The Talk of the Craft
The Talk of the Craft
Note from the Club
I couldn’t wait to get that first project done. It was a belt; all the tools were ordered, the materials and leather gathered, and the desk clean. Going to make a belt! Some first projects might be keychains, bags, wallets, or any of hundreds of possibilities. The silver hardware for this was going to make it great!
Slowly, and surely, I worked away, cutting, skiving, edging and stamping. The belt began to take shape. I’d make a cut and then realize I might have done it differently. Skived too deep and realized I should make more, shallower cuts to better control the depth and shape. Had to find some scrap to remember to cut the belt loop, and skive that too. In the end, there were dozens of things I reflect on to do differently next time.
And in this was the greatest joy, the learning. The belt was done, it looked actually pretty decent (Ok, I thought it looked awesome for a first belt! But being modest since compared to what’s possible, it was mostly ok). Though at that point, the belt was done. There was no more belt to make, it was almost an inert reminder of what had been completed. The work was worked, the craft was crafted, and the belt was, um, “belted” :), all done.
Yet I felt there was something more, and there was – all that I had learned. These lessons, insights, muscle memory, feel for the craft, and experience I had gained will live on far beyond the completion of the belt. They now gave me new insights, new ways to approach the next one, new things to ask more experienced crafters about, and new understanding of the tools and which to choose and why.
It’s this learning that is the human element of leather crafting. A continuous and joyful experience that allows any effort we give that helps us become better, and happier crafters over time. When we think we made a mistake, it’s learning. We think we did amazing, still learning. Did the absolute best we could; learning, since now we have a new baseline to grow further.
The expert and masterful crafters don’t all hit a point and stop crafting. It doesn’t become boring, it doesn’t become routine, it doesn’t become “old hat” to the point of nothingness. Even they continue to grow, because our ability to develop and try new things and continuously grow at any age, any level, any experience, is simply human. We’ll always envision something new and try it out.
At each stage of the craft, whether it’s understanding a new tool, finding out about a new type of leather, refining a technique, or even getting better as a teacher and educator of a mastered technique, there is always opportunity for learning. We learn as individuals, and we learn through and with each other. A student needs a teacher, a teacher needs a student, a crafter needs to craft, and someone who loves leather items needs someone to make them, or to develop the skills to make it themselves.
Learning is a group activity. Even if we’re alone in the shop, we’re using a tool that someone learned how to make. We’re using leather that someone learned how to tan. We’re watching a tutorial video that someone learned how to record and share. And yes, we’re learning how to become better crafters, ourselves, all along the way.
When one of us learns, in a tiny way, the collective knowledge of leather craft has learned, too. We all can raise one another up the by simply enjoying the craft and sharing that, in some way, with each other. It’s this special learning that threads itself through all aspects of leather working, and amongst the people that we share it with.
So as you’re in the shop, the kitchen table, the festival, or really anywhere, consider the possibilities to learn, share, and experience the growth that makes leather working truly fun.
In This Issue
Statistics & Trends
What's New & Popular
Exotic leathers like alligator, crocodile, elephant and python can really make your piece really standout. The only problem is…well…they’re called exotic for a reason and they’re not cheap. A good solution to this is to create inlays in your project. Everything from journal covers, wallets, and bags would be great for inlays. The best way to create an inlay is to cut out a shape in your leather, cut your inlay a little larger than the shape–I like to go ⅛” on all sides to allow for seam allowance–and sew. Depending on the inlay and the thickness of the leather, you might have to bevel the edges to lay flatter. Inlays are a great way to get creative with that unique piece of elephant, gator, or other exotic you always wanted to use. Oh, and be sure to check out our interview with Christy Plott from American Tanning and Leather to learn how the alligator leather industry helps local communities.
Halloween is fast approaching and it’s time to get spooky in style. I’m always looking for cool, fun patterns to craft and there’s a ton on sites like Etsy. Everything from leather skulls, masks, even full-blown costumes are out there to really make your Halloween party a memorable one.
Games like Dungeons & Dragons, Magic the Gathering, Pokemon, and other tabletop games have exploded in popularity in the last few years. With the rise in popularity, cottage industries are popping up left and right to provide playmats, dice bags, card holders, game boxes, and other creative leather goods. Game shops are historically very localized stores and most owners are always there and willing to help out other local businesses. Dicebags and card pouches are easy designs to make and you can get as creative as you’d like. If you’re looking to expand your product line with something niche, but popular, start a conversation with your local card or comic store and see if they’d be interested in selling some of your products. Everybody wins when you keep it local!
