Its first use lost in history, perfectly preserved leather items have been unearthed from 3,000-year-old Egyptian tombs, are mentioned in the Bible and ancient literature and are highly valued in most civilizations. Its origins likewise lost in history, the art of leather tooling has been enjoyed for centuries.
Legend maintains that Spanish Moors decorated their homes with hand-carved leather, probably the first recorded use of tooled leather. Dr. Maddox describes these decorations as a variation of wallpaper, possibly displaying various patterns, family names, crests or coat of arms in his book "Historical Carvings in Leather."
Among the first guilds established during medieval times, leather workers eventually controlled eleven of the 111 recognized trades in London. In France, Charles the Sage established the Fraternity of Leather Workers in 1397. In England, the Saddlers and Skinners Guild built its guild hall in 1422. Richard Hukluyt, an English leather dyer, researched the Persian art of carving flowers into leather in 1579.
During the time of the Aztecs, artisans tooled leather items as well as carved similar patterns in stone. Maddox states that they probably performed “set stamp work,” in which the leatherworker first carves a design into an instrument and then hammers the instrument—and transferring the design—into the leather with a wooden mallet. Many modern raised-flower designs can be traced back to Aztec patterns.
1800s to Early 1900s
Leather tooling became popular among cowboys and ranchers of the “Wild West” for its ornamentation and expression of personal style. Elaborately tooled saddles helped express pride in their owners’ horsemanship and identified individual possessions among cowboys with no horses of their own. Chaps—especially bat wing chaps, with wide wings buckled to the leg only at the knee—provided large surface areas for tooling, overlays and inlayed leather patterns. Cuffs, originally created to protect shirt sleeves and wrists from harm, became a fashion statement when worn by rodeo riders.
Because of its thickness and quality of fibers, crafters of leather tooling use only tanned cattle hides. These hides may be split—or cut horizontally—several times, producing more useable leather for a variety of commercial uses. Leather tooling crafters also use only full-grain leather, which has had the hair removed but retains its grain or epidermis. They require the finest leather, which covers the choicest beef cuts.
Tanning leather removes its hair; increases its strength, softness and pliability; and helps make it waterproof. Although several tanning processes exist, leather to be used for tooling must be tanned using vegetable materials such as bark, leaves, nuts and woods containing tannin. Examples of these materials include hemlock, oak, chestnut and quebracho or the iron tree. Traditionally originated by the Biblical Hebrews, historic vegetable tanning took up to two years to prepare a thick cowhide.
Throughout history, crafters used dyes to accent their tooled leather. Before the mid-1800s, they created all dyes from vegetable matter; since that time they have used products produced by coal-tar or petroleum. The porous nature of leather allows the dyes to soak into the grain and retain their color for many years.