edges well. If you have your own unique edge process I’d really love to check it out. Send me a link through email or drop it in the comments below.