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 leather smiths can go through a blade a day when working their trade, so your blade choice is very important. These days you can choose from metal and ceramic knives that are custom made for leatherwork.
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. 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 consider: how sharp they are and how long they remain sharp. Also, 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.
Best Knives to Use for Leatherwork
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 best, most commonly used knives and tools in leatherwork 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 various cutting tools, including box cutters and utility knives, that feature 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.
Heavy Duty Scissors or Shears
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. This half-moon-shaped knife’s pointed edge 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 leather smiths. You can buy these from craft and leather shops for $30-$60.
This is a small hand tool with a chisel-shaped edge that leather smiths 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 leathercraft 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 suggests—they punch holes in the leather. You can get a single hole punch 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 various 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.
Things to Remember When Working with Knives for Leatherwork
Leatherworks is a complex craft with lots of tools, and although the knives and cutters alone are very important, there are some things that you need to consider before starting on your leathercraft journey.
Mark and Measure
Marking and measuring are 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 Leather Smith, 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.