Because all my video game characters dress better than me
May 10, 2011 1:37 PM   Subscribe

I want to take up leatherworking. Where do I start?

Really, I want to make myself a kickass, painstakingly-crafted (and yes, utterly pointless) suit of leather armor. I have never worked with leather before in any fashion.

So, assuming I'm prepared for this to take a long time and cost a bunch in wasted materials as I learn, what sort of internet resources are out there? I'm looking more for nuts-and-bolts stuff than patterns - techniques, material and tool recommendations, that sort of thing. If anyone has personal experience, I'd be delighted to hear that, too.

(Yes, I promise to post pics if I pull it off!)
posted by restless_nomad to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (11 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
There's a store called Tandy Leather who has all kinds of leather stuff. The people who work there are usually really nice and are happy to help somebody get started. They mostly deal with leather stamping, but they have all the resources for cutting, sewing, and dying leather too.
posted by TooFewShoes at 2:08 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The folks and hardware (that is, parts) available at Tandy are usually great. You'll also be able to find leather scraps, even of the sort of really heavy leather you'd want for armor. Plenty of raw material to practice on. However, I would caution against buying Tandy's tools. My experience is that they're cheaply made and overpriced, even the high-end Al Stohlman line. (That's my personal opinion, but I worked professionally as a leatherworker for one year and 5 years prior to that making hand tools for woodworkers.)

Tools made by C.S.Osborne are much nicer to use in the long-term (even though they don't always look as sexy) and are often less expensive. The manufacturer doesn't sell direct, but some are available on Amazon, and a Google search will turn up some other small retailers with a larger selection.

For making armor you may end up doing some sewing but you're definitely going to do a lot of riveting. The hole punching tools that look like a pair of pliers with a wheel of different sized punches attached are nice for repeated holes close to the edge, and we used them a lot for production where I used to work. However, since you're doing something particularly unusual, you should at least consider getting the type of punches that are driven into the leather with a hammer. Osborne makes one type that still allows you to exchange (and replace) tips, and I love mine.

Get a plastic (not rubber) mallet for driving punches and setting rivets. One thing you CAN get at Tandy is a little baby iron anvil. Having one of those will make the process of setting rivets a lot more enjoyable. Since you can also buy rivets at Tandy, you might as well get their matching rivet setting tools to start out. That should help you keep things simple at the outset.

Try and make yourself a workspace if you have room. You'll want a sturdy table and good light. Ideally, the tabletop will have some sort of cutting board so that you can cut leather with a utility knife. Speaking of which, a knife which bends down toward the work will make you much happier when you set out to cut a bunch of leather. Tandy sells a model with a black handle and a yellow cap on the back end which works PRETTY well (though it wears out in sort of scary ways). I just discovered this model and am absolutely going to get one.

I can rattle on all afternoon about this, but should get back to work. Feel free to contact me if you have additional questions!
posted by qbject at 2:46 PM on May 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I am not a professional leather worker - but I was an apprentice to one for almost a year. This is not undoable but man is it going to cost you.

First - get thee to a real hide shop. I could point you to a few in the bay area - but it looks like you're in texas. Find one in your area and go there. In person. Look at/ touch the different leathers. There are weights for hides - they are given in ounces. It is generally an abstraction for how thick the hide is. "Garment weight" leathers are going to be easier to sew but definitely won't ever be confused for armor. I've never been into a hide shop that was "busy". Almost all of them have friendly folks who have the time and are inclined to help you with your project.

For awesome hand craftedness, you're going to have to learn the saddle stitch. It looks very easy, getting it right though is very hard. Buy a lot of scrap when you are at the hide shop to practice. There is a booklet called "The art of Hand Sewing Leather" which is a good intro to this. I have a great book that goes through tools and workshop setup but I can't find it online. This looked closest. If you have a heavy duty sewing machine, this will help. Seams that take the most stress are worth doing by hand. For decorative stitching, there is not shame in using a machine, if you have one that can take it.

I hadn't considered riveting. I've never made armor! qbject has good advice there. The shop I worked in had a table mounted riveter/punch. It was really easy to use.

