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The Art of Leather Tooling

Posted by Brit Ellerman on

The practice of leathercraft has been around for many, many years. Through the process of hand tooling, many beautiful leather products have been created over the centuries. These items have often been passed down, possessing both useful as well as aesthetic purposes. The history of leather hand-tooling in the United States is closely linked to western culture. Leather tooling can be seen in many western items such as saddles, tack, boots, belts, purses, and more. Hand-tooling is more than just a trade, it is a skillful art form. So what exactly is "tooling?" According to Steel Horse Leather Co. "Tooling is the process of engraving or embellishing designs on leather." This time-honored tradition of leather tooling is truly a labor of love, involving extensive time and precision.

Over the years, the leather items created by these artists have benefited many diverse trades, being often as practical as they are beautiful. When it comes to the process of hand-tooling, there are many different techniques and types of tools leather craftsmen can use to imprint these exquisite patterns into leather. Let's explore further the practical background of leathercraft and the aesthetic practice of hand-tooled leather!

Practical Background

The art of leather tooling has been around for many years, and some, known as leatherworkers, have made this art form their profession. In times past, these professional leather designers would often work with a company that produced the leather product itself. Generally, these companies specialized in custom leather products. Wickett & Craig is one notable American tannery company that has been producing its own leather since 1867. They produce vast amounts of vegetable-tanned leather every year, reaching 4,500,000 square feet annually!

While leatherworkers can use leather purely to create beautiful works of art, throughout the years there have also been many different practical uses for leather goods. Numerous professions have utilized leather in various ways. Before the times of mechanized engines, leather products were a must-have for homesteaders and those who worked in lumber, as the horses and oxen hauling the logs wore harnesses of leather. Shoemakers would use leather in crafting footwear, and in particular, lumberjacks would use leather boots as they offered resiliency and protection. Additionally, farmers would use leather harnesses on their oxen and horses when plowing their fields. Leather was also used as a sharpening aid and form of protection for butchers, as they would wear aprons of leather and then use stripes of leather to sharpen their knives. Even barbers would use these leather straps to keep their hair-cutting tools from getting dull.

Clearly, history has seen many practical uses for leathercraft over the years. However, not only can it serve useful purposes, but it can also be used to create exquisite works of art. 

Aesthetic Process

What does the process of hand-tooling a leather design look like? Often when you see a beautifully designed leather briefcase or purse, either the practice of carving and/or stamping was used. 

Carving

Vegetable-tanned leather is the preferred leather for tooling. This kind of leather is made using natural extracts found in tree bark called tannin extracts for the tanning solution. This method of tanning is the most eco-friendly way to tan leather and allows it to look even better with age. This type of leather is the only kind used in Texas Saddlery products.

The leather first gets moistened and then pressed down through the use of leather tools to create a raised design. The water absorption process, known as "casing", allows the leather to soften, making the carving process easier and the design to take hold.

Once the leather reaches the proper dampness, it's now time for the design. The leatherworker will sometimes draw out the design first and then transfer it onto the leather. At this point, they are now ready to begin carving. Some of the commonly used tools for carving leather include:

  • Swivel Knife--A chisel blade mounted onto a pivoting axis, that is held by the use of a saddle-shaped handle
  • Stamp set--A set of tools used for coloring and shaping the leather 
  •  Mallet--Commonly made of rawhide, this tool is used to drive the stamps into the leather to create the compressed background of the design 

The swivel knife in particular will be used for the bold, deep cuts of the worker's design. These cuts will comprise the prominent parts of the core design. It is very important for the carver to keep the swivel knife in a vertical position to prevent issues with stamping later on.

Stamping

After the initial cuts have been made the next step is stamping. Stamping involves using different shaped tools to press designs into the leather with a mallet. Stamp tools come in various sizes and shapes, but most commonly they are round with an indentation at one end. Some common stamp tools include:

  • Seeder--A leather stamping tool that creates small circular indents, commonly used for floral design
  • Camouflage Tool--This tool creates small, seashell like indents, also used in floral designs
  • Pear Shader--A tool used for curved areas of the design, it allows the leather to look darker in the areas it is used
  • Shell Tool or Veiner--This tool is used to create the appearance of curves through the use of little, tightly packed lines
  • Beveler--This stamping tool can be used to compress the leather on one side of a cut so that the other side appears raised
  • Background Tool--This tool is sometimes used to further create emphasis on the design by pushing down uncarved areas

After the leatherworker has finished both carving and/or stamping the cased leather, they will then go on to apply any finishing decorative cuts by again using the swivel knife used at the beginning of the design process. As a final step, to ensure that the stamping impressions last, fats and oils will be applied to the leather to waterproof it, preventing the leather from becoming wet, resulting in a faded design.

It's important to also note that this process of carving and stamping can take hours upon hours of meticulous precision in order to complete one single design! This demonstrates the intensive labor and care that goes into many custom leather products.

Leathercraft has been shown to encompass both practical and artistic purposes, with products ranging from knife sharpeners to ornate briefcases. When it comes to the aesthetics of hand-tooled leatherwork, many of the decorative leather goods seen today involve the time-consuming process of carving and stamping leather. So, next time you see a beautiful leather wallet or purse, think about the artistic process involved, and who knows maybe you'll even be inspired to try out leather tooling yourself!  

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