The International Leather Journal
The Talk of the Craft
The Talk of the Craft
When I begin a new leather project, there are usually pieces everywhere. There might be some sketches, some scraps of leather for test pieces, some hardware. Then comes in the “nice” leather that will be used for the finished piece, tools, maybe dyes or glues, daubers, burnishers, and all the fun things that fill up our work spaces.
Some of these pieces are in rough shape, some new, some shiny, some polished, some to be painted, and some to be shaped. And with care, they come together in the end to result in a beautiful leather item; fresh, functional, ready for the next step of experiencing use and developing a fine, coveted patina.
In many ways, each of us is like one of those pieces to a project. Some of us are new to the craft and need to be shaped; some of us are stubborn in our style like sturdy hardware; some of us thoughtful and precise like finely honed tools; some of us are works in progress, open to take a new form as we learn; and some of us have that fine patina, earned from years of experience and exposure.
When we put it all together, just like a project, it results in a really special thing; the people of leather craft. Each person really does add something unique to our greater good. The tips that we share, events we attend, recommendations we make, conversations we have, and stories we tell; each helps shape another, who shapes another, who shapes yet another.
And in all of those immeasurable ways, our experiences are shaped, colored, dyed, cut, trimmed, burnished, and refined, helping us become better crafters, communicators, educators, and hopefully, people.
The more varied the pieces, the more unimaginable and unique the finished item. So whatever interest you have in the craft, or whatever level of experience you are at, you make a truly helpful difference.
The weekend hobbyist, the expert tool-maker, the quality tanner, the leather shop worker, the friend of a friend who thinks their leather work is great and you encourage them to do more, the leather entrepreneurs starting your own shop, and the masters of the trade we are so grateful to learn from.
You are important to this thing we do, this thing we enjoy, and this thing we are grateful for. Each a piece of this big ever-growing project, a part of something genuine, fun, and real. As you share that interest with others and live it day-to-day, it’s truly a gift to them, and also to each of us. Whatever you make, make it special.
In This Issue
Statistics & Trends
What's New & Popular
If you’ve ever been to a comic convention or seen photos from ComicCon you know that there are some very creative people out there. In addition to making costumes of their favorite Marvel or DC character out of foam, garment, or plastic, a lot of these cosplayers are turning to leather to create lasting and comfortable capes, outfits, bandoliers, and armor.
With the wide array of leather options, cosplayers have the flexibility to create costumes using chrome-tanned red chaps, dyed veg tan armor, and oil-tanned hats. Seriously check out some of the leather armor available at this Dutch-based online retailer. Now I’m suddenly in the mood for a smoked turkey leg and a goblet of mead.
Boring hats are not cool. Adding a leather patch to a boring hat is cool. Hat patches are a great way to customize any hat. A quick Etsy search shows that there are a multitude of sellers that specialize in patches. Typically made from 5-6 oz. vegetable tanned leather patches can be tooled, dyed, stamped, antiqued, painted and even wood-burned to create a unique design and make a boring hat un-boring.
You can cut your own blank patches or buy in bulk in various shapes like fillet corners, round, hexagon, pentagon, and scoreboard here. Sewing them on is easy since you typically only have to punch holes in the leather since needles go through the hat fairly easily.
Many years ago I went to a chiropractor because my back kept hurting on my right side. First thing the chiropractor asked was if I keep my wallet in my back right pocket. I did and my wallet was crammed full of receipts and various other things but sadly lacking on cash. He told me that was the reason for my bad back. What?!? Since then I have a smaller, sleaker, and less-bad-back-causing wallet that I keep in my front pockets.
Simplistic wallets are easy to make and you can design one fairly easily yourself. I designed a wallet that has six pockets for cards and a center pocket for any important stuff. It is 2.75” x 3.75” and fits all my cards snugly. You can also design one with an ID window by using some 16 or 20 gauge plastic. Check out our last issue for a free wallet design and get creative with it. I’ve seen wallets made from elephant to snakeskin to tooled veg tan or a slick oil tan.
Perspectives on the Craft
Our Leathercraft Heritage
By Dan G
Sometimes when I craft, I sit back, and let my mind explore the winding thoughts of what I am a part of. In the moment, I am just a person at a table, envisioning, crafting, creating; making something with my hands, while enjoying the process of turning pieces and parts into a something new.
