How to Carve Leather

Four Parts:Preparing the LeatherCarving the LeatherStamping the LeatherFinishing the Design

Carving leather can be a time-consuming process, but with just a little practice and a few tools, you can easily create some impressive pieces. At minimum, you'll need a swivel knife to cut into the leather and a beveler to enhance the edges of your design. Optional stamping tools can be used to add further detail to the finished piece.

Part 1
Preparing the Leather

  1. 1
    Choose the right type of leather. Naturally tanned leather works best. For best results, look for vegetable-tanned or oak-tanned leather.[1]
    • Chrome-tanned leather is usually a bad choice. The surface is too water-resistant and too soft to hold a carved design.
    • Light colored leather is easier to carve than dark leather, especially for beginners. The cuts and impressions you create will be more visible on light leather.
    • It is also a good idea to use a piece of leather that is larger than your desired design. Carve the design in the center of your piece, then trim away any excess leather once you completely finish carving it.
  2. 2
    Case the leather. Use a moist sponge to wet both sides of the leather. The piece needs to slightly moist all the way through, but it should not be soaked.[2]
    • Alternatively, you can quickly dunk the leather in standing or running water, but you should only submerge it for a brief period of time.
    • Leather that is too wet will become too soft to hold carvings. On the other hand, leather that is too dry can crack when you attempt to carve it.
    • After the leather dries to its original color, it should be ready to work with. The surface should still feel somewhat moist and the leather should still feel flexible, however.
  3. 3
    Create a pattern. Use a pencil to draw your desired pattern on waterproof tracing paper or wax paper.
    • You can draw a freehand pattern or trace a pattern from another source.
    • When using actual tracing paper, keep the matte side of the paper facing up.
  4. 4
    Trace the pattern onto the leather. Place the prepared pattern over your leather. Using a stylus, apply gentle pressure over each line of the pattern. Doing so should copy the design onto the leather.
    • Note that the traced side of the paper should face up when you position it over the leather.
    • Tape the tracing paper over the leather to prevent it from shifting as you copy the design. Only tape the paper to the working surface or the back of the leather, though. Do not tape the tracing paper to the front of the leather.
    • If you do not have a stylus, a ballpoint pen can also work. Make sure that you do not press hard enough to tear through the paper, however, since doing so would cause ink to get on the leather.
  5. 5
    Carve immediately. Once the leather has been cased and the design has been transferred, you should immediately begin to carve the piece.
    • Waiting will allow the leather to dry out too much. You can moisten it again if it does dry out, but doing so too often can make the leather more difficult to carve.
    • If you do need to step away during the carving process, place the leather in a resealable plastic bag to help it retain moisture. Keeping moist leather sealed away for more than a few hours can cause mold to develop, though, so you should only do this if you plan on taking a short break. For longer breaks, it would still be better to allow the leather to dry, then moisten it again when you are ready to resume work.

Part 2
Carving the Leather

  1. 1
    Carve each line with a swivel knife. Trace over each copied line of your pattern with a swivel knife. Each cut should be roughly half the thickness of the leather itself.[3]
    • Note that a standard crafting or utility blade can be used when a swivel knife is unavailable, but it will not produce uniform lines as easily as a swivel knife will.
    • Cut the border first, when applicable. You can use a metal straight edge to guide the knife so that your border remains even.
    • When carving the rest of your design, start with the foreground and work your way to the background.
    • For lines that do not end at another line, gradually apply less pressure toward the end of the line to reduce the depth and appearance of the cut.
  2. 2
    Round and raise areas with a beveler. Use the beveler tool to round off any previously carved lines. While not strictly necessary, beveler tools should be used on nearly every leather carving.
    • Always hold the beveler at a straight, vertical angle. The deepest part of the wedge tip should be placed inside the cut.
    • Bevel lines in the order you created them. Start with the border before progressing to the foreground of the main design. Gradually work from the foreground to the background.
    • Lightly tap the back of the beveler with a mallet to smooth the edge of the line. Glide the beveler across the entire line, overlapping the previous stroke by about two-thirds of its full length, until the entire line is finished.

