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I used to do a lot more leather tooling and carving, and am getting back into it Some folks have done great carving and tooling on leather sheaths around here, but nobody really explains how to go about it. So, I decided to do a rough & simple tooling "How to".


Everyone has seen the basic steps behind getting a design into the leather, but the tools used and how to use them is what I am going to focus on. You can buy tools from Tandy Leather or another supplier, or you could make something similar. The basic tools for leather carving are not that fancy. It's the bordering  and other specialized stamping tools that you would probably be better off buying.


So let's look at some simple tooling stuff first. Please don't expect me to do one of those fantastic Viking Age tooling extravaganzas. It ain't happening here.

Here is a leather jewelry box I made for my wife about 20 years ago.

Roses (1) V2.jpg


Roses (2).jpg


This is a really simple thing to do when you have the tools and technique down.

Edited by Joshua States
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So let's look at the basic tooling needed and how to use them.

In this pic is the basics: A hard piece of polished stone, tracing paper & pencils, the stamping tools, swivel knives, a rawhide mallet or maul, a container of fresh clean water, and a small clean sponge. The leather is vegetable (oak) tanned. This piece is 6-7 oz. in weight.


1 Basic tools V2.jpg


I like to draw my outline of the leather piece on the tracing paper and work the design inside the outline. I'm going to do a stylized Western Flower of sorts. 

First you sketch the outline of the design on the tracing paper.


2 Sketch on Tracing paper V2.jpg


Then you dampen the leather with a clean sponge. Do not get the leather soaked. Enough water to darken it well is sufficient. Soggy leather doesn't hold the compressed shape and cutting it just tears and makes a mess. 

3 Damp leather V2.jpg


Lay the tracing over the leather, and using a blunt stylus , trace the outline using medium pressure into the leather.


4 Stylus V2.jpg


5 Transfer V2.jpg


When you remove the paper, you should see the lines clearly.

6 impression V2.jpg

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Next step is to cut the outline using the swivel knife. You can use any knife, but the blade should be really sharp, have a sharp corner or point, and a pretty steep angle.

7 swivel knife V2.jpg


The swivel allows you to turn curves easily. I know guys who use a handmade blade with a round handle they can roll between their fingers. Whatever works for you.


8 cutting V2.jpg


Do not join the lines with cuts. You do not want the cut lines to cross at any time.


9 cuts V2.jpg

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Now is when this process starts to resemble wood carving. You need to decide what is up and what is down. Instead of whittling away the "down" parts, you press them down with one of several different beveling tools. Here I have three differently sized square bevels and a deer foot tool.


10 Bevel tools (1) V2.jpg


The bevels are wedge shaped in one cross section, rounded across the contact surface and have very smooth corners on the sides. The front (thick) and rear (thin) edges are sharp.


10 Bevel tools (2) V2.jpg


These get placed thick edge against the cut on top of the area that is "down". Then you give it a whack with the rawhide mallet.


11 Beveling V2.jpg


Following all the lines and the outer perimeter, you end up with something like this. (I also did around the center circle.


12 Bevels (6) V2.jpg


The deer foot and this pointed spoon are good for getting into those tight inside corners.


12 Deer foot V2.jpg


12 Point Bevel V2.jpg

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Next up is the shading/contouring of areas to give a little 3=three dimensionality to the elements in the design. Pear shaders, ball shaders, spoons, and other tools create recessed areas called shading. Here are two pear shaders, called that because of the teardrop shape (I think). Like the bevelers, they have a smooth convex surface and rounded corners. The points are used to get into tight areas.


13 Pear shaders (1) V2.jpg


13 Pear shaders (2) V2.jpg


These are placed in areas where you want to simulate curves in the surface, and struck with the mallet or maul. You can also just press using hand pressure when you don't want a stark depression or are trying to roll the depression from shallow to deep.


13 Pear shaders (3) V2.jpg


14 Shading (3) V2.jpg


Somewhere along the way I attempted to put some grace lines in the flower petals and didn't do a very good job. Grace lines can give something more depth and dynamics (similar to wood carving).

