Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Starter Tools #1



 The above is my box of starter tools from 1978.  

It is not for sale - you don't have enough money.  

 And it is NOT the starter set of tools I am going to recommend in this blog - you will have to read further down.... 

 This post is going to be a continuous effort to advise new leather crafters.   I will first discuss the very basics, and then go on to a second tier of tools that can be expanded to.  

The tools that will work well for each person will vary a bit depending on the projects that you mostly engage in.   I am going to focus on working with vegtan, or tooling, leather.


 I see the surface of vegtan leather as very vulnerable, until you have it sealed or conditioned.  

So I never bring pen or even pencil close to the leather surface (not even greasy hands). Therefor all the marking I do, is done with a scratch awl.  The photo below shows a big red handled one I used until I acquired the small model, that is still available.

 With the scratch awl you can easily trace around templates, poke holes where your pattern indicates holes to be punched and you do not have to be scared that ink will smear in places where it can ruin your project.

 I seldom use the big red one any more and do most work with the smaller one.  


 There is a gazillion cutting instruments out there with a gazillion and ten opinions about what works best.  

But let us focus on starting out. The breakoff blade knife at the top of the photo is the one I started off in 1978 - it is semi retired now and just used for the sake of sentiment.  The second white one, also with the breakoff blade is new at Tandy.  This is my absolute go-to knife for the following reasons:

  • It is always sharp - you simply break off the dull tip and carry on cutting.  I do strop my blade from time to time to be a bit more frugal and give the blade a slightly longer lifespan.
  • It is not very expensive.
  • You have a lot of control over this tool, because you hold it like a pencil.
  • You do need a cutting surface like a self-healing cutting mat, under it.  This does add to the stability with which you do cutting. TIP: do not use stone or wood as the cutting surface.  Hard plastic that does not grip the blade, seems to work the best.  

There are other breakoff blade knives available - the one I bought at a hardware store however, had a too wide opening for the blade and so the blade would "flap" from side to side and make accurate cuts difficult. 

 The third knife in the picture is a recent gift from a good friend - it is a very old knife with a removable blade.   The blade has the same shape as the other two, which makes it easy to cut with and I almost have it honed to the point where it cuts soundlessly, and as if it is going through soft butter!  It will have to be stropped regularly to stay a joy to cut with.



 Two tools I keep within reach, is a square and a compass.

The square is not a big one, but serves its purpose most of the time (a bigger one comes in handy, but needs a big work surface as well). 

 I don't want to say too much about how to use the tools - that is probably a few separate posts - just what they are for. The compass has two fairly sharp metal tips and is used for drawing lines parallel to edges.  This has various purposes.


 On the photo and edge beveler at the bottom - used to round off the square 90 degree corners where leather was cut.


 The other two tools - slickers - are then used to smooth the edges of the leather.  The plastic circle has been around for a very long time, but the multi sized wooden one is the only one you need to start with.   

Edge burnishing is quite a science / religion with many leatherworkers, often with impressive results, but if you master the basics first, you will continue to get good results. 


 Many projects require holes - for rivets, snaps and other hardware attachments.   

To start I propose a set like the one shown here - a handle into which your screw the tip you desire, depending on the hole size. 

 The advantage of this set over a revolving head hole punch is that with this you are not limited to a throat depth (with the pliers-like tool you can only punch holes about inch and a half from the edge or less). 

It is also cheaper, because if you do want to get a revolving head hole punch, you need to buy the top end solid steel handle punch - the lower end models will only last if you do ten very careful holes a year....;   the frames of those tend to bend easily. 

 Also note the accompanying plastic cutting board to use underneath the leather when you punch holes through.  To do this on wood would dull your punches very fast.   

 And I think that concludes this post! I will start a new one looking into the starter tools for tooling and a different one for starting with lacing and stitching. 

 I hope this helps!

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Color 101

[Originally published August 2008]

 This is probably the aspect of leathercraft where there are as many opinions as there are crafters, and most of them will swear by their own methods as gospel truth. 

So, I want to give you my opinion as well, but with the hope that it will clarify some of the confusion that exist around dyes, stains, finishes, dressings, conditioners and oils. 

 This whole discussion will center around vegetable-tan (treebark tanned) leather. This is the only leather to be treated with the products I will discuss.


The basic sequence in any project will more than likely be as follows:

  1. The project is cut out and tooling / stamping is done.
  2. The leather is dyed - either completely or selectively. This step can be left out if you want the natural color to remain.
  3. A optional choice is made between 
    1. a) not using an antique stain, 
    2. b) lightly using an antique stain just to highlight tooling or 
    3. c) making heavy use of an antique stain in such a way as to drastically add to the color of the leather.
  4. A finish, sealer or conditioner is added to the leather to waterproof and lubricate the leather fibers. This step can NEVER EVER be left out!!!
  5. The project is assembled.

