Always Test

One of the most important tips that can be given to any leatherworker, especially beginners, is to TEST EVERYTHING FIRST!!

Let me illustrate:

For most projects I leave some extra leather around the edge – mainly to make sure that after I have tooled and the leather is dry again, I cut it out at the original project size.  Also for small projects like this, I usually leave two on the same piece of leather so that  I have bigger leather to rest my hand on as I tool.

This extra leather affords me the opportunity to test various aspects of the project of the project first.   The things I test is

* whether a tool is appropriate and maybe how hard to strike it 
* whether it is actually the right tool that will achieve the effect I want   
* how this leather will react to what I want to do
* how will this dye work on this leather and will the eventual color be correct
* how is a sealer / finish / conditioner going to work with the dye I have
* just to get my hand and eye a little practice before I tackle the actual project.

There are some effects I use that I do not always test, like the woodgrain effect above, because I use it so often.   But if I wanted to try a new border for it, I might just do a mall piece of it on the side first.

Here are a few cut off pieces I saved over the last few days.   You can see I also test how my boss sewing machine is going to deal with this leather thickness under its current settings.   And there is a test for setting eyelets – I wanted to know if I had to punch a hole first if I wanted to insert the eyelets in cardboard sandwiched between to thin leathers.    Even a test for the right slit punch when I had to duplicate a specific lacing pattern.

Above the most important testing was to see which gold paint would give the right effect and would look good.

I hope this helps!

CenterLine Border Fun

The main idea here is to have a center raised/beveled line and then stamp some pattern on one or both sides.

It starts with drawing the two parallel lines with a compass, cutting them with a swivel knife and then choosing between a smooth, textured or figure carving beveler.

Here is the video (in two parts):


And here are still photos of the samples that were made or shown in the video:

In the following small journal cover, the border stamp was also used against a beveled edge, but it was not a center line design.  (The design was drawn on a phone using the Sketcher App by Valentin Myamsin)

Hand Stitching Leather

In this post I am going to consolidate all my published work on stitching leather by hand. After related blog posts have been incorporated here, I will delete the originals.

Here hand stitching in three different ways are shown:

From primitive video times, a few seconds to show how the center post of the tool glides against the edge of the leather. The tool is held at a 45 degree angle to give the small hole in the elbow piece the best chance of cutting the groove..

Stitching Holes

This is how the holes are positioned for handstitching. Note that I am just using every second mark made by my stitch marker.

In this blog post from long ago, you can see a sky hook that my friend Tommy McLintic designed and published:


FrogSkin Background

I updated this blog post from long ago to include a new video and some photos.

Tommy McLintic of South Africa first showed me this very effective background. He is also author of the “Let’s Make a Gadget” postings on this blog.

This method might look very laborious and tedious, but a surprizingly large area can be covered without too much effort if you enjoy the craft and want something special. I use it mainly for small projects.

    1. I first draw a feint guide line about 5mm from the edge of the surface I want to decorate – this line will later be the guide for a border stamp I will use around the background effect.
    2. Next I start with the cased leather and the largest smooth seed stamp I have – a Craftool #S864. It must have a round a dome as possible.
      In the example above you will see little dimples in the ‘mounds’ – my leather is fairly thin and I do not want to punch them in too hard or deep.

    1. I follow no rule when I place these first dots – as soon as you think a pattern might evolve, break away. I like to group some of the largest dots together as you see above, and then when those are all done, I look for any large open spaces and either place a few smaller groups or single dots.
    2. With the following size of seeder down (Craftool #S631), I surround all the large ‘mounds’ with smaller ones. You could also just work randomly and that would give a different effect.

    1. Be careful as you use smaller seeders – they need considerably less striking force on your mallet to make an impression and you will be used to a harder tap with the larger punch.
      Remember also that it takes many small dots to fill even a small area, so you do not want to leave too much space open for the smallest seeder.

    1. The smallest seeder, a Craftool #S931, is then used to fill in the gaps.

      If you want to, you can take the latgest seeder again and just ‘redo’ one or two of the larger dots that have lost its shape.

    2. An example of the coloring done with an airbrush – difficult to stay within the border tool used around the background.

Here are some examples where I have used this on projects.  First my wife’s handbag:

The rest of the bag was airbrushed – you can see it was spirit based dye – it did not penetrate all that well.   Now, after more than twenty years,  it looks antique, but I would have liked it to be more solid in color.  Waterbased dye penetrate better when used in an airbrush.

A very simple example of the frog skin pattern being used for a covered buckle:


This is a bag I made about ten years ago and I use it to carry tools and what-not to leather shows and guild meetings.  It also shows some other arrangements of the seeder tools:


Here is a video that shows some ideas about backgrounds:

Border Fun

I have really liked doing the rope edge effect with the lined triangle beveler (F910) [Search here for ‘ROPE’ to see the other instructions].

