Although my work includes leather executive portfolios, book covers, hand-bound sketchbooks/journals, spur straps, and other items made with leather, I will focus on the creation of carving leather in preparation for use in a variety of applications.
The process begins with the development of the design I will be using for the project. I find inspiration in the leather carving on antique saddles, in nature, and personal experience. After considering the purpose of the finished work, I develop a design that is suited to the purpose, shape, and most importantly, feeling I want the piece to evoke.
The next step is to select the best leather for the project. This involves a consideration of the weight (thickness) of the leather, the tanning process, the surface texture, and many more elements. The leather is cut to size and “cased”. This is a process of cleaning and dampening the leather and sealing it in plastic for about 24 hours to allow the leather to develop the appropriate moisture content that makes it suitable for carving. The design is then transferred to the leather and the carving begins.
The first step in the carving process is “cutting in” the design. Using a specialized knife called a “swivel knife” the design is cut into the leather to a depth of 1/2 - 2/3 the thickness of the leather. This can take several hours to several days, depending on the size of the piece and complexity of the design. Throughout the process the leather must be kept at the correct moisture level, so periodically it must be re-wet and resealed for a period of time.
Once the cutting in is done, the carving continues using a variety of tools and doing so in a sequence that allows progression from background to final decorative elements. My preference is to begin with beveling the cuts to raise certain portions of the design followed with backgrounding. Backgrounding compresses the background using any of a number of tools, my preference being a “bar-grounder”. It creates a series of small dots that give depth and texture to the background. Then areas are lifted using undercutting tools, while other areas are shaded and compressed in a variety of ways. Depth and dimension are developed in the floral, leaf, and vine elements using “veiners”, “pear shaders”, “mule’s feet”, and “flower centers”. All told, 50 or more different tools are required to complete the finished design.
After the design is completed and the leather has fully dried, a thin coat of neatsfoot oil is applied to add back in the oils that are lost in the casing process. The oil requires 24-48 hours to be absorbed into the leather. After that, the background areas are dyed using a small brush and a dark dye. I use the dark dye on the background and a lighter dye on the rest of the piece to create another layer of depth and visual interest. After the background is dyed, the lighter color of dye is applied and the piece is again left to dry for about 24 hours. At this point another application of neatsfoot oil may be needed and another drying period for the oil. The next step is to apply a “resist” if I am going to be antiquing the piece. This seals the raised portion of the design and allows me to apply an antiquing paste to the whole piece, wipe off the excess, and leave only a small amount in the nooks and crannies of the design. This makes the smallest decorative cuts and textured areas come alive and “pops” the highlighted area. A final coat of sealer is applied and after that is dried several coats of wax are applied and buffed.
If the piece is going to become a portfolio, the lining leather is applied next, then the pockets, or pad holders, etc., are cut and applied and held in place with contact cement so the pieces can be sewed together. The leather is “grooved” at the appropriate distance from the edge, providing a groove or ditch for the overstitch wheel to travel in. This tool creates the indentations for the stitching holes at a specified number of stitches per inch…usually 6-8. Then I place the portfolio into the stitching horse and using a diamond shaped awl, I pierce the leather at the indentations made by the overstitch wheel. Then, using 00 Harness needles and waxed thread, I “saddle stitch” the pieces together. This stitch is used by saddle-makers to ensure that even if one stitch were to break, the line of stitching would not come apart. It is a double stitch and each stitch is locked into place.
Once the stitching is complete, I sand the edges to make them even, burnish first with glycerin saddle soap, then dye the edges, and finally, apply a mixture of paraffin and beeswax and burnish that in vigorously, actually melting the wax into the edge and compressing the fibers so they will not fray and “feather. After a final buffing the piece is ready to deliver to the customer.