Use vegetable-tanned, light-colored top-grained leather for
tooling leather. If you're not sure what you have, test the
leather's ability to take a pattern by wetting a corner and
making lines with different objects like the edge of a coin.
When working with a large piece of tooling leather, tape or
glue something to the back to prevent the leather from stretching
when you are working on it.
The first step involves cutting a design into the leather,
followed by creating depressions with various tools that result
in elements of the design presenting a raised surface.
Tooling leather is done before it is painted or dyed. If the
leather becomes dry while you are working on it, moisten with a
damp sponge. If you're not able to complete your project in one
sitting, store the leather in an appropriately-sized Ziploc bag
and place it in the refrigerator.
Choosing and Tracing a Design
Choose a design and trace it onto tracing film or wax paper
with a pencil. You can get tracing film in most hobby stores.
Search the internet and leatherworking books for ideas on tooling
Other sources include wood burning and stamp making
catalogues, coloring books, seed catalogues (for floral designs)
and magazines like National Geographic. Copy and paste this url
into your borwser and check out this great site for tooling
leather patterns: leathersecrets.com/craft/carving.html
Start with something simple if you are just beginning tooling
leather, and work up to more complex designs as you gain
experience. Paper palette, available at craft stores, consists of
paper on one side and a sort of plastic film on the other side.
It can be trimmed to fit in your printer.
Once you find the design on the internet, simply print it off.
The plastic side will protect the design from getting wet when
you place it on the damp leather.
Transferring the Pattern
Begin by dampening the leather on both sides with a sponge, or
by holding the piece under running water or dipping it in water.
Try to avoid soaking the leather, as it becomes too soft to work
with. Then place the tracing film on the right side of the
leather, using tape at the back of the leather to hold it in
Using the tip of a ballpoint pen from which the ink cartridge
has been removed, trace over the pattern, following the lines,
pressing firmly. Instead of a ballpoint pen, you can purchase a
special tool called a ballpoint stylus that is specially designed
to transfer patterns for tooling leather. Once you remove the
film, you can see the design on the leather's surface. If you've
made any mistakes, you can smooth them out using the back of a
Using a Swivel Knife
Taking a swivel knife, trace over the outline, holding the
knife with your index finger resting on the u-shaped section at
the top of the handle, while holding the body of the knife
between your thumb and your middle finger. The knife should be
turned by rotating the body between your thumb and the middle and
The knife is held upright at a 90 degree angle to the leather,
cutting with the corner of the knife facing you. Don't do
multiple cuts over the line and make the cut light enough to just
penetrate the grain, about half the thickness of the hide.
Creating Texture and Depressions
Use a firm surface such as marble for the next phase, where
texture and depressions are created in the leather using a
wooden, PVC or rawhide mallet, a beveller, a pear shader and a
Bevellers come in different sizes. Start with three: a small,
medium and pointy one. This will give you plenty of versatility
when tooling leather.
Position the deep part of the beveller into the groove you
have made, and the shallow part towards the side you want to push
down or depress. Strike the beveller with the mallet. Use the
beveller on the outside of the design to create the formation of
ridges while giving a raised appearance.
By overlapping each stamping, you achieve a smooth and
continuous effect. The pear shader is used to depress areas of
the design, adding contour and depth. The camouflage tool works
to add texture to the design and is excellent for such fine work
as recreating the petals of a flower.
Get comfortable with your tools by practicing on scrap pieces
of tooling leather. That way you're less likely to make mistakes
when you are working with the actual project.
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