Well, someone I am helping getting started took that and did a variation and also came up with a cool border done with a basket weave stamp!

Here is a close up – in this section the inside lines of the two swivel line cuts were beveled first with a textured beveler.

In this one no bevelling was done before the basketweave was stamped with the F910 along the lines.

In this video are some ideas about using veiners and specifically as borders around a backgrounded area.


The Ultimate Leather Finish / Dressing Any Leathercrafter can Use!

I have successfully made my own Dubbin: I rendered sheep fat for the tallow (beautiful white stuff – also good for cooking and preparing cast iron cookware), and then I added Beeswax and cod liver oil (or Neatsfoot oil), lanolin and glycerin. The result is all I expected and I do not feel anxious any more about having to import my Dubbin from South Africa!

Etherington & Roberts says it is made of tallow and cod oil.
Thelma Newman, in her book “Leather as Art and Craft” describes DUBBIN as a mixture of Tallow and Codliver Oil.

Why I Like DUBBIN so Much!

  1. DUBBIN feeds and protects the leather from the inside and replaces all the oils taken out of the leather during the tanning process.
  2. DUBBIN brings out a deep glowing color in leather. In un-dyed leather it will cause the leather to turn a golden honey color when exposed to light.
  3. DUBBIN is very good for your hands – especially in winter. I always apply it by hand – it allows me to regulate exactly how much I put on.
  4. DUBBIN never acentuates stains on leather – it rather tends to clean up any water or light stains.
  5. DUBBIN Can be used over any non-sealing finish, such as spirit dyes and water based dyes as well as water based inks.
  6. DUBBIN allows leather to become supple without loosing its shape – it helps the leather to stay “alive” and always as beautiful as new.

To Make Your Own

Here is my suggested quantities (I vary them everytime I make a batch – just like grandma used to bake with a handful of this and a pinch of that…..):

  • 1 kilogram lard [2 lb] – I prefer sheep lard. It has to be rendered – cut it up and boil it in water until the lard separates out clear from the water and gunk. Pour it off so that you can let it cool off and solidify.
  • Less than 100 grams of beeswax [<3oz]. Beeswax is NOT the main ingredient - too much will make the dubbin hard and will remain as a surface covering on the leather after application.
  • 1/2 liter of Cod Liver Oil [16 fl oz]. If the thought puts you off, replace it with Neatsfoot oil or olive oil, in fact,
    any plant or animal oil, but definitely not a mineral oil (that will attack your leather).
    I have doused a piece of leather in Cod Liver oil – it smelled fishy for four hours, and then the oil and leather started to talk to each other and all that was left, was a very traditional leather smell. Cod Liver oil used to be a very traditional oil used in working with leather and some ascribe the very romantic smell of the previous century car interiors and saddles and leather goods to Cod Liver oil.
  • 60 ml of Lanolin [2 fl oz]. I have found pure lanolin sold in pharmacies for use by breastfeeding mothers.
  • 60 ml of Glycerin [2 fl oz].

Simply melt them together gently – the result should be creamy and easy to apply to leather.

Answers to DUBBIN critics

It is sometimes said that DUBBIN rots stitching on leather articles. When applying DUBBIN you must simply make sure that you do not leave chunks of Dubbin in folds or seams of the leather – this will collect dust, trapped by the thick DUBBIN and the dust will then rot the stitching. I always polish a project that I have just applied DUBBIN to, with a soft brush – there seems to be some beeswax in DUBBIN that will cause the leather to have a natural shine when treated like this.

I posed the following question to the Leather Chemists of America:

I make my own Dubbin as a leather dressing – mainly for veg tan.
I am curious as to the ingredients I use and how meaningfull they are (are they all necessary?)
Sheep Tallow
Cod Liver Oil
I see on the ALCA dictionary that there is also mention of aluminum stearate in dubbin – what is its purpose and where can the-man-on-the-street buy this?

This was the answer I got back:

Each of the materials in your dubbin has a unique character and therefore imparts a special trait to the leather. The wax protects the surface and adds that unique feel to the treated leather. The tallow penetrates a little better, but also contributes to that waxy nature, but also has a lower melting point, so it changes more effectively when warmed slightly than the wax which remains solid to a bit warmer condition. The fish oil penetrates deep and softens as well as providing anti-oxidant properties and even some tanning when heated. The glycerin is a good humectant and keeps the leather from over drying by pulling moisture from the air.

Lanolin is also unique, though some folks are sensitive to lanolin and should always be advised that it is in the leather. This sheep byproduct has long been taunted as a great soften and water repellant for leather.

