Almost as soon as I started leatherworking a few years ago, I began playing around with wet moulding leather. Undyed veg tan leather has this amazing property that when it becomes wet, the fibres expand and the leather becomes soft & stretchy. Using a mould, or just working it by hand, the leather can be formed into interesting three dimensional shapes which hold when the leather dries out. This opens up a world of possibility far beyond what can be achieved with it otherwise.
My first attempt at wet moulding was probably rather ambitious for a beginner – a banded body armour with moulded muscle forms and floating joints. It’s still sitting half-finished in my workshop, but this is what it looked like the last time I pointed a camera at it.
The key to wet moulding leather is having a decent mould to base things on. The armour pieces you see above are sitting on a torso dummy I got on eBay for about £8. The muscle forms on the dummy aren’t as chiseled & well defined as I would have liked, but the end result actually isn’t too bad & is in line with the Conan-esque cuirass I was aiming for. I really must finish the thing off sometime…
So, after working out the pattern for the finished piece I wet the leather in hot water – how long you leave it in the water depends on how much moulding you’re doing. You can stretch leather quite a bit if you let it get totally saturated – I usually submerge it in the sink until the air bubbles stop. After this, you need to get the bulk of the forming done within a few minutes, and it’s a case of pushing & pulling the leather over the mould by hand until it looks right. Thinner leather is easier to work, but I find that thicker leather holds the final shape better & doesn’t bend as readily once it’s dry. The leather I used on the armour above is approximately 3mm thick. Once the leather is shaped to your satisfaction, you’ll need to leave it sitting on the mould to dry out completely. I usually find that 24 hours is enough.
For wet moulding leather around a more angular shape, we need to give it a bit more encouragement. All you need is a piece of wood and some furniture tacks – it helps if the object you’re using as the mould is fixed down to the wood, but you can manage without doing that. Take your wet leather and push it down over the mould – you need to leave maybe an inch spare around the edges of the leather. It takes a bit of work to make it form correctly around corners, and it helps if the edges of the mould are smooth rather than sharply angled. Once you’ve got it looking right, tack the edges down to the wooden base so the leather is held in the correct shape before leaving it to dry. It might be necessary to cut out a few V shapes around the edge to work out any wrinkles & folds in the leather, but make sure you leave enough around the edge closest to the mould for stitching or riveting you might need to do later.
I made these belt pouches for my Fallout 3 costume. One was formed around a mini-screwdriver case, and the other around a pack of hot glue sticks. You can pretty much use any solid object as a mould. They come in very handy for carrying bottle-caps 😉
Once the leather is dry, carefully remove the tacks with the back of a hammer – I have a small hammer with quite slim prongs which is ideal. A small screwdriver would be fine too. Then use wing dividers to run around the bottom edge of the moulded part & mark out a line to cut away the spare edge, leaving enough for a line of stitching. The pouches above use a simple two part pattern with a single piece of leather for the back & flap – one is fastened with a snap or press-stud, and the other has some heavy duty Velcro stitched on.
I was pretty pleased with the Fallout pouches & I wanted to use the same basic technique on some fancier items that would be suitable for stock sale items. I figured a custom mould was the way to go, so I found a friendly local carpenter and had him knock one up for me. I went for a nicely rounded & contoured design since this makes the process of moulding easier than using a blocky shape. This is what we came up with.
The mould is in 3 parts – the actual sculpted mould part is screwed on to a wooden base, and then there’s a frame which is about 4mm larger than the outline of the mould – this allows just enough room for the leather to sit between the mould and the frame. After I’ve wet formed the leather over the mould, the frame gets clamped down and left for 24 hours. The holes you see on the frame were going to be for bolting it down to the base, but I found it easier to use four big G-clamps instead.
Here’s an exploded view:
I’ve made a few of these now and I’ve got it down to only needing two tacks to hold the leather down to the base. Using the frame really simplifies the process as I’ve found it’s not necessary to worry about getting the leather to sit perfectly flat around the bottom of the mould. As long as it isn’t folding over on itself, the frame and the clamps make the leather sit perfectly flat, and it holds that shape when it’s dry.
This is the first pouch I made using this technique:
And here’s a couple of luxury variants which I’m selling as a stock item on my Etsy store:
So there we go – part tutorial, part sales pitch. Hope that’s cool with you?