Perspectives on the Craft
Weightlifting Beltmaker - with Artem Biziaev of Northlift Belts
By Wyatt Moadus
The gym is packed with people lifting weights, running on treadmills and pedaling bikes. Apart from the crowd stands one man, easily identifiable by his 1990s retro fluorescent clothes and shock of blonde, almost white hair. Damp with perspiration, he finishes his final lift of the day and lets the barbell clatter to the floor, then rises to stretch his back and expose the sturdy but appropriately stylish lifting belt around his waist. He is Artem Biziaev, owner and maker of Northlift Belts, living his dream.
A lifelong love of fashion, coupled with a burgeoning passion for weightlifting, led Artem to the unique position he now finds himself in. Northlift Belts occupies an 830 square foot workshop located on the west side of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada, arriving there after a years-long journey that started in his father’s basement.
“I made my first weightlifting belt in 2013, and bought my main sewing machine in 2014,” Artem says. With college taking up much of his time in the day, he could only operate his new business on the side. But during the summer lulls he could devote his full attention to Northlift, and after graduating in 2020 he embraced his new profession as a full time leatherworker.
Throughout that period Artem moved his shop no fewer than eight times, sometimes working in places as small as 80 square feet. But every move was somehow a step forward.
Before ever touching a leather tool, Artem’s passion was lifting. He was introduced to the sport by a friend just a few years before and was quickly taken by it, receiving certification as a trainer in 2012 and shortly thereafter pursuing a degree in Kinesiology. As his gym career progressed, he soon found himself looking for a proper lifting belt. These belts are specialized to “aid in more efficient force transfer through the torso.” In layman’s terms, a good belt can potentially allow a person to lift a heavier weight than they could otherwise. Finding little variety on the market, he took what he could get.
“I really hated it,” he says, simply. “So I hopped on my dad’s sewing machine and stitched four layers of upholstery leather together to make my first weightlifting belt. I didn’t even have a buckle, I used wall hangers as a clasping system.” It worked, even if it left a lot of room for improvement. Artem knew he could do better, so he sought the advice of experts. As it happened, some were conveniently close.
“My dad was a leatherworker and had his own shop in 1980s Russia. When we moved to Canada he switched trades, but he purchased a small industrial machine again around 2010.” This would be the same machine that Artem would use to make his first belts. In addition to his father, Artem could also call upon the experience of his stepmother, a seamstress and fashion designer with over 30 years in the trade. Together they acted as consultants, helping him refine his designs and improve the quality of his workmanship. Through this iterative process, Artem learned the core of his new trade.
“The vast majority of my skill set was self taught, through a lot of failures and product testing by myself and some athletic partners. One of my biggest sources of learning in terms of small goods was Valerie Michael’s Leatherworking Handbook. It was published when I was born, and the techniques and skills in there are still so applicable to the modern craft.”
By now an experienced powerlifter, he soon found himself coaching several other prominent competitive lifters who proved to be an eager audience for his goods. “I’m a pretty social guy, and with my coaching and socializing my reputation kept growing in the city and in Alberta, so a lot of my sales were driven by my name and people just knowing about what I do.” His transition to a full-time operation allowed him to begin wholesaling his products and reinvest that income into his equipment and shop. Gains, if you will.
It is easy to see what makes Artem’s belts desirable. Beyond the general air of strength and durability evident in their construction, all of his products carry a striking visual flair that seems to spring from Artem’s soul. “I’ve always felt expressive, so Northlift is really just a mouthpiece for my artistic spirit. Everything gets a sprinkle of me in there,” he says.
Skimming his portfolio is like taking a step back in time and experiencing the distinctive aesthetics of the ‘80s and ‘90s all over again. Fresh doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Pink, teal and white feature prominently in much of his inventory, including the unforgettable ‘Jazz’ pattern that has enjoyed a new wave of popular nostalgia. One of his best-received pieces is a white fanny pack (of course) with blue and fuchsia streaks on the outside. ‘80s hair metal gets a frequent nod as well, including one belt that reads, in meticulous hand painted red helter-skelter letters, “I DONT CARE WHAT YOU USED TO LIFT.” Despite the dichotomy of the two styles, they feel at home together in his shop.