Clearly the amount of each of these materials in the dubbin can be a major issue, but that is something that I am sure you have seen with time and experience as you adjust your formula.

Aluminum stearate is just soap, though most would probably consider it more a grease than a soap. It combines a wax and humectant roll, but just as most leather experts warn against the use of saddle soap, I think you will quickly see that this soap really has little to offer your mix. The biggest issue with soaps and leather is that soaps are made under highly alkaline conditions, and unless that basicity (alkaline pH) is neutralized it can carry terrible consequences to the acid leather.

Getting Leather Soft

There is not a single product that softens leather.
Let me explain :
Think of this in terms of the leather fibers – kind-of like the fingers of your two hands interlaced.
When you dye the leather and while the leather fibers are limp, the leather is pliable. Same goes for getting the leather wet for tooling or wet forming.
Now as the leather dries, the dye, and to a lesser extent the water, makes the leather fibers sticky and when it is dry, the leather feels stiff. Many people confuse this stiffness with “casing and/or dying leather dries it out”.

Now you put a sealer or conditioner on and nothing changes. The fibers still stick to each other because of the dye, and maybe now also the sealer.

BUT, as soon as you start manipulating and bending the leather, the fibers break free of each other and the leather becomes softer. If you had applied a conditioner like dubbin or Aussie or neatsfoot oil, the fibers that break free from each other, get lubricated and the leather feels even softer because the fibers now also get lubricated.

I hope this helps!

Stitching Wax

From Bryan Stancliff (Aug 2016)

“One of the major changes I’ve made in the last year is switching from waxing my thread with beeswax, to using coad. Coad (also called code, shoemakers wax, sticky wax, black wax and a dozen other names) is a mix of beeswax and one otlr more pine resin materials. Coad acts as both a lubricant and a glue; as the thread is pulled friction melts the coad allowing the thread to glide through the stitching holes, once the thread is pulled tight the coad sets up acting as an adhesive.
There are dozens, if not hundreds of different coad recipes. Many of the traditional recipes are designed around producing a black wax and utilize a black pine pitch. This pitch has become difficult to source over the last 50 or so years (even the shoemakers at Williamsburg have trouble getting it), while some of the newer black recipes substitute tar for the pitch, most recipes have done away with the black compounds resulting in a “blond” wax.
With the widespread availability of colored thread there’s really no reason to deal with tar fumes or in trying to source a material that only two companies in the world produce. The blond recipes work as well as the black recipes and are much cheaper and safer to produce.
I use two different recipes depending on the time of year. I don’t have central heat and air in my house, so the temperature tends to run a bit warm in the summer and a bit cool in the winter and I adjust my coad to suit these temperature changes.
My coad recipe(s) consist of two materials, beeswax and rosin (I use rodeo rosin, $10/pound on eBay, a pound should last a decade or more). The measurements are by weight, don’t go overboard, close enough is good enough. The smaller the components the faster the melt. I can generally crank out a ball in 15 minutes including weighing the material.
Winter recipe:
1 part rosin,
2 parts beeswax.
Summer recipe:
1 part rosin,
1 part beeswax.
You will also need a bucket of cold water.
Melt the rosin first, it has a higher melt point and takes longer to liquify. I use direct heat, I’ve had poor results attempting to melt the rosin in a double boiler. If the rosin starts bubbling lower the heat and pull the container off until it cools a bit.
Once the components are liquid and thoroughly mixed, pour them directly into the water. This flash cools the mix lowering the temp to a point that it can be handled. Wad the mass up in the water, this gives a chance to check temperature without risking burns. You want it warm, but not too hot to handle. Pull it from the water and start taffy pulling. It’ll feel a bit gritty at first and will probably just tear apart for the first 30 seconds or so, just keep at it, it’ll start to smooth and the stretches will get longer.
You’re probably not going to get a 100% amalgamated mass, you’ll probably see little flecks of rosin throughout, that’s fine, just try to get them as small as possible and thoroughly mixed through the mass.
Once it gets difficult to pull start squishing it a bit and then ball it and set it on a piece of plastic or was paper. Let it set and cool over night.
To use, run your thread across the surface of the ball and then either pull the thread through your hand, or a piece of cloth a few times to heat the coad and disburse it a bit better, and start sewing.
Since switching to coad I’ve had zero issues with not untying (no more knot burning) or back stitches unthreading. If you knot while stitching (I do on some projects) the coad really locks the stitch in place. The few items I’ve had to dismantle since switching to coad have required the parts to be fully cut apart (along the stitch line) and pliers were required to remove the remaining thread.”


…. or a cheap effective way to turn leather black, without fighting with dyes and without fear of it bleeding off on clothing.

