Tooling (Or carving) Leather - A Short Guide

Selecting the correct leather for tooling - use Vegetable Tanned Cowhide

Chrome tanning involves tumbling skins in drums with chromium salts and other chemicals. It is not suitable for tooling work.
Vegetable tanning is a more traditional method and takes somewhat longer to achieve results.
The hides are hung or laid flat in a series of pits which contain a liquor composed of water, tree barks - oak is common - and leaves.
It is this leather which is most suited to tooling work. Be sure to ask for FULL-GRAIN (i.e. not a suede or a split hide) vegetable tanned cowhide and tell your supplier it is for tooling.
BEWARE - Some hides are also brushed to remove blemishes and growth marks, this imparts a slightly pink colour and renders the hide unsuitable for tooling.

Leather tooling - an overview.

Leather is tooled and carved by first cutting a design into a dampened piece of leather, usually with a special swivel knife.
A variety tools are then used to create depressions and patterns in the leather to give a raised 'relief' appearance to the work.
It is usual to tool the work prior to assembly, dyeing or painting.
A mallet is often used to strike the tools, and the depressed leather takes a darker appearance and this adds to the contrast effect.
Special punches can provide textured backgrounds or symbols.
More advanced work includes cutting pockets and stuffing leather scraps under the surface of the hide to further raise it.
You are advised to practise the following techniques on scraps of unwanted leather before attempting a full project.

Equipment and tools you will need.

A hard, flat surface to work on - a heavy marble block is preferred by most toolers.
A piece of full-grain vegetable tanned natural cowhide.
A piece of sponge and clean water for preparing the leather.
A swivel knife for cutting the hide.
A leather, nylon or hardwood mallet (no heavier than 8oz/227g)
Bevelling, background and stamping tools.
Tracing or greaseproof paper for the initial design.
An empty ball-pointed pen or stylus for transferring the design onto the leather.

HINT: You can find a basic carving kit at our On-line Store

Leather tooling - a step by step guide.

Tracing a design
Fig.1 - Putting a design onto tracing paper.
Draw your design on the tracing paper or greaseproof paper. You may want to trace a design from another un-copyrighted source.
See Fig.1.
Dampen the leather with water
Fig.2 - Sizing the leather with a wool dauber and water.
Dampen the skin side of the leather evenly across the whole surface with the sponge and water. This is called 'sizing'. Do not use too much water or you will soften the hide too much.
Leave the leather for 10 minutes before starting work, this allows the fibres to fully absorb the water. Do not worry if the leather looks dry at this stage.
See Fig.2.
Transfer the design to the leather
Fig.3 - Transferring the design to the leather.
The design imprinted upon the leather
Fig.4 - The design imprinted upon the leather.
Place the tracing or greaseproof paper over the skin side of the leather.
Trace over the whole design with your ballpoint stylus or empty ballpoint pen, pressing firmly enough to transfer the design onto the damp leather without breaking through the paper.
See Figs.3 & 4.
Using the swivel knife
Fig.5 - The swivel knife in use.
Discard the paper and follow all of the lines on the leather with the swivel knife. Hold the knife perpendicular to the work and tilt it away from you slightly so that you cut with the corner of the blade only.
The knife is positioned so that your index finger rests in the U-shaped saddle at the top of the handle and the swivelling body is held between your thumb and middle and/or ring finger.
See Fig.5.
Using the swivel knife
Fig.6 - Turn the knife or the work to maintain a constant cut.
The fully cut design and a bevel tool
Fig.7 - The fully cut design and a bevel tool.
Cut only once and cut towards you if possible, try not to turn the leather and cut only deep enought to penetrate the grain (skin) of the hide.
Turn the knife blade as you follow the line in the leather so that you never stop a cut until you reach the end of a line.
See Figs.6 & 7.
Using the bevel tool
Fig.8 - The bevel tool in use.
With the leather on the hard work surface use your mallet and a bevelling tool to impress the leather on one side of the design lines only.
Put the wedged edge of the beveler slightly into the cut made by the swivel knife and tap the tool with the mallet. You will need to work on the outside of the lines so that the finished picture appears raised.
Overlap all tool strikes slightly to avoid leaving ridges each time you strike. It is better to slide tools along without leaving the work surface if possible.
Using pattern tools to embellish the work
Fig.9 - Using pattern tools to embellish the work.
Use basic shaders- pattern or camouflage tools to add depth and texture to the work.
Use basic shaders- pattern or camouflage tools to add depth and texture to the work.

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