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Next is background and seeding. Seeding is something that gets used in Western Flowers a lot, especially in the centers. It can also be used for background. Back ground can be smooth or textured, depending on what you want the finished piece to look like.

Seeders are generally round and cup shaped. They leave a circular impression with a raised center. Some have texture as well.


15 Seeders V2.jpg


I will use them on the center of the flower and not worry about overlapping the circles.


16 Seeding V2.jpg


Back ground tools come in a variety of shapes and textures, Have some with a pointed profile helps to get into the corners.


17 Backgrounders V2.jpg


I will typically do the tight inside corners first and then complete the outlines. You can rotate the tool and overlap itself, mix the textures up, or mix smooth and textured together. Remember, it's background, it's not supposed to be a focal point.


18 Background (1) V2.jpg


18 Background (3) V2.jpg


Edited by Joshua States
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At this point, it's go back over the bevels and shading, Smoothing out rough spots, erasing lines, pushing a little more down here and there. Generally just tuning up the carving.


I did have to dampen the leather again at several points along the way. You will know when it's time because it doesn't compress as easily and won't retain the shape.

Let it dry out and check it again before dying, waxing, or oiling. 



Dyed V2.jpg


I hope this helps someone. It's clearly not the best work I have ever done, but considering the entire thing took me less than an hour to complete, I'd say it gets the point across.

Edited by Joshua States
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It does and I have all thse tools as I bought the whole lot from a very old family friend but have only ever used one or two of them for border stamping. Havent ventured into carving but then time is a factor for me.

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3 hours ago, Garry Keown said:

It does and I have all thse tools as I bought the whole lot from a very old family friend but have only ever used one or two of them for border stamping. Havent ventured into carving but then time is a factor for me.


It does take some time and effort. It took me longer to resize the photos and make the post than it did to do the carving though!.

Don't discount those border tools. There's lots of good decoration you can do with just a border tool and a background or seeder tool.


Sheath right.JPG


Bordering 2 V2.jpg


2 hours ago, Alan Longmire said:


Thank you Alan, and as I was doing this piece, I kept saying to myself "Don't rush, Alan will pin this thing. Do it right." I didn't really listen, but there you have it.


50 minutes ago, Rob Toneguzzo said:

Wow, thanks heaps Josh, great tutorial, sure has given me something to think about and will definitely help me out.

My pleasure Rob. If you are thinking of doing more of that Urnes or Broa style knotwork or intertwined beasts, you really only need a knife, one or two bevels, and a background tool. Maybe a pointed spoon or similar tool for the little spots.


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Oh yeah, and for those of you who do the FaceBook thing, Chiara Meucci (Pisa Italy) does some absolutely stunning leather work. Frankly she makes my work look like the scribblings of a 3rd grader.


Chiara Meucci 1.jpg

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If I may give some additional pointers. 


Don't rush your dye job when using multiple colors.  The colors can bleed and they will bleed together and it will make you nice hard tooled edges muddy looking.  After letting your dye set, burnish it with a soft cloth.  Dyes can leave a residue on the top of the leather.  I use an old cotton sock.


Get an antiquing gel or fluid if you want to make patterns stand out.  You lay down the gel, and wipe the excess up and then lay a lighter dye on top.  It makes all of the recesses darker.


Small modeling paint brushes are awesome for dying small parts.  I use them quote often when doing custom leather work. 


If Joshua is ok with others posting pictures in his thread, and if you all are interested, I can post a some carving and dying I have done to show other examples.

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On 11/11/2019 at 3:21 PM, Wes Detrick said:

If Joshua is ok with others posting pictures in his thread, and if you all are interested, I can post a some carving and dying I have done to show other examples.

Always OK to add your stuff to mine Wes.

Please go for it. The more info on technique, the better the thread becomes.

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  • 7 months later...
On 11/13/2019 at 7:18 PM, Joshua States said:

Always OK to add your stuff to mine Wes.

Please go for it. The more info on technique, the better the thread becomes.

I'm not Wes, but I'll take you up on the offer.  Here's a couple of videos I recently came across and translated using Google translate.  Notice the limited number of tools needed.


