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 piece.

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 in width.

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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 higher-detail project.
  5. 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 projects.
  6. 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 pattern.

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 marble)

Tooling Mallet:
PVC (cheap, durable) or rawhide (not yellow, less bouncy) are best.
Stamping Surface:
Nothing beats marble (though poundo board works) with rubber underneath.
Swivel Knife:
The $10 model works fine, if you keep it WD40'd and sharp.
Make a strop:
Glue a piece of leather to a wooden base. Rub it with white jeweler's rouge.
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:

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 piece.
Beeswax & Bone folder/wheel:
Finish the edges nicely.
Barge Cement:
Let set for 20 minutes before bonding two ROUGH surfaces. Ventilate very well!!

Leather Tips:

by Jonathan Getty, Lord Todde mac Donnell in the SCA
email: (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.