An Introduction to Leather Working

Canoe

Have you ever thought of making something with leather yet quickly dismiss the notion because it seemed too intimidating? Where the heck can I buy leather? What should I look for before purchasing? How do I treat it? Well, today I hope to bring you some answers to all those questions and more...
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...all courtesy of a great Girls Guild workshop, I attended in Marfa, with artist Natalie Davis from Canoe.

Let's first get to the introductions, Natalie is the mind and soul behind modern leather goods shop Canoe. She not only designs and handcrafts each of her products, but she also educates in the art as well. In this tooling workshop she showed us how to design, tool, and dye a leather keychain that fits right into the West Texas environment it was crafted in.

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1. Picking the right leather Natalie laid out a large sample of leathers and explained the different types of skins (cow, lamb, and deer) as we touched and pulled them with our hands. She pointed out the importance of flexing the leather at different points to feel for any weak points — parts that subtly buckle or bubble in contrast to the rest of the material. These points are where your leather good will eventually break or crack. So try to acquire pieces that don't have these deficiencies. She recommended shopping for leather pieces at Tandy Leather which has several locations across the US.

2. Cut or Stamp Leather
If you're just doing a one-off project then you can cut out your leather carefully with a sharp leather craft knife or shears. However, if you plan on making multiple items then you can look into getting a dedicated die cutter to stamp out your creations.

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3. Prep and Tool with a Sample Natalie provided each of us with some sample leather, a cutting board, a sponge, and a mallet. We laid out our leather pieces on the cutting board and wet it with a slightly damp sponge. This process softens the leather so that it can better take on the patterns from tooling. Natalie let us experiment with her personal set of irons and stamps to get a feel for the process. To tool you simply stand up the stamp (or iron) and hammer firmly with a mallet to make an impression. It's like hammering in a nail, except with more intricate results.
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4. Tool your Final Design Experimenting with the different stamps was in a way therapeutic — everyone seemingly experiencing a few personal moments of zen. Even under the bright Marfa sun, we could have tooled away for hours. Natalie handed out some pre-stamped leather pieces we would use for our final design. So we prepped the leather as before and retreated right back to our artistic state of consciousness — creating our own personal piece on a relatively thick piece of cowhide that was surprisingly easy to work with.
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5. Dye Leather Natalie had a few varying shades of brown colored dye to work with. We simply loaded up a dauber with the dye and then applied to both sides of the leather — it soaked it right up. Try multiple coats for a darker, layered look. Or even try mixing dies of different shades. I lined my leather piece with a darker dye around the edges to created a burnished effect.
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6. Air Dry We set out our leather pieces on a vinyl fabric to air dry for about 15-20 minutes. If you happen to be trying this indoors or in non-Texas heat, you may want to allow the leather to dry for twice as long.
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7. Rivet The finishing touch on our leather keychain would be to press in a rivet that would secure our leather to a metal clasp. Natalie provided us with her own fire-red rivet press to ensure a clean and professional look. You simply fold the leather piece over the clasp and then set the rivet in place over the leather. Press down firmly and Voila! your very own handmade keychain that will age gracefully. If you're trying this at home you can start out inexpensively by using some handheld rivet pliers. Just use extra caution and be sure to practice a few times before trying on your final piece. They can be a bit touchy.

8. Oil
After a couple weeks you'll want to preserve your creation with some leather oil compound to preserve its color and protect it from the elements.

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If you're interested in seeing some of this action with your own eyes Natalie is doing a live demo of these tooling techniques today at West Elm in Austin. This meet-the-makers party kicks off the Feliz event — a handmade craft fair featuring artists and makers from across the country. Join in on the festivities this weekend.
Meet The Makers of Feliz • Friday, November 2, 6-8pm • West Elm Austin, 5th & Lamar
Feliz Holiday Sale • Sunday, November 4th, 12-6pm • Palm Door, 401 Sabine St.

(Images: Chris Perez)

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