This is a very old method.  In its simplest form:  you let vinegar chew on some iron/steel for a few days and use it to chemically change the leather color to black.

The photo below shows what I am experimenting with.  I took five of those nails, covered them with 1/4 cup of white vinegar and 18 hours later dipped the piece of leather in the solution.

I have added a pint of vinegar and twenty more nails and now I will let that stand for a few days and play again.

UPDATE:  So it stood for a week and then I took the first part of this video showing the filtering of the vinagroon.

The second part of the video, where I am using it, was taken a week after the filtering process.

I like simplicity, but for the sake of giving you a complete picture, I will quote from the interwebs here:

From the forum of the America Leather Chemists Association:

The black color is the reaction of Ferric salts or oxide with tannings, nice formula for leather crafts, but it is a pain in the neck in vegetable tannery.

About “neutralizing” the vinegar’s acid:  The leather may be damaged by the excess of acid: white vinegar is acetic acid and if applied in excess can give some problem according to what was stated in the post. Iron react with vegetable tannins giving a product that is black.


Neutralizing the leather is not wrong. In the industrial process this is also being used even though the term is confusing because it does not mean to take the leather up to the neutral pH condition or the 7.0 value. It means to neutralize some of the acid inside the leather to avoid acid damage. The final pH for vegetable leather can be around 4.0 and this is far from neutral.

Chuck Burrows posted this in 2010:

For giving color to the grain of leather there is no blacking that will at all compare with the well known vinegar black. This may be made in various ways. The simplest, and, without doubt, the best, is to procure shavings from an iron turner (note: some folks get the turnings from brake drums) and cover them with pure cider vinegar; heat up and set aside for a week or two, then heat again and set in a cool place for two weeks; pour off the vinegar, allow it to stand for a few days, and draw off and cork up in bottles. This will keep for a long time, and, while producing a deep black on leather, will not stain the hands. 

How I do it most times:
I use de-oiled 4/0 steel wool: dip in acetone, squeeze out the extra and hang to dry – then tear or cut into small pieces. Add one pads worth of the de-oiled steel wool to one quart of white or cider vinegar – I use those plastic coffee “cans” and punch a single small hole in the lid to let of any gas buildup. Let it set in the hot sun which will speed the reaction. I let it set for about two weeks until there is only a light vinegar odor left and/or the bulk of the steel wool has been dissolved. I also keep a new batch “cooking” all the time so I have a constant supply.
For the deepest black, apply a bath of strong black tea first (this increase the tannins) and let it soak in good, then apply a generous amount of the vinegar black. Let set for about a half hour and then rinse with a mix of baking soda and warm water, about a 1/8 cup soda to a half gallon of water, apply let set for a few minutes and then rinse off. While still damp apply a light coat or two of your favorite saddle oil. Once dry top coat as normal
Experiment – I test a piece of each new side without oiling to see how well it takes the blacking, if need be I’ll do a second black tea mix to darken, then apply the oil which also helps darken.

Instead of steel wool you can use chopped up bailing or fence wire – the smaller the better since it will dissolve in the vinegar bath faster.

1) Does the ‘rooning process change the color of natural thread? No
2) Should I sew before or after I apply the vinegaroon? either way – your choice
3) For the ‘rooning process, how do you apply it? Dip the item, dauber it on, brush it on, etc? Could the vinegaroon be kept in a spray bottle and sprayed on the item? all of the above – which ever way works best for you and the item you are working on. I prefer dIp dying since it is simply the easiest for me, but I also brush it on for larger pieces – a spray bottle should work fine, but you would need to filter it good to prevent any clogging

Swivel Knife Stropping

First off, lets make a difference between a sharp blade and a polished blade:

  • Almost all blades are manufactured as “sharp” blades – that is, they come with the correct angles to their blades – roughly a 48 degree combined bevel as shown in the illustration below.
  • A polished blade is where those beveled edges of the blade has been stropped and polished to remove TWO things – the grinding marks from when the blade was manufactured and secondly the residue that builds up on the blade from the leather.

This means that sharpening a blade is seldom necessary.  I used my first swivel knife blade for more than twenty years before the stropping so deformed the shape that I had to put it on a grind stone and just reshape it again.

When you buy a new blade, here is what I suggest you do:

  • Spend at least half an hour stropping / polishing the blade as shown in the following video (card board with jeweler’s rouge on it works just fine).
  • Then you can start with it on the leather.
  • Every time you pick up your swivel knife to use it, strop it for a few minutes.
  • If you do a lot of work with it, strop it every five minutes.   After a while, you will get the feel of a blade that is gliding through the leather as if it is cutting through butter, and a blade that “stutters”.  As soon as it cuts with jerky movements, you know it needs more stropping.

I hope this helps – please contact me if you have any more questions.