If you’re new to leatherworking, I hope this post can help guide you towards what you may actually need to get started and creating. Most leather goods aren’t inherently complex, the flourish comes from time and experience. My belief is that a new maker should focus on the fundamentals that can carry them through their journey with leatherworks. With a solid understanding of the basics and some time and effort, their work will improve and look better and better.
A common question I’m asked is “what tools do I need to get started with leatherworking?”. Someone could easily spend thousands of dollars on every tool available, but it really isn’t necessary to get started. I’m not always convinced it’s even always necessary for advanced work. That being said, this post will cover what is really necessary for a new maker to begin designing and building. And more importantly, these suggestions can be used into the future as their skills improve. Depending on the item, most of these were found on Amazon, Tandy Leather, or Springfield Leather Company, and at the time of this post the total for this list was roughly $160. With that, I give you my top-ten beginner’s leatherworking tools.
Cutting board - $45
There are more styles of cutting boards and mats for leatherwork than I can recall, and I have three different types on my bench myself. However, if I could only have one, I would go with my HDPE plastic (a.k.a. “poly”) cutting board. The one on my bench is roughly 16”x20” and half of an inch thick. At this size, it’s large enough for just about any cut shorter than straps and thick enough not to crack when struck with stitching chisels. Added bonus: I’ve been able to sand mine after marring the surface to keep it smooth, so maintenance is easy.
Utility knife with extra blades - $25
Sure, it’s easy (and fun) to dive off the deep end with high-end cutting tools for leatherworking, but the simple fact is that many times they really aren’t needed. When I was a novice, I lacked the skillset to maintain a custom leather knife and keep it sharp anyways, so I went for a utility knife (specifically a Stanley 10-499). The key to success with these knives are the blades. Change out a blade as soon as it starts to pull or drag on your leather with a fresh one for best performance. They’re cheap and plentiful, just keep a jar for your old blades at your workspace.
Transparent Ruler - $10
Acrylic quilting rulers work amazingly well for leatherworking… as they should if we think of some leather as heavy fabric. That’s a discussion for another time though, so back to it. I’ve had this 2.5”x12.5” Omnigrip ruler in my shop for years at this point and would gladly buy another. Being able to offset the ruler on a line to cut away extra material saves so much time, and this acrylic is both thick enough and durable enough to use as a cutting edge for a very long time. A larger one of these would work well on a larger cutting table for straps and such.
Wing divider OR stitching groover - $15 each
I struggled with picking a winner between a wing divider and a stitching groover. Essentially, they both serve the same function but use slightly different methods, let me explain. Both of these are intended to make scribe marks on leatherwork for reference (guidelines for stitching) or design (accent lines). Wing dividers only scratch or crease the surface, while a stitching groover has a tiny cutting tip that will carve a channel out of the leather. These carved grooves allow your stitching to sit recessed on your leather goods, which may help reduce wear on the thread.
So, easy decision. Stitching groover! Not quite. While a stitching groover shines on leather goods like belts, knife sheathes, and other hard-use items, the grooves can be a little too aggressive at times for more delicate work like thin wallets, and at this point I prefer to use a wing divider. I have both on my bench, but my suggestion for a new leather worker would be to decide what projects they’d like to start with, and go with a wing divider for thin leather (like 2-5oz) or a stitching groover for thicker projects (5oz and up).
Lacing chisels $20
This one might agitate some other leather workers, but I’ll die on this hill. Lacing chisels are not the best option for delicate hand-sewing. Lacing chisels are not technically meant for hand-sewing at all. Yet, I believe lacing chisels are an excellent starting point for a newbie all the same. Their beauty lies in their simplicity, robustness, and the large, forgiving holes that they produce. In time, I’ll do a guide on hand-stitching a welted knife sheath with these but for now the important points are that lacing chisels are not as fragile as other stitching chisels or pricking irons, and that the larger lacing holes are vastly more tolerant of slight variances in hole location. It’s easier to get a needle through a bigger hole. Of course, these will not magically solve shoddy work, but they will help a new maker reach success if they’re attempting to do a nice job on their projects. Buy a three-tool set if you can with one, two, and four prong chisels so you can handle corners and straight lines alike. If not all three, get a one and four.
Mallet - $15
You’ll need something to smack those lacing chisels with, and a metal hammer will damage your chisels. A 12oz Estwing lives on my shop wall. I use the hard plastic (yellow) side for striking chisels, and the soft-rubber (orange) side for tapping together pieces that I’ve glued. Not much else to say about this!
Scratch awl - $10
A scratch awl is fantastic for marking lines on your leatherwork to reference for cutting, stitching, or glue-up. In my opinion, it really shines when used in conjunction with lacing chisels and hand stitching. Basically, if you use lacing chisels on a symmetrical leather project and glue it together, it’s not guaranteed that the holes will match perfectly. A thin scratch awl can be used to “prospect” in the holes to open them up for a needle to pass through. I still use a scratch awl every time I saddle-stitch thicker leather goods for that exact purpose. And speaking of saddle-stitching…
Harness needles and thread - $10
I’m making a shoutout to www.buckleguy.com for this, as they have the best reference guide for thread and needle sizes I’ve found. Go there for this stuff. My first bit of advice, AVOID GLOVERS’ NEEDLES. You’ll cut your thread as you backstitch, don’t ask how I know. A harness needle is pointed but not sharp, avoiding the issue of cut stitches. There are many sizes, and use that charts at buckleguy on their harness needle page to reference whichever thread you decide to go with. Second bit of advice, skip a speedy-stitcher. I started with one and drug my heels learning to saddle stitch, but the truth is if I had learned to saddle-stitch from the beginning my work would have reached current levels of quality far sooner.
For the thread, my experience is with Maine Thread waxed poly cord. The .040” size is fine for heavy-duty items, .030” is my go-to nowadays for most hand-sewn items and is very close in size to 138 machine thread. I feel like .020” is too thin for anything other than super-fine work like a high-end watch band and .035” is simultaneously too thick for fine work and too thin for heavy items. My suggestion is to get a spool of .030” and a thread size card to see other sizes and colors.
Edge beveler - $10
Edge bevelers are used to chamfer the edges of leather goods. When combined with sandpaper, it’s possible to get professional-looking, rounded edges on your finished piece. There are countless manufacturers and quality-levels, but the Tandy Craftool ones are a fine place to begin and serviceable for years. For sizing, the larger numbers make larger chamfers. If you only buy one, start with a #2.
Paper and pencil - $ cheap
To me, this is absolutely the most important suggestion on this list. Making accurate and symmetrical patterns is a necessity for quality leatherwork, and all the other tools on this list will not save your project from horribly inconsistent measurements and reference marks. Putting your idea to paper before leather also gives you the chance to make a template if the idea is a hit, saving time if you end up making additional copies. Keep every pattern you make; you’ll never know when you may have to dig one up for a future project.
I use card stock personally as it’s more durable than regular printer paper. Either’s durability is improved with a layer of packing tape over the pattern before cutting it out. Just make sure your pattern is squared-away before taping as you’ll be unable to tweak it with anything other than a Sharpie.