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Wet Moulding Leather

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.

wet moulding leather body armour

Work in progress – wet moulded leather body armour.

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 😉

wet moulding leather pouches

Moulded and weathered belt pouches made for the Fallout costume.

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.

wooden mould for wet moulding leather

My first wooden pouch mould & frame.

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:

wet moulding leather - exploded view of frame

Exploded view of wooden pouch mould.

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:

wet moulded leather pouch

First pull off the new pouch mould.

And here’s a couple of luxury variants which I’m selling as a stock item on my Etsy store:

Luxury moulded pouches with gold inlay and brass hardware.

Luxury moulded pouches with gold inlay and brass hardware.

So there we go – part tutorial, part sales pitch. Hope that’s cool with you?

21 Responses so far.

  1. Duncan says:

    Thanks for the write-up – it’s very helpful. Unrelated to this subject, but could you tell me how you create the gold inlay in your moulded pouches? I recognise the pattern as from a Tandy’s roll embosser (I have the same), but how did you paint the gold in? It looks perfect.

    • armrd says:

      Hi Duncan – I use a metallic paint marker pen for the inlay. The specific pen is a Uni Paint Marker, product code PX-203. I’m sure you’ll find them on eBay, although I got mine in the craft section of The Range (UK chain of stores).

  2. armrd says:

    Bit of extra info for you, in case you can’t find that specific brand of pen – the nib on the ones I use is 0.8mm.

  3. Duncan says:

    Thanks a lot for sharing that. I’ve used paint markers before, but only the fatter bullet or chisel tip ones. I didn’t even know you could buy ones that fine. I’ve managed to locate your Uni brand ones at a shop 5 minutes from my work, so I might go pick one up on my lunch break. Thanks again.

  4. Very nice article. I am going to share it on my pinterest board for other people to read that are curious on how wet molding leather is done. I really like the gold inlay you did to decorate the flap.

  5. John Wakefield says:

    Nice to see some sensible no nonsense info for a change!, what I am trying to do is simple compared to your work, simple curve on a parallel 40mm strap,(to save waste cutting out of a
    sheet).
    Will do as you say, make a former and clamp it down for 24 hrs, until dry.
    Kind regards, John in Spain.

    • armrd says:

      Hi John – how did you get on with this? I’ve never used the method you’re proposing – if I need a curved strap (on a fitted belt for example) I just cut the curve & accept the wastage.

  6. Tracy says:

    Thanks! I think it’s generous of you to share your knowledge & experience to help us get started.
    In appreciation, Tracy

  7. Thank you very much. I can’t wait to think of something to make!

  8. Caleb says:

    what did you use to color the leather? i really like how it looks

    • armrd says:

      I dye all my stuff with Fiebings leather dye. The body armour pieces in the first image are just natural veg tan leather with no dye.

  9. dan says:

    Hi thanks for sharing this inf. DO YOU SELL THE MOLDS

    • armrd says:

      Thanks Dan, my pleasure. I’m afraid I don’t sell the moulds, but if you can find a local carpenter they might be able to make something for you.

  10. Stacy Grover Simonds says:

    This is great…I’m trying to help out at our shoe repair shop , now I have a basic idea how to fix and create the civil war replica pouches that are brought in……..

  11. kingfinny says:

    What weight of leather did you use for the pouches? I’m planning on a few for an AC:Syndicate cosplay and am in the materials gather phase. Thanks!

  12. BWilson says:

    Hello. Would you be able to tell me where I can buy these online?

  13. Stuart says:

    Absolutely brilliant :) I design and make Gents clothing and I really want to get into wet moulding leather and reading what you have put down and you have expand very well ….you have inspired me to actually start a project :) I have studied ceramics in the past in sculpting which made me move onto to clothing and now this …..respect for sharing :)