Outside of that moment, I am a person, acquiring knowledge and practicing skills of a trade. In a way, a mere custodian of this wonderful craft that has evolved over literally thousands of years. We educate ourselves, produce work, learn more, and then give that evolved knowledge to the crafters that follow next; as have hundreds of generations before us.
And as we all get to enjoy these brief flashes of time, there is something much larger, and much wider that has given us that opportunity. It is our heritage. Our heritage in leather craft is such a precious and valuable resource. It is a vast and storied evolution of people, places, items, coincidences, visions, practicality, necessity, ingenuity, hard work, and mutual support for the craft and for one another. And we each are a part of it.
We draw from our heritage when we are inspired by a unique hand-tooled piece. We value this heritage when a saddle performs just as intended in a roping competition. And sometimes ,we take this heritage for granted when we adjust that belt one more notch around our pants for the day, with no notice to where it came from or the centuries of trade knowledge, the rancher, tanner, wholesaler, shopkeeper, shipper, and craftsman that all made it all possible. In the smallest details there are centuries of people and stories,
When we attend a trade show and watch the current masters craft right in front of us; when we order something special for our next project from a store that has been around for 30+ years; when we see a special leather item in a movie; when we get together with a good friend and craft together; when we connect with others online to share tips; when we take pause and acknowledge the contributions of others; this, is our heritage.
In some ways it can be physically touched; in other ways it is experienced through stories; we might read about it, watch about it; in other ways it’s created right now in these times when when we come to share, learn, enjoy, and grow together; always evolving, so simple yet so very complex.
Equally intriguing and impressive is how leather craft is woven throughout modern history and the lifestyles of fellow people around the world. It has been, and still is, everywhere in important periods.
From cavemen wearing hides for warmth and protection, to footwear in Ancient Roman times, Native American clothing and accessories, to parchment for some of the first books, leather armor in the middle ages, tools for Great Britain’s world colonization, bags and saddles that carried Americans westward, personal goods and accessories in the global Industrial Revolution, to the many hand-crafted and personalized items we both make and see today.
That is some incredible history. And while we have facts and notable events that can be recalled, it’s the people throughout that history that make up our heritage. Their lives, their stories, their skills, their necessities, entrepreneurship, interests, creativity, successes, failures, business, friendships, and what they have given each of us to learn from.
In modern day, most of us come to learn some of the tool makers, the Sheridan style crafters, and about Tandy. In some ways, it’s easy to think that leather craft is only about 100 years old. There are some great YouTube channels, some great books, and some great shows/events. But wow, are you in for a treat, there is so much more; and we’ll begin to share this with you, which makes us even more excited about crafting than we usually are 🙂
And most importantly, we’re entering a time in the craft that’s fun, accessible, for the family, and built around community. Our ability to come together has reached a global perspective, thanks to digital technologies. What once was a closely guarded secret in medieval guilds, developed into local clubs with regional knowledge and styles, and now exists as a global collective for knowledge sharing and learning together, what developed into the International Leather Club.
Leather craft has become a family hobby. With a few tools and a weekend afternoon, children can learn how to stamp and carve. A busy software developer can unwind and make a belt. Parents can craft new earrings, or a backpack for hiking trips. Grandparents can teach their grandchildren a lifelong skill, and friends can get together to share food, drinks, stories, and make useful things they’ll enjoy long after.
Leather working is accessible, friendly, and fun. And we’re seeing more and more people get involved every month. And what does that mean? Yep, you guessed it, even more special contributions to our Heritage over time.
You might have noticed that it is capitalized now as I write, as it almost feels necessary given the magnitude that it carries when we really think about it; so many people, so much time, and so many gifts of knowledge given to us if we choose to be aware of and accept them.
This Heritage is the most valuable part of our craft, and we will pay it honor and respect through the Journal in a number of fun ways; for after all, it is where we come from, and thanks to it, will help guide where we go.
…And then I lean forward again at the crafting table, catching myself and my mind wandering, and just like that let all of it go. Slipping back into the simplicity of the moment of calm, crafting, cutting, stamping, carving, and being in the present, living today.
We are part of something larger than us, something special, but right now, I’m just enjoying the sounds of the tools, the feel of the leather, the smells of the hides, and the passing of time as I make something new with my hands. And wishing each of you the same.
