How to Engrave on Leather


You have seen tooled leather on antique Bibles, high-quality desk sets, western belts and boots, and motorcycle gear. Engraving requires a pattern and a few specialty pieces of equipment, readily available from leather craft retailers, or often in sewing and art-supply stores. This skill requires practice; master a simple pattern on a small item before you move up to bigger pieces.

Things You'll Need

  • Vegetable-tanned Cowhide
  • Swivel Knife
  • Clean Sponge or Gauze
  • Water
  • Cardboard
  • Rubber Cement
  • Pattern
  • Ball-point Stylus
  • Oil Stone
  • Leather Strop
  • Mallet
  • Stamps
  • Consider buying a starter kit, from a retailer like Hidecrafters or Tandy (see Resources 1 and 2). A starter kit is the most economical way to obtain all the tools you need, at perhaps a 30-percent savings over buying them piecemeal.

  • Select a pattern. All of the leather retailers, and several leather crafters, offer free patterns online (see Resources 1 and 2). If you purchased a starter kit, it likely came with patterns---for example, for a western wallet, a belt, a flower or bookmark. These small and fairly non-complex first patterns are perfect for training and require the most basic stamps.

  • Cut your leather according to your pattern. The leather must be vegetable-tanned cowhide, which is light and uniform in color, and with no dyes or colors added. Chromium-dyed leather (typically used in shoes and furniture) or dyed leather is unsuitable for tooling. You may stain or paint your item later.

  • Apply a very light layer of rubber cement to the back of your leather---you do not wish to glue it to your cardboard, you simply want it to stick without sliding, and be able to remove it later (like a Post-It Note).

  • "Case" your leather. Use very clean, clear water, and a sponge or gauze, to dampen the leather lightly and evenly. Do not blot or spot with the water. Allow the water to dry just until the leather appears dry and is cool to the touch. You will case your leather a few times during your project; change the water between casings.

  • Lay your pattern on top of the leather. Using your ball-point stylus, trace firmly over the lines of your pattern. Remove the pattern, and you should see your pattern embossed in dark lines on the leather.

  • Sharpen your swivel knife, which is a specialized blade that turns in your fingers. Holding the knife perfectly vertical, carve over the lines of your pattern, swiveling to make the curves. Go no deeper than half the depth of the leather.

  • Sharpen your blade, and case the leather anew, if the blade drags at all; it should cut with the ease of a scalpel.

  • Select the stamps to finish your project. Stamps are stainless steel, and, like paint colors, create a particular effect. A beginner's stamp kit typically includes a beveling stamp (which sinks the leather on one side of a cut to give it depth), a camouflage stamp (which looks something like snake skin), a pear shader (which deepens impressions on the leather).

  • Case your leather afresh, and using your mallet, tap repeatedly with your stamps according to your pattern. A mallet is not a hammer, and a stamp is not a nail; you wish to tap the stamp once in a given place, and lightly. The finished work will look three-dimensional, much like the face on a coin.

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  • "Leatherwork Manual"; Al Stohlman; 1984
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