The process of turning animal hides, or rawhide, into leather is a mysterious process to many of us. One of the simplest tasks in preparing leather, and also one of the last, is called tooling. Tooled leather involves using tools to change the surface of leather items so that they can be more appealing to consumers.
Leather tooling serves primarily a decorative function. The designs created on the leather can add texture, depth and color to the otherwise smooth monotone of the leather. Tooling can also improve the durability of the leather as lacing or stitching along the edges strengthens them to resist fraying. And some tooling is designed to change the shape of the leather by molding it on a form or cutting it.
The earliest recorded use of leather was found in Egypt, dating back to 1300 B.C., though use by the Sumerians may predate it. Many cultures around the world wore and used leather; the Chinese, Romans and North American Indians were some of the first. The first innovation was tanning, which helped to keep the leather from decaying and made it soft enough to imprint and carve with designs. The process was probably first developed by the ancient Hebrews; it involves extracting tannin from tree bark to remove the moisture and change the proteins of the animal hide.
Tooling leather can be done by hand or machine. Leather may be stamped using a metal form pounded into the leather with a mallet. Leather may be carved using a stylus to lightly scratch the design into the surface and then using a rotating knife to cut deeper into the leather. Leather may be burnished, which uses a hot metal-tipped tool to burn the surface of the leather in decorative shapes. A hole punch is sometimes used to cut all the way through the leather. Some artisans will use dyes and paints to color the surface of the leather. And the leather may be stitched with thread or laced with long, thin strips of leather.
You can find tooled leather in a variety of products. Many guitar straps are made of tooled leather. Some of the fancier and more expensive belts, shoes, handbags and wallets may sport carved, stamped or burnished leather. Even furniture and jewelry uses tooled leather on occasion. Motorcycle and bicycle seats may be decorated with tooled leather. And much Western gear, including saddles, chaps and holsters, features tooled leather.
As with many products, the more work that goes into something, the more expensive it is. You may pay up to twice as much for leather products with machine tooling, and three or four times as much for hand-tooled leather. It is important to check the workmanship carefully before you buy something that claims to be hand-tooled leather. Hand-tooled leather is more likely to have small, irregular flaws and will often include the name of the artist stamped somewhere.