Leathercraft can be intimidating to the uninitiated. The tools for the beginner can be hard to decide upon and even more difficult to find. Since leatherwork is not a common trade skill, many of these tools can not be purchased from local hardware stores.
In this article I hope to give you some assistance in this area. If you are new to leathercraft and are searching for the most essential tools to add to your workbench, then my hopes are that this blog post is for you.
Here are the Top 5 tools that, I believe, are essential for anyone beginning their leathercraft journey. No, these are not the tools you will need to accomplish all aspects of leatherwork. The size and scope of tools for different areas of the craft are vast and almost never ending. The majority of tools used in leatherwork are subject greatly to personal choice and preferences. Instead, this is a list of 5 tools that I think are foundational in every aspect of your work.
These tools are simply the tools that a craftsman, at any level, will need on a daily basis to work in this medium. Some of these tools will seem arbitrary and may already be in your collection. But this does not lessen their importance. If you have never worked with leather, then you may not be aware of the attributes of the material, and you will find that these will be the tools most helpful in all of your projects. Or in the very least, the most used tools on your bench.
The Sharp Point Trim Knife
Virtually every leather project that you begin will start off with the need to cut leather into specific shapes. This sounds like a “duh” statement, but the most important skill of a leatherhead.
In big manufacturing shops or even smaller shops looking for faster production, this foundational step has been made more efficient through the use of clickers and dies. These are very large hydraulic presses that press the dies (cookie cutter pattern) into the leather leaving a perfect cut shape for the desired pattern. This is much faster than hand cutting and allows many pieces to be processed in a short amount of time. This method also allows for the precision of the cuts. Since the dies are in fixed shapes of the desired pattern, the cuts are highly consistent over large batches.
This is a very common and much accepted method for cutting leather even among the “High End” Custom Makers of today. But even if you have a clicker in your shop, the skill of using a knife to cut out your patterns is still cornerstone to your craftsmanship.
Cutting with precision is one of the most valuable skills that a leather craftsman can learn. There are many different knives out there on the market that you can choose to use. Traditionally, craftsmen have turned to the Round Knife or Head Knife for this action. There is good reason for this. The Round Knife is very versatile in its design and allows the trained user to cut virtually any shape with accuracy. As well as the onboard ability to skive portions of the leather as needed.
My decision to not include the Round Knife here is simply on the training required to use this knife properly. As a beginner leatherhead, as this article’s focus is on, I do not recommend investing in this knife. With the proper education, this tool can be powerful in your shop. But this blade can also be quite dangerous if not attuned to the use after much practice. Until you become familiar to the attributes of the material you are working with and become efficient in cutting your parts out with a trim knife, I would wait to begin training with one of these traditional blades.
The trim knife that I recommend and use on a daily basis is a Sharp Point Trim Knife made by C.S. Osborne Tool Company. These knives are cheap and sharpen well. They have a long blade which is perfect for cutting all forms of leather. The knife blade material is slightly flexible which allows for greater control when cutting curves. This knife also sharpens quickly on a stone and holds an edge well.
I keep this knife in my tool belt that I wear daily in my shop. This allows the knife to be at hands reach anytime I need to cut something out or trim something. I will do an article soon on other tools that I keep in my tool belt and why.
There are many forms of “trim” knives on the market and many of them seem really good. This is just the knife that I found works best for me in the shop. Since I sharpen my knives daily, the blades over time get worn down and I just replace the entire knife. Because they are cheap enough, I feel like I get my money’s worth out of them everytime.
A Quality Spike Awl
Even if you are not building saddles, I recommend this tool as a great tool even for small craftsmen and beginners. The Spike Awl has many functions in leatherwork and can manytimes act as a third hand for you in your work.
If you have seen the Cutting Circle Video on my YouTube Channel, then you have seen me use one of these awls to cut a large circle out of a piece of leather. These types of situations come up many times in the shop and a spike awl is a great tool that can be used.
Their main purpose is to be driven through a piece of leather into a sturdy base like a bench top or a saddle tree. They are made from a very hard steel and have a large yellow handle which makes removal quick and easy. You will see a lot of these used in saddle making. Particularly when the seat is being pulled in to hold the front seat jockey down around the swells.
These tools can also be used to mark holes for spacing and for marking patterns onto leather. They are also very handy as a fid during braiding jobs.
One of their little known uses as well is to adjust the bar on a strap cutter or to change the blade. This shows how essential this tool is for the shop. When the original design of the strap cutter was drawn up, the designer left a hole in the knobs perfect for a spike awl to fit in… guess he figured in the very least the working craftsman would have an awl in his belt or on a nearby bench at all times.
C.S. Osborne makes a few different sizes of these types of awls. I would recommend for general leatherwork to get two of the 3.5″ or 4″ awls. Two is plenty to start out with. Although, I have probably a dozen in my shop… they are essential to me.
Daily Shop Hammer
I have previously created a video called “Leathercraft Hammers” which is a review of different hammers and mauls used in leatherwork and in my shop. This video covered all the different hammers that I use in my work and their purposes. The one hammer in the video that I use daily for the majority of my work, I refer to as my Daily Shop Hammer (as of recent… most of its life it had no need for a name… it was just “my hammer”).
