What tools do you need to get started in leatherworking?
This post is the first in a series where I’ll be talking about leatherworking tools, with the aim to inform beginners just starting out in leather crafting. I mainly make medieval & fantasy costume & armour for LARP, cosplay, and screen, so most of my experience and some of my techniques are geared toward that look, but most of the information here is applicable to any kind of leatherwork, using vegetable tanned (veg tan) leather as the medium.
This week I’m going to focus on a bare bones core toolkit for leatherworking, and then in the following weeks I’ll take a look at tools for stitching leather, leather tooling, and what you need for dying & finishing leather. This core set comes in at around £100, although it doesn’t include extras like buckles, dye, finishing products, or any actual leather, but I’ll cover those in a future post.
I’m often asked to give advice on the best leatherworking tools for beginners, so it makes sense to write a post about it & go into more detail than I usually have time for via email. I apologise to the future people I send this link to when they write to me with questions about leatherworking tools, but it saves me repeating myself, and you’re getting better information from me than you would have otherwise. Also, seeing as you’re from the future, if time travel has been invented, come pick me up – I want to meet a dinosaur!
This list of tools is just my suggestion – other leatherworkers will tell you I’m out of my mind for omitting tool X or I’m a fool for using tool Y – you can just ignore them, because I’m right & they’re wrong. Seriously though, this is just my opinion, and there is often more than one way to do things. I’ll tell you how I do it, and if you find a better way, let me know in the comments.
I’m going to post pictures of each tool along with a few notes on its use, and an estimated price in UK£. I’ll list a few suggested suppliers at the bottom of the article, but some of the more general items like cutting mats & chisels can be found in your local craft or hardware store, or on Amazon or eBay. Bear in mind that most of the tools I use are pretty entry level. I’m just now starting to upgrade a few things, and although better quality tools are almost always nicer to use than their cheaper counterparts, I’ve managed to build a business using fairly basic tools. If you have the budget to go for the higher end stuff, by all means do it, you won’t be disappointed.
Anyway, here’s the list of 12 essential tools I think you should invest in before you start leatherworking!
12 Leatherworking Tools For Beginners
1. Stanley knife £8
I use a good quality aluminium bodied knife that takes a standard size blade. I cut all my leather with this. If you have a strop (it’s easy to make one with some scrap veg tan leather and some jeweller’s rouge) you can polish the blades up very easily & it makes cutting your leather much smoother. I’d steer clear of those craft knives with the snap-off blades, and any other plastic bodied knife – you’ll be applying some pressure as you cut, and a plastic knife is going to break at some point. Always remember when using knives that you should keep your eyes firmly shut, and make wild, erratic movements with your arms… or not, depending on how much you enjoy hospitals.
2. Craft cutting mat £5
A standard green self healing craft cutting board. I have a couple of these and have found Amazon to be good for getting the bigger ones really cheap. Mine has a grid on each side marking inches and centimetres, which I use all the time. If you cut on a wooden surface, you’ll eventually get grooves in the wood which the point of your knife will want to follow, rather than the line you drew on the leather.
3. Marble block £15
Proper leatherworkers use huge thick marble slabs, I use a slightly thinner marble cutting board which I got from the kitchen section of my local supermarket. I have it permanently on my worktop. The point of it is to have a really dense & heavy surface for when you’re tooling leather (which involves hitting it with a hammer) and for setting rivets & eyelets by hand (rather than using a press or rotary setting tool, which I don’t have and dislike respectively). The benefit of the stone block is down to physics & kinetic energy & stuff I won’t go into, but if you try tooling leather without one, you’ll have a hard time and your work won’t look as crisp.
4. Hole punches £10
I’ve tried a few rotary hole punches in my time, and I hate them all. The cheap ones bend after a few uses, and the quality ones are really expensive. I can work far faster with my hand punches, plus I can make holes anywhere on a piece of leather, rather than being confined to about an inch from the edge. Seriously, don’t waste your money on a rotary punch. Just remember to always punch on your cutting mat, and have a piece of thick scrap leather under the piece you’re punching. If that tool tip ever strikes marble, it’s time to buy a new one. Just don’t hit too hard to start with & you’ll soon get a feel for how much force to apply. A mini hand punch set from most leatherworking suppliers will do the job nicely, and comes with a handle & several interchangeable punches. For larger holes, just get a cheap wad punch set off eBay or your local hardware store.
5. Chisels £10
These are a cheat which I mostly use to cut slots in the ends of straps, where the buckle prong goes through the leather. There are dedicated slot punches available, but until recently I didn’t own any as they’re around £30-40 ($50-70) each, and you’ll probably need a few. But, you can get by with your hole punches and a set of cheap & cheerful chisels. Remember, chisels are made to be used on wood, so if you take care of them and only use them for your leatherwork, even a cheap & cheerful set should stay sharp for ages. I find the centre line of my strap, make a light impression with the chisel (about 1” wide is OK for most buckles – larger ones might need a longer slot), and then punch a hole at each end of the mark. Then it’s just a case of carefully aligning the chisel with the edges of the holes and tapping the top with your mallet to cut out the slot. It takes a bit of practice to get this looking neat, but it works. You could use your Stanley knife instead of a chisel, but I find it’s too easy to make mistakes & cut too far.
