Knife and Tool Discussion > Making Knives and Sheaths

Leather working tools and supplies for sheath making

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Zeus:
I figured I'd kick off this section with something simple. A lot of guys start out making new sheaths for existing knives before they learn to make the knives themselves. There are also a lot of experienced knife makers who don't do sheaths.

Anyhow, if you're looking to get started making leather sheaths this should help you decide what materials and equipment to buy.

SUPPLIES

Leather



First off, you'll need some leather! There are many different kinds of leather, but the vast majority of them are unsuitable for making a knife sheath. Consider what a sheath must do. First and foremost, it must protect the wearer from the knife it contains. It has to hold it's shape, and be durable. And if you want to sell knives, it must be attractive as well.

I only use one type of leather to make sheaths, vegetable tanned tooling leather. Vegetable tanned tooling leather is the same stuff saddles, gun belts and holsters are made of. Other types of leather (chrome tanned, buckskin, garment leather, upholstery leather, latigo, suede, etc.) are not suitable for making a sheath because they are generally more pliable and they cannot be carved and tooled easily.

Vegetable tanned tooling leather can be "cased" which is moistening the surface with a wet sponge. This makes the leather at the surface pliable and compressible so that it takes stamps and tool impressions easily, and it is easier to cut so carving intricate designs is possible. This is advantageous to the knife maker who desires to embellish his sheaths with decorative tooling or carving. Or even if he only wishes to stamp his mark into the leather. Another quality of this type of leather that makes it suitable for sheaths is it's ability to be "wet formed". The leather can be completely saturated with water, which makes it very pliable. It can then be shaped and formed to fit the contours of a knife. Once dry, it will become hard and stiff again, holding the new shape. Some commercial sheath makers will tell you not to wet form their sheaths, but that is because they use cheap, thin chrome tanned leather that can't be wet formed.

Tooling leather can be bought several ways, and in several "weights" or thicknesses. Typically I'll buy a "double shoulder" which explains where the actual leather was located on the cow. It is also sold as bellies, single shoulders, sides, and a few other cuts I can't recall. I like to use 8-9oz leather, which is about 1/8 to 1/10 of an inch thick. This is a good thickness because it provides a lot of rigidity to a sheath. A stiff sheath is a safe sheath. A sheath that can flex too much is begging to catch the point of the knife and be sliced open. Also, 8-9oz leather is thick enough so that a single layer can be used for a welt for blades up to about 3/16" thick.

Tooling leather also comes in a few different grades. The most expensive stuff is very smooth and even. The surface is free of blemishes and the thickness is very consistent throughout. The cheapest grades are covered with "range marks" which can be anything from ranch brands, barbed wire scars, deep wrinkles, insect bite scars, etc. Some of the really cheap grades will have the worst blemishes sanded off, but this makes the surface harder to carve, tool and dye. The best value are the middle grades of leather that have a few minor blemishes and scars (which can add a certain rustic beauty of their own) but are free from major flaws, and sanded repairs. "Splits" are vegetable tanned leather that has been split off from the surface layer, so both sides are like the "flesh" side of regular leather. Splits are good for welts and other applications where neither side will be exposed to the surface. They don't carve or tool well, and are fuzzy on both sides so don't try to make a whole sheath with one.

Cement



You'll need something to glue the various layers of leather together. I use Barge Cement. Plenty of folks use contact cement or rubber cement. Barge is a brand of contact cement that's available in small tube which is convenient for folks who aren't making a ton of sheaths at a time. You apply it to both pieces of the leather to be joined and smooth it out with a scrap piece. Let them sit for 10-15 minutes, and then stick the two pieces together. It will instantly form a strong bond on contact. (That's why it's called contact cement). Then you can let it fully cure for a few hours for full strength.

Thread




You'll need to stitch your sheaths together. The cement is strong, but its real purpose it to hold everything in place while you stitch. I prefer to use "artificial sinew" for stitching. It's a very strong synthetic fiber that has just enough wax to keep it from fraying. I typically add a bit of beeswax to the ends to help prevent them pulling out of the needles. Artificial sinew is available in many colors. Most common is "natural" tan. Waxed nylon and polyester thread are also popular choices, though I find they use a LOT of goopy wax and it builds up on the leather while stitching making a big mess that you have to deal with later. The traditional thread is waxed linen. So if you're a leather working purist, that would be your choice. It's tough, but not as tough as the modern synthetics.

