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What Are the Must-Have Tools for Beginners to Leather Working?

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So: you want to get into leatherworking. Wonderful!


But: what's the best way for beginners to get started in leather working? Every leatherworker has their own opinions on what's good, what's not, and ultimately it comes down to each artisan's process, what they prioritize, the kind of leatherworking they do, and so on. There is no one-size fits all list of items for all of leatherworking, but today we'll cover the essential categories of stuff you'll need to do your work across all types of leather crafting.


Category 0: Start with a kit

A while back, a member of my Twitch community asked for help on what to get for starting in leatherworking. I put together a list of individual, beginner- to intermediate-level tools and found that all in all, it was way more than the cost of just buying a kit. There's value in these because they allow you to try something out without going all in on investing in tools. However, there's a tradeoff: the tools are low quality and can prove to be frustrating if they don't quite meet your needs in what you're trying to make.


With that in mind, I think the middle ground/happy path is to buy a smaller kit and augment with a few items that will make your life a lot easier.

This is the exact one I bought when I was getting started and of the items in it, I still use:

  • Swivel knife holder (I've since swapped the blade to an angled ceramic variety

  • Sanding boards

  • Handheld round and strap burnishers

  • Scratch awl

  • Leather stamping tool set (I've augmented with a handful, but this one is a good start)

  • Adjustable groover/beveler


Unfortunately the prong punches broke within a handful of months, but that may have been user error on my part.


If you spring for the larger kit, it will come with some other nice options such as a cutting mat. However, it's pretty small so it's worth investing in our next category: cutting stuff.


Category 1: Something to cut with and on

Going through all the possibilities while writing this is perhaps the most important thing is a place to cut leather and good tools with which to cut. There are a few broader categories in terms of matching knives to leather weights, but generally a new leatherworker can do just fine with a hobby knife. I recommend a #2 blade as it will have less risk of snapping while you cut.

Equally important is a cutting mat of some kind. You can find some on Amazon, or go to your local crafting/sewing supply store. Personally, the bigger the better here: I use one that is 24" x 36" and still find myself wanting more space, especially if the hide I'm cutting is extra large.

Another set of useful tools are a rotary knife and a quilter's ruler; you can use the lines in the ruler to align to your cutting mat, for example, and then cut along the ruler with the rotary blade. This helps make clean, straight cuts on thinner leather. It's also helpful on bigger projects like bags as it makes the cutting out process a little faster. A third benefit is that because you're not dragging a blade through the leather, you have less risk of stretching it out especially if you're working with chrome tanned leather.


Category 2: Punching holes and hitting stuff

The next category of useful items to have is a way to punch holes into leather for stitching and setting rivets, as well as a maul to help punch those holes. In this category you have several options, but here are my favorite items and why:

  • Citian round chisel set - decent price, good spacing, and sharp. Start with a 4mm or 5mm set. My stitching chisels were the first thing I changed out from my starter kit--I broke the prongs on the kit irons!

  • Rotary punch - great for punching single holes in accessible spots like belts. Go cheaper until you know you love this and want to do it forever, then spring for an interchangeable-nib rotary punch so you don't have to re-buy the handle every time

  • Small punch set - for punching holes anywhere the rotary punch won't fit.

  • Maul - I used the little one in my kit forever, then upgraded to a Barry King and never looked back. The weight is important! The heavier the maul is, the less work your arms and shoulders have to do to drive those tools into or through the leather. Aim for a 16-24oz maul if you can. I use my 16 for tooling stamps and my 24oz for everything else.

  • Also important: a place to punch stuff. DO NOT USE YOUR CUTTING MAT. I punched through mine early on. A chunk of 2x4 or 2x6 will do the job, but I recommend a novolene block combined with a poundo mat instead for the heavier weight and more room to work.


Thing 3: Sewing Notions, unless you don't want to stitch anything together ever.

If you buy a kit, it will 100% come with crappy needles and synthetic sinew. Using thread that is too thick for your materials will guarantee that your work won't look as clean or polished as you might like, unless you like that rustic, brand-new-to-the-craft look.


For this I strongly recommend upgrading to John James harness needles and Ritza Tiger thread in either 0.6mm or 0.8mm. Start with a small spool--the stuff is a little pricey but worth it -- and a pack of needles isn't too terrible. 


Also useful is a lighter--a standard Bic lighter is perfect. You can also get fancy with thread zappers, but they're not strictly necessary.


Thing 4: Glue and Fasteners

Next on the list is holding your stuff together in addition to or instead of sewing, depending on your taste. Don't want to sew? Use glue and rivets. I prefer to at least glue and stitch everything and add rivets only if they make sense for the design or I want just a little more security in a spot, so the chances of any of my products coming back for repair is slim to none. I want what I sell to last for decades, if not a lifetime.


As far as glues go, you have two primary options: contact cement and water-based glue. Most leatherworkers I know use contact cement like Masters or Barge. If you go this route, make sure to spring for the toulene-free varieties; this stuff is hella toxic so use it in a well-ventilated space.


I prefer ultra-low VOC, water-based glue. While it's not quite as strong as contact cement, it doesn't smell once it's dry and I feel much safer using it overall. It's always a good idea to stay in a ventilated space, however.

