How To – Leatherworking Basics

Cosplay Tutorial 3 – Leatherworking Basics

Leather Difficulty: Beginner to Advanced
Supplies Needed: Tooling leather, leather scissors, leather stamps, swivel knife, leatherworking mallet, water and squirt bottle
Suggested: Leather rivets and rivet setter, leather hole punch, pounding board, granite slab
Pros: Much more durable than craft foam, can be molded to various shapes, can be carved and stamped into
Cons: Can become damaged if exposed to water and not sealed properly, requires special tools to start, more expensive than craft foam, time consuming
Time: Varies per project

Tooling leather is a fun, durable material that can be used in a wide variety of cosplay applications, from armor to decorations to jewelry and beyond. As opposed to craft foam, leather can withstand a lot of abuse and is excellent for cosplay pieces that can potentially take some damage or are at high stress points. Properly assembled, a leather project can last for quite some time!

If you are interested in picking up leatherworking as a hobby, it is important to know what you are getting into. Cutting and carving and stamping designs into leather, also called tooling, is for the patient and steady-handed. Tooled patterns take time and effort to perfect, and if a mistake is made, there is no correcting it. Leather also has its limitations. It will not stick to itself like wonderflex, or mold itself around curved surfaces as easily. Leather is also sensitive to water (it is dried flesh, after all), and will lose shape and form if exposed to water and not properly sealed. Many tools are required in order to do some of the more complicated things with leather, so prepare yourself to make a potential investment.

One of the best kits you can purchase to get started is the Basic Leathercraft Kit from Tandy Leather Factory. It contains everything you need to get started and become comfortable with how leather works. If you decide to forsake the kit and buy the parts individually (warning: it will be more expensive), the things you will absolutely need are tooling leather, leather scissors, a leather mallet, leather stamps, water and a swivel knife.

Walking into a leather retailer for the first time can be overwhelming, so it is important to go into it knowing exactly what you are looking for. Tooling leather comes in large pieces and can generally not be cut down to “as much as you need”. Know that you are going to get a big hunk of cow. If you are looking for smaller pieces, some places will have scrap bins you can rummage through. The thickness of tooling leather is important to note: The thicker the leather, the more rigid it is, and the deeper you can cut and tool into it. The thickness of leather is measured in oz. An oz. of leather is equal to 1/64 of an inch. The higher the oz., the thicker your leather will be. Depending on the project, I generally work with 5-8oz leather. Anything higher and it becomes very difficult to cut with leather shears.

Make sure to examine your hide before you purchase it. Hides will generally have holes and imperfections that you will have to work around unless you shell out the cash for an unblemished hide.

Leather scissors are important to purchase. Sure, you can use those fancy fabric shears you have and dull them into oblivion, but I would not suggest it. Leather scissors will stand up to the abuse of cutting through your tough hide.

A leather mallet is another important purchase. You will see that there are a variety of mallets available for purchase. Wooden mallets are the cheapest, but will wear and become dented with time and can potentially cause a slip up when you least expect it due to its increasingly uneven surface. Polycarbonate mallets are a great purchase and reasonably priced. They hold up to repeated pounding and wear very slowly. You may be asking, I own a real hammer, why do I need to buy a plastic one? A couple reasons: Your tools are made of metal, and when you use a metal hammer on the metal surface of your tools, you are going to damage it over time and produce uneven results. Also, metal hammers apply too much force into the leather, causing uneven stamping and the high chance of stamping too hard and sending your stamp through the leather, causing an irreparable hole. The leather mallets also have a wider head, so there is a greater chance of you hitting the tool and not your finger or project.
A swivel knife is a must-have leather tool that allows you to cut smooth, even lines into your leather. The swivel knife is amazing to use but can be difficult to master. The knife is shaped like a “Y” and is held in the hand with your index finger in the yoke and swivels with the use of your thumb, middle and ring finger. With practice, circles and complex lines can be cut into the leather simply by spinning the swivel knife with your fingers.

Leather stamps come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, and vary in use depending on the decoration to wish to add to your project. Beveling tools stamp add a beveled edge to your design and make it appear more three-dimensional. Shaders add depth and texture to a design’s background. Seeders add tiny round “seed” designs. Veiners can add intricate, long scrollwork to your tooling. All of these can be combined to add beautiful designs to your tooling leather.

“How do I tool the leather?” Remember, leather is just dried flesh, and will readily absorb water. In order to tool your leather, you must “case” your leather, which is the term for moistening your leather with enough water so that it will hold a nice, crisp tooled design but not be so wet as to lose all rigidity and become floppy and soft. Cased leather should not be soaking wet with water, but rather moist enough that it is cool to the touch and retains some of its initial firmness. To imprint your design into your leather, hold the tool parallel to your leather (and make sure your leather is on a firm surface! A granite slab is suggested) and hit it once with your mallet firmly. Test on a few pieces of scrap leather the different ways the leather reacts to tooling at different levels of moisture. You will see the leather barely holds the tooling if it is too wet, and will not tool enough if it is too dry.

Christina Sims is an amateur cosplayer and costume creator from Colorado. She currently works with Apotheosis Agency staffing gaming tradeshows. She has been a costume contest finalist at Blizzcon in 2008 and 2009 and took first place in 2010 for her depiction of the female monk from Diablo 3, as well as been the US face for Alexstrasza the Life-Binder for Cryptozoic Entertainment. For more information on Christina and her costumes, please visit Zerina Cosplay at

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