Heritage & Upcoming
Heritage: The Origin of Tanneries
By Dan Snyder
Tanning leather has been a staple in civilized communities since the Paleolithic period 40,000 years ago. Around 12-6,000 years ago, dedicated tanneries began showing up in ancient civilizations. The ancient Sumarians and Mergharh cultures were especially adept at the tanning process and renowned for their vegetable tanning process. They also employed alum and oil tanning into their craft.
Tanning remained relatively unchanged until the Middle Ages when the hair-removing abilities of quicklime were discovered, whereas before removing hair was a tedious process done by hand. Fun gross fact: The process of removing the hair from a hide involved using urine and excrement. Bonus fun gross fact: Urine was also used to produce teeth whiteners. Because of these foul-smelling ingredients used in the tanning process, tanneries were often located some distance from towns and cities and close to a water source.
As people expanded and trade grew in the Middle Ages, leather goods became much more popular and some small advancements were made in the trade, but it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that tanning would be changed forever.
In 1858, the chrome tanning process was invented that significantly shortened the amount of time that it took to tan a hide. This process involves using the chemical compound chromium sulfate to create a softer and more pliable hide. Between 80-90 percent of all the leather produced in tanneries today is chrome-tanned.
We could probably dedicate an entire issue to the tanning process, and we possibly could in the future, but next issue we will take a closer look into the history of some of the oldest tanneries in the world.
Upcoming: Supply Chain Breakdown, A Primer and Projection
By Dillan Conn
From the far flung fields of Argentine beef cattle to the plant manufacturing semiconductors in South Korea and back to the smallest of leather goods shops in the rural United States, each day the world at large is breathing a little easier as global economies pull themselves out of the pandemic downturn.
Few industries could weather the last two years without revealing a few dents in their armor and the leather industry was no different. Nearly ubiquitous across all markets were the dreaded and now all-too-familiar supply chain issues.
Coronavirus poked some holes in the leather industry’s supply chain and highlighted some long-standing and unresolved challenges that don’t seem to be fading away anytime soon. During the pandemic, even the largest most successful leather users weren’t safe.
What caused the COVID-19 leather shortage?
With global markets and consumer confidence shuttered even the likes of Nike, Adidas and Louis Vuitton were forced to cancel their bulk leather purchases – this set off a chain reaction from the tanneries all the way down to our local suppliers.
For a little context, in 2019 tanneries in Italy were producing 23 percent of the global leather supply. Within one year the country’s exports dropped 27 percent. Tanneries stopped buying hides and around the globe hides spoiled in barns and shipping containers.
This situation was not unique to Italy, in Australia and the U.S. tanneries, along with cattle auctions and slaughterhouses, were forced to close. With nowhere to sell their cattle, farmers slowed their feeding regimen. That meant when tanneries finally had orders to fill, they didn’t have the hides they needed.
Given that tanneries cater to their largest customers first, when orders began picking back up, it was smaller local businesses who felt the sting of a leather marketplace with too little supply.
The straight-forward supply and demand economics above caused big problems and created a lagging problem in leather sourcing that many are just now working past. While a global event like Coronavirus isn’t likely to happen again anytime soon, there are several factors threatening the sustainability of the leather supply chain at large.
Challenges facing the future of leather goods
For starters, the complex nature of the leather manufacturing industry lends itself to multiple points of failure. Issues at any level could throw a wrench into the production of a workable piece of leather. From the farms in Africa or the U.S. where the cattle are raised and slaughtered, hides make their way to India or even South America to be tanned before a finished piece of leather finds itself in the hands of a craftsman in Europe or the U.S.
The sheer number of miles traveled in this process also highlights the susceptibility of this supply chain to logistical fluctuations like the price of fuel. Speaking of fuel, many manufacturers – including in the fashion world – have begun working to limit their environmental impact by purchasing in a way that reduces their overall carbon footprint.
Another trend in the fashion world that most are already aware of, is the adoption of “vegan leather” or other synthetic materials. This shift in textile choices doesn’t spell the end of leather by any means but it does track with purchasing trends in the U.S. and abroad. Where leather jackets were once coveted and leather was the main choice for footwear, new materials have pushed leather into either the luxury or hobbyist wheelhouse.