Rivets: I use two varieties, primarily. When I want something to really stay put, I use the rivet and burr variety. They're rugged, durable, and look cool. When a little extra security is good, double-cap rivets are great. They look nice, you have greater flexibility in finishes, and they're easy to set with the right tools. For the former, you'll need a decent-sized anvil, rivet setting tool, a tack hammer, and end nips to trim the post. For double-cap, you can buy extra long ones and trim them down, or buy a bunch in different sizes. For these you'll also need an anvil and setter but these sometimes come with rivet sets and are overall much smaller than what you need for the  burr rivets. If you have money to burn, check out this setter from Weaver or Buckleguy. I have the Little Wonder and I use it exclusively for setting rivets anymore. 


Thing 5: Make it pretty - stamps, dyes, paints, and finishes

I put this category in because it's good to think through it if you want to do any tooling, or if you want to dye your vegetable-tanned leather. I'd almost call this an optional category, however, given you can buy pre-dyed leather already and if you're not interested in tooling, you can scroll on.

That said, tooling leather opens up a whole other world of leatherworking. Take a gander at leatherworking on Instagram and it won't be long before you see Western style tooled items all over the place. Western's not the only style, though: you can also do knotwork (check out my gallery to see what I've done), pictures, geometric designs, whatever. The world is your oyster if you go this route.


Note that if you do, plain vegetable-tanned leather is without a doubt the best kind of leather to get. Chrome and oil tan will not take tooling or stamping.


A leatherworking kit will sometimes have a basic set of stamps; it's one of the few things I've kept from my original kit. Mine also came with a swivel knife, which I swapped out the blade from a flat steel blade to an angled ceramic blade to make life a little easier. Definitely not required, but helpful.


You'll also need a way to wet the leather; I like this fine mist spray bottle in particular.


Dyes! I use Angelus for the most part. They're very nice, have good saturation, and the price is right.


Paints! Angelus makes paints, but I actually prefer acrylic gouache. The most important thing to keep in mind is that the paint needs to be able to stretch with the leather instead of cracking. I've tried the cheap folk art acrylic and was sorely disappointed. This is one of those things where it's good to invest if you want to paint. Get eight basic colors and you should be able to mix the rest as you need them:

  • Black

  • White

  • Gold

  • Silver

  • Red

  • Yellow

  • Blue

  • Brown


Of course, you'll also need paintbrushes if you go this route. Get a set of precision brushes.


Thing 6: Other useful tools


Lastly we have everything else that's helpful. Some kits ship with several of these items (like mine) already, but if yours didn't it's worth scrolling down through this list anyway: 

  • A simple ruler -- good for measuring the little stuff

  • Smooth pliers -- good for gripping and clamping. I use mine a lot to pull needles through my leather when my hand strength isn't quite enough

  • Square -- Most of the time I use my quilting ruler, but occasionally it's nice to use a square to make 100% sure I'm on the right track

  • Awl -- a good scratch awl is an indispensable tool. Use it to transfer designs on to your leather, rough up the grain side before gluing, apply edge paint, stretch punched holes or stitching holes, you name it. I love my C. S. Osborne awl after I snapped the tip off the cheap one that came with my kit

  • Beveler - beveling the outside edges of your project, while optional, makes them look more professional. Keep it sharp!

  • Burnisher - one of these should come with your kit but if not, a cocobolo burnisher is pretty neat.

  • Tokenole - I love tokenole because of its versatility compared to water or gum tragacanth. It's a great way to smooth down the outside edges of your project and give them a better feel in the hand. Rough edges are unpleasant to hold, so smooth down those edges!

  • Sandpaper - also vital when it comes to getting smooth edges. Grab a variety of grit from 320 up to 1200 -- you'll use the latter for honing knives as well.

  • Jeweler's rouge - Dialux blue is my favorite when it comes to jeweler's rouge. Stropping your blades removes microburrs off the edge and will keep them sharp. A dull knife is a dangerous knife!

  • Strop: Put the rouge on the strop and drag the knife along it.

  • Speaking of, a whetstone is also important for knife care.

  • A workbench - useful, but you can do leatherworking at any sturdy table--or even in bed on your lap. I don’t have a good link for this one as both of mine are custom built with scraps from the garage. Maybe that can become a blog post someday!

  • A toolbox - actually, pretty helpful.

  • A large roll of paper and a sharpie - great for making your own patterns, if you're into that sort of thing

  • Tape

  • Japanese skiving knife - helpful for thinning edges of pieces.

  • Granite board for skiving; it's tempting to go with something smaller, but trust me -- the extra room is incredibly helpful.

  • Head knife - another way to cut and skive leather; it's the kind of knife featured in medieval woodcuts.

A medieval cordswainer sitting at a workbench, surrounded by shoes with a head knife on the table


That about wraps it up. Reviewing this list, I'd have to say that if I needed to pick just one thing to change out, it'd have to be the supplies related to sewing, as you'll be doing hand sewing unless you invest in a machine.

I hope this list of beginner leather working tools is helpful for you. What do you think? If you're already making leather goods, are there other tools you'd swap out? Or ones from this list that you wouldn't? I'd love to hear from you!


Now: go make something cool and have fun!

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