PART 1: The Basics of Leathercraft

I first dipped my toe into leathercraft about three years ago but found it a little overwhelming as to where to start. I pieced scraps of information together but it was like a jigsaw puzzle missing half its pieces. I made a lot of mistakes and felt frustrated at not having the right tools or materials. It’s taken me a while but I’ve finally got an internal road map on leather - the terminology, techniques, tools and materials. While I have no illusions of grandeur as a master craftsperson, there are some useful things I’ve learnt along the way which I wish I had known when I was starting out…

First let’s begin with a run down on leather and the different types available. 

People have used animal hides since ancient times to fashion items such as clothing and accessories. In Mesopotamia between the fifth and third millennium B.C. for example, the Sumerians used skins to craft dresses and diadems. Later, the Romans would use leather to make footwear, harnesses and shields. Today, the process of tanning is still very similar to its origins despite advances in technology. 

Leather hides are most commonly sourced from animals such as cows, lambs and kangaroo, however can also include exotic animals such as stingrays, ostrich, toad and eels! Each animal hide is unique and contains its own imperfections, just as human skin is unique and different. 

The first time I saw a whole hide I was surprised at how big they are! Not only are they much larger than you think, they vary much more than you'd expect too. Leather comes from different parts of the animal and therefore has different characteristics. The hide thickness varies all over the animal, and to get it to the right thickness it is usually split on a special cutting machine or buffed to an even thickness. The main parts of the hide are shown in the diagram below:

The Butt - Fibres are tightly packed and thus the strongest part of the hide. Considered best for firm items such as belts. 
The Side - this is hide cut in half down the middle, and will include the belly areas.
The Belly - This area is quite thin and has a looser fibre structure than the back. May vary in thickness.
The Shoulder - The shoulder is thick and strong but may crease easily. It is a softer area of the hide, often used for making bags.

Chrome and veg tan are the two most common methods of tanning leather. And no, tanning leather is not quite the same as spending time out in the sun. 

Chrome tanning: 80-90% of leathers in the world are tanned by chrome (also known as mineral) tanning. Chrome tanning is a fairly quick process that takes about one day to produce a tanned hide. Chrome tan leather is most often used for fashion and accessory pieces due to its bright colours and flexible characteristics. 

Vegetable tanning: This is a more traditional method of tanning hides. Unlike chrome tanning, vegetable tanning can take up to 40 days to produce a piece of dyed leather. This process uses natural ingredients such as the bark of chestnut trees to tan the leather. The finished product colour is usually a warm shade of natural brown. Vegetable tanned leather is used for moulding and hand stamping or carving techniques, which don’t work on chrome tanned leather. 

Next, we’ll look at what tools you need to get started and where you can go to buy leather and other resources.