About a year ago I tried burning on leather and was very disappointed with the results. The leather’s surface wasn’t conducive to the techniques I use in pyrography, so I couldn’t achieve the same level of detail I can with wood. A few months back I became obsessed with learning how to burn fine art on leather. I started researching the subject and was surprised at the lack of information. Lots of people are burning on leather, but they didn’t discuss if they prepare the leather surface before burning. Armed with determination and some scrap leather I started experimenting. I discovered a process that gives me a firm and ultra-smooth surface that allows me to create fine art pyrography on leather. In this tutorial I’m going to explain how to smooth the front and back of the leather to create the best surface for pyrography. Plus I will provide tips and techniques to get better burn results.
Last updated Dec 30, 2020
The first question that should be asked is whether or not you need to prep the leather surface. You don’t have to. I have some premium leather that I got decent results without prepping it. Truth be told, I prefer to prep the surface because it makes the leather firmer and smoother. The smoother surface allows the pen tip to glide over the leather a bit easier and it enables me to get greater detail in my artwork. I would recommend trying both ways and see which surface you prefer.
Before we get going I need to explain the difference between the flesh and skin side of the leather. The flesh side is the rough or back side of the leather and the skin is the smooth side. Pyrography is always done on the skin side.
April 13, 2018 – I have to share a discovery with you. I used a “polished” pen tip to burn on the leather and it was so much easier to burn with! Colwood offers to polish pen tips when you buy them for $3.00 (usd as of April 2018). If you plan to do a lot of burning on leather I’d recommend investing purchasing a couple of polished pen tips. I purchased my favorite shaders (J and mini J) with the polished option and plan to use them just on leather.
STEP 1 – WET THE LEATHER
Place the leather, skin side up, on a clean smooth surface. Do not cut your leather to size as the smoothing process will distort the shape of the leather. If you do cut it before smoothing, just keep in mind that you will have to trim it to shape later.
Here’s a photo of the leather after I was done misting it with water. As you can see there are little pools of water here and there. Don’t worry about them as the leather will quickly absorb the water.
Here’s a photo just a second or two later and the water is mostly absorbed.
STEP 2 – SMOOTH THE SKIN
After the leather is very damp, firmly rub over the entire skin surface of the leather with the burnisher of your choice. I am applying a lot of pressure with the burnisher as I smooth the leather. The burnisher I’m using in the photo was made out of cherry wood.
Todd made the burnisher out of a piece of scrap wood he had. It measures 8” long, 2” wide, and 3/4” thick (20.3 x 5.1 x 1.9 cm) and is rounded on all sides for comfortable gripping. If you make your own, use a hard wood and preferably one that is pale in color. Some of the darker and/or colorful woods can bleed their color when wet and I doubt the leather could be fixed if that happens.
Here’s a side view of the cherry burnisher.
The most important side of the burnisher is the rounded end. Only the burnishing end needs to be sanded so it is ultra-smooth.
As I said before, you can use almost anything as a burnisher.
I initially tried using the end of a drinking glass. It worked but it was too large for my hand to hold onto comfortably.
I also tried a small plastic jar. The jar is 2” tall (5.1 cm) and it is very comfortable for me to hold onto. I found that when I’m working with a small piece of leather the jar worked best for me.
Add more water if the leather starts to dry. Continue this process of rotating and burnishing in a new direction until you have smoothed the leather in all directions.
Let the leather dry completely; I let mine dry overnight.
Here is a front shot of a leather test piece with a separation line cut down the center. The left side of the separation line was not smoothed, but the right side was. As you can see, the left side has a lot more visible texture to it and it feels slightly rough to my fingertips. The right side is much smoother as it has been compressed and the texture feels more like glass.
This photo shows the side view of a test piece of leather. The left side, side I’m holding, was not smoothed, but the right side was. Hopefully you can see how the right side is compressed (thinner) than the left side.
I mentioned before that the leather distorts with the smoothing process. My small test pieces gained at least 1/8” on all sides (0.32 cm) and in some places it stretched out by 1/4″ (0.64 cm). Because of this I don’t cut the leather to exact size until after I’m done with the smoothing process.
STEP 3 – SMOOTH THE FLESH
We are going to repeat the process with the flesh side of the leather. The reason is that this will further compress the leather to give us the firmest burning surface. Place the piece of leather flesh side up on a clean smooth surface.
Apply water or gum tragacanth to the flesh surface. If using water, apply liberally. If using gum tragacanth, apply very sparingly.