Putting a dressing on leather will bring out the color of the dyes (make it glow), "waterproof" the leather (your best defense against stains) and make the leather softer (if you have not treated it for the making of armor).

Wednesday, October 23, 2019


X1 was a top sealer/dressing sold by Tandy a few years ago - it was a follow up of Darke's dressing.

It had the advantage of doing a very subtle "antiquing" effect on tooling. 

 GOOD NEWS:  Realeather now sells it as One Step Leather Dressing!   We do not have to be without it any more. 

 On this piece I first dyed the darker patches with water-based dye; then applied the One Step dressing on the whole piece:


 You can see how it only enhances the burnishing that happened during tooling (look at the border stamping). 

 I recently experimented with a mixture (50/50) of X1 (that I still had left from before - I bought a whole box full when it was discontinued)  and Eco-Flo Hi-Lite Stain. Before:  

This video shows the effect it has and how easy it is to apply:

Thursday, September 19, 2019


My friend Gary Arvidson is a remarkable man - well into his seventies he has a major amount of unadulterated fun with leatherwork! 

 He came up with these five nice dyeing/staining/sealing effects: 

 1 First cover the leather with smoke black Hi-Lite Stain - 50% diluted with water. Then a layer of Green Cova Color diluted 50% with water, followed by a mix of [40% Gum Tragacanth + 40% Green Cova Color + 20% water]. Finally finish with a mixture of [20% Silver Cova Color + 80% Neatlac]. 

 2 First cover the leather with smoke black Hi-Lite Stain - 50% diluted with water. Then a layer of White Cova Color diluted 50% with water and a layer of Yellow Cova Color diluted 50% with water, followed by a mix of [40% Gum Tragacanth + 40% Green Cova Color + 20% water]. Finally finish with a mixture of [20% Silver Cova Color + 80% Neatlac]. 

 3 First cover the higher areas with smoke black Hi-Lite Stain - 50% diluted with water. Then a layer of Brown Cova Color diluted 50% with water (here you can play around with various different brown acrylics), followed by a layer of Saddle Tan Hi-Lite Stain - 50% diluted with water. Then a layer of Copper Cova Color diluted 50% with water. Finally finish with Neatlac. 

4 First cover the leather with smoke black Hi-Lite Stain - 50% diluted with water. Then a layer of White Cova Color diluted 50% with water, followed by a mix of [40% Gum Tragacanth + 40% Yellow Cova Color + 20% water]. Finally finish with a mixture of [20% Silver Cova Color + 80% Neatlac]. 

 5 First cover the leather with Light Blue Cova Color - 50% diluted with water. Then a layer of Royal Blue Cova Color diluted 50% with water, followed by a mix of [40% Gum Tragacanth + 40% Turqoise Cova Color + 20% water]. Finally finish with a mixture of [20% Silver Cova Color + 80% Neatlac].   

 I hope this inspires you to experiments of your own!  

Friday, August 30, 2019


From a flyer of the Headwaters Leather Guild - 2006:

(I will add my own personal notes in green)

TIP 1 

Always treat your newly bought veg tan leather surface with respect - even air exposure, no moisture, no oil, no fat. Wash your hands before you handle the leather - sweaty fingerprints may only become visible when you add dye or the final finish.



Roll leather up with the grain side on the inside - the other way round will cause the grain side to stretch (slightly) and when you straighten the leather, it might wrinkle.



Rolls of leather can easily be stored in PVC pipe lengths with a diameter of 8" / 20cm or more.  Another reason or rolling the leather with grain side in - the nice grain side will not scrape on the pipe edges.



When you start wetting leather for tracing and swivel knife cuts and tooling, make sure to always wet the full surface of the leather. If you do not, the water will rinse chemicals to the edge of the wet part and as it dries, that will show as the edge of a waterstain. (These stains can be treated with excessive washing with a lot of water.)

If I work on a very large piece, I wet the part I am working on with a sponge and then now and again just keep the rest damp with water from a spray bottle.



OIL and WATER do NOT mix.

During the following steps in your project, no oily of fatty substances or containers with finishes in or hands with all of the above on, should be allowed close to your workbench: Cutting, Tracing, Swivel Knife Work, Tooling, Dyeing.

After doing these, you treat the leather with a conditioner / sealer / finish and now you cannot use water on the leather again easily - the leather finish you use should protect the leather against water and against the rougher treatment of construction.



Wet leather and Ferrous Metals Do Not Mix


These metals will stain leather black when it touches even just damp leather. That means that you .......


a) cannot weigh down leather with metal weights, without first covering them in leather or plastic.

b) cannot have metal filings on your workbench - so be careful after you have sharpened knives where you will later work with damp leather (it takes seconds for the stains to be caused).   The stains of fine metal dust will appear to look like mold spots on the leather.  So also wash your hands after sharpening knives and before you work with wet veg tan leather.

c) cannot casually let metal tools lie on damp leather.

d) cannot use metal clamps to hold leather in position while drying - glue some small pieces of leather on the inside of clamps you want to use on leather.


