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 Stitching Leather


Stitching is one of those things that is fundamental to leatherworking, and is pretty hard to explain through text. So, I figured instead of trying to explain everything through writing, I'd switch it up a little and throw a video in this time! If you don't know how to stitch leather yet, this video will walk you through step by step. And if you've already learned to saddle stitch but aren't 100% happy with how it looks, I'd encourage you to still check out the video because there's some tips in there for you as well.


Saddle stitching is the most popular way to sew leather by hand, and it's for good reason too. It is one of the most durable ways to stitch leather because it locks at every stitch you make. This way, if the thread breaks somewhere, only one stitch will come undone, as opposed to the entire line of stitching, like it does with a machine stitch. You can see how the thread locks at every stitch in this image below provided by Kinz Leather.


Before we jump right into stitching, let's first talk about how to thread your needle. It's nothing too hard, but here's some pictures to start off on the right foot.


This tutorial assumes that you've already created your stitching holes. To make sure that your make your stitching holes nice and straight, check out this post!

And that's it! Like I said, not that hard, right? Let me know what you think of the video, and please let me know if I can do anything to make it more helpful for you! If you'd like to learn about something else that would be best learned in video form, drop a suggestion in the comments below.

Making Your Stitching Holes Perfect

I’ve mentioned this before, but using diamond chisels will make a huge difference in your stitching early on.

They create consistent, accurate, and evenly spaced/sized holes. When learning, this is great because it puts all the attention on your stitching, not the holes. If you’re not happy with your how your stitching looks after using a chisel, you know it has something to do with the way you’re stitching and you can focus in on that. When trying both at the same time, it’s hard to know what is at fault because there are too many variables.

And even though diamond chisels make such great stitching lines, there are still are few circumstances where it is easy to mess them up. Unfortunately, with the great accuracy chisels offer, when you make these mistakes they stick out pretty noticeably, so here are a few tips to make sure your entire stitching line looks perfect.

I'll use this piece of scrap leather, that I've already created a stitching channel on, to help explain these three problems.

The most common places you will run into a problem is when starting your stitching line, creating holes approaching a sharp corner, and creating holes when going around a curve.


How to Start your Stitching Line

Generally, knowing where to start your stitching line is pretty simple. In some projects however, you want the stitching to go over the edge to prevent two pieces of leather from coming apart at a seam. Sometimes you can start the stitch too far away from the edge or too close, creating an uniform look when compared to the rest of the stitching. To fix this problem, you need to find where to place the first hole. To do this, set the diamond chisel in the channel you’ve already created with your groover, leaving the last tooth on the chisel just over the edge. Notice where the second tooth rests in the channel, now move the first tooth to this point. You've found your starting point.

Place the first tooth over the edge to find out where to start your stitching holes. (click to enlarge)

Move the first tooth over to where the second tooth was. This is where you want to start. (click to enlarge)

How to Create Stitching Holes Approaching a Sharp Corner

You always want the the stitching hole to rest in the corner of a 90 degree turn. If you do not do this, your thread will not follow the shape of your edges. But sometimes, when approaching a corner you realize that the natural spacing of your chisel is not going to create a hole that sits in that corner. So you have to adjust the spacing while still making it look natural. To do this, punch within three or four holes of the corner and then punch a hole at the corner. Using chisels with different amount of teeth, find out how many holes is too many. Then using a chisel with only one tooth, evenly space out the number of holes that is one less than what you decided was too many (i.e. if four was too many, create three holes) between the last hole you made and the hole at the corner.

Stop creating stitching holes before you reach the corner. Then put a hole in the corner. (click to enlarge)

Determine how many holes is too many by using chisels with different amounts of teeth. In this case 3 is too many. (click to enlarge)

Place the appropriate amount of holes in the space you've left (one less than what you decided was too many). I only created 2 in this case. (click to enlarge)

How to Create Stitching Holes Around a Curve

Punch holes along your stitching line until your chisel no longer rest within the stitching groove as you approach the curve. At this point, switch to a chisel with only two teeth. Setting one tooth in the last stitching hole you made, place the stitching groove as it follows the curve of the edge. Instead of using a hammer to create a hole at this point, press down to leave only an impression. Continue this process until you’ve go all the way around the edge. Then go back and create the hole using a chisel with only one tooth, keeping the top and the bottom of the diamond shape in line with the edges of the groove.

Stop creating stitching holes before you hit the curve. (click to enlarge)

Use a chisel with two teeth to mark out the distance between holes without actually creating them. (click to enlarge)

Come back with a one tooth chisel to make the holes making sure the top and bottom of the diamond match the edges of the stitching channel. (click to enlarge)

Most of these holes have not been punched through to their entirety. The three highlighted holes have been, and the difference is noticeable. (click to enlarge)

An Extra Tip for Perfecting Your Stitching Line

Sometimes I notice that the front of my stitching looks angled, just like it should be, but the back side looks flat, like a machine stitch. And if I'm going to spend all that time hand stitching, I want people to know. One cause of this can be the way that you are using your chisel. Often times I will fail to punch my chisel far enough through the leather. If you take a look at your chisel you can see where the blade of the chisel gradually turns into the diamond shape. It is not until that diamond shape is past the other side of the leather that the hole has been properly created. If you don’t push the chisel far enough through, the holes will look more like slits and less like diamonds. You can see the difference in the picture.


Working around curves, approaching a corner well, punching your chisel all the way through the leather, and starting your stitching lines right, should all go a long way in improving the overall look of your stitching lines. As always, I’m still learning and I know there are many other tips out there for making your stitching even better. If you have your own tip and want to help everyone who is part of this community get better, I invite you to put it in the comments below. I’d really love to hear from you.