Basic Leather Carving
(This section was written by Jonathon Getty and is copyrighted
by the him. Its use here is with permission)
Basic Leather Carving
The embellishment of leather goods via cutting, stamping, and
tooling date back into antiquity, and though these techniques
have been simplified by modern tools and automation, the medieval
leatherworker's craft has changed little in the intervening
centuries. The techniques and patterns used to decorate modern
saddles are repeated on specimens in European museums and, if I
am any example, can be learned by artistic Neanderthals with a
bit of hard work.
Basic Carving Technique
The amount of time devoted to detail and perfect carved edges
depends entirely on the application. A leather coronet, bible
cover, or tooled pouch would be small enough, and sufficiently
scrutinized to be worthy of full detailing as described below.
Larger projects, intended to be viewed from a distance (such as a
shield, belt, or sign) might omit several of the edging and
finishing steps. The resulting project will have less terrain,
rougher edges, a non-uniform background, and take one-tenth the
time to finish. Furthermore, none of these deficiencies would be
visible further than a foot away. Ultimately, the level of
detailing depends on the purpose, scale, and price of the
An early example of the cut, bevel, and backgrounding work is
the satchel of the book of Armagh. It
was carved sometime in the 8th century to carry a much larger
book, but later found use with the smaller book now at Trinity
College Dublin. The satchel lives in the special collections room
of the new library, and you can see it if you ask nicely (and
pretend to be a graduate student in art). To give you an idea of
the scale of the pattern, the interlacing stripes are about 6mm
- Obtain a piece of naturally tanned leather. Vegetable and
oak-bark tanning will work nicely, while modern chrome tanning
will not (it waterproofs and softens the hide too much to retain
tooled designs). If possible, try to work in the center of a
piece somewhat larger than your pattern. Meanwhile, copy your
pattern onto waterproof tracing paper (wax paper works).
- Both sides of the leather are wetted, either with a sponge,
quick dunk, or running under poured water. Attempt to wet the
surface without allowing water to pool and saturate the piece.
Overly wet leather gets mushy, and dry leather can crack under
the increased force needed to form it (some folks prefer dry
leather for stamping).
- Secure the traced pattern onto the leather (tape only to the
back of the leather!), make sure the inked side of the paper is
facing up (!) and transfer the pattern by pressing on the paper
with a rounded stylus (ball-point pen). Smooth any mis-tracings
with a modeling (or ordinary) spoon. Remove the tracing paper,
and let the surface dry a bit.
- Carve the lines you have just transferred, about 1/2 the hide
thickness deep with a swivel (an Exacto results in non-uniform
lines, but can be substituted) knife. Carving is the critical
step to creating striking, non-stamped designs. When done well,
it creates enough contrast to skip one or more of the following
steps in a lower-detail project, or ease the remaining steps of a
- Bevel along the carved lines, by placing the deep part of the
beveler into the groove, and the shallow part toward the side to
be depressed. With each mallet stroke, overlap the previous
stamping by 2/3 of the tool's length, trying to tool to at least
half the thickness of the hide. This step is the most dull and
time-consuming (a 40" knotwork belt required 25 hours of
beveling, 5 of design & tracing, 3 of carving, and 4 of
finishing!), but results in smooth, finished edges which collect
dye and produce an automatic graded-shading effect. Also,
beveling down the edge pattern creates deeper patterns and
simplifies the next step. However, its use, except for small
sections, may not be justified or reasonable for larger
- Most modern designs use a raised foreground and a flattened
background to maximize topographic contrast (the opposite,
inverted tooling, is also common). A flat tool, either textured
(which collects dye and automatically darkens the background) can
accomplish this, overlapping profusely (as with beveling) to
avoid individual too-marks. The degree of overlap, again, depends
on how much time the artisan wishes to devote to "perfection," as
does the effort expending in pounding down exactly "inside the
lines" (and beveled edges provide a large margin for error)
Alternative backgrounding techniques involve stamping a repeated
pattern, filigreeing (cutting away the background leather
completely), or poking a nail the leather to create a speckled
Another technique, used as extensively in period as today, is
stamping. Once the stamp is created, the above sequence is
limited to wetting the leather, transferring some alignment
marks, and pounding away. This demands a pattern be used numerous
times, as modern custom stamps can quite expensive, and period
stamps were often painstakingly carved from wood (and
incidentally didn't last very long). The hybrid technique of
using common stamps (crescents, ropes, circles) in creative ways
to augment a hand-carved design can save immense amounts of time,
while still producing one-of-a-kind projects.
Shopping List for Basic Carving: ($75ish including the
- Tooling Mallet:
- PVC (cheap, durable) or rawhide (not yellow, less bouncy) are
- Stamping Surface:
- Nothing beats marble (though poundo board works) with rubber
- Swivel Knife:
- The $10 model works fine, if you keep it WD40'd and
- Make a strop:
- Glue a piece of leather to a wooden base. Rub it with white
- Textured Bevelers:
- B936 (small), B701F (medium), F976 (pointy)
- A104 or A104 1/2 (teardrops), A105 (small rectangle)
- Waterproof tracing paper, modeling spoon/stylus combo (or
ball-point pen & spoon)
Paints and dyes:
- Let one pigment dry (overnight if possible) before applying a
- Paint with water-based acrylics. Leather paints are more
flexible than normal ones.
- Water and spirit-based dyes should be diluted for a full
range of effects.
- Oil based dyes are rich, deep, permanent, and rather cheap if
you buy by the quart.
- Lacquers (like Neat-Lac) work well as resists for Antiquers
(I like Tandy's browns)
- Leather sealers make the piece waterproof and shiny, but also
Basic Leatherworking Tools:
- T-square, yardstick, compass:
- Measure & shape your leather accurately.
- Exacto knife and/or leather shears:
- N.b. leather will destroy "cloth only" shears
- Edge Beveler (#2):
- Round the fresh edges for a more finished and durable
- Beeswax & Bone folder/wheel:
- Finish the edges nicely.
- Barge Cement:
- Let set for 20 minutes before bonding two ROUGH surfaces.
Ventilate very well!!
- Vegetable-Tanned or Oak-Tanned only! Tooling chrome-tanned
leather is a hopeless cause
- Choose light-colored leather in the thickness desired (one
"ounce" is a 1/64" of thickness)
- Some leather is of a lower grade due to a few, bad defects,
or small size.
- Depending on your project, this could be a good value for
- Scraps (anywhere but Tandy or Leather Factory) are cheap and
ideal for practice and small projects.
- Try to select your leather in person, especially when buying
shoulders and sides.
by Jonathan Getty, Lord Todde mac Donnell in the SCA
email: firstname.lastname@example.org (This email address is not
current - 3 Mar 2003)
Last edited 7/26/01
Leatherworking in the Middle Ages - Basic Leather
Carving. Copyright © 2001 Jonathan Getty
This material is the exclusive property of the author, and as
such should not be used with out his expressed permission.