6. Edge beveller £10
One thing that really sets apart amateur & professional leatherwork is raw edges. There is a lot to learn about getting perfect glossy smooth edges on your leather, but if like me, you’re mainly doing medieval & fantasy style work, it doesn’t always need to look that classy. One thing I almost always do (unless the style of the piece dictates otherwise) is bevel my edges. This is a strangely satisfying process of removing the top & bottom corners along the cut lines, and requires just one tool. These are available in various sizes, and give either a flat or rounded bevel. I like the rounded ones, and a number 2 size from most suppliers should be fine for just about everything.
7. Edge slicker £3
There are a few different types of edge slicker available. I believe I’ve tried 3, and this is my favourite – it cost about £3 from a supplier in China via eBay. Once you have a bevelled edge on your leather, you wet it and then polish using the appropriate groove on the tool for the thickness of the leather. It is possible to get a really smooth glassy finish if you use products like Edge-Kote or Gum Tragacanth, and these also help to seal the edge which prevents moisture getting into the leather later on. For most of my projects, I rub a block of beeswax over the bevelled edge of the leather before burnishing it with the edge slicker.
8. Mallet £5
99.9% of the time you need to hit something while leatherworking (needing to hit things will happen a lot), you’ll want a rawhide or polycarbonate mallet. Do not be tempted to use any old metal hammer you have lying around – you will damage your tools with it. I will at this point own up to not owning either a rawhide or a poly mallet however. Mine is wooden, and is probably going to break soon, but I’ve had about 5 years out of it so I’m not too worried.
9. Strap cutter £15
Kind of optional depending on what you want to make, but if you intend to do any kind of variety of leatherwork, you’ll want to cut straps sooner or later. This cutter is adjustable so you can make straps at exactly the right width for any size of buckle. All you need is a piece of leather with a pre-cut straight edge on it. Yes, you can make leather straps with a ruler and a knife, but seriously, just get a strap cutter.
10. Rivets & setting tools £10
Available from all good leather craft suppliers, and also on eBay. Make sure you get the right setting tool for the cap size of the rivets you use – you’ll only ever need one of each size. You’ll probably get away with 5mm and 10mm caps for most uses. I set my rivets directly on my stone block, and never use the little dish shaped anvil thingies you sometimes get as part of the package. Make sure the stems on your rivets are long enough to go through the layers of leather you’re using, but don’t have too much stem poking out or you’ll find the rivets won’t collapse evenly. I find that any more than about 2mm extra stem is too much, so if you’re riveting two layers of 3mm leather, try not to use rivets with stems more than 8mm long.
11. Steel ruler £3
For cutting straight lines in leather, accept no substitute. Even with the sharpest knife, you do have to use a bit of pressure to cut through thick veg tan leather, and you’ll soon shred a plastic ruler, and probably your fingers. Invest in steel rulers, and use them exclusively. If you want to cut belt straps from large leather hides, it does help to have a really long ruler to straighten the edge of the skin before using your strap cutter, but if you don’t have a 60” steel ruler, any straight edge is OK to mark out the cut line as long as you’re very careful to be as precise as you can when you go to your steel ruler make the actual cut in several passes.
12. Stylus & spoon £4
Perhaps not an obvious choice, but I use this thing ALL the time. The point is perfect for drawing cut lines onto leather without getting ink or pencil lead smeared all over the place. I use it to mark points where I need to punch holes, and it’s also good for widening those holes for rivets if I’m having trouble pushing them through. The ‘spoon’ end can be used to gently smooth out mistakes when marking lines on leather, and I also use it to flatten down the prongs on certain types of studs. You could probably also use the pointy end to eat certain types of small pickled shellfish, but if you do, keep it to yourself because YUCK!
As I mentioned earlier, check out Amazon & eBay for some of this stuff if you don’t mind shopping around & getting things from different suppliers. Your local craft & hardware stores may also have some of the things you need. For everything else, you’ll need to use a specialist leatherworking tool supplier. Here’s the ones I use…
Tandy Leather: Leathercraft and Leather Craft Supplies
Tandy have a LOT of stuff available, and at the hobby level, they’re pretty much a one-stop-shop. They do sell starter tool kits, but in my opinion, they tend to contain tools that you might never use unless you’re interested in the more traditional Western style leatherwork that Tandy seem to concentrate on.
Le Prevo Leathers
Le Prevo are a UK based supplier of tools and leather, and I use them a lot. Their ordering system isn’t great, but their prices are good.
Joseph Dixon Leather Tools
Dixons are a long-established supplier to the saddlery trade, and have some very nice high-end tools. They may be slightly higher priced, but their stuff is of very good quality.
Abbey have a very wide range of tools & supplies, and they usually deliver really fast.