How To Get Started With Traditional Leatherwork
To kick off 2018 i’m writing about one of the biggest and honestly, most vague (because it’s pretty broad) questions that I get and that I see other people asking all of the time.
And that is...HOW TO GET INTO LEATHERWORK.
People want answers and they want them fast, but the truth is there are many different types of leatherwork and they require different skillsets and tools.
Let me first start by telling you how I got into leatherwork and then as we go I can tell you all about:
The different types of leatherwork (because there are a few main types)
How to get into those types of leatherwork
What your basic materials and tools needed for each type of leatherwork
And the importance of learning the proper techniques like, preparation steps, saddle-stitching and edge finishing.
Wow thats a lot, but this is after all an ultimate post to help you get started.
So lets dive in.
HOW I GOT STARTED WITH LEATHERWORK
I got started with traditional leatherwork after taking a week long workshop from a master leather artisan in California back in 2012.
This leather artisan apprenticed at Hermès straight out of highschool in France and continued to work for Hermès for 12 years.
I actually got the opportunity to take this workshop through my employer at the time who was paying all of the costs!
This was lucky because the course was not cheap!
About $1500 for the week plus airfare and hotel costs.
But looking back, I would have to say that this was a very small price to pay to have received such an amazing foundation in traditional leatherwork.
Instead of struggling through and trying to figure leatherwork out on my own for months or years,
I was lucky enough to come across her course and have the opportunity to learn all of the best European traditional leatherworking techniques right off the bat, straight from the source!
Not only did I learn how to make patterns, cut leather, make stitching guides, using pricking irons and finish my edges like a European pro, but I also learned the importance of craftsmanship and practice through my teachers lessons.
I can be a perfectionist but she took it to another level.
During that week long course I made 4 projects (which was fast for a beginner, thank you very much) and at each step of the way, she would meticulously check my work.
I learned after trying to cut some corners on my finishing technique on the first project that this was just not going to fly.
She would say, "No, redo it."
Or, "No, cut a new piece of leather. This is not perfectly straight."
Just having someone with that kind of perfectionist mentality to encourage me to always be doing my best work was so so helpful (a little irritating at the time) but it just really was ingrained in me during that week that
if you’re going to put in the time and effort but not do the work properly or to the best of your ability, then just don’t bother doing it at all.
Like it's not worth it.
And I honestly believe this.
This is why in my course, MASTERING TRADITIONAL LEATHERWORKING BASICS, I go over the exact tedious principles and steps that you must take in order to get that very clean and perfect end result that is found in traditional leatherwork.
And as a result of my interaction with my teacher, I don’t encourage cutting corners either.
So on my final day of class, my teacher to my surprise said that if I ever came to live in CA I had a job working with her.
I was flattered that this highly skilled woman, would give me that opportunity to continue to learn and work with her after examining my work with a magnifying glass for just that week.
I had gotten a stamp of approval of sorts from my master leatherworker teacher and I've got to stay, I considered moving to CA but leaving NY at that time was just not an option.
So that was it. I had the bug and decided to continue learning on my own.
I developed a real passion for traditional leatherwork after that course and immersed myself into researching different methods and continued to study advanced techniques anyway I could.
What I found was that there is a lot of information on leatherwork out there, as you probably already know.
There are countless videos on youtube, and articles and blog posts on different methods and leatherworking techniques.
But having already experienced the craftmanship and methods passed down for a few hundred years, I couldn’t help but be dissatisfied with most of the articles and research that I found on the subject of traditional leatherwork.
The truth is, there is not a ton of quality info on traditional European based methods of leatherwork.
Now that's not saying that there aren’t some very talented leatherworkers online, because obviously there are.
But there is also a lot of leatherworkers who weren't using methods that are focusing on craftsmanship and perfection that traditional European leatherworking calls for.
THE 4 MAIN TYPES OF LEATHERWORK
So what I found when researching leatherwork for the past 4 years is that there are 4 main types of leatherwork that searching for “leatherwork” will give you.
