Period Leather-working techniques
- Painting and Dying
- Styles - Under construction
(With the help of Carolyn Priest (Thora Sharptooth firstname.lastname@example.org);
Ron Charlotte (al Thaalibi email@example.com),
John Nash (Madoc NASH.JOHN/HPBRIT.C6@hpcpbla.bri.hp.com)
Leather "tooling" or ornamentation can be divided into the
following specific categories:
- Applique: This refers to the techniques of attaching
other things to the surface of the leather, to decorate it. These
can include paper-mache, other pieces of leather, decorative
riveting, plaster/Gesso, etc. According to Cennini's The Craftsman's
Handbook. When making helms and crests of leather, the
leather was to be gesso coated and treated as any other
- Impression/Incision: There are few instances of
combining techniques such as Incising and Stamping, such as is
done in much modern leatherworking, however, that should not be
taken as a solid statement that such was not done. It is quite
possible for such tooling to be done only using stamping tools,
but the edges of such work are usually not as sharply defined as
the cut and tooled work.
- Belts -- Dress Accessories. Catalog nos. 22-23. These
use both Incising and Stamping for decoration
- Leathercovered Box (14th C - Italian) -- Newman, Thelma.
Leather as Art and Craft. This box, which is currently in
in the Metropolitin Museum of Art, has a overall design that
could easily pass for a modern tooling style. There is an
Elizabethan example of Cutting that is vaguely reminiscent of the
modern "American Floral" designs that *could* be such a case
- Stonyhurst Bible binding (7th C.) [plate II; Waterer's
Leather and Craftsmanship, Faber & Faber LTD., London,
- E. Diehl, Bookbinding, Vol. 1, Dover Books, NY,
c.1946,1980, p. 109.
- Cutting (or often referred to as Carving)/Cuir cisele'
- This is a method of decorating leather in which the design is
cut into dampened leather instead of being tooled or blocked. The
design is first outlined with a pointed tool and then dampened.
Sometimes it is then brought into relief by depressing the
background, usually by stamping a succession of dots into the
leather very close together by means of a pointed tool. Certain
parts of the design are sometimes embossed from the flesh side of
the leather, and in such cases the decorating must be done before
Some sources state that this technique was really only
practiced only during the 15th century and then only in certain
areas such as Southeastern Germany and Spain. There are no
English and Flemish and practically no Italian examples are
- Incising -- Taking a knife, or in modern tooling, a swivel
knife, and inscribing a design into the surface of the leather.
Note that a dull knife can leave a much larger "line" than a
sharp one, and will not weaken the surface strength as much. This
is *possibly* the most common method of ornamentation for leather
during the Middle Ages. Numerous examples can be found in
Knives and Scabbards, Shoes and Pattens, etc.
- Carving -- Technically, this is the technique of undercutting
the leather surface and making it physically stand out from the
general surface of the leather.
- Cutout -- Creating designed by punching holes in the leather.
There are examples of this in Shoes and Pattens, as well
as the various fields on the burial shield of the Black Prince
(shown in Leather and the Warrior).
- Sgraffio or Scraping -- Scraping away parts of the surface to
create an overall effect. There are examples of this in Shoes
and Pattens and Leather and the Warrior.
- Embroidery -- Doing needlework on the leather itself. There
are examples discussed in Shoes and Pattens.
- Stamping/Punching/Cold Stamping -- Using a hammer and
unheated metal "Irons" to create a pattern, or set a single
image. There are a few examples of examples of these in Knives
and Scabbards, most often to create a repeating motif of a
single design element.
- Blind Stamping -- Impressing by means of heated metal stamps,
touched to the leather. This is the method of ornamentation used
on books, and other items using very thin leathers.
- Creasing/Veining. -- This is referred to a single or double
line, often used to create a decorative border edge on leather.
It is done with either heated metal irons, or by friction with
wooden tools. It is essentially similar to blind stamping in that
it uses heated metal to create a design.
- Cuerro Gofrado -- Rather like "Blind Stamping", this rather
lays the leather atop a heated metal design, and pressed down
onto it, creating a multilayered effect. It seems to have not
been common beyond Spain and Italy.
