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Leather Basics
Article © MAIL User: Cynna

Tanning Process

Mineral Tan:
Soft, stretchy, and flexible; Many colors available; Usually has a white ‘core’ when cut; Chrome Tanning is the most common mineral tannage;
Suedes, upholstery, garments, shoes
Oil Tan:
Soft, flexible, somewhat stretchy, waterproof, and durable; Usually thick; Can leave oil residue;
Protective coverings, chaps, aprons, shoes
Vegetable Tan:
Usually thick and stiff; Can be carved or molded; Very strong with very little stretch; Limited colors, but can be dyed;
Thongs, cases, boxes, armour, boots, shoe soles
Specialty Tan - Deer Tan
Extremely soft and flexible; Very stretchy and waterproof; Difficult to cut; Limited colors
Native American goods; clothing, pouches;
Specialty Tan – Rawhide
Hard; Strong; Brittle; Can be molded and inked;
Native American goods; Drum heads; lacing;
Dual or Combination Tan: Using more than one of the above processes on the same hide
Different results are possible when the leather is treated more than once – it can become softer and more flexible, or firmer with a tighter grain. Properties of each tannage can be enhanced or modified by the second process.
Latigo is the most common type of dual tanned leather.

Hide Divisions on Cowhide

Whole Hide: Usually 42-45 sq. ft. -
Variety of leather thickness; irregular edges; includes brand and scars
Side: Usually 21-23 sq. ft. -
Variety of leather thickness; irregular edges; may include brand;
Double Bend: 20-22 sq. ft. -
Large, regular pieces; good for carving and large projects; usually branded
Back: 16-18 sq. ft. -
Great for long straight lines and straps; very little waste;
Double Shoulder (untrimmed): 14-16 sq. ft. -
Thickest part of hide; good for belts; includes neck; irregular edges
Double Shoulder (trimmed) 10-12 sq. ft. -
Same as above, minus the neck; regular edges
Shoulder: 5-7 sq. ft -
Good for small and medium sized projects; regular edges
Belly: 5-6 sq. ft. -
Irregular edge; good for small projects;

Image: leatherhide.jpg

Leather is most commonly sold in whole hides, sides, and double shoulders.

Leather Grains and Finishes

Image: leathercross.jpg

Top Grain:
Upper edge of hide; Strongest finish
Has 2 ‘fuzzy’ sides, happens when leather is ‘split’
Printed Finish:
Dyed and/or embossed with a pattern to create a different appearance; For example: pigskin embossed to look like alligator
Hair On:
Leather with the natural hair still attached; back is ‘fuzzy’; Usually used as rugs and trophies
Extremely strong leather that is both vegetable tanned and mineral or oil tanned; Extremely durable, but heavy and often expensive; Used in belts and cowboy gear (saddles, boots, chaps, etc.)
Sole Bend/Armour Bend:
Small, thick piece of leather; Usually from a single shoulder, between 12-15 oz.;
A side of vegetable tanned leather, good for saddles, long belts, and large armour pieces; Almost always 10-12 oz and natural color;
Cuir Boulli (boiled Leather):
Leather that has been heat hardened; Done by dipping in very hot (or boiling) water, or shaped with heat and saturated with wax. Method of creating hardened leather armour

Leather Weight

Leather is gauged for thickness, which is expressed in ounces. Each ounce equals 1/64 of an inch. Because hides are not the same thickness throughout, thickness is expressed using 2 numbers; Example: 7/8 oz for 7 to 8 ounces, which will measure 7/64” – 8/64” (1/8”).

Recommended Uses for Leather Weights:

1.5-2 ounce:
Generally used for linings and small personal leather goods
2-3 ounce:
Used for wallets and lining belts, as well as women's shoes and garments
3-4 ounce:
Craft weight leather; Good for billfolds, men's shoes, and lightweight chaps
4-5 ounce:
Intermediate weight; Used for handbags, belts, and handbag straps; Ideal for chaps, chinks, and men's shoes and boots;
GAUNTLETS (mineral tanned only)
5-6 ounce:
Ideal for work boots, handbags, and handbag straps
6-7 ounce:
Popular weight for hand tooled handbags, contour belts, shoulder straps, knife sheaths, and small tool pouches
7-8 ounce:
Good weight for narrow belts, handbags, saddlebags, pistol holsters, knife sheathes and collar leather;
8-9 ounce:
Good for medium width belts, rifle scabbards, holsters, and motorcycle bags
9-10 ounce:
For wide belts, halters, head stalls, bridles, breast collars and reins, tie straps and show harnesses;
10-11 ounce:
Use for halters, bridles, breast collars, reins, linesmen's belts, tie straps, dog collars and carriage harnesses
11-13 ounce:
Perfect for lightweight saddles, stirrup leathers, driving and draft harnesses and cutting reins
13-15 ounce:
Heavyweight leather used for custom saddles, stirrup leathers, work saddles, and work harnesses;

Leather Grade

Leather grade is determined by its quality. Leather quality is based upon: the inner core of the hide and top grain perfection (color, evenness, lack of cuts, scars, brands, etc.).

#1 Grade
Highest Quality leather – good for professional applications and tooling; No cuts, pinholes, brands, scars, etc. Most expensive grade
#2 Grade
High Quality leather – good for tooling and other applications. May contain brand marks, scars, or other surface marring. Less expensive than #1 grade
#3 and Non graded
Leather that doesn't meet up to standards of #1 and #2. Still good for the majority of projects, but will probably have scars and other marks. May be too dry, or simply have too many holes or scars.