Part 3
Stamping the Leather

  1. 1
    Apply texture using a camouflage tool. The camouflage tool, also called a "cams," produces a distinct texture. Using this tool is only optional but can add dimension to your finished design.
    • Position the tool over the portion of the design you wish to enhance. The tool can be angled vertically or tilted in any direction.
    • Gently tap the back of the tool with a mallet to stamp the texture onto the leather. Do not use a metal hammer.
    • Cams are often used along the lines of stems and scrolls within a broader design. In these instances, the tool is generally tilted toward the line. Cams are often used to add texture to flower petals, too.
  2. 2
    Add dimension using the pear shader tool. The shader is another optional tool. Use it to make some areas of your design appear darker or more shaded than others.
    • Position the shader over the desired area. As a general rule, you should hold it vertically when shading large areas and tilt it toward the narrower end when shading a tightly enclosed area.
    • Lightly tap on the shader with a mallet to contour the surface of the leather. Do not use a metal hammer.
    • When you need to shade an area that is larger than the face of the shader, move the tool across the surface roughly 1/16 inch (1.6 mm) after each strike. Continue as needed until the entire area is shaded.
  3. 3
    Create finer details using veiner and seeder tools. The veiner tool is typically used to add patterns to leaves, stems, and scrolls. Use the seeder tool if you want to create flower centers or decorative scroll ends.
    • Angle the veiner with the curve and space separate impressions evenly apart. Tilt the tool more severely as the space narrows.
    • Hold the seeder vertically. When using the seeder to fill in a space, work around the perimeter of that space first, then gradually fill in the center.
    • Both tools must be lightly tapped with a mallet to apply the design.
  4. 4
    Flatten background areas with a background tool. Consider applying a broad texture to background areas using a generic background tool.
    • Background areas usually include the gaps around enclosed shapes and designs.
    • Position the tool in the proper place and strike it with a mallet.
    • Work around the perimeter of the background first, then gradually walk the tool across the interior of the background, moving 1/16 inch (1.6 mm) at a time. Rotate the tool as you move it across the the background to make the overall texture appear more even.

Part 4
Finishing the Design

  1. 1
    Switch back to a swivel knife when making decorative cuts. Decorative cuts should be the last carvings you make in a design. These cuts can be used to accent the design once all other textures and alterations are in place.
    • Decorative cuts should be about half as deep as the primary cuts previously carved using the swivel knife. These cuts should also start deep and gradually get shallower as they move across the design.
    • When making a decorative cut, carefully pull the knife toward you for optimal control. Each decorative cut must flow with the design instead of working against it.
  2. 2
    Correct mistakes using a modeling tool. Spoon-style modelers can be used to correct minor mistakes made with stamping tools.
    • Carefully run the spoon end of the tool over the misplaced stamp. Apply even, light pressure. Doing so should polish away the pattern, leaving smooth leather in its place.
    • You can also use the modeler to further round away hard edges in your design. Too much smoothing can blur the lines of the design, however, so you must do this carefully if you choose to do it at all.


  • Practice using each tool on a piece of scrap leather. Wait until you feel comfortable with the way each tool must be handled before using it on your actual piece.
  • After carving the leather, you can apply paints and dyes as desired.
  • Note that leather sealers will make the finished piece of leather waterproof and can help protect your carved designs, but sealers also make leather more brittle and less flexible.

Things You'll Need

  • Naturally tanned leather
  • Sponge
  • Water
  • Tracing paper or wax paper
  • Pencil
  • Stylus or ballpoint pen
  • Swivel knife
  • Beveler tool
  • Metal straight edge (optional)
  • Mallet (optional)
  • Camouflage tool (optional)
  • Pear shader tool (optional)
  • Veiner tool (optional)
  • Seeder tool (optional)
  • Background tool (optional)
  • Modeling tool (optional)

Article Info

Categories: Fabric and Clothing Decoration