1.       So, as usual, we prepare the part from vegetable tanned leather. Cut out taking into account an increase of 5 mm, glue the backside with tape. Wet the skin with water and let it recover.

2.       We place and fasten the prepared drawing on the skin.

3.       With a thin tip of the stylus we set the pattern on the skin along the main contours.

4.       Typically, animal faces, like human faces, are asymmetric. And if the picture is not translated accurately, the axes “float” during operation, if the plans are not followed, etc. the muzzle becomes curved or skewed.

5.       Therefore, it is better to check and correct the symmetry of eyes, nose and mouth deliberately.

6.       So, right on the skin, with light lines and dots, symmetry is tightened up here along the axis of the eyes, nose, corners of the mouth and ears.

7.       Next, we cut the pattern with a rotary knife

8.       The wool along the contour is cut with short lines - strokes.

9.       Earlier work on wool is continued by the cardina (stylus/carving tool?).

10.    We draw the wool in the direction of growth.

11.    Kardina (Stylus/carving tool?) can also draw eyes.

12.    Wool must be varied.

13.    By pressing harder, you can make the wool more expressive, textured where necessary.

14.    And vice versa, barely noticeable, small.

15.    The border of the background and wool can be processed with the stamps "A 98" and "F 902-2"

16.    Here the background is made by a stamp from Barry King.  It has no number.

17.    Molding on important leather from the backside.  

18.    Stretch the skin gradually

19.    Elongated parts after drying keep their shape.

20.    On them you can easily work out the texture even higher.

21.    In the work process, you can still pull up the volume.

22.    Thus, we fill in the whole picture with texture.



1.                   For painting, penetrating paints are used Feibing’s Professional OIL Dye.

2.                   In black we paint over what should be black.

3.                   In this case, the nose and eyes are stained.

4.                   Everything else is filled with brown in the background.

5.                   Paint Feibing’s Professional OIL Dye.  Color Golden Brown

6.                   One coat of paint brightens after drying

7.                   To darken the paint is applied in several layers.

8.                   So you can do a little dimming to the edges.

9.                   And darken where necessary.

10.               After painting the background and the muzzle, this blank was coated with an “Eco-Flo Satin Shene” finish and, after drying, it was darkened with Antique-gel.

11.               Excess Antique-gel is cleaned with a damp soft cloth.

12.               After complete drying, acrylic work begins

13.               A thin brush draws wool.

14.               Strokes should be thin, slightly transparent.

15.               Wool is drawn in the direction of growth.

16.               It is important to observe the length of the hairs.

17.               Wool is drawn in white.

18.               You can overlap strokes light gray, light brown to make the wool more natural and interesting in color.

19.               Used paints Fiebing’s Acrylic Dye for Leather

20.               Acrylic paints are well diluted with water and mixed. They dry very quickly.

21.               Layer after layer, the wolf is covered with wool.

22.               Gray and brown colors are added with transparent strokes.

23.               Draw eyes and mustache. After drying, close the finish.

24.               All parts are ready for assembly

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On 6/14/2020 at 7:30 PM, Joshua States said:

Nice job Billy.

Thanks, Joshua.  

I finally finished this up. 

20200618_102022a.jpg  2013_02240043.JPG

The carving is a little different because this is my second attempt. On the first one I followed Mr Mashskiy's instructions verbatim, and dyed the whole piece brown like he did before starting the acrylics.  However,  because my huskies are mostly white, the dye was bleeding through the white and turned it yellow.  (I can post a pic of this if you want to see the difference.)  I don't like how bored Bear looks in the carving, though.


Now I need to come up with a functional item that's big enough for this kind of carving.  

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  • 1 month later...
On 6/18/2020 at 11:08 AM, billyO said:

Now I need to come up with a functional item that's big enough for this kind of carving.  

Frame that and hang it on the wall.

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Very nice, Billy.  I teach my woodcarving class students low relief like that before we get into higher and higher relief.  Most people don't appreciate how hard it is to make a low relief look 3-dimensional.

Edited by Chris Christenberry
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