Artem isn’t exactly sure how his aesthetic taste ended up here, but he suspects it may have to do with working in a thrift store in the early 2000s. “I got a lot of really colorful, 90’s neon clothes and linear designed boomboxes, bikes, and more that I had cheap access to.” For a non-conformist without a lot of money to spend, it was perfect. “I have a massive VHS and tape collection that I started when I worked there and add to every so often. My vehicles are always quite old, so I have access to a tape deck to sing my throat out to Rick Astley, Firehouse, Boston, George Michael, Corey Hart, Journey, Van Halen, etc. Except my current ‘92 Toyota. The trim level is so low it only has a radio.”
Having such bold aesthetics opens his repertoire to a lot more than just belts and straps. Artem enjoys making bags of all kinds and small goods such as wallets, journal covers and other personal accessories, every one a blank canvas. “I love that I do so many different things. It keeps me interested and motivated to improve my skills.” Switching between the categories keeps him inspired and motivated.
Beyond serving as a creative outlet for him alone, he treats his business as a platform to promote Canadian labor and creativity in general. “I have seen a lot of companies come and go over just the last ten years, almost all of them importing products that exist at the intersection of ‘cheapest’ and ‘good enough’,” he laments. Like almost every other aspect of his life, Artem and Northlift Belts stand apart from the crowd.
When asked how he came to select that name for his company, he is quick to answer. “I love Canada,” he says. “And I love to lift.”
Heritage & Future
By Dan G.
Origin of Laser Cutting/Etching
Laser cutting was initially developed in the 1960s, based on the concept that there could be wide and efficient uses for leveraging a focused beam of powerful light to various surfaces. There were ray guns in science fiction radio shows, movies, and cartoons for decades. This was like a real ray-gun, in laser form.
Many different techniques and processes were tried and refined until the 1980’s when technologies became highly efficient, lasers more powerful, and the manufacturing processes more cost efficient. Lasers then became viable tools for industrial manufacturing and large-scale production of parts and goods.
The 1990’s saw them really flourish, with prices coming down further, and the commercialization of smaller units that could be purchased for under $10,000 that only took up a few square feet of floor space.
In the 2010’s, as is the trend with most technologies, they got smaller and cheaper. The market began to see various desktop laser cutter models become available, and in the cost ranges of about $400 – $2,000. This size, and affordability, makes them something more reachable for crafters, and we began to see more and more workshops and individual crafters using the technology.
Laser Cutting for Leather Working
In the shop and on projects, laser cutting can do a few things very well. Let’s take a look at the two most popular uses.
Laser cutters make very precise, repeatable cuts into material. This is great, as making repeated shapes in leather used to mean having to manually cut them out over and over again by hand, or invest in the creation of dies and then “clicking” out the repeated shapes on a press.
Doing high-volume work usually meant a significant investment of time, or money, both of which can be limited for hobbyist crafters, and those with smaller workshops. Laser cutters dissolve that production gap, and crafters at any level can make precise-cut pieces at home. Even when outsourcing this work to manufacturers, it’s often less expensive than previously, since they can produce items for you at an economy of scale.
Laser cutters can be set to vary the intensity (power) of the light they emit. This is incredible as as it can cut through material of various thicknesses, also also cut into material of varying thicknesses, without going all the way through. This allows the same laser to etch and engrave the surface of leather.
The level of detail available through this process is absolutely incredible. What needed to be done by hand before, very carefully, after practicing the skills to do it, can now in a slightly different way/look/feel, be done with laser engraving.
Engraving can be done for any shapes, letters, designs, and images that one wants to etch into the leather surface. This technology opens up a whole new world for crafters, where they can etch their logo, monogramming, photo-realistic imagery, and anything the imagination can create in a digital drawing program.
What to Look for in a Leather Laser Cutter
Size of Cutting Bed
It’s helpful to have an idea of what you want to work with when considering looking for laser cutter. Some are smaller, table-top units with cutting beds around 8” x 12”. The mid-range machines have cutting bed sizes around 16” x 24”, and large, more industrial laser cutters can be 40” x 60” and even larger.
If you’re looking to make smaller items (keychains, earrings, etc.) a smaller cutting bed can work. If you’re looking to make larger items, or engrave larger items, you would likely need a larger cutting bed/laser cutter. Something to keep in mind, larger cutters can fit smaller objects, so it should cover the range of things you’re planning to work on.