I hope you like the smell of rubber cement. Two pieces of leather can't be pinned together for sewing. They are glued and then you sew over the glue. This needs to be cleaned up at the edges, then depending on how you want your suit finished, your edges need to treated (or not). Start looking at leather goods in the store - Edges are sometimes raw, sometimes dyed and or sealed or hidden by seaming. Decide what kind of look you want before you start - it will determine the direction of your pattern.

The only things I ever got through were wallets and other small leather goods. I'm a crafting generalist but found leather work to be some of the most rewarding stuff I've done. I've made a lot of things, but the ones of which I'm most proud are the things I made in the shop.

Feel free to memail. Happy to help.
posted by Wolfie at 2:53 PM on May 10, 2011

Oh oh! Wolfie reminded me of the coolest secret I got from my professional leatherwork experience. "Barge" cement is a common method of tacking pieces together before sewing, but it's even MORE noxious than ordinary rubber cement. There is a better way!

3M makes this bad boy for picture framers. It dispenses double-sided tape that's almost as thin as cling wrap but is super-sticky, dispenses easily, and is just awesome for holding leather together. Again, pricey, but I can't recommend it enough if and when you get serious about all this.
posted by qbject at 3:13 PM on May 10, 2011

You might want to join FetLife (nsfw) even if BDSM is not your cup of tea, because there are a LOT of people who do leather work in the --- surprise! --- leather community. The forums for making stuff are really good.
posted by desjardins at 5:04 PM on May 10, 2011

Tom Banwell's blog could be a good resource. He tends to make a lot of elaborate headwear (hats, steampunk gas masks, etc) and he posts a lot of detailed info on how he patterns, prototypes, and constructs them.
posted by polymath at 5:06 PM on May 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: You guys are the best. Not only is there a Tandy Leather in Austin (that I've driven past hundreds of times without ever noticing) but it's right next to a fabric hobby shop where I could pick up some cheap muslin to start working out my pattern. This may actually happen!
posted by restless_nomad at 9:01 AM on May 11, 2011

Check out the International Internet Leathercrafters' Guild. They have a ton of resources and can also likely put you in contact with a local leathercrafter's organization if there is one.
posted by galadriel at 12:49 PM on May 11, 2011

My sweet and talented non-MeFite boyfriend would like to add this:
What you're looking to make is fairly advanced if you've never done
leather working, and can still be complicated even if you have.
Therefore, be prepared to make some mistakes and not get discouraged
or give up. The previously mentioned "The Leatherworking Handbook" is
an excellent resource and it's what got me started in this craft. 12
years later I'm still referring to it. Also, the folks at Tandy
Leather in Austin are very helpful and are happy to answer questions
and share some of their experience. The store also has classes on a
regular basis and they are invaluable for getting some hands-on
experience. They are usually on Saturday mornings and the classes
vary, so it's best to call ahead of time to check the schedule.

Once you've got some tools and some experience with sewing, riveting,
etc., you'll eventually need to figure out a pattern. The Internet is
your friend - there's plenty of information about leather armor out
there, both from the historical perspective and from the re-enactment
folks who are working with projects similar to this one. Don't forget
your local library either!

You'll want to avoid wasting expensive leather, so my advice is to
make the pattern in stiff paper or card stock first. That way you can
check the fit, see how it moves, etc., before committing to the more
expensive material. If you were planning on using rivets, you can use
brad fasteners in the paper version. I wouldn't glue the paper at this
point, because you'll need to keep all the pattern pieces separate to
transfer to the leather later. Then, if you haven't distorted the
paper during this process, it's a snap to lay all the paper pieces on
the hide to utilize as much of the leather as possible, trace around
them and start cutting out the pattern.

Take lots and lots of photos! If you post them online somewhere then
you can refer to them if you end up with more questions, and other
people can see more clearly where you might be stuck. Good luck with
posted by fiercecupcake at 4:12 PM on May 11, 2011

Way way belated, but a non-mefite friend who has been making her own leather armor sent me these links when I showed her your question.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:18 PM on August 27, 2011

Response by poster: Sweet! Thanks!
posted by restless_nomad at 2:19 PM on August 27, 2011

« Older "Gift" to a Catholic Church?   |   Please recommend a good psychiatrist in Sillycon... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.