Woodwork to Leatherwork
Rob Exton learns a brand new skill and spends a day with Lois Orford learning how to do leatherwork properly.
British woodlands have always been inextricably linked with the leather tanning industry for thousands of years. The bark and leaves from Oak, Willow, Alder and other vegetation with a high tannin content, going into various magical brews to turn animal hides into leather.
Until the early 1800 these vegetable brews were predominant until the discovery of tanning with chromium salts which is a more industrial process.
With the shorter days and gloomy light of winter I was casting about to find something more appropriate for the dining table rather than my tiny, freezing, garage workshop and picking shaving off the carpet from spoon carving was becoming irksome.
The answer for me was to leave the woodwork outside in the cold and to teach myself leatherwork in the warm.
The basic tool kit for leather work is neither extensive, nor expensive with most tools crossing from my woodwork tool box. The basic needs are:- Marking out tools, pencils, steel straight edge, sharp craft knife, an awl to make holes, two strong needles, linen thread, a lump of beeswax to coat and strengthen the thread and some means of holding the work while you sew.
So with these few tools a couple of books, some internet tutorials and half a cow hide I got started on my new hobby. Mistakes were a plenty and some projects thrown away. A few phone calls were made for advice followed by more trials and more errors. Some progress was made and many gifts were completed for family and friends but there was still something missing – finesse – my work was acceptable but lacked quality. The only answer was to get some good quality training.
Lois Orford is an accomplished greenwood worker who spends much of her summer on the pole lathe in the fields of the family farm on the Herefordshire and Worcestershire border.
During more inclement weather Lois can be found in the loft of the barn workshop which acts as the office and Leather workroom which she shares with husband Ben. The workshop is situated above Bens forge on the ground floor there is a wonderful richness and warmth from this under floor heating which makes for a comfortable day on this frosty January day.
Wanting to go back to basics I challenged Lois to teach me to make a sheath to hold an Opinal no 12 folding saw (good for small work and spoon carving stop cuts) which she had not seen before.
Lois explained that we would be using only veg tanned leather as it is more natural, beneficial to our woodlands and can be wet molded to a shape, which it will retain once dry.
Cutting out and staining.
We started by making a pattern of the desired shape and deciding on some design features which would dictate the structure and when certain elements would be constructed. For example I wanted to have a ‘D’ ring as well as a belt loop so that I could have the choice of wearing it on my belt or hanging it from a belt clip or lanyard.
After marking and cutting out with craft knife or leather scissors we stain the leather with special dye using very light strokes with a loaded wool dauber. It is recommended by some that the leather should be cleaned with a weak Oxalic acid solution and dampen the surface with water to let the stain run smoother.
We bevel the edges of the belt loop and glue it into position using Copydex contact adhesive which is easy to run off if a mistake is made. Be sure to have put on the ‘D’ ring before this as after you have done the sewing it is very annoying if you have forgotten!
After the stain has dried it is possible to make a start on the final finish of the leather by burnishing. Burnishing is compressing the surface of the leather by vigorous rubbing with a smooth hard surface such as the back of a spoon or wooden burnisher. I carved a simply one from a piece of Box wood which is very hard and holds a tight shiny surface. The result is a polished surface to the leather which will take a really good shine, with additional polish, if you want.
The two sides of the sheath are edge glued, folded over to touch, clamped with bulldog clips for a while and then trimmed carefully to the exact finished size. This final trimming ensures that the two parts are exactly aligned for a perfect finish. A pencil mark is run around some 4mm in from the edge and stitch holes are marked out with either an overstitch wheel or a pricking iron. In the absence of either you just need to set holes out evenly at 5-7 holes per inch.
The concept of holding the work in a vice of some kind is so that both hands are free for sewing. The classic saddlers tool for this is the stitching horse which is a steam bent affair held between the legs. At about 3 ft tall this is a chunky piece of kit to keep around and at £75 or so the most expensive item for leatherwork.
A cheaper alternative is a home made stitching pony which is much smaller and easier to store. I made mine from off cuts of skirting board and use a speedclamp to apply the clamping pressure.
I appreciate this may not be for the purists but a further alternative I have been using a lot is a small table top, swivel head vice from Screwfix, which at only £12.99 comes in handy for many other jobs and is really quit small for storage.
I depart from the classic technique, for sake of ease for a first timer, by suggesting it is easiest to create holes in the leather using a diamond awl onto a cork block (from decorating or sanding section of B&Q). This method helps you to keep a straight trajectory through the leather and creating good clean holes both front and back.
The concept behind stitching by hand is that the thread crosses in the middle of the hole and traps each thread. This is achieved by threading a needle to both ends of piece of thread (3-4 times the length of the run) and pushing one through a hole until the thread is equal on each side.
Now starting with the left needle through the hole and pull some, but not all, of the thread through, now take the right needle and pass it through the same hole (being careful not to go through the first thread).
Just after the right needle has appeared on the left side you take the remainder of the left thread and cast it over the right needle thus forming the cross in the hole.
Ok it sound complicated – but once you have done it a few times it becomes it really does become second nature. The alternative is to undertake a running stitch using one needle and going in and out of alternative holes, turning around at the end and coming back.
At the start and finish it is best to back stitch 2 holes or so leaving both of the tails at the back of the job is possible.
A run over with a burnisher or overstitch wheel will flatten and neaten the stitches into a pleasing alignment and shape.
Getting a polished edge to the case really adds to its finished look and is something worth practicing on some scrap. The edges are stained with a dark colour and while still wet rubbed vigorously with a course cloth such as canvas or denim which creates heat and effectively seals the fibres together forming a smooth shiny crust.
A unique characteristic of veg tanned leather is its ability to be wetted and molded to any given shape which it will retain once dry. This means that sheaths for example can be made a friction fit to prevent it bouncing out.
We wrap the tool in cling film to protect it from the wet before wetting the leather 30 seconds or so until a little pliable. The saw is put inside and the leather massaged around its contours giving it a snug home before withdrawing the saw and allowing the sheath to dry. There is a tiny amount of shrinkage upon drying which means in use the tool fits perfectly to its new sheath.
What have I learnt.
Having spent a day with Lois and been taught how to do things properly it was time to see if I had developed my skills and decided to repeat the whole session at home the next day, without the supervision of a superb craftswoman.
Not wanting to make an exact copy I prepared a slightly different pattern but went through every process and step that Lois had taught me.
The results were a delight to me, not only was everything much easier and quicker to accomplish, but the results were at least twice as good as I had managed previously. Every thing was neat, straight and dare I say – more professional looking!
To me it just proves the point that quality training results in a quality product.
There are many finishes that can be applied to leather depending of the use intended, with bear grease, neatsfoot oil, beeswax and shoe polish all being used. It is safe to say however that some care and nourishment will extend the life of the item immeasurably.
I am no expert but have found Carnuba wax to be good, giving a good finish, lustre and flexibility