Brace Yourself: A Beginner’s Adventure into Leather Working.

Leather Working… Leatherworking? Is that one word or two?

Regardless, I promised I would get this post up soon and I finally found a minute to do just that.

((NOTE: This is not a full on tutorial, but there are a number of pictures that could probably help anyone who is also a beginner in working with leather. ))

Being constantly drawn to medieval style things – swords, chain mail and leather most prominently – there have been a list of related things that I’ve been wanting to do.

I finally bought a sword at the Ren Fest this year!  – Who knows, someday I just may get crazy and build a forge in the yard and attempt to make my own sword. There’s a sword that is carried by the main character of my book that I would love to design and create on my own, but that’s a whole other set of skills to learn.

I have actually played around with making chain mail in the past. For some reason, though it can be difficult to start, once you’ve got the logistics of the pattern down, I actually find it quite relaxing to make. I’m actually bound and determined to make a full mail shirt one day, hopefully for Ren Fest next year if I’m lucky.

And then there’s leather. I’ll admit that I actually used to hate the smell of leather. However, for some reason that’s changed over the past year or so and I now seem to love it. Not only that, but I’ve recently developed the urge to get into leather working.

Probably one of the main reasons is that you see it featured so prominently at places like the Ren Fest, where people use it for pretty much everything from shoes to armor, bags and pouches, bracelets and even using it to tie hair back. And then there’s the clothing! It’s just such a versatile material. One of those things where your creativity and skill level is the only thing that determines just what the limits are of what you can do with it.

So, naturally, being my artistic self, I’ve been dying to start playing around.

I think this may have actually started last year when we went to the Ren Fest and one of my friends purchased a bag of leather scraps from one of the shoppes selling leather goods. Of everything that I bought myself, my creative mind has scolded me ever since that moment for not buying a bag myself. I’m already a collector of random fabrics, though I hardly ever know what I’m going to do with it and have yet to teach myself to sew.

Regardless, I had bought a small leather pouch at the same store and I think looking at that sitting on my desk kept the thought of getting into leather working in my head. I eventually looked at Michaels to see if they sold leather tools (it’s a sad little section, truth be told, but they carry the basics) and found myself buying a small bag of heavy tooling leather and laces. The bag sat untouched in my room for months until I finally pulled it out just this past month to finally see what I could do with it.

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Pictured above is a small collage of the leather bracer I finally ended up making.

Never having done a thing with leather before, I naturally searched online for ideas on how to go about it. I remember sitting down at Joanne’s once before searching through their Halloween costume patterns and running across a pattern set that included bracers, greaves and a pouch. Yet, I haven’t been able to find it since. Nor could I find a relative pattern for a simple bracer online – so, maybe I didn’t do any real extensive searching… So, I sat down and created my own baseline pattern. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a pattern similar to mine, but I ended up liking it and it fits quite comfortably once done. And, since I’m terrible at keeping anything simple, I sketched out a semi-complicated design related to my book to eventually burn onto the surface of my leather using my wood burner.

This is my original design as well as the very first piece of leather that I cut out:

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As you can see, the leather is rather crudely cut here. I have never cut leather before and wound up discovering that a good sharp exacto knife works great – if you have the right amount of pressure behind it and you can cut in nice lines. The second one turned out much better and turned out to be my final. This green one still has life though and I ended up punching the holes for the laces, giving it a simple beveled line around the whole thing and lacing it with a nice black leather lace. It’s super simple for me but still looks nice and serves its purpose and I now use it for my archery practice in the yard to keep from skinning/bruising my arm with the bowstring.

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So, I apparently I did take a picture of the green bracer. This is the ‘finished’ product for that one and how it remains. It was a first attempt and a rather adequate one if you ask me. Not bad for just starting.

Now, the second bracer attempt was both simpler and more complicated at the same time:

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Because I’m a stickler for details I went ahead and cut this one out in the same self-created pattern as the first then pretty much attacked it with sandpaper. These pieces are truly scrap pieces and none of what I had to work with in the bag I purchased were overly pretty. As you can see there are marks in some of the leather where it was hung to I assume dry. That remains in the final piece, but with everything that I did to it, it’s hardly as noticeable. Also, the back of the leather pieces were rather rough so I spent a good chunk of time sanding it down to a much smoother finish so that the grain of the leather would be more comfortable against my skin while wearing it. I also used the sandpaper to rough up the edges on the front of the piece just because I thought it looked cool.

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I spent a good few hours of two different days performing the monotonous task of punching tiny holes all the way around the piece for lacing. It serves no purpose other than that it looks cool on the finished product. As you can see, I purchased a rotary punch, which made things much easier. Unfortunately (and I don’t know if this is because it was a rather cheap punch from Michaels or just because I have pretty much NO strength in my hands) I can’t seem to use it for anything beyond the tiny holes. I used a different punch with a rubber mallet to punch the holes for the other laces.

Once that was finished and my hand uncramped it was time to start on the complex design I had dreamt up:

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This was a scrap piece of leather that I used to play around with my design and to get used to the wood burner. As you can see, the grip on the burner where you can hold it is quite some distance from the actual burning tip, which was really hard on me because when I draw my fingertip is always right at the tip of the pencil. There was definitely a learning curve to it.

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Moving onwards, I ended up altering my intended design just a bit, realizing that the intricacies of my general snake in the moon design would have been a little difficult. Also, this is where I was happy to find that I wouldn’t have to completely freehand this design as I discovered that I could trace the design on the paper laid on top of the leather with my awl and that it would very lightly transfer. This was a big relief. (You can also see in this picture – in the center – the small metal punch that I used to punch the bigger holes and which also sliced up my thumb. The next time I use those punches I shall wear leather gloves.)

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The snake – being the main focal point – was the first order of business and turned out fairly well. However, it was the tiny symbols and the runic writing that worried me the most.

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Yet, I was remarkably successful in their execution. The runic writing didn’t end up with that awkward slant or the ‘letters’ growing larger as they went that I generally get with my writing. And the symbols, being of my own creation, are something that I’m exceedingly picky about, but they also turned out great.

Because this still looked rather plain and not entirely cohesive, I added shading with a different tip on the burner:

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This not only seemed to add a nice aged effect to it but also seemed to bring the whole design together. The final step was adding the decorative lacing:

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I waited to do this last so that I didn’t accidentally melt the laces as it’s wax coated cotton string.

Overall, I’m very happy with how this turned out. I may have cut up my thumb more than once, accumulated a few blisters and nearly burned myself a few times, but I can’t wait to continue learning this art. Leather working is something that I’m definitely going to continue with and I’ve already got a number of new projects swirling around in my head.

I was even more excited about this – not just because I made it myself – but also because I discovered that something of similar fashion and size down at the Ren Fest runs about $30. Mine was much cheaper, and not only do I have something cool, but I have a final product that is of my own creation and has ties to my book.

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Design Meaning

Almost forgot to address my design as promised. Because this post is already so long, I’ll just quickly go over the main components.

The winged snake is a prominent design in my book.

The four symbols are ‘runes’ of my own creation, also for my book. Reading from top left, bottom left, top right, bottom right, they effectively say: “Infinite protection against danger and manipulation”

The runic writing is not mine but are the runes from the Eldar Futhark from nordic culture. They read: “Death and Shadows” which is a phrase from my book.