Teaching myself a bit of leather tooling

I’ve been fighting some pretty hard project paralysis for a while. In the run up to the beta for Pro Passthrough I wanted to give myself a nice challenging and large leather project. I also didn’t want to throw a nice expensive piece of leather at software that early in beta. So, I waited for a sale to roll around and picked up a $40 “C-grade” 7-8 oz double shoulder on the theory that, worst case, it wasn’t a big loss.

All in all, it’s a decent piece of leather, minus some surface imperfections and a blemish or two along the edge. For a sense of scale, that’s a 48 inch by 24 inch craft table… which meant that I had plenty of leather to do something interesting with… if I could just figure out what interesting thing to do with it.

The design paralysis set in pretty hard. I figured “messenger bag… this really should be a bag that takes advantage of a nice large single piece of material…” but then I got lost in a bunch of decisions. Size it for my work issued laptop? Something bigger? Pockets? Somehow, I bought something cheap so if I screwed up, it was no big deal… and then left myself second guessing everything since once I cut into it… well, then you’ve cut into it!

In the end, I had to cut off a long strip at one edge to get it down to Passthrough width anyway, so I designed a bag around the size of gusset I could get out of the off cut.

Right, so that’s as far as that design ever went. Lots of things can be recovered… losing power mid project is very much not one of them. Re-enter the project paralysis. I could just cut that piece out of the larger bit of leather… I could still make that bag. But… I had something bigger planned, didn’t I?

So, what to do with the smaller remnant? Why not take it as an excuse to finally learn how to tool things? But what? Grrr… project paralysis. (In fairness, between March when my passthrough project failed and May when I got going again, there was a lot going on…)

When I finally got going again, I figured I’d do something small with bits of scrap :proofgrade: leather that I had lying around. That and some scrap acrylic. Simple pouch? Easy border? Something to get used to having a swivel knife in my hand…

So it started here:

Did I mention that I went digging deep into my scrap bin? Some of which is in less than great shape. But, a little work with a swivel knife and a bordering tool and I had a lesson in how easy this isn’t:

That’s okay! That’s why we have scrap bins! Still, it almost felt like a shame to use the good hardware next to my horrible tooling…

Yeah… just a little chewed up there… But in the end, it wasn’t a bad little pouch.

So… back to the big piece of leather, right? No. More time in the scrap bin, this time to see what I could do with a texture stamp. I didn’t want to stamp anything large, so… quick card wallet design!

That’s… not as easy as it looks either. Also, that stamp is one of many that you can get in a cheap $20 collection of 20 tooling stamps on Amazon or in your local leather shop. You can do amazing things with cheap tools… but having played with the cheap set… you can also save yourself a lot of frustration with good tools (more there later.)

Oh, and the wallet? Not horrible… but not great either. Still, it was an opportunity to practice border painting and that came in handy.

What I wanted to do though, was something that had a scale patterned look to it, and I didn’t have a stamp for that. But I have a Glowforge! So I designed a quick texture plate, and figured I’d see what I could get out of a set of wood clamps and a granite slab to press against.

Scrap bins are wonderful. Even little random bits become useful for testing dye or paint or techniques like this. But it still wasn’t really the result I was looking for. So, I bit the bullet and ordered new tools. If you already do leather work, you probably know where this is heading and how hard it can be to wait patiently for things to reach Seattle from Bulgaria… And if you didn’t know where this was headed, I want to highly encourage you to pay Sergey Neskromniy’s Etsy Shop a visit.

Not horribly long after, I had some new treats to work with…

And the results from those?

Okay, so I’m not doing any basket weave projects any time soon! But the scales were friendly and approachable so I figured… basic pouch, take two! This time on the heavier leather, on the theory that it would take an impression better.

The only real problem with this was that I wanted to pattern both the front and the back, but the back panel and the top flap are one piece and I’d need to change directions at some point. More tooling and some very careful painting with dye later and I had this:

Which eventually turned into this handsome little dice pouch:

Lesson learned here: Fancy bag needs a better strap, but also, all that hammering, one scale at a time, really paid off! That bag took most of the end bit I’d cut off the large double shoulder, but I had enough scrap lying around to do some practice… like figuring out that basket weave stamp:

Still not pretty, but progress! And, since I was tooling on scrap, I figured now was as good a time as any to practice a few dying / painting techniques, including hauling out the glitter paints to see what things would look like with glitter paint on the tooling.