Though also, larger machines usually require bigger spaces, more costly maintenance, and higher purchase price. So as with most things, it will be a balanced choice among your personal or business preferences.
Power of Laser
The power of the laser is one of the most important aspects of laser cutter selection. The lasers generally range between 5w-150w for most consumer models. Lower powered lasers can work for shallow etching, while more powerful lasers help with actually cutting through thicker leathers. 60w is a good mid-range option (it might require a few passes on thicker leathers to cut through them), while 90w+ is generally the way to go for more frequent and thick leather cutting applications.
The laser etching cutting process often yields the release of gasses that need to be properly ventilated from a workspace. It’s important to consider where the machine will be positioned, and how the setup will account for the ventilation during use. It’s usually more helpful to plan this prior to selecting a machine.
Leather is a natural fiber, and like most natural fibers, when they are burned (which is essentially what the laser is doing though the application of focused heat energy onto the leather’s surface), it smells. So be aware of this, and if planning a workspace, consider how the smell might affect the enjoyment of the overall space. Another element to consider here is air flow and ventilation in the shop, which could help reduce the impact of the fiber smell form the laser cutting process.
Laser cut leather is essentially burned in the process of cutting. The heat form the laser burns through the fibers, leaving some blackened char marks around where the cut was done. A process, more common nowadays, is to apply tape to the leather’s surface prior to cutting or etching with the laser.
This helps reduce the amount of burn marks and char that extends beyond the cut. It is a little tedious and time consuming to remove the tape from the leather’s surface after cutting, though helps yield a much more visually appealing finished piece. One can surely experiment with how they prefer to do this.
Some Popular Machines for a Shop
There are many, many variations and options available (even some build them yourself options). Here is just a broad view of three models to help being the exploration:
Small – xTool D1 Pro – this is a small, tabletop engraver with a 10w-20w laser and 17” x 15.4” working bed.
Medium – Glowforge Pro – this is a larger desktop engraver/cutter 45w laser and 19.5” x 11” cutting bed. It allows for rolls of material to pass through, giving it a workable material size of 19.5” by as long as the roll of material is.
Large – Epilog Laser Fusion Pro – Epilog makes some incredible lasers, and a few different lines. The Fusion Pro is a free-standing laser cutter that goes up to 120w laser with a 48” x 36” cutting bed.
As technology evolves, more and more options become available crafters as tools to support innovative and creative leather goods design. The ability to etch detailed images, text, and designs into leather surfaces is incredible. Additionally, being able to cut intricate, precise shapes out of leather, automatically, is something that opens up new doors for creativity, as well as new business opportunities for smaller crafters.
If you are looking to explore a new crafting skill, or add a new tool to the shop, a laser cutter for leather items could be just the thing. After all, a new tool is always fun 🙂
Pioneers of the Craft
Promoting sustainability through five generations and 100 years - American Tanning & Leather
By Dan Snyder
It’s not often that you find fifth generation businesses still in operation, especially in the United States, but that’s the legacy of American Tanning and Leather which is still in the family after all these years.
Beginning in 1923 in the Georgia South, American Tanning (or AmTan for short) was founded by A.J. Plott and has called Griffin, Georgia home since 1976. Specializing in exotic leather, mainly alligator, AmTan is still going strong after nearly 100 years.
We talked to Christy Plott, 43, Partner & Creative Director and fourth generation family member who–along with her brothers Damon and Chandler and nephew Phillip–helps supply leathercrafters with amazing alligator skins in a variety of finishes and colors in addition to being an advocate for alligator conservation and farming programs.
Thanks for talking with us Christy, at the ILJ we are always trying to find different areas of the leather industry to educate our readers and ourselves.
For those unfamiliar, could you explain a bit about what you all do?
We are as far as I know with the oldest and largest exotic leather tannery in the United States.
The tannery was formed in 1980 but we’ve been in the skin and hide business since 1923, so next year we’ll be a hundred years. And it’s been in the family all that time and thankfully none of us have killed each other (laughs).
Touching on that, family has been the core of your business since the beginning, have you found any shared family values that have also helped shape business success?
You know, I would say so but honestly, it’s not just necessarily shared family values because you can share the same values as people but you may not understand divvying up a responsibility.
We grew up in a house where we always had a big garden and we always had chores to do and each person had their own little chore and one person relies on the other to get their job done and that I think more than anything has sort of shaped our longevity.