Those 4 types are...
European traditional leatherwork
American western leatherwork
Primitive leatherwork (for lack of a better term)
So before you get started in leatherwork, you need to have some idea of what TYPE of leatherwork that you’re interested in.
And 4 of these are all valid types.
The one you choose completely depends on your preference.
EUROPEAN TRADITIONAL LEATHERWORK
European traditional leatherworking methods are based on European (obvi) methods that saddlers had been using for hundreds of years.
(I say had, because I think at this point there are many shortcuts that are being used.)
This type of leatherwork uses the saddlestitch and generally uses pricking irons which gives the stitches that trademark slanted and refined appearance.
This type of leatherwork also calls for linen thread instead of synthetic thread.
The method of stitching for European methods differs from the American western method slightly and is due to the difference in tools used to create the stitch marks.
In the European method pricking irons are generally use which create a stitch mark on the leather.
Pricking irons do not pierce the leather all the way through.
During saddle-stitching, a diamond point awl is used to create the actual hole for stitching.
This method requires the most practice and skill to get to a level where the work looks professional and neat on both the front side and the back side of the work.
This is the method that I learned from my master leatherworker teacher and it took quite a bit of practice to produce an even and uniform stitch.
It's not an impossible obviously, but this method does require quite a bit of practice and skill.
You’ll also might have noticed that traditional European methods generally use an edge creaser to create a then indentation down the length of a seam right next to the stitching.
This is another beautiful added detail of traditional leatherwork that helps to set the european leatherwork apart from other types of leatherwork.
AMERICAN WESTERN LEATHERWORK
American Western leatherwork also uses the saddlestitch but it can have a more straight stitch appearance and sometimes the tool used creates little circles instead of slanted holes.
This is what sometimes gives it more of a straight stitch appearance rather then the slanted stitch appearance of traditional leatherwork.
Using these tools instead of pricking irons also is what changes the method of saddlestitching slightly.
Using stitching chisels or punches both creates the stitching mark or placement and the stitching hole in the leather.
The stitching chisel does pierce the leather all the way through.
Since the hole is made ahead of time this removes the need for the diamond point awl during stitching.
This also decreases the coordination and skill level necessary to create a perfect set of stitches.
Western types of leathergoods also tend to use thicker thread and synthetic nylon or polyester thread is often used.
Tooling is the 3rd main type of leatherwork.
It's a bit of an outlier, because tooling refers not to how an item is stitched or constructed but more to the decorative elements that the leather is treated with.
I am calling it out as a main type of leatherwork because of the great amount of people who focus on this part of leatherwork and who make incredible designs on their leathergoods.
Usually leather tooling is done in conjunction with American western style of traditional leatherwork.
Leather tooling refers to decorative patterns and designs that are stamped using metal tools and a hammer into vegetable tanned leather.
Vegetable tanned leather is the only type of leather that can be tooled and hold the impression of the stamp.
The last type of leatherwork, which i’ve added because while it is not something that I practice nor do you need a ton of skill to do it, it is a functional method of creating useful leathergoods.
These are leathergoods that are made with function and utility in mind first and foremost.
These leathergoods often are made with rough cuts of leather and constructed with simple running stitches using a thread and needle.
There are no special tools or methods required.
The person making something with this method might be using a nail or some other non-specific tool to make holes where a thread could be sewed through.
These items, while they often do not end up looking like a luxury or professional leathergood like European and Western leatherwork, they do have their own merit in that the item is simple, utilitarian and functional.
HOW TO CHOOSE YOUR LEATHERWORKING TOOLS.
So once you know which type of leatherwork that you would like to explore and get into, then you have a starting point for where your research can begin which might start with tools.
The basic tools that you will need will vary depending upon what type of leatherwork you’re interested in getting into.