Not going anywhere
While the supply chain issues above are legitimate and potentially threatening, the leather industry and the availability of high-quality, tanned hides should not be in any danger until major changes occur in the planet’s production of beef.
Given that hides are a byproduct of beef farming and the American taste for flame-broiled steak, burger, ribs and roast has expanded to other countries, there shouldn’t be any kind of long-standing shortage. If anything, the future of leatherworking – from a hobbyist’s perspective – is looking pretty bright.
This is mostly due to the aforementioned increase in beef production and the difficulty many ranchers have selling hides at anything besides basement prices. The difference in quality will always be an interesting variable to keep an eye on as the industry adjusts alongside the increase in cattle farming.
Pioneers of the Craft
Where family and leathercraft come together - With Barry King, Founder of Barry King Tools
By Dan Snyder
His family tree is carved out of leather. The family business–King’s Saddlery–was started by his grandfather, Don King, who is also widely renowned as the creator of the Sheridan Style of tooling. His father, Bruce, taught him the value of hardwork at the family business. His Uncle John along with notable leather artist Jim Jackson showed him what went into crafting and tooling a saddle. And for the last 28 years, Barry King has been handcrafting mallets, mauls, swivel knives and stamps out of his six-employee shop in Sheridan, Wyoming.
We really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us. We here at the ILJ hold the heritage of the craft in high regard. Coming from such a diverse background with the family Saddlery business, your grandfather Don King creating such an influential tooling style, and now with your own maker’s mark on the industry, what was it like growing up?
(Laughs) Well, there was a lot of work involved. I started working for the rope company [the family business] and the saddlery when I was about eight years old. I was doing a lot of the rope work the first couple of years, because for a kid that’s about all you could comprehend. Then I got into leather work at about 12 years old and then started tooling leather at age fourteen.
And that was what I did there for my job at King’s for about 10 or 12 years until I went out on my own. During that time, when I was tooling leather, I was working with my dad, John King, and Jim Jackson. John and Jim are the two main influences on me learning how to carve and learning the tooling aspect of it.
I had two of the best teachers in the world 10 feet away from me, so the learning curve was fairly quick, a lot quicker than most people.
Did it ever feel like you had to go into the leather/saddle business or did it come naturally to you?
We always had a job if we wanted it. That was the key thing. You know, my parents said you can always work for the family company if you want, but you don’t have to. But for me, I enjoyed working there and doing the leatherwork.
During the time I was in high school, I took a machine shop class and the instructor helped me make a few tools because he did a little bit of leather work. So when I went in there and said, hey, I want to make this stuff, he was all excited because it was of similar interest to him. You know I still talk to him to this day quite often.
What I needed to do in the class I had finished for the whole year by Christmas break, so I’d have all spring to do some leather work and make tools and some other stuff I wanted to work on.
I’ve only been tooling for a few months, but I enjoy it immensely. At times though, I have had to create my own bevels or backgrounders because I just didn’t have them and still don’t have all the tools I need and although they were very rudimentary, they worked–well, sorta. What is the reason you started creating tools and how did you make it into what it is today?
You know, my grandfather was making tools but he was just a one-man shop. So he made a few here and there, but it wasn’t a full-off production. I started making a few of the mauls out of necessity for what I needed for leather work and I was using them there at King’s and then Jim Jackson ordered one and my uncle ordered one. I made hammers and mauls specifically for three or four years. After making the hammers for a few years, sales started to level off and I knew there was more I wanted to do. So, I started making the stamping tools and got them nice enough to where I wanted to put my name on it. Basically I wasn’t gonna put out a junk product or substandard product with my name on it. It took me about a year to get all the tools cleaned up enough to where I could sell them.
In what ways can novices and seasoned vets continue to promote and encourage growth in the industry?
It’s a lot about the teaching of all the different aspects of leatherwork, that’s why a lot of the trade shows are so important. Because it’s a gathering of people that share ideas plus they also promote a lot of the classes. It’s the sharing of knowledge to get people to do better work or even get started. That’s a huge aspect of it continuing to have the leather shows with the classes involved.
After looking back on some of my first tooling pieces, I realized that the experienced craftsmen that I showed them to were lying–in an encouraging way–when they said it was good, but it gave me the confidence I needed to continue to learn and practice. What ways can we all motivate each other, not just in leathercrafting, but in life?