My brothers each have different responsibilities than I have but we work together to get each of our own individual jobs done and we each have our own responsibility. Can we get irritated and mad at each other? Yes, absolutely, happens all the time. Some days, I want to kill them, but ultimately I know that they have the best interest of the company and of our employees at heart. If one of us goes down, we all go down. We’ve always worked together really well and my parents did a really good job [of teaching that].
American Tanning and leather has a rich history in the south and in the US. As a fifth generation family business, what is it that makes Amtan so unique?
I guess because we tan alligator leather. A lot of people have tried and failed at starting a tannery in the US for exotic leather. Few reasons, number one the start-up costs are tremendous. The know-how on tanning itself. You can’t get it from a book or school, you have to figure it out for yourself. And I would say that what has kept us around is perseverance and always trying to do something great. My dad would say when he first started that people in Europe that tan leather would kind of snicker or laugh and say that he would never be able to get it done and that it was an old European leather art.
Our quality can stand toe-to-toe with the best leather tanneries in the world. It’s not easy to make crocodile leather. If you open a window while you’re running the drum, you can change something, well maybe not quite that dramatic but the level of control and precision are high.
Our finishes are all aniline. It’s very, very rare when we add any type of pigment or anything artificial to the leather so you don’t have a lot of options for correction; it’s either right or it’s wrong.
How is the exotic tanning process different than say veg or chrome tanning?
Ninety percent of alligator leather is chrome tanned. You can retan it with veg and that’s what people did in the early days, but we’ve gotten away from that because you’re really limited on color. Now people are doing some metal-free tanning, mostly for the watch strap market. The biggest difference is with alligator you need there to be a little bit of shrink in the leather, because when you glaze the leather you want to be able to get that nice nice puffed up relief in the tiles.
The only drawback to chrome tanned leather is that when you glaze, getting white or pastel colors is very difficult and you have to have a few tricks up your sleeve to get it right. Also, our volumes are small. A test drum for cowhides would be a production drum for alligator. The volume of the tanning materials that we use are quite small compared to huge bovine and goat leather tanneries. If the distributor says that material has been replaced with something else but it’s exactly the same and it turns out it’s not, then you have to re-formulate everything that you do.
Being based in the US, most distributors for tanning materials are in Europe or Asia. If you need to get something from Europe, you’re going to pay more and wait a little bit longer. Throughout COVID, there’s been lots and lots of supply chain issues, but the show must go on so you have to plan ahead and you have to be able to switch gears very quickly.
There also could be a leather tanning material distributor that knows how to [tan leather] for cowhide and knows the right materials for that but they might not have a clue about alligator.
I’ve found in my dayjob that some people will pick up an exotic skin and their first reaction is “wow!’ followed by ‘how did they get this?’ I do my best to explain the process and how it is ethically and legally harvested, because conservation is key to the exotic leather industry. Being that AmTan specializes in exotics, how has conservation and sustainability played a part in your business model?
The core of it is that in the 1960s alligators were on the endangered species list because they were almost hunted to extinction, so the state of Louisiana put together a pilot program where they said, okay, we’re gonna control this, tag the animals, and get licenses. They knew that people don’t want alligators around in their backyard. They’re a nuisance, they’re dangerous and serious predators so you have to come up with ways that work.
The number one thing they put together is a way that they said okay, we know that alligators don’t do so well hatching and becoming breeding adults on their own because most of the eggs get eaten before they’re hatched or the animals are predated on, so how do we help increase that rate? They let farmers go to landowners and buy the eggs from them. The wetland owners need money to keep their land up, just like you need money to keep your yard up, except wetlands take $150,000 an acre to restore and if wetlands wash away there’s all types of problems. Wetlands are buffers for hurricanes, they filter out 50 times the amount of carbons that terrestrial forests and they’re also home to 7,000 different plants and animals with the alligator being the apex predator.
So the incentive for landowners is to sell the alligator eggs and not develop their land and undertake restoration projects that save thousands of animals and provides clean air to the rest of us. It’s a pretty incredible story.
[Alligator egg] farmers make contracts with landowners, they buy one hundred percent of the eggs, they go into the marsh, collect the eggs and then take them back to their farms, incubate and hatch them. Then, by law, they are required to release a percentage of them back onto that landowner’s property after the animals are three feet long. At that point the animal doesn’t have any natural predators and they survive. In the 1960s, the population went from less than one hundred thousand in the wild to more than five million alligators in the United States today.
