This is a rather rambling account of the technique I used for distressing leather armour – specifically a replica shoulder piece as worn in the Spartacus TV series.
An old friend of mine commissioned the piece and we both wanted it to look like it had seen plenty of action. At the time I made it, I hadn’t really done much weathering of leather, but I love the lived-in look and was really keen to figure out a way of distressing the leather to make something brand new look like it had been worn through years of weapons training & countless battles in the arena.
This is what the freshly cut pieces look like:
For projects that need to look old & worn, I love using lower grade leather because it usually has blemishes & imperfections that make the final product more convincing. However, it still looks far too clean & smooth to be believable, so we need to do some work on it before starting to assemble the pieces. When it gets old & worn, leather takes on pronounced wrinkles, so instead of letting time do its thing, I needed to skip to the end. The best way I’ve found to produce wrinkles in leather is to bend it pretty firmly, rolling the skin side back on itself a few times usually does the trick. The low grade leather is particularly suited to this as it isn’t as soft & supple as higher quality hide. The extra stiffness produces great looking wrinkles that can be further accentuated during the dying process.
So, wrinkles added, but I still needed to add some wear & tear. I tried to figure out the best tool for the job – I do have some leather stamps that give a kind of irregular beaten look, but it’s going to take a really long time to cover all those parts and I think the result won’t be random & natural enough. So, here’s what I settled on…
Yup, it’s a rock. I’m no geologist so I can’t tell you what kind of rock it is, but it is my rock and I love it. There are many rocks like it, but this one is mine. I’m not going to pretend that using a rock for distressing leather requires any kind of special skill or finesse, but there is some technique to getting good results. First off, I dampen the surface of the leather with a wet sponge, letting the water soak in before I get medieval with Mr Rock. The main thing to remember is not to use the same part of the rock to strike the leather over & over again – remember we’re going for natural looking wear that has taken years to accumulate, so we need to mix it up. I’m imagining the gladiator face-planting into the sand of the arena & what that would do to his armour over time, so I take a reasonably flat part of the rock & use it to make an initial base layer. I move & rotate the leather with my free hand rather than constantly changing my grip on the rock, so although I’m using the same striking surface, it’s constantly coming in at different angles & producing a nicely uniform but still random texture.
After I’m happy with the first stage I move on to adding heavier accents in the form of deeper dings & scrapes. These are achieved with pointier parts of the rock, using harder strikes, again altering the rotation of the leather to avoid anything too repetitive. I’ll also create cuts & gouges with any sharper edges on the rock to give the appearance of weapon strikes & heavy falls. I don’t dig into the leather too deeply as I don’t want to weaken the finished item to the point that it could actually fail during use, but it’s OK to be fairly heavy handed at this point. Where I want it to look like the armour has taken a sword strike across an edge I might cut out a small nick with my craft knife and then work it with the rock to blend the clean edges of the knife cut & give it the appearance of an old battle scar.
When I’m done with my rock-based brutality I leave the leather to dry out & then start the dying process. Before dying I like to treat the leather with a coat of Neatsfoot oil – this gives it some extra suppleness, and will help to prolong its life. This is what my Spartacus shoulder armour parts looked like at this stage.
Here’s a couple of test swatches I made up using different dyes on some leather scraps which I distressed to the same degree as the armour parts. I like the darker one because it shows the grain in the leather more than the lighter shade does. One last step I used after the dye had dried was to lightly sand the leather with a medium to fine grit sandpaper. This takes some of the dye off the raised parts & gives more depth to all the dings, dents, cuts, and wrinkles I spent so long on, and I think it really makes it come alive.
And this is the finished item:
So there we go – hopefully you learned something about distressing leather, or at least the way I do it. I’ll keep trying out new ideas & post the results for you. I’ve read a lot about hitting dampened & undyed leather pieces against a tree and trampling them into gravel, which sounds about as good as beating it with a rock, and possibly even more brutal, which is a alright by me.