For the past year or so I’ve been talking with Todd about doing pyrography on leather. One day we were up in Portland and we headed over to a leather shop to see what it would take to get started. The sales person was very knowledgeable, but I was a bit overwhelmed with all of the stuff there. Heck, a simple question of “what leather should I burn on?” Was answered with “that depends on what you’re doing to do.” I don’t know yet. I ended up leaving with some stuff like vegetable tanned leather scraps, a sheet of “tooling leather,” and a kit to make a knife sheath. The kit was a perfect beginner project and it will be the subject of this blog.
Being anxious to get started, I didn’t take any pictures of the kit before I dug into it. It contained 3 pieces of leather, a needle, some waxed thread and the instructions. The instructions had a few decorating ideas for the sheath one being an acorn with a leaf. I didn’t care for their artwork, so I dug through my stencils and found one that I liked a bit better.
It is very easy to trace a pattern onto the leather using a graphite pencil and the graphite erases easily from the leather. After I traced the pattern on the sheath, I decided I should first practice on a piece of scrap leather and I’m very glad I did! Leather requires a MUCH lower heat level on the pen. I mean MUCH lower. My Colwood burner goes up to 10 and I never had the heat above 2. Most of the time the heat setting was closer to 1.
After playing around with the scrap piece for a few minutes I moved onto the sheath and started burning in the trace lines. That went well and was very easy to do. Below are a few photos of me burning in the trace lines.
In fact, burning the trace lines was so easy that I was lulled into a false sense of security that this was going to be just like burning on wood. Once I switched to the shading tip and started filling in the pattern, I quickly discovered just how different leather is from wood. Sense of security shattered. For one thing, the tip tended to stick to the leather if I paused at all. When this happened, the spot looked like it was ripped or a layer of the leather was removed.
Next I discovered that depending on the direction I was burning the tip seemed to encounter resistance. This is going to sound weird, but all I kept thinking was that I was burning on piece of thin material that is resting on a bed of Jell-O. It just felt weird. Like it was wiggling around, but I don’t know how else to describe it. The sensation was very dependent on the direction I was burning. I guess that would be similar to burning with or against the wood grain. Burning with the wood grain is much easier than burning against.
Below are some progress photos of burning one of the sheath pieces. Note that the dark brown fabric behind the sheath is a piece of metal polishing cloth I use to rub the pen tip on to clean it. I was frequently cleaning the tip, so moved the cloth to a spot where it was easily accessible.
After burning the first leather piece on the sheath I took a break. I was hungry and needed time for my brain to think about a possible idea to make the leather surface firmer. While making some lunch and talking to Todd about the sheath an idea popped in my head – emboss the leather.
When embossing paper, you put a textured plate behind the paper and firmly rub over the paper with an embossing tool. This causes the pattern on the plate to show on the paper. What made me think about this was that it compresses the paper in the embossed areas.
Most people would probably test out their ideas on a piece of scrap, but not me. I ran with it. I had a crocheting needle that I rubbed over the pattern surface. I didn’t emboss the entire leather surface, just the pattern image areas. I want to point out that I pressed the crocheting needle very firmly into the leather’s surface.
What a huge improvement to the surface texture of the leather! My pen tip was seldom sticking, it was a lot easier to burn on the leather regardless of the pen stroke direction, and the leather didn’t feel like it was sitting on Jello. I should point out that on occasion my pen tip would still stick if I paused too long, so it’s important to keep the tip moving at all times. Below are progress photos.
I did not take pictures of me assembling the sheath as it’s not in the scope of this blog, but below are some photos of the final product.
I’m sure that the kit I used didn’t have the highest quality leather in it, so I don’t know if that played any role in the difficulties I experienced. The difference in the surface texture after embossing was such an improvement that I plan to emboss the pattern area on any future leather projects.
WHAT I LEARNED
- Embossing the leather creates a firmer texture, so it’s easier to burn on
- Only burn on vegetable tanned leather
- Burning the “rope” pattern along the stitched edge of the sheath was a waste of time as the stitching hid most of it.
- Keep the heat super low!
- Keep the pen tip moving at all times to prevent it from sticking to the leather.
Todd showed my sheath to a friend who is a seasoned leather worker and he offered a few suggestions. 1) glue the edges for extra strength and protection in case a stitch breaks. 2) burnish the edges to make them smoother.
This was a fun and easy project that didn’t take a lot of time. Start to finish (excluding drying and sealing time) the project took me 3 hours. While the pyrography artwork on the sheath isn’t spectacular, it isn’t horrible either. More importantly I enjoyed this enough that I plan to create other works of art on leather down the road.
Until the next blog,
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