EUROPEAN TRADITIONAL LEATHERWORK TOOLS
Some of the basic tools and materials that you’ll need for traditional leatherwork are:
Slanted pricking irons or stitching chisels
Diamond point awl
Saddlers harness needles
Sand paper in varying grits
Barge glue or contact cement
AMERICAN WESTERN LEATHERWORK TOOLS
The tools required for American western type of leatherwork are similar to the European traditional leatherwork tools but the main differences would be:
Stitching chisels or punches are used instead of slanted pricking irons
Diamond point awl is not necessary as the method for saddlestitching requires that the hole is created upfront using the punches instead of during stitching.
An edge creaser is not commonly used in American Western leatherwork
Nylon or synthetic thread is often used instead of linen thread
The tools required for tooling are various metal stamps, each with its own design or symbol.
These stamps can be used over and over again to create geometric or repeating patterns.
Tooling can also refer to using sharp tools to carve the leather and create freeform images and drawing in the leather.
I honestly don't do too much tooling myself, but maybe down the line it's something that i'd like to get into more.
PRIMITIVE LEATHERWORK TOOLS
For the primitive type of leatherwork, your very basic non-specific tools are required.
Hammers, nails, needles and thread and any other type of resourceful items can be used to cut leather, create stitching holes and stitch the leather pieces together.
I have seen videos of people getting very creative with how they're constructing these pieces.
2 WAYS TO CHOOSE THE BEST TYPE OF LEATHER
So now you might have a better sense of which type of leatherwork you want to explore and what tools are generally needed for each type, we can talk about the 2 main ways to choose the leather that you'll work with.
As you probably already know, no piece of leather is going to cover all of your project bases.
Different leathers have different uses based on their individual physical properties.
There are soo many different types of leather that it can become a little overwhelming at first glance, but if you’re just getting started there are 2 main things that you can look for when choosing a piece of leather for your project.
Leather weight and leather grade are the 2 main things that will help you determine what a piece of leather would be good for your project.
Once you become a little more seasoned leatherworker, other things will become more important for you to realize about your leather choices as well.
Leather weight refers to to thickness of a piece of leather, not the overall weight if you were to put it on a scale.
In the US we use ounces (oz) to describe the thickness and in Europe they tend to use millimeters (mm).
So when I first started purchasing leather I was really confused.
How am I supposed to know what an 8oz piece of leather feels or looks like?
I learned by trial and error.
I started picking up scraps on ebay and ordering samples of leather from tanneries and eventually was able to figure out what leather of a certain ounce felt like.
What I found was that the larger the oz size the thicker the leather.
A 3oz piece of leather is on the thinner size and almost the weight of denim or heavy canvas and would be good for a lining or gloves.
An 8oz piece of leather is quite thick and more rigid and more appropriate for a belt or straps on a handbag.
So with most leather, the larger the oz the thicker the leather and the thicker the leather the stronger and more rigid the leather.
So keeping in mind the usage of the item that you want to make will help you determine how light or heavy of a piece of leather you might need.
Leather grade refers to the quality of the leather.
Full grain and top grain are your highest quality and best types of leather to use.
What makes these leathers the best quality is that they have minimal processing done to them during the tanning and finishing processes.
This leaves them the most intact and untouched, which is a good thing.
Leather is a natural material and each piece has it's own unique markings and grain characteristics.
These unique markings are usually highlighted and celebrated which makes full and top grain leather the most sought after and the most expensive as well.
Leather types like veg tan, bridle, harness are all types of full and top grain leathers.
And some types of leatherwork like tooling for example, require very specific types of leather.
Leather tooling can only be done on vegetable tanned leather because this type of leather will retain the impression that the stamp leaves.
So you need to know what it is that you want to make before choosing a piece of leather.
Let your project speak to you and tell you which type of leather would be best.
Does it need to be strong and rigid? Then choose a heavy weighted leather.
Does it need to be thin and malleable? Then choose a lighter weight leather.
There are of course many other things that also come into play when choosing a leather like the part of the animal that the leather is cut from.
If you're getting a belly piece, it's going to be stretchy and spongy.
If you're getting a piece of the back or the butt, this is going to be a very strong piece of leather.