I mean there’s ways to encourage people even on the bad work. It can be a simple, ‘Hey, you know, maybe try this next time’ or something like that. But it also takes people who are doing the work to look at other’s work and realize that they need to improve or they can improve to get to that next level.
So it takes some personal knowledge or a realization to know that they need to get better. As far as motivating someone else, I would say try it first and if you like it, then let’s get you going in the right direction.
What is the one most commonly overlooked tool that every leather worker should have?
A sharp swivel knife blade and a bevel. A lot of people are using a dull blade or just don’t know how to sharpen it. Once you put a sharp swivel knife in someone’s hands, it’s a game changer. Get a couple of really good bevels because it really makes the leather pop.
Mankind will always have a need to hammer something, whether it’s a nail or a basketweave stamp, so I think it’s safe to assume that that line of Barry King products is safe, but how have you had to adapt to the rapid pace of technological change?
As far as actually using the stamping tools there hasn’t been that much of a change in the last 100 years at least, you’re still beating dead cowhide. As far as the technical technological change for making the tools we’ve really adapted to that on our side.
We’ve got the CNC machines but we’re still doing a lot of stuff by hand that we can’t do on a machine. I mean, even the filing of the lines in the tools and the checker patterns are still all done by hand and that’s by me. I’ve been sitting here filing on tools for four days straight right now. That’s all I’ve been doing for four days.
But we do have the new machines to increase our production and it took out some of the human errors out of some of the stuff we’re making. It’s hard to get two [stamps] exactly the same by hand but with CNCs, we can do a run of 20 and they’re all exactly the same.
This business, yeah it has my name on it, but my employees have helped me so much throughout the years to keep it going. We all work hard around this place to get some tools built and they do a great job.
We take the old world and combine it with the new world technology and try to make a great tool.
Being a part of the lineage of leather working, what are some of the things you would like to see for the future of the craft?
It’s growing, that’s for sure and the internet has helped with that. There are a lot of leather workers out there that nobody knew about until they started seeing stuff on Facebook and Instagram. It got people to start doing better work because they were seeing everyone else’s work.
It’s good to see that it’s growing. You know, 30, 20 years ago, people said that it was a dying art and now it seems to be a growing art again. People look at the Western lifestyle and they really like it, you know, open space and cowboys and all that. People like that Western lifestyle.
Western heritage is still alive and doing well.
Do you have a favorite item that’s in the Don King museum or in your shop?
One thing I still use is the first hammer I ever made. It’s got an old cracked wooden handle and it brings back the memory of making it in highschool. I still use that quite a bit. My grandpa gave me the piece of nylon for it. I asked grandpa to make me a hammer and he came down the next day, threw me a piece of nylon and said “here’s a head for it, you’re in the class in highschool, make it yourself.” Even though I made it, grandpa pushed me in the direction of making it and that’s how I got started.
I asked this question in our last issue and I want to start a trend, so what is your worst piece of advice?
Oohh, I don’t know about that. My best piece of advice would be to make something everyday whether you’re doing leatherwork or at your job, create something everyday.
Tools, Techniques, & Leather Types
Tools - Lace maker
By Dan Snyder
One of the coolest little gadgets that I have come across so far is the Lace Maker. I think the reason I like it so much is its ingenuity and ease of use. At first, I thought it was just another gimmicky product until I needed some lace to finish a product. Being relatively inexpensive, I ventured out and bought one. The trick–as with every other tool–is to use it correctly, which I did not do the first time.
After some research and Youtube tutorials, I finally figured it out and it was like riding a bike for the first time. Well, maybe not as fun as riding a bike but I tend to nerd out when it comes to new tools.
The lace maker I bought is made by Craftool and is about 6 inches long made of black plastic with four slots and a blade at one end. First, you want to use a firmer hand leather that is a manageable size. Cut a hole in the middle large enough for the lace maker to fit through. Each slot corresponds with the width of the lace you are trying to make. The largest slot makes lace 7/32” then 3/16”, 5/32”. ⅛”, 3/32” and 5/64”.
Then put the lace maker through the hole you cut, hold it with your dominant hand with the blade facing away from you and push. At this point you will see a little “tail” coming out from the lace maker. Once enough has emerged, switch hands and pull the “tail” out from the lace maker. The more you pull, the more lace will emerge. If you want to adjust sizes, just place the leather in the different slots. You can also move the blade into the backmost slot to adjust the width of the lace by removing the top cinch ring.