TIP 7 

When you spill coffee or Coke on a project, immediately take it to a basin and empty the rest of the offending liquid over the the project to cover it completely (and therefor stain it completely and seamlessly and uniformly).  Then rinse it off with clean running water.

[Do not follow this tip when you spill blood on your project    -     😀 ]



Always use the cut off pieces of leather to test water absorption, tooling softness, color effect of dyes and the effect of finishes you want to use. Also test out stamping patterns you might consider or any new tools you buy.

I wrote more about it here:


Remember that tools with a large footprint, will take a lot of force from your mallet to make an impression, while a small surfaced tool like a seeder, will only require a light tap.



To test the effect of a certain finish you want to put on leather, use it on a little cut off piece that was stamped/carved and dyed the same as your project and then carry it with you all the time in your pocket (with your keys).   Ladies can do the same in a bag or wherever it will receive rough treatment.

This will give you a good idea of how the leather will keep, and how the finish will protect it.

I hope this helped!

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Oil before Dye

I often see the question "Does it matter if you oil before you dye?" 
And then follows a barrage of opinions and answers like "I have been using neatsfoot oil before I dye for decades.....". 

This concept originated decades ago when: 
  • the leather was tanned with different recipes, 
  • only alcohol based dyes were available and had very different recipes from the alcohol based dyes of today
  • they applied the oil VERY sparingly and let it sit at least overnight to completely even out in the leather

 There are a few warnings here: 

• All the liquids and their formulas have changed numerous times just in the last 10 years. 

• What is seldom mentioned in the answers is the time frame of the applications, the type of dyes used, the specific leather they work with, the quantities they work with, etc.. All of these makes a drastic difference in dying leather. 

• A beginner leathercrafter might have horrible results results with a method an old saddle maker has been using for 40 years. 

So, first use your common sense. Read the labels of the liquids you use. 

TEST every procedure on the SAME leather before doing it on your project. And your test should go all the way to testing that piece of leather for the dye coming off on your clothes (I often carry a piece of leather in my pocket with my keys to see how a dye or finish will hold up).

One of the best pair of books you can read on dying was written by Tony and Kay Laier, one was about Fiebings products and the other about Eco-Flo products. 
 Search for "Fiebing's Fantastic Finishes Book" by Tony & Kay Laier. 
 They have been discontinued due to the changes in colors and ever changing liquids, but they are still the best way to get a fast education about different methods of dying. 

The book about Eco-Flo dyes are available in digital form at 

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Leatherwork and your Perception

Have you ever finished a project and thought to yourself :  "This is not too well done - shoot!     So many mistakes...."? 

Don't beat yourself up! Your work is beautiful! Even if you are a beginner!

It is just a fact that before you start a project, you have an idea and image in your mind as to how it will turn out, a VERY idealistic idea.   

Then you see the finished project and it differs from that image in your mind - your mind turns that into mistakes / short-falls.

YES, there is ALWAYS room to learn and improve - after 42 years I still learn to do things better / different / in new ways.   

Don't be phased by criticism by leatherworking veterans - they are probably only trying to help.   

More important is that you do not get phased by your own criticism!

Almost all leatherwork looks good to non-leatherworkers.  Keep that in mind.

Many years ago, when I was still a beginner, I made my cousin a handbag  -  I thought the work was mediocre.  

After about four years I saw the bag again for the first time, and my words were:  "Wow!  who made that for you - it is beautiful!"

She looked at me funny and said "You did!"   Then I realized, your work is better than you think.

While you work on your project, you notice every small little imperfection in your work.   In your mind these grow very big, because you are busy with the project close-up.

Teach yourself to put the project down at the end of the day and clear your brain.  Then the next morning, look at it as if someone else did it.   You will slowly develop the ability to look at your work more subjectively.

I hope that helps!

[Updated October 2020]

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Dyeing Leather Grey


I have always said:  "White is not a leather color - and that goes for all the colors that contain white (grey, pink, sky blue).

One nice way to get a grey color on leather is very old, or very newly made, vinagroon (ferrous metal dissolved in vinegar). 

 I have a separate Blog Entry all about that.

Here is a video where I play with vinagroon that is more than ten months old and three day old vinagroon:

After the leather dried and I applied NeatLac to each piece:

You will notice not all the pieces ended up deep black even after the new vinagroon was applied. This is due to two factors: 1. The leather can have different levels of tannins that react with the vinagroon. 2. I simply needed to get more vinagroon onto the leather to give a more completer reaction.

Warning again: DO NOT NEUTRALIZE the vinagroon - the leather has to stay acidic (about pH of 4).