People have been improvising with leather cutting tools for as long as leatherwork has been part of humanity. Leather is a very tough material to cut, and without the correct cutting tools, it can be quite a tough job.
Professional leathersmiths can go through a blade a day when working their trade – so your choice of blade is definitely very important. These days you can choose from metal and ceramic knives that are custom made for leatherwork. Let’s have a look at some of the advice and reviews from master leathersmiths, to see which knives are best for cutting leather.
When cutting leather there are two knives that you must have in your toolbox. This is the common utility knife and a smaller hobby knife. A utility knife is sharp and the blade can easily be replaced. The sharper the knife, the less pressure you have to use to cut the leather, which preserves the blade for longer and makes it safer for you. Additional specialized knives you can buy include rotary cutters, heavy-duty scissors, head knives and swivel knives amongst others.
When selecting the knives you want to use to work leather, there are two things you should take into account – how sharp they are and how long they remain sharp. To add to the confusion, professional leather cutting tools can be very expensive, and as a novice, you may not need all of them to start with.
Depending on what you want to achieve with your leather, you can be quite selective in what you buy and use.
The tools of the trade
There are several online guides that you can consult to find out more about the tools of the leatherwork trade, and FavouredLeather is one of them. The Introduction to leatherworking by JD Tagish also offers some additional guidance for beginners. Below is a hard and fast guide to some of the most commonly used tools to get you started!
You can find a good quality utility knife from any hardware store or craft shop. They are relatively inexpensive and always deliver a good clean cut. The advantage of this knife lies in the ability to simply snap off the front portion of the blade, revealing a newly sharpened blade edge.
Slice manufactures a variety of cutting tools, including box cutter and a utility knife, that features a ceramic blade that stays sharp 11 times longer than normal blades. You can pick up one of their box cutters for about $20, while their utility knife will set you back about $22.
A rotary cutter is similar to the common person’s pizza cutter. Their blades are always extremely sharp and they deliver a smooth direct cut through any piece of leather. Although they come in a variety of sizes, most experts recommend a 45mm blade.
They are at a disadvantage when it comes to cutting curves, and are best suited for cutting along straight lines. The blades can also be replaced or sharpened. They are available from most hobby shops and will cost anywhere from $15, while replacement blades will cost roughly $16 for a pack of five blades.
Although shears can be useful in cutting specific shapes and corners, most people rarely use a shear for much more than that. If you are sectioning a piece of leather, or removing parts from a larger piece, they can also be helpful.
A good quality pair can be obtained from any hobby shop, and will cost roughly $40.
These are also known as round knives and are used to cut straight lines and basic shapes in leather, especially thick leather. The pointed edge of this half moon shaped knife is very sharp and can be pressed hard into the leather to cut and shape. It can then be pushed forward or rocked back and forth to cut.
Because of the sharp edge, it can make more complex cuts than a rotary cutter, and is therefore a favorite amongst leathersmiths.
You can buy these from craft and leather shops for $30-$60.
This is a small hand tool with a chisel shaped edge that leathersmiths use for carving leather. Mostly, it is used to outline designs of the leather surface, which is then followed by additional shaping and carving activities.
It is also one of the most difficult tools to earn to use, and many beginners struggle with it. Practice does however make perfect, and in due time any newbie can learn to use the swivel knife effectively.
You can buy them from leather craft shops for about $10.
These tools are used to thin out segments of the leather or to even out the leather surface. It shaves layers of leather off the target section. This allows two pieces of leather to be glued or stitched together while maintaining an equal thickness throughout.
Machines usually do most of the skiving, but a skiving knife is useful for spots the machines cannot reach. They cost about $150 and are available in most leather craft shops.
These do exactly as their name suggest – they punch holes in the leather. You can get a single hole punches that works by hammering a small rounded blade with a hammer into the leather, thereby making a hole.
Alternatively, you can opt for a rotary hole punch that works like a paper punch, but offers a variety of hole sizes on a rotary disc for you to choose from. These are easier to use and much more practical, as small single hole punches can easily get lost.
The cost of a rotary hole punch is between $20 and $40.
Other factors to consider
Leatherworks is a complex craft with lots of tools, and although the knives and cutters are very important, there are some other tools that you need to consider before starting on your leather craft journey.
Some leathers are easier to work with than others, and some are much more expensive to buy. Your choice of leather will depend heavily on what you aim to do with the leather and how experienced you are.
As a start, most people use Veg-tan cow hide as it is easily accessible, moderately priced and quite tough. It is also versatile in its uses and can be dyed to suit your preference.
Marking & measuring
Marking and measuring is very important before you start cutting or decorating your piece of leather. It is useful to have a piece of chalk available for marking and a metal ruler (that cannot be cut) with a non-slip underside for measuring.
The worst tool you can have when working with leather is a dull knife. In the words of Master leathersmith, Jason Watts, there is nothing more dangerous than trying to cut with a dull knife. The duller the knife the more pressure you have to exert to cut the leather, and if the knife slips, you may just have a serious wound to deal with.
So, there you go, a quick and dirty guide to the best knives and tools to use for cutting leather. If you are new to working with leather, start small and simple until you get a handle of the tools and how they can be used. As always, be careful – if it can cut leather, it can cut skin!
Let us know what you think of this guide or leave any advice and comments in the section below.