Leather Tools

Basic Cutting Tools and Equipment

Straight edge:
Used to run a cutting tool along and create a straight cut; Heavy duty ruler is perfect for this.
Cutting mat:
Used with rotary cutters and knives to protect table from cuts. Often has a preprinted ruler included.
Rotary cutter:
Tool with a circular blade, used for cutting leather. The blade is very sharp, and has a protective guard.
Sharp cutting implement. Can have replaceable blades. Exact-O knives and Utility Knives are the most common type
Head Knife:
Semi circular blade with attached handle. Useful for cutting and skiving (thinning leather)
Heavy duty scissors to cut leather.
Makes round holes in leather and removes a portion of the leather. There are 2 types of punches:
Punch with handles, including Rotary Punch:

Has cutting tubes that can be different sizes. Tubes can be replaced on some models.
Can only be used along the edges of the hide.

Drive Punch:

Looks like partially hollow nails. Punch is set in place, and then hit with a mallet to make the hole.
Can be used in the center of the hide as well as along the edges.

Thonging chisel:
Makes small square holes, but does not remove leather like a punch; Different styles have 1, 3, 4, and 8 evenly spaced prongs. Used to make evenly spaced lacing holes. Comes in a variety of styles and sizes.
Used to thin leather pieces.
Strip and Strap Cutter:
Used to make long even cuts in leather. Often has a gauge to make parallel edges. Used for straps, fringe, lace, and thongs. Usually has adjustable blades to make a variety of widths.
Used to make folds in box type leather items. The cut allows the leather to bend easily at 90 degrees
Used to shape and smooth the edge of leather items. Often overlooked by amateur leatherworkers.
Adjustable tool that leaves a groove in the leather parallel to the edge. Good for marking stitch lines and borders.
Overstitch wheel:
Marks stitching line on leather
Carving and Decorating Tools
Swivel Knife:
Knife designed to make cuts around curves in designs
Tool to imprint a picture or design into leather. Hit with a mallet or hammer. Multiple stamps can be combined to form complex pictures.
Hammer with rubber head; used to hit stamping tools and imprint the leather; the rubber head prevents damage to the stamping tools
Modeling Tools:
Used to shape and mold leather carvings without removing any leather.
Embossing wheel:
Imprints a repeating pattern on the leather
Marble slab:
Used as an anvil for stamping;

Connecting Tools and Hardware

Rivets and rivet setter:
Cap - Two part rivet consisting of a cap and a post. Cap is driven onto post with a concave rivet setter and a mallet. Weakest type of rivet.
Tube - Single piece rivet. Hollow cylinder with round cap. Cylinder is split and driven down to leather using peening tool and mallet. Usually made of stainless steel or bronze. Extremely strong, but very hard to set without special machines.
Burr - The traditional copper rivet consisting of a tapering solid cylinder with a flat head, and a washer. The washer is driven down to the cylinder to the leather, then the cylinder is beaten down to a mushroom shape, securing the washer
Snaps (all snaps require a snap setter):
Segma - Small, 4 part snaps; Usually used in belts.
Line 20 and line 24 - Industrial sized; Used in pouches, wallets, and other heavy duty applications
Specialty - Mostly for purses, pouches and wallets
Screw Posts:
Screw and bolt combo that has smooth heads that look like rivets. These are extremely strong and versatile.
Glue and Cement:
Rubber cement - Used to temporarily connect leather for sewing, attaching hardware, etc.
Contact cement - Used as a more permanent attachment than rubber cement
Specialty cement - Cements like NeoWeld, used for special applications such as flexible hold
Machine - Industrial machines capable of handling several layers of leather and thick thread. Uses sharp needles that can pierce the leather.
Hand - There are special needles that are designed to cut the leather, facilitating sewing. When sewing stiff or thick leathers, holes should be pre punched with an awl or thonging chisel
Uses leather lace to attach leather with a decorative pattern on the connecting edges or parts. This always requires pre punching of holes. Special lacing needles are designed to hold the flat lace and improve the process. Suede is unsuitable for strong lacing projects.

Leather Decoration

Used to change the color of the leather. Some tannages and finishes are better suited to dyeing than others
Acrylic paint is used to add a layer of color on top of the leather. The paint can soak in, but usually not all the way through like dye
Used to hold pieces of leather together; Common on belts and straps; Styles range from very plain and utilitarian to very ornate and decorated
Used to connect pieces of leather and for decoration. Several shapes are common, including O, D, and square rings;
Spots, Studs, and Spikes:
Small decorative metal additions; Used mainly on garments and specialty pieces; Most are permanently attached and cannot be removed without destroying the metal
Decorative metal pieces in a variety of shapes, sizes, and designs. Used on belts, saddles, and specialty items. Can be attached with prongs, rivets, or screw posts; Some styles can also be used as buttons; some are permanently attached, while others can be removed
Carving and Stamping:
Decorations cut or stamped into the leather; Several methods of creating designs are available, including patterns and books; Designs are permanent, so practice is necessary
Shaping the leather while it is wet; This shaping is not always permanent, so the pieces should not be exposed to water after molding is completed.

That's the overview. It is meant only as a reference and to give an idea as to the vastness of the medium. To get a better feel for leather and leatherworking, visit a leathercraft or hobby store and ask questions. Experiment. Find an old cowboy and try not to get killed going through his gear. And if all else fails, read one of the many wonderful books on the subject.


Cynna and Red
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