Cutting Corners

This title is literal.

Corners are some of the most difficult cuts you’ll make in leatherworking, both rounded and sharp. One problem that I had early on is that I would cut my corners at the same speed and with the same presence of mind that I gave my straight cuts. The bad part is, I needed to be giving my straight cuts more than I was giving them... so you can imagine how bad my corners looked. I’ve since slowed down, and have really given some thought to how I’m making my cuts. Hopefully checking out a few of the methods and tricks people use to cut corners, will help you make that transition from rushing to giving all your details attention.


Method One: Cutting a Sharp Corner

This is the easiest corner to cut. And you could just use a ruler and make the cut with a rotary cutter. Your corner will look good doing this, but you’ll inevitably cut past where the corner ends and into the rest of your leather. When you’re using inexpensive leathers this may not seem like a big deal, but it’s better to learn how to do this prior to switching to more expensive leathers than while you’re making the transition. To make sure your cut ends right at the corner, set the point of your blade (either head/round knife or x-acto knife) in the corner. Then, lay your ruler along one of the lines and make your cut. Once you’ve completed that cut, go back and again set the point of your blade on the corner. Now set down your ruler along the other line and make that cut.

First mark out your corner (click to enlarge).

Set the point of your blade in the corner (click to enlarge).

Line up your ruler and make the cut (click to enlarge).


Method Two: Washer CorneRS

Washers are cheap, available in many sizes, and are (obviously) round. All this makes them great guides for cutting rounded corners. My one suggestion for this is not to use an expensive knife while doing it, and instead use something disposable, like an x-acto, to make the cut. This way you avoid nicking and damaging good knives. To do this, I usually cut out the piece of leather using the previous method, leaving the corner sharp. Then, I set the wash in the corner. If you notice in the picture, I leave a very small space between the edge and the washer to leave room for the blade. From my experience, if you put the washer right on the edge, the cut will look a little jagged where the curve meets the straight line. Once you’ve set the washer in the correct spot, press down and make your cut, pulling into the washer to keep the blade from drifting. I really love the results I get using this method. As you can see from the picture, the curve turns out very smooth.

I usually cut out a piece with a 90 degree corner. Then I place the washer. Notice the small gap (click to enlarge).

Press down and make the cut (click to enlarge).

This is the result (click to enlarge).


Method Three: Free Hand

This is, with out a doubt, the hardest way to do it, but it’s not a bad skill to develop. To do this, place your left hand (assuming your cutting with the right) inside the curve. Place your blade at the end of the curve closest to you. Then, while slowly pushing your blade forward, rotate your left hand to slowly move the leather. The trick is making sure both motions are smooth and uninterrupted. It’s definitely hard to do and I’m still on the early stages of learning this one.

Mark out your curve (click to enlarge).

Slowly push the blade forward while rotating the leather with your left hand (click to enlarge).

Not the best corner, but it's getting there (click to enlarge).

Method Four: Curve by 1000 Cuts

The last, and most popular way is to take a blade (usually I see rotary cutters, and I do think they work best for this method) and make many straight cuts along the curve. The trick to this is to make sure not to cut too much at once. It’s a lot of little straight cuts that will make a curve, not three or four. Make sure to keep your blade perpendicular to the leather, otherwise you may accidentally tilt the blade inward while making the cuts. This is a really easy mistake to make. When this happens, the top side of the leather will look good, but because you cut at an angle, the bottom will not be the same shape. If you make this mistake, you can always go back with the rotary cutter and clean it up by repeating this method.

Cut out the piece of leather and leave the corner on (click to enlarge).

Then make cuts along the curve like the ones marked here (click to enlarge).

This is how the edges turned out. A little jagged, but round. Sanding will smooth this out (click to enlarge)

Here are the three methods side by side. The left is the multiple cuts, the middle is free hand, and the right was made using the washer. For me, the washer edge turned out the best (click to enlarge).

Don’t Forget to Sand

All edges should be sanded anyway during the burnishing process, but it helps to sand right after cutting a curve. This way, when you go to glue to pieces of together, the edges will be similar and only need a little more sanding. I sand curves by pulling 150 grit sandpaper around the curve in one direction only. With a grit that low, it doesn’t take long get them smoothed out.

Slowing down and really giving attention to every detail is what makes a project great. So here’s to developing skills and thoughtfulness at the most basic levels of leatherworking.

And as always if you have another method, or questions for me, please contact me. I’ve had some great conversations with people who have reached out so far!