Cool, looks like a right mess! This is why we do testing on scrap. But it did set me up for a quick project designed entirely with creative tools for a lunch session on leather working. Quick easy pendant:

And then, more testing… Remember how I wasn’t happy with the strap on my 2nd pouch?

You tell me… the one on the right? Or the one on the left?

Right then, enough testing, enough practice… time to make something really genuinely every day useful! That thing I bought the large piece of leather for in the first place… time for a messenger bag! Right?

No. If I’ve learned anything so far on this journey it’s that practice is really, really important. So, bigger project, yes, but nothing that huge yet. Let’s try a really reasonable sized purse.

I started with the back panel on this purse for a reason, namely, I felt like if (when) I screwed up, it wouldn’t be as big of a deal. And… screw up I did. The back panel was less about learning how to manage the pattern… In theory, I knew that. It was about learning how to handle mistakes, misalignments and still keep going without the whole thing turning into a mess of cumulative off by a hair errors.

All told, the tooling alone was somewhere between 3 and 4 hours.

The result though…

Even the back doesn’t look too rough:

I considered tooling the gusset but in the end I decided against it and I’m kind of glad I did (not just because it saved me another hour of work!)

So, what now? Now I’m sketching on a satchel. I’m debating about the basket weave stamp or the cushion looking one. We’ll see. It’s really been a lot about working my way up to bigger things.

I’ll say this though, for anyone who has gotten to the end of this long (and rambling) post.

  • Your scrap bin is your best friend when learning a new skill. Whether it’s testing things on scrap or designing mini-projects to practice on… pieces that are too small to do anything “useful” with can often be useful for testing or trying something on. Also, to the spouses of the scrap hounds reading this, I’m sorry for encouraging them, but really, you can’t have that corner of the garage back, I promise, all the scrap piling up is useful! :wink:
  • Good tools make a world of difference. At the same time, you can do a TON with a very small number of tools, so don’t hesitate to pick things up one or two at a time and grow your collection. One or two good stamps will open up a lot for your leather working :slight_smile:
  • Not everything needs to be a project. Practicing on scrap before touching a real project helped me a ton! It’s nice to have a small project like a card wallet some times but even if it’s just a 2" wide wonky shaped strip of scrap, it can be useful to spend a few minutes honing your craft on.

Happy crafting everyone :slight_smile:


Thank you for the really detailed write-up. I’m a leather newbie and I so want to do some leather stuff on my GF, but I keep backing off 'cos I know nothing, but seeing all your work makes me realise doing it is more important than worrying about it.

Love your bags, they look really smart.


Ohhhh, gorgeous! I actually really like the leather stamp you made. The tooling is amazing! I suspect that if it was challenging for a leather pro like you, I’d better stay away from it (for now).


Wow and thank you.


Excellent write-up! Thanks for sharing all your learnings along the way (and the finished projects are fantastic!)
Sometimes (ok, many times) it’s hard to slow down and put in the time needed to practice a skill before moving on, but in the end it’s definitely worth it!


What a nice photo-essay of your projects and progress…very inspiring! (I don’t feel so bad about my recent leather hole-alignment fiasco, and am realizing it may be useful for practicing something on!)


Great write-up of your learning curve. Way to power through the project paralysis, you emerged with wonderful items that document that journey! :sunglasses:


At the time I said in my head ‘the left!’ But when I saw you finished it with the right - it really looks better - good choice!
Always look forward to reading your creative journey (no matter how frustrating). So often it mirrors our own. I too was too hesitant to use that expensive blue piece of leather from China, so practiced on proofgrade for my purse. And now, I have my perfect purse, no place to go, and a still unused piece of blue leather…
Love your exploration in leather tooling that’s for sure!