Beeswax



A good thing to have on the bench. You can draw the end of your thread across a cake of beeswax to keep it stiff and prevent fraying. This makes it easier to thread your needles, and it helps keep the thread from slipping out of the needles when you tug on them.

Needles



You'll need some strong needles for stitching heavy leather. I buy them in packs of 100 because they are a consumable item. A pair of needles will last maybe 2 to 4 sheaths before I break one of the eyes or it gets too bent up to use. While they are technically a tool and not a supply, I chose to list them here because they are consumable.


Dye




There are three major types of dye used for coloring leather. Oil base, solvent (alcohol) base, and water base. The oil base is what a lot of the professional leather workers use. It's the most expensive, and gives the most even finish. But it's the slowest to dry by quite a bit, and cleanup is difficult. Water base dyes are the hardest to achieve an even finish with, but they are generally less toxic and they dry faster than the oil dyes. Alcohol based dyes are the fastest drying of the three. They penetrate more evenly than water base dyes and are a good compromise. Regular rubbing alcohol can be used for cleanup if you get some on your hands, tools or workbench. I use alcohol based dyes most often.

Gum Tragacanth



This translucent jelly-like substance is used to slick and burnish the edges of leather. It softens the fibers in much the same way water does, but when it dries it helps bind the fibers down so they don't easily "fuzz up" again.

Edge Dressing



I use Fiebing's Edge Kote, which is available in a couple of different colors. It is a really nice finishing touch that helps seal the edges after slicking, and like the gum tragacanth it helps to keep the edges from fuzzing up again.

Finish



There are many different finished for leather. Oil based, wax based, water based, etc. I use a water based acrylic finish from Tandy called "Super Sheen". This leaves an attractive, shiny finish that dries quickly and is somewhat water resistant when dry. It can also be used as a "resist" when applied with a brush if you are doing special multi-color dying techniques, though purpose made resists are available.

Hardware



This is really dependent on your sheath design so I won't go into too much detail here. Snaps, rivets, Chicago screws, Dee rings, grommets, Sam Browne studs and conchos, the list goes on. Some require special tools and dies to install. A basic pouch sheath can be made without using any hardware, however.

TOOLS

Shears



I couldn't imagine doing any kind of leatherwork without a quality pair of sharp leather shears. I have a pair from Tandy that are about 15 years old and they can still cut through 10oz leather no problem. A lot of people like to use a knife to cut out leather, but I prefer the shears. They are also good for snipping off the ends of your thread after stitching.

Knife

A small carving knife with a 2" or so blade can be useful for trimming stray bits of leather, evening up edges, or cutting out the entire pattern (though I prefer shears for that, see above).

Needlenose Pliers

Essential for grabbing the needles while stitching through several layers of thick leather. There are lots of other uses for these, like holding the backs of Chicago screws as they are tightened.

Edge Beveler



This tool is essentially a metal rod that has a notch in one end, and a handle on the other. The inside of the notch is a sharpened blade. You place the notch on the edge of the leather and push, and the blade shaves off a thin strip of leather to give the edge a more rounded shape, rather than square. I use a #2 edge beveler on both sides of a piece of 8-9oz leather to help give it a more rounded shape to prepare it for burnishing.

Stylus / Modeling tools



These tools are a big help for many different tasks on the leather bench. One end has a ball point stylus, the other end has a small "spoon". This tool can be used for marking lines and transferring patterns on cased leather. It can be used to transfer stitch holes through one piece onto another. It can be used to mark and draw on leather, and the spoon side helps smooth tooling and stamp impressions, and helps define the edges of carving. I use it every time I make a sheath.

Overstitch wheel



This tool looks like a tiny cowboy's spur on a stick. Essentially it's a wheel with evenly spaced points that is used to mark the position of stitches evenly. It can also be used after stitching to roll over the stitches to help pack them down. A common easy substitute is to use a dinner fork to mark stitch spacing.

Awl

I don't use an awl, but many leather workers do. It it used to make holes in the leather for stitching, among other uses. Typically there are several blades that come in an awl kit, for producing different holes in the leather.