This hammer was given to me by the man that taught me how to build saddles when I got started, Jimmy Plantt. He had made the hammer. By “made” I mean that he modified an old body hammer used in car repair so that it more suited a life in a saddle shop. The hammer has a smooth round face that is not too big. On the back side of the head he ground off the square face that is usually on this type of hammer and made it more of a smooth round knob.
This hammer quickly became my favorite hammer in both repair and custom work. It works well to drive tacks and nails when building saddles as well as hammering two pieces of leather together after glue is applied. I also use this hammer for small forming work during quick fits. The handle of the hammer is smooth and allows for use as a rub stick to smooth out any bumps or dents on swell covers and binders on saddles.
A hammer is a must have in all aspects of leatherwork and finding one that suits your needs is important. Many of the hammers made for leatherwork are designed for one job only. They may be designed to drive tacks and nails but do not work at all for smoothing and forming. Or they may be made for smoothing and forming, but you would never drive a tack or nail with one…. especially for what they cost.
Although I am including this hammer in my list of essentials for you, I am sorry to say that this hammer in particular is one that you will have to make (or modify) yourself. I have yet to find a hammer of similar quality and functionality on the market to date. So here is a favor I will ask: If you know of a company or business that I could approach that would have the ability to recreate my hammer for me, then I will work on having this hammer made and available for purchase. I believe this would be a great product for all leather craftsmen and I would be willing to get the ball rolling to make them available. I don’t know much about the process of doing something like that so if you are or know someone please let me know.
I would be bold enough to say that many of the pain points that a beginner struggles with in leatherwork is due to dull tools… in the very least improperly sharpened tools.
If your knives are not sharpened well and/or correctly, you will have trouble cutting patterns with accuracy. This will also add to the difficulty in getting those smooth high gloss edges in your work as well. It is also very dangerous cutting leather material with a dull knife. This can lead to slip cuts which can ruin the piece of leather you are cutting as well as possibly cut you.
If your swivel knives are not sharp, your floral patterns will not have the depth and accuracy that you want to see in your work. Many folks just assume they don’t have to sharpen their swivel knives and just deal with the dragging skipping blade when using them. Sharpen your swivel knives in order to do your best quality work. Here is a video I did on How to Sharpen Swivel Knife Blades.
Leathercraft is all about taking large flat by-products from the meat industry and turning them into useful three dimensional works of art. This requires cutting things and carving into it. One of the most important skills a craftsman can learn is how to properly sharpen his tools.
This begins with a Sharpening Stone. The type of stone or system that you decide to use is not crucial. What is crucial is that you know how to efficiently use this system or tool. It is important that you know when to stop working and sharpen your tools.
I use a Tri Diamond Stone as of this writing and have used the same stone for 6 years or more (it’s about time for a new one). This stone works really well, although I prefer a natural rock tri stone. My favorite is one that I haven’t seen available in a number of years. This was a three stone tri hone and it sat in a plastic case. In the bottom portion of the case you put oil so that when you rotated the set of stones to a different grit, the stones got a fresh coat of oil. These stones work amazingly well in the shop and they are always ready to go when needed.
There are many sharpening systems on the market. I am a bit of an old soul and prefer to have complete control of the sharpening process of my blades so I don’t use any guides or self controlled sharpening systems. But your preference is your choice. The point is that you need to be highly skilled in sharpening any knife blade or tool in your shop. The wear and tear that our tools take day in and day out is great. Don’t allow your tools to work against you in your work.
Like anything else that requires you to build something from a type of material, you will need the ability to measure things. I was on the fence on this section. It was between straight edges and the tape measure. This article is limited to the “Top 5” essential tools, so I looked at this article in a “desert island” type approach. Instead of books and movies, if I was on a desert island what five tools would I take.
The tape measure is that tool for me. Even above a straight edge. In fact, you can use a tape measure to make the same long straight lines as you would with a straight edge… check out this video from Essential Craftsman. This video is also just a great tutorial on getting the most out of your tape measure.
Whether you are making belts, purses, rope bags, or saddles, the tape measure will be your guide through the build. Keeping you aligned with overall balance, squareness, and sizing. It is virtually impossible to create a piece, both in construction and artwork, without using a tape measure of some sort. Even within art, mathematics shows itself… you can’t get away from it.
There are thousands of different tape measures available and I prefer a small tape measure of about 10 – 12 feet long. Since all of my material is a maximum length of 8-9 feet, I have very little need for a home builder’s 30 foot chunk of a tape measure. These smaller tape measures are sometimes hard to find at Lowe’s or Home Depot so when I find them I will usually buy a couple in case I lose one.
My tape measure is another tool that is a part of my tool belt. This keeps it right at hand when needed throughout my day. I use it at my tool bench as well as at my cut table. I also pull tape all over my saddles during a build and many of the measurements that I use as reference cannot be taken with a straight edge.
Wrapping it up
So there are my Top 5 Essential Tools for the Beginner in Leathercraft. How many of these tools do you already have in your shop? Do you agree with me on these as foundational in your work? Let me know your thoughts.
Whether you agree or disagree with me on these, you certainly have 5 or so tools that are your “go to” tools during your leathercrafting sessions. I like to think of these as my “grab if there’s a fire” category of tools. Well, these and my stamping tool roll… and conveniently they are always ready to roll up and boogie!
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