I have some leather rolled up in my office closet waiting to be turned into something amazing. Thank you for the tips and inspiration to get off my duff and get busy.


It’s all your fault that I started buying leather and Tony See’s patterns, and this is not helping my addiction in the least! :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:


Yeah… Tony’s patterns are dangerous. Could be worse though, you could have gotten into Prince Armory patterns :wink: I’m trying to work up the courage to try this one…

I think I need to do Tony’s Wizard Hat first though… it’s been sitting in my library for MONTHS! Besides, I think a Wizard hat will go well on all the zoom calls I find myself on these days :wink:


Really nice work and excellent write up. Thank you for sharing.


Totally agree on the wizard hat! That’s a cool breastplate, but it doesn’t look like I’ll be getting into Prince Armory patterns – they apparently don’t know about vestibular disorders and dizzy-making moving backgrounds. I’m guessing that will save me some money. :wink:


Thanks for sharing & glad you kept at it, as you created some great pouches/bags.

I’ve not done too much tooling work myself, but it can be easier if you dampen the leather first…

And unless it’s a one-time job, it’s worth getting the best tools you can afford!

And when I started my leather work >12 years ago, I dug through the scrap bins one of the leather stores near me has–only after getting confident with my technique and understanding terms for leather was I confident to start buying sides… but I usually work with 5-6oz oil tanned & dyed leathers–and machine sew. And always find a use for scraps–whether it be for testing, or something else, but I when I can’t see my floor any more, I know it’s time to sort, and Ive started filling boxes for pieces to sell (vs. what I want to hang onto)…


Your write-ups are always great. Nice to hear about your journey and decisions.


That looks awesome.

With all of your leather endeavors I’d have thought you were an expert at tooling already. :smiley:


Wait. You really jumped past that “Make a texture plate… I have a Glowforge!” step, quickly; how did you make that texture plate?!



Oh, sure. Super straight forward:

Step 1 - Make a basic shape in illustrator - here’s a simple little scale shape, arc tool twice, line tool once, group (CTRL +G) and join (CTRL +J)


Step 2 - No Stroke, Gradient Fill (-90 degree gradient)

Step 3 - make lots of them. This scale is 0.2 inches wide so I’ll go to Object > Transform > Move, say 0.2 inches horizontal, and then click the button for “Make a copy.” After that, mash on CTRL+D a bunch to get a row of scales. Now you have this:

Step 4, we’ll make our lives easy and group those, and then move them. Since a scale is 0.2 inches wide and in this case, 0.3 inches tall, we want our new copy to be offset to overlap, so we’ll move it horizontally by 0.1 inches and vertically by 0.15 inches.

Step 5 - The last step gave us something that doesn’t overlap the way we really want it to, so, Object > Arrange > Send Backward. Now it looks better.

Step 6 - Repeat until you have enough of these to meet the size you need.

Next step, rasterize and draw an appropriate sized cut line around it.

Step 7 - Deep 3D engrave. You may need to play with settings, number of passes, etc, to get enough depth for good impressions.

It might look like a bunch of steps, but really, for basic shapes and textures, you can cook one of these up in about 5 minutes (printing time is another matter!)


So a gradient engrave will “control” depth off engrave? I did NOT KNOW THAT! SO cool…

One more bonus trick using acrylic (or anything really) for some leather tooling. The app now has a really nice library of shapes that you can drop in basically instantly, and then size / scale those things relative to your design. That makes it easy to give yourself something to trace onto your leather for carving.

I just finished this one, starting by cutting out a basic unicorn shape from the app, using a stitching needle to trace the outline onto my leather, then carving…

After that, some more tooling to get it to this point…

And then a little dye + leather paint applied with a nail art tool (I raided my wife’s tools, but only after she said it was okay!)

And now, after 3 years, I have a replacement for the wallet I made in my first month at Glowforge using one of the catalog designs.

I know lots of people in leather working don’t like to laser cut or laser engrave leather… Some people feel like it makes things somehow less ‘hand made.’ I keep coming back to things like this. A laser in a leather worker’s shop can do so much more than just cut or engrave the leather directly!