Here’s a photo of the flesh side of two pieces of leather. The one of the right has been smoothed with a burnisher.
Gum tragacanth will darken the leather and impart a shiny sheen once burnished. Apply sparingly as a thick coat will make the leather very stiff. From what I’ve read the gum tragacanth is normally used along the edges of the leather and is supposed to give a longer lasting finish versus using water.
NOTE – You can treat the flesh side with water or gum tragacanth as both will smooth and compress the leather.
- no smell
- matte finish
- stays supple
- Can smooth the flesh side while the skin side is still wet
- No reaction. By reaction I mean that the water won’t cause any skin irritation if you are crafting a wearable leather item like a bracelet.
- cost money
- slight smell
- darkens the leather
- imparts a sheen
- loses a little suppleness
- heavy coat turns milky in color and really stiffen the leather
- Skin side must be dry before treating the flesh side
- Might cause a skin reaction with wearables like bracelets
I use the gum tragacanth when crafting items like a credit card holders. The reason is that I want to keep the flesh side super smooth for as long as possible so the credit cards don’t catch on anything.
This photo shows a small section treated with gum tragacanth. It’s easy to see how dark the leather got and the sheen is somewhat visible in this photo.
Here’s a quadrant comparison where I tried smoothing with water and/or gum tragacanth. A = water only. B = not smoothed. C = water and gum tragacanth. D = gum tragacanth only. Now keep in mind that the piece of leather was really small, so it was difficult to work with and it had a big crease in it.
To me there is no benefit of using both water and gum on the same side. Especially since you have to wait until the water treatment is dry before doing the gum. I think the gum produces the smoothest surface, but you lose a little suppleness. And if you apply a heavy coat of gum the leather can become almost ridged like cardboard.
Why smooth the flesh side of the leather at all, especially if the project is going to be hanging on a wall? Because smoothing the back of the leather will further compress the leather providing the firmest surface to burn on.
STEP 4 – LET DRY
Let the leather dry completely before doing anything else. I flip the leather once to help keep it semi-flat as it has a tendency to start curling. This is more pronounced with the water treatment.
After the leather is dry it is ready for burning or crafting.
I use the tracing method to transfer my patterns just like I do with wood. It’s cheap, easy, and gives me control on what I want to include. Print off your pattern on lightweight paper (standard copier paper is perfect), coat the back of the pattern with a graphite pencil, secure to leather, and trace over the pattern. Make sure to check the trace results for accuracy before removing the pattern.
DO NOT USE SCOTCH TAPE to secure the pattern to the leather. The pale rectangular abraded patch, marked with the black circle, happened after I removed the scotch tape. When I applied the tape I didn’t rub over it or press hard on it when I secured the pattern down.
Paper tape. Use “gentle paper First Aid Tape” as it has a very low adhesive factor, so won’t abrade the leather as long as you DO NOT press firmly or rub over the paper tape.
This photo shows paper tape and scotch tape side-by-side on a piece of leather. I rubbed firmly over both pieces of tape just to see what would happen.
Both types of tape abraded the leather, but the scotch tape was the worst of the two. Being a curious type, I did mist the leather with water, rub over the area with a burnisher, and the tape abrasion disappeared, so it can be fixed.
This photo shows a pattern secured to the leather with paper tape. I gently placed the tape onto the pattern and didn’t rub or press hard on it.
After I removed the pattern there wasn’t any trace of where the tape had been.
Pencil marks erase from leather just like they do with wood. Make sure to use a soft eraser like the white artist style of eraser. They won’t leave a color residue like pink erasers can and they are soft so they won’t abrade or scratch the leather.
BURNING TIPS / TECHNIQUES
I highly recommend burning on a scrap piece of leather to get a feel for it. Try different techniques and heat settings to see how the leather reacts. Looking at my test piece you can see that I tried smooth strokes, zigzag fur strokes, and an assortment of strokes, blotches, etc. to the right of the animal. Plus I think that some of my tips & techniques will make a lot more sense after you’ve tried it yourself.
The below tips aren’t in any particular order,
Keep the pen heat low! My Colwood burner goes up to 10 and I had the heat setting around between 0.5 – 2.5 with 0.5 = low. 1.25 = medium. 2 = high. 3+ = instant charring (smells awful). Remember each unit is different and the pen tip you are using also influences this. For example, my micro writer pen tip requires a slightly higher heat setting than my shader does to get the same brown tone. Also