Advanced Leather Carving for a Hopeless Beginner

As far as leather crafting goes, I like to make things. However, I don’t like to carve. But when Tony Sugimoto decided to teach me how to make a leather book cover, we spent the first day doing something completely unexpected. I came in ready to have a simple cover with a frame type hole cut into the face. Within the frame, I had a couple of silk fabric swaths cut from neckties I would use for the design. Simple, right? But maybe too simple for Tony. He started showing me the variety of designs we could cut into the leather, where we would use the silk as a highlight to add depth. Maybe we could carve some waves, colored with blue silk. Except waves, led to other ideas, and we drifted over to Pinterest for inspiration. I was struck by an exuberant image of a fish done by an artist in Sao Paolo. Now, if you look at this image, you’re going to think there’s no way it could be carved on leather. I didn’t think it could be carved on leather – I was just pointing out that I liked it. Even if it could be carved, it certainly wasn’t something that could be done by the likes of me.

But Tony had other ideas.

Suddenly I found myself committed to carving this elaborate image, and I am in no sense an artist. I even screw up my own signature, and I’ve been signing that for 40 years.

First he had me print out the picture and do a black and white photocopy, reduced to a size that would fit on the book cover. To do that, of course, I had to draw the book cover and its dimensions.
Leather Book Cover Dimensions

That would be the easiest thing I had to do all day. The photocopy of the image looked like this:
Photocopy for tracing

Next up was to tape some tracing paper to the photocopy (and to the table to secure it). Here’s where I traced a rough version of the image. Note the jerky lines. I would have been fine on a simple image, but the especially fluid image I chose would require fluid pencil strokes.
Carp Tracing

After cutting out the leather, we are ready to go:
Cutting Leather for cover

Before doing any kind of carving, the leather needs to be cased. For this we use a sponge and some clean water. If the leather gets stiff during carving, it never hurts to add a little more water and case it again to soften it up.
Leather after casing

Next, the tracing paper went over the leather, with some weights on the corners to keep it in place.
Tracing paper to cased leather

And I was off to the races. Leather carving looked easy at this point. I used a fine stencil to simply go over the same lines I traced and impress them into the leather. This is often done as a precursor to using a swivel knife, so you will have lines to follow. In my case, i was sticking with the stencil lines. They are plenty clear, though they lack the depth and shading that a swivel knife would bring. Since I would be dangerous with a swivel knife at this point, we kept it simple. The picture below shows what it looks like while still half done:
Half finished trace carving on leather

Not very pretty, but maybe vaguely recognizable as a fish. I could have cased more, as the leather toughened up at points and made it hard to move the stencil fluidly. With practice, I’m sure I could develop more confident motions.

At this point, Tony took some black and brown paints, and mixed a couple shades to go over the lines and add depth:
Mixing Leather Paints

And we started drawing over my carving:
Start Leather Painting

Until it looked something like this:
More leather paint in brown

With the rough image in place, it was time to make some holes using a leather punch tool. We used basic round punches as well as teardrop punches.
Leather hole punch for water drops and eye

To help the image look more fish-like, the veiner tool was used to stamp gill-like features onto the fish:
Veiner stamp tool

With the holes punched, and the veiner tool, and another small stamping tool used to give texture, Tony used his swivel knife to highlight some of the lines that we wanted to be stronger. After that all was done, we had this:
Leather cover after stamping

I couldn’t stop Tony from adding a little white and a little copper color to the pattern. After this, we simply brushed on the leather dye with nice strokes that made a circular shape around the image:
Cover after dye

With some pink, blue and more copper, Tony added highlights, and you can now see the image that will be on the book cover. Come back next week to see what I had expected to finish today, the part where we cut leather and sew it together to make a book cover. We spent today making it a reasonably attractive book cover, something rather good for someone who simply does not draw. Tracing is not to be underestimated when preparing a leather carving. Now, we have a nice piece of leather to craft into a book cover.

Posted in Beginners, Instruction, Leather carving, Leather tooling, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

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