It’s also a $250 million a year economic impact just to the state of Louisiana. And it really provides jobs and income in the most rural places where people don’t have a lot of livelihood options.
And when you talk about sustainability, sustainability is more than just eco products, it includes livelihoods to local communities and indigenous people where there are not very many job options. It includes bettering your community, bettering infrastructure in your community. It also includes bettering education for people in their lives.
So sustainability is all of those things. The use of exotic of leather is the only leather that is used that doesn’t destroy any original habitat and as a matter of fact its job is to enhance the habitat.
Because of it, the habitats are protected and it’s sort of a really incredible indirect benefit of this industry and it is a powerful one.
Alligator and crocodile leathers are the most highly regulated form of leather on the state, federal and international level. Every single tag is serialized with a number and it can be traced back to the state and who it was issued to.
Switching gears now, what is the strangest skin or hide that you have come across?
We tanned one, I think it was from Florida, that was almost 15 feet long. It was just a massive, massive, massive alligator and just to think that something like that lives in the United States of America, a predator that is that big and it’s just something unbelievable. I’m still always very awestruck when I see these big alligators.
Where do you see the leather industry in 5, 10, even 20 years from now?
Leather has been around as long as people. It’s a durable and useful material for so many things and I believe in using natural materials and not synthetic. We have to find uses for our waste and using synthetic materials to make everything seems like you’re producing something that isn’t going to last. A piece of leather can last a long time.
One of the things that the leather industry has been bad at doing is telling the story. Most people don’t have a clue about where their food comes from. They think that chicken just comes from the supermarket shelf and it’s wrapped in that white styrofoam package. We need to do a better job of explaining why the animal is used in the first place and how nothing is wasted.
Leather is a natural, durable material designed to hold up. That’s one of the reasons why leather is so expensive, it’s designed to last a lifetime.
I usually end interviews with this question and it’s becoming a trend, so what is your worst piece of advice?
I try not to give bad advice. Oh my worst piece of advice…when traveling in a third world country it’s definitely okay to drink the water.
Oh yes indeed :), bottled water can be key when traveling. For more information about American Tanning, visit https://amtan.com/index.html
Tools, Techniques, & Leather Types
Leather Stitch Spacer Tool
By Bob George
This spacer tool really helps get even spaced stitch marks if you are using an awl to make individual stitching holes in one’s leather project. The tool usually comes with multiple wheels that can be changed out, allowing for different stitches per inch (SPI). For smaller projects, more SPI is desired (typically using thinner thread), where larger projects will have less SPI using a larger thread.
Typically a spacer tool will come with 4 different wheels so the desired spacing can be achieved. The spacing is 5, 6, 7, or 8 holes per 1 inch. 5 and 6 holes per inch would look nice around the edge of a belt, rifle case, or tote bag. The 7 or 8 holes per inch work well for smaller items like knife sheaths, holsters, even some wallets.
Most of these tools have a smooth wooden handle and have a screw holding the wheel in place so it can spin freely. The video below has a quick tutorial on how to use it for marking stitching holes. The best method for maintaining a straight line while rolling the stitch spacer tool on the leather is to make a groove line in a piece of cased leather prior to running this tool. Once the marks have been made, one can then use an awl to pierce a hole at the proper marked location.
If one is using stitching irons or pricking irons, it is not necessary to use this tool.
A bonus use of this tool is after one has stitched a project, the spacer tool can be used to press down the stitching. Figure out which stitch spacing wheel is appropriate. Place wheel in tool and roll it over the stitches to press them down below the level of the leather. This helps prevent the stitching from getting snagged.
Techniques - Smoothing flesh side of leather
By Bob George
There are times when the rough (or flesh) side of the leather will be seen or come in contact with an item. Visually, it can have an unfinished look. Whether it is a single layer belt, a phone holster, or even a coaster, if the flesh side is exposed, it can sometimes be unattractive.
In some instances, one can line the item with another piece of leather; gluing and stitching two pieces of leather together, flesh side to flesh side. This is not always possible, cost effective, and without a sewing machine, can be time consuming.
This is where smoothing (or burnishing) the flesh side can be an attractive alternative. Chrome tan or vegetable tan leather can both be smoothed using this technique.