Stitching Groover



There are a few different kinds of stitching groover available. The one I use has an adjustable edge guide that allows you to position the groove at whatever distance from the edge you choose. This tool cuts a shallow groove in the surface of the leather so that your stitches will lay flush with the surface. This prevents them from snagging on things, and protects them from scuffs and wear. It also makes the stitching look neater. My stitches look tremendously better since I started using this tool.

Edge Slicker





I use a couple of different tools for slicking edges. The most versatile is a Nylon Folder tool from Tandy. It comes apart into two pieces, a slicking stick/folder, and an edge slicker/edge marking guide. I also use a "circle edge slicker" from Tandy, that is essentially just a small nylon pulley with a nice rounded groove. You fit the moistened edge of the leather into the groove, and briskly rub with the slicker until it is burnished and smooth. You can also use small glass or plastic bottles, cigarette lighters, or pretty much any handy, smooth object to burnish edges.

Mallet



Not everyone will need one, but they are essential for tooling leather, punching holes, setting snaps, rivets and grommets, and many other uses around the shop. Don't use a hammer or you will damage your tools. Always use a polymer or rawhide headed mallet.

Swivel knife



If you're going to be carving and tooling leather, you will need one. For making simple sheaths, you can do without. Sadly, there really is no middle ground here. There aren't a lot of different brands to choose from. The good ones, Al Stohlman brand, are expensive. The next best are way cheaper. I have been getting by with one of the really cheap ones because I don't use it enough to justify the expense. But just be aware there is a huge difference, and no real middle ground for price and quality. Several specialty blades are available for these. Some are made from ceramic, some are angled, and some have multiple edges for making "hair" effects on intricate picture carving.


Drill press

I use a drill press, rather than an awl to make my holes for stitching. It is not traditional. A lot of folks might balk at the idea of using a power tool for leather work. But, I can make a hole using a 1/32" drill bit in a couple of seconds, where it takes far longer to push an awl through several layers of heavy leather. If I have a line of a hundred stitches I can finish it in a few minutes on the drill press, where it would take the better part of an hour struggling with an awl.

Belt Sander/Grinder

I use a 36 grit belt on my grinder to sand the edges even after stitching and before beveling and slicking them. I sometimes use my spindle sander too if there is an inside curve. This is another of those steps that could be done with sandpaper by hand but if you have the tools, use them and save the time.

Tooling Stamps

I have a set of very basic leather tooling stamps. They used to sell them as kits, and you can do hundreds of different floral patterns with just a basic set of 10 or so tools. I supplemented this set with a couple of basket weave stamps because I really like basketweave tooling on belts, holsters and sheaths.

Straight edge/Ruler

Essential tool for measuring, marking and cutting straight lines.

Skiving Tool



"Skiving" is shaving leather to make it thinner. A skiving tool is handy for when you need to put a wide bevel on the edge of leather for various purposes. Adding a tapered welt in a sheath to accommodate a wide knife handle is one example. You can do this with a sharp knife, but the actual tool is much faster in practice.

Strap Cutter



Not essential, but another huge time saver. Belt loops, baldrics, danglers, you name it, if you need a strip of leather with parallel sides this tool will make it a lot faster and easier than marking straight lines and cutting with a knife or shears.



Well I hope you find this list useful. It is by no means comprehensive. There are hundreds of tools for working leather. These are just the ones I find most useful. I use almost all of them every time I make a sheath. However I have seen some truly great leatherwork made by guys who don't use a single purpose-made leathercrafting tool. A creative craftsman could make many of his own tools, even tooling stamps could be made by filing the ends of steel rods.

If you are serious about making leather sheaths, research some of these tools and decide for yourself which of them you can't live without. :)

Red:
way to kick it off Zeus!! this is a great starting point for anyone looking to get their feet wet in leather making. and most of these tips will apply to general leather working as well, not just knife sheaths. that means holsters, wallets, you name it :D

Zeus:
Updated the original post with some pictures. :)

Red:
wow! you have a TON of leather tools!! i think i have 3 of those that you listed :D

Zeus:
Lol, well those are just the important ones. :D

There are more but they aren't really that important to making the type of sheaths I prefer to make, though that could change. I got most of these in a starter kit years ago from Tandy. The good thing is they last forever if you take care of them.

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