Hand-carved leather has long been considered a highly valued material. The earliest preserved hand-carved leather items date back 3,000 years and were used to decorate homes and body armor. Leather carving grew even more popular in the 1800s when the practice was picked up by cowboys and ranchers of the Wild West. The elaborate and highly decorative saddles showcased wealth and status among the cowboy and ranching communities.
Today, we see many more intricate designs on leather pieces. The craftsmanship however remains very similar to the early days. Let’s explore the process and artistry of leather stamping.
Leather carving is a process that gives a design to leather material by cutting or stamping the outer leather surface. Before any designs can be made the leather needs to go through a vegetable tanning process which will soften the leather and allow it to hold the shape of the design. Fun fact, vegetable tanning is an eco-friendly process that produces excellent results. Texas Saddlery uses this process on all of its products. For more information, check out this video.
Original tools used for stamping leather were made out of bone and stone, but had a similar shape to tools being used today.
All leather stamping is done by hand with specific tools used to get the correct shape and design desired. These tools include a stamp set and a rawhide mallet. For leather carving, a swivel knife is also used. In the next section, we will take a more in-depth look at the tools!!
The main tools used in leather carving are the swivel knife, the stamp set, and the rawhide mallet. The swivel knife is used for making cuts in the leather. The stamp set is used for creating the final design through shape and color of the leather. The leather mallet is used with the stamp set to create shading and patterns in the background.
While there are many leather stamping tools that can be used, here are just a few from a typical stamp set:
Camouflage Tool - when used with the mallet, creates a sea-shell-like impression and adds emphasis to areas of a carving. It is recommended that impressions be equally spaced and start from the center of the design working outward, getting lighter as they go.
Pear Shader Tool - used in areas needing to appear curved. It presses down the area and causes the leather to appear slightly darker. It can be tilted to achieve the design and should only be moved slightly during use with the mallet so that the shading is consistent.
Beveler - creates an indentation on one side of a cut while leaving the other side raised. This tool produces realistic results and has many variations. Shapes such as diamonds and ovals, as well as face patterns such as striped, checked, rounded, smoothed, and crosshatched, are all examples of the variations available.
Veiner/Shell Tool - creates short, closely spaced lines in a curved design. The veiner creates a simple curved line while the shell is more of a scalloped edge design tool. These tools are also used to continue the impression of depth created by the beveler and to create an impression of a curved surface. They can also be used to create the impression of depth beside a cut.
Seeder - creates a small circular impression representing seeds. Extra care must be taken when using this tool as it is possible to cut straight through the leather. It’s best to stamp outside of the area first, then fill in the center when using this tool.
Background Tool - typically used when emphasizing a design, but not always necessary. The crosshatched pattern on its head will darken the leather it’s being used on. It’s important to avoid overlapping the impressions created by the background tool, as well as making sure not to stamp into the design or over the border.
Before carving or stamping any leather, it’s important that the leather is properly prepared. For stamping, preparing the leather could be a simple process using just a wet sponge and applying it to both sides of the leather. However, some stampers prefer to soak their leather. If you prefer the soak method, make sure to let the leather partially dry. It should return to its natural color but still be slightly wet.
It’s important to make sure that you’re working on a firm surface when stamping your leather. A helpful tip is to position your tools where you’d like the stamping to occur. Once this has been set up, you can begin!
Using the mallet to hammer, make sure to take extra care that you don’t shift or slide your stamp as it may ruin the leather. While working, it’s best to keep your piece of leather slightly wet at all times. Simply use a wet sponge so that you are able to keep working without interruption.
As you’ve now learned, leather stamping is a long-practiced artform requiring specific equipment and processes, and meticulous execution by hand. It requires time, precision, and technique. However, the results are well worth it as you end with beautifully crafted, custom leather pieces that can last you for years to come. Is it time to try your hand at leather tooling? Or, maybe you’d like to invest in a quality leather product of your own? Be sure to check out Texas Saddlery’s wide variety of hand-crafted leather products here.