Tools / supplies needed to accomplish this: boning tool, smooth edged piece of glass, or a plastic scraper with a blunt edge, Tragacanth Gum or Tokonole that is used for burnishing / slicking edges, dyed leather (once the flesh side is smoothed, it will not take dye well).
Take the dyed piece of leather for your project and lay it on a work surface with the flesh side facing up. Liberally pour the Tragacanth Gum or Tokonole onto the leather. Using the boning tool, scraper, or glass, begin to rub the solution into the leather using long strokes.
Be careful to avoid getting the solution onto the cut edges of the leather or slopping it around and potentially getting it on the other side of the project. Continue to rub in the solution until it is completely smooth. There may be excess solution. If so, simply wipe off the excess and continue to smooth out the leather.
When satisfied with the level of smoothness, set it aside to dry until it is dry to the touch. At this point, one can continue with the project.
Here is an example of smoothing the flesh side using a glass burnishing tool. The tool is quite pricey, but it gives one an idea of what can be accomplished using this method.
Busting Myths: Leather Grades - Moving Beyond Genuine, Top Grain, and Full Grain
By Michael Batson
If you try to find out anything about leather quality on the internet you’ll often be greeted with a breakdown of four “leather grades/types/qualities” from the best to worst we usually see: full grain leather, top grain leather, and genuine leather (bonded leather is included too but we all know it’s trash).
This “quick and dirty” guideline is fine if a person is shopping for a leather product and wants to avoid bad quality, but for those of us who are buying leather to work with, that break down is severely lacking; I’d venture to say even useless at times.
First of all they aren’t “grades” because the definitions of those terms completely overlap: full grain is a type of top grain and all real leather is genuine. You could never approach a tannery or even a reputable reseller and ask for “genuine leather; the only places you could possibly find someone selling leather just labeled “genuine” are hobby/craft box stores and sketchy Amazon sellers.
There is a such thing as “grading” in leather but that generally has to do more with defects in a specific hide and that will differ from tannery to tannery. You’ll find A,B,C or 1,2,3 or like Wickett and Craig’s Standard, Special and Utility grades. There are, of course sellers who specialize in selling seconds which can have any number of issues from uneven thickness, to color inconsistencies, to problems with the finish and grain.
These grades are important to take into account when selecting a hide for a specific project. Making a bunch of high end belts? Then you want the “cleanest” hide possible as a brand or defect that crosses just a small section of the hide means you’ll lose several belts. Making wallets with lots of small parts? Then “grade” isn’t nearly as important because you can work around scars and defects.
There is also grading done to hides in the raw state but since the grades they use are never stated for the finished hides, it’s not at all applicable to naming finished goods. The most common “grade” of leather you’ll see is TR: “Tannery Run” which also isn’t a specific grade but rather a way that tanneries will refer to a “standard” run of leather that will include hides with varying amounts of defects. This is what you would expect when buying a batch of thousands of feet directly from a tannery. You generally don’t have the option to say “I want only clean defect free hides for this order…”. Generally you’re getting the TR mix.
Lately I’ve seen a few leather supply companies selling individual hides with “TR” listed as the grade and while it’s true, it doesn’t really tell you how good the hide you’re buying is. So why do I say that the “genuine < top grain < full grain” breakdown is something that’s useless when picking a leather for a project?
The important things to look at when selecting leather are things like thickness, temper, finish, color, etc., all of which have absolutely no relationship to the above breakdown.
Here’s a basic definition for each of these terms:
Full Grain Leather:
Full Grain Leather is a leather that has only had the hair removed and has not been sanded (corrected). Originally only the “cleanest” most defect-free hides were used for full grain but there is nothing that requires that.
In fact, since all leather starts as full grain, a cheap tannery can actually make full grain with less investment in machinery and produce “technically full grain” leather and toss out all the other factors that go into leather quality. This is why I get frequent offers from tanneries willing to sell me full grain leather for $2 or under per square foot while at the same time I’m buying Chromexcel (spoiler: not full grain) directly from Horween for 4x that.
Top Grain Leather:
Top Grain Leather is actually a term that includes full grain; simply put it’s everything that’s not suede or split leather. When you see “top grain” noted in a product description, chances are that it is a leather that has been corrected in some way (often sanded).