- Poker Work/Pyrogravure/Poker Art -- This also uses a heated
tool, but rather than to impress the design into the surface, to
burn the surface with a very hot metal, in much the same way as a
Branding Iron or a Running Iron works. [On light leather you can
burn, using a soldering iron with a sharp tip, a series of dots
and lines that are black. They last for a very long time and you
can create some very complicated designs (including some of the
really difficult ones from the book of kells) This method of
decoration is authentic for the period 800-1100 (see sheaths in
the Yorvik viking centre) and probably before and after those
- Gold Stamping -- This is a means of imbedding gold leaf
patterns into the surface of the leather. Judging from
bookbindings, leather tapestries, and some of the nicer items
described in inventories, they used gold, silver, and tin leaf on
many items, and often faked up the tin to resemble gold or
- Modelling -- Creating a bas relief in the leather using a
number of techniques, including carving.
- Dublin piece (13th c) -- This could just as easily have been
a combination of stamped work and embossing. The basic design
(animals and vegetation) would have been laid out and rough
worked by pressing or modeling, then the background would be
stamped with a small round stamp before the main design is
finished. Additionally, the background dots in the piece appear
to have been worked in rows; they follow the rough lines of the
main design rather than being the smooth all-over pelleted
- Molding or Moulding -- May include molds and/or countermolds
to create the design. A design that has been engraved on a piece
of wood can be pressed into a piece of leather stretched over the
form. It would appear that many molds for Bottels, etc. rather
than having the leather go around the mold, often have the
leather pressed inTO the mold. Many period leather bottles were
made in this fashion, as well as a number of examples of
materials shown in Waterer's books. It is my suspicion that the
"Arms of Henry VIII" found on the bracer recovered from the Mary
Rose, is an example of this, but I may be in error, since all I
can see are photos.
- Paint -- The acidic content of vegetable tanned leather
doesn't seem to be very friendly to a lot of the pigments and
mediums used in period, especially over long time spans. There
are few examples of painting on leather that have survived. A
number of painted artifacts housed at the Cloisters, in NYC, etc.
- Leather Cover (14th C.) -- Der Katalog des Deutsches
Ledermuseums und Deutsches Schuhmuseums, color plate
("Tafel") III, (Universitätsdruckerei, H. Stürtz AG,
Würzburg, 1967). The item is has figures of ladies and
minnesingers cavorting about under four gothic arches.
- Roman Scutum -- Waterer, J.W. Leather and the
- The Scabbard of St. Maurice, c.1200-500 -- Arms and Armor
of the Medieval Knight
- Tapestries -- Waterer, J. W. Spanish Leather. There
are a few of these surviving that either show traces of paint, or
were described in inventories as having been painted.
- Dying (by Ron Charlotte (ska Al
- Bucket of Water:
Needles -- Hog's bristles (aka Sow-hair,
Boar's bristle) became used in the shoemaking industry because of
their flexibility in pulling the thread through curved holes. It
is not known when they became common, but they were at least in
use by the 14th century. Other needles were also used, however.
- Paste Horn -- A cup made from horn, used to hold a
simple paste of flour and water, used to tack leather in place
- Sample Paste -- 1/4 cup White Flour; 1/16 tsp Alum or
Salt; 1 cup water. Combine the flour and the alum or salt. Add
the water, eliminating lumps. Bring to a boil for a minute,
constantly stirring. If it thickens, add water.
- Pincers -- Pliers are sometimes needed to pull
reluctant needles through the holes when stitching.
Polishing Bone -- For flattening and
smoothing. (Note that the Polishing bones protrayed are also
usable as Drawers/Channelling Tools, and for "Pricking", or
marking the spaces for punching the holes along a seam.
- Rubbing Stone - Often a piece of agate, used to
burnish the edges of a piece of leather.
- Tacks -- This might refer to the metal nail like
objects currently referred to as "tacks", since by the time the
poem was written, these had become more commonly used in
assembling heels; however, it might also refer to some method of
"tacking" (or Basting) the leather pieces together for assembly.
This is done either with paste or bits of thread looped and tied,
spcaed around the item.
- Thimble -- Used to protect the thumb from the
- Tooling Materials -- While I do not know of any examples of
stamping irons, or a dull knife for "incision tooling", but it is
probable that these were, in fact used.
- Thumb-Leather -- (A.k.a. Thumb stall) A piece of
leather wrapped around the thumb to protect it when drawing the
Leatherworking in the Middle Ages - Medieval Leather
Working Techniques. Copyright © 1996, 1999, 2001 I. Marc
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