And that’s it! Like anything else, it’s best to practice a bit before you cut leather for your project. Once you get the hang of it though it is a lot of fun to use and you can get creative with the lace you use for your next double loop lacing project.
Techniques - Edge Burnishing
By Bob George
There are few things more satisfying (except maybe the scent of leather) than a slick, shiny edge on a leather item. When two or more pieces of leather have a common edge that is burnished (slicked) so that it looks like one piece of leather, it is breathtaking.
Burnishing the edges of a leather project bring that professional touch to the project. When someone picks up the piece, they are drawn to that finished edge like magic.
Burnishing leather is not difficult to do with the right tools and some compounds. Typical tools are a burnisher of some type. Burnishers can range from a hand-held wooden stick with grooves cut into it to a cocobolo wood bit with grooves that fits into a Dremel. Small pieces of canvas can be used as well. As for compounds, it could be leather dyes, Tragacanth Gum (TG), Tokonole, or simply water.
Regardless of the tool or compound, the idea is to place a “compound” on the edge of the leather and rub it with a “tool”, causing friction to transform the edge of the leather into a smooth finish.
Vegetable Tan leather can be burnished with any and all of the above tools and compounds. There is an extra step involved when burnishing veg tan leather. One must bevel the edges in order to create a small radius on the edge, allowing it to round over a bit when burnishing. Another step one may add is to sand down the edges to make sure they are fully smooth and the multiple pieces that will be burnished are all even. A burnished edge will not hide any imperfections. Make sure the edges are as smooth and flush as possible before burnishing.
Chrome tan or exotic leather requires Tokonole as a compound, and the best “tool” I have found for applying and burnishing this type of leather is my finger (to rub it in well) and a small piece of canvas to finish the burnish. The reason Tokonole works well with these types of leather is due to it not needing a lot of pressure. These types of leather are very soft and supple and really offer no resistance when applying pressure. Tokonole is lightly rubbed onto the edge, with little pressure applied.
If you have never tried TG or Tokonole, give it a try. It runs about $5 for a bottle of either and lasts forever. Otherwise, try using dye or plain water and see what type of results you get. If you like, feel free to post your results when logged into the ILC website; either in the Discussion section or in Work Showcase areas. Looking forward to seeing your results!
Leather Types - Kidskins
By Dan Snyder
Kidskins are a soft, thin leather that is typically made from the skins of goats. They get their name from the use of the skins of young goats or ‘kids’ and are widely used in footwear and clothing manufacturing.
Finished kidskins are available in many different colors and have a very nice gloss finish to them. In addition, they are a great outer lining for bags and wallets.
Boston-based Shrut & Asch Leather has been in business for over 70 years and produces high quality kidskins in a variety of different colors in a classic, glazed finish. Springfield Leather Company has a great selection of these.
Kidskins are easy to work with and are a great choice if you’re looking to add some color to your next project. Finished kidskins typically run $6-7 per square foot and most places only sell by the skin but charge by the square footage. Skins average 4-6 square feet.
Featured Channel & Giveaway
Featured Youtube Channel
Odin Leather Goods
Started in 2012 from their dining room table, Odin and Rachelle have turned a need into a hobby into a family business. In 2022 they opened their 2nd physical store, moved into a larger workshop, and are the fabric of what the leather community is all about.Their YouTube channel features projects, shop tours, and insights into the craft and the business – definitely worth checking out for knowledge and inspiration.
Front Pocket Wallet
In this issue, we have a great front pocket wallet template for you from our friends over at Makesupply Leather Craft. It is in printable PDF format conveniently-sized for 8.5 x 11 paper. They also have a detailed walkthrough page featuring a tools/materials list and walkthrough video demonstrating exactly how to make it. Click here to view that page and other creative designs on their website.
ILC Club News
To Great Beginnings
A Fast-Growing Leather Craft Community
The International Leather Club (ILC) began just last year. It’s incredible to think it’s already 2022, and also unbelievable how much the club has grown in that time with more members joining literally every day. Here are a few highlights:
We’re really excited where things are going! For more, click below to visit the Club.
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