For example, Nubuck is a sanded leather that is often found on the interior of construction boots and also watch straps because it is more resilient to scratches that naturally occur from daily wear. Also sanded is a much beloved leather: Horween’s Chromexcel (it is lightly corrected). The amount of correction can significantly vary, though once the sander hits it, it is technically no longer full grain. There are many leathers that, without using magnification, you could never really know were corrected.
Genuine Leather is, admittedly, a term that we see used to describe lots of low quality leather materials and goods. Primarily, that is because the bar for referring to leather as “genuine” is extremely low; it at its most essential just means, real.
To a tannery all leather is genuine leather. This is why one will occasionally see “genuine leather” stamped on high quality goods made from full grain leather. Red Wing boots are a great example. Many resources that provide a description for “genuine” leather are actually describing what is called a “finished split”. A “finished split” is an often cheap quality suede that has been painted, or had a coating of PU (polyurethane) applied to make it look like smooth leather.
I know this goes against what most of the click-baity “4 grades of leather” articles, and their similar counterparts, say. So, to help support it, here is an article from Tannery Row, an experienced leather reseller from Chicago’s leather district who is deeply familiar with one of the most well known, quality tanneries in the USA, Horween.
You can also explore significant differences in leather durability based on the animal that it came from. For example:
All of these quality terms can be easily exploitable based on context and marketing spin. For example, I can take a side-of-the-road possum (fresh or old), shave it smooth, soak it in urine to tan it, and it would technically be referred to as possum “full grain leather.”
So, knowing context is important and there can be so many variations in what is marketed, how do you pick quality leather when buying material for a project, or a new leather good or item?
First, knowing the tannery that produced the leather and tannage (how it is proceeded) are really important and insightful. Some examples of quality sources include Horween Chromexcel, Wickett and Craig Bridle, and Walpier Buttero.
Additionally, and often, when the description of a leather quality has more information available, it is often a better and helpful indicator. For example, if it mentions “vegtable-tanned European calf”, it is likely better than a leather that is just described as “full grain”, or a similar broad, general term.
Forget what you’ve read about grades, dig deeper and keep learning – this knowledge can help in numerous ways to guide you towards more informed leather purchases, and ultimately better quality in the items that you craft.
Featured Channel & Free Download
Featured Crafter Channel
Siroeno Yosui is a very talented bespoke shoemaker based in Tokyo, Japan. He designs custom shoes, from scratch, utilizing most any leather a client would like, and even creates an individualized last (toe form around which a shoe is molded and constructed.
Creating a bespoke show generally involves measuring one’s feet, then creating a trial pair of shoes to check fit and wear pattern and design. Next the show last is updated and a final pair of shoes is made.
It is an incredibly creative and detailed process, and beautiful to watch it in action. Siroeno’s channel features deeply insightful, relaxing, and educational videos on this process. If you’re looking to see excellence in crafting in action, it’s definitely worth checking out Siroeno’s channel.
First-Time-Published Carving Pattern by Jim Linnell
In this issue, we have another exciting piece to share with you – a previously unpublished carving pattern from Jim Linnell.
It is a vertically-oriented, organic leaf and flower pattern with an angled initials bar towards the top. You can download this image and print it out at the scale/size you would most enjoy carving it in. Jim has an incredible studio, Elktracks, packed with deeply valuable knowledge, instructional videos, patterns, and classes on leathercraft and carving.
For more patterns and pattern books by Jim, click here to view that area on his site, and take a look at the other great resources available. You might be there a while, there’s so much to see This is an incredibly special pattern to be able to share, please let others know it is available so they can enjoy and use it too.
ILC Club News
Latest from the ILC
What's New & Popular
More helpful resources and references to the forum, covering techniques, methods, and tools. Members have also been posting some incredible items they made in the Member Showcase section, one piece has some of the finest, intricate hand-work we have seen.
The Global Leather Directory continues to have submissions added and covers a range of leather-related businesses, shops, and people around the world. A favorite is a look at where each of the Al Stohlman Award Winners are from!
The new Facebook Group for the ILC is live and growing. Lots have already joined and you can look there for tips, insights, activities, and meeting/chatting with other great folks every day. We’re seeing some really great insights, projects, and stories from crafters around the world. Click below to join.
We owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to the people that helped develop the craft we get to enjoy every day. With a treasure of knowledge from Jim Linnell, we have recorded a video called Studio Stories where we explore some of the most fascinating and impactful items in leathercraft history. Click above to view the video, and below to visit/join the ILC YouTube channel.
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