As you get more experienced these other factors involved in choosing leather will become more important to pay attention to.
MASTERING LEATHERWORKING METHODS
When you know what type of leatherwork you want to focus on and you’ve collected your tools and leather materials that you’ll need, the next thing that you want to think about is your technique.
Now obviously the type of leatherwork that you’re doing plays a huge part in the technique that you’ll use.
And skill level and technique really ranges from each type of leatherwork.
With the primitive type of leatherwork, not much technique is needed at all.
You're more dependent on your own resourcefulness and using the tools, materials and methods that you have at your disposal or that you’re making up on your own.
These leathergoods might not always be pretty on the eyes, but any sort of method that you can dream up and basic needle and thread straight stitching will pass muster with the primitive type of leatherwork.
Traditional leatherwork is a little different and requires you to have a lot of skill and technique to create the kind of work that would pass muster with my master leatherworker teacher.
A great importance is placed on each step and the order of steps that you do things is also very important.
For instance there are the preparation steps that you must do before you begin to saddle-stitch.
These steps include cutting your pattern, cutting your leather, creating stitching guides and stitching marks and gluing your pieces as needed.
With each one of these steps there are specific techniques to accomplishing them if you want the very traditional high quality results.
Other techniques to learn in traditional leatherwork include the use of wax.
Wax create a natural barrier that repels water and moisture.
Using wax to coat your thread helps to prevent moisture from seeping into your seams and rotting your stitches.
Rotten stitches equals.. your project falls apart prematurely.
By coating the thread with wax first, you are creating a barrier to moisture that the leathergood might be exposed to down the road.
Wax is also used the in the finishing steps in traditional leatherwork.
Once your project has been stitched and is basically done there are a series of steps that must be completed on the edges of your project.
The edge finishing steps consist of sanding, dyeing, waxing and burnishing many times until your edge becomes smooth and shiny.
The finishing steps is like the cherry on top.
If you’ve finished your stitching and you think you’re done, i've got news for you.
If you're doing traditional leatherwork, you're not done yet!
The finishing steps are one part of traditional leatherwork that I see people skip all of the time.
Which is too bad because the steps are tedious but so easy to do.
The finishing steps consist of sanding, waxing, dyeing and burnishing the edges both for aesthetic and functional reasons.
Similar to the reasons that we wax our thread, using wax in the edge finishing step also creates a barrier to moisture and helps to prevent the same kind of moister seeping in and causing thread rot.
It is such a shame when I see people put so much work and effort into their leatherwork but they forget to finish the edges.
By not waxing your edges you're missing a very simple technique that can help to preserve your work, not to mention make it look more polished and neat.
It's a very simple technique and once you start finishing your edges, wax will become an integral part of your traditional leatherwork technique.
MASTERING TRADITIONAL LEATHERWORKING BASICS
Once you determine which avenue of leatherwork that you want to go down, it will become more and more clear as to how to get started.
If you’re still in need of instruction on exactly how to begin traditional leatherwork and master these techniques or how to figure out what type of leather you need or the different types of tools, sign up for the waitlist below for my signature course, MASTERING TRADITIONAL LEATHERWORKING BASICS.
In this course I teach you all of the methods that I've learned from my master leatherworking teacher and also how i've been able to create a hybrid of traditional and american western leatherwork using stitching chisels instead of pricking irons but still staying true to using quality materials like full grain leather and linen thread.
In my course, i'll show you how to keep the processes and techniques of a luxury leatherworker intact but also switch up some of the tools used so that any beginner can get started easily and begin making leathergoods immediately.
If you'd like to skip the trial and error of trying to figure these techniques out on your own and instead want to learn the exact methods that i've learned from a master leatherworker and create beautiful work everytime, then sign up for the waitlist for the MASTERING TRADITIONAL LEATHERWORKING BASICS course here.
What on your list of things to learn about leather this year? Let me know in the comments below if you have any specifc topics that you'd like me to cover in detail on the blog?