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 leather.
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 place.
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 spoon.
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 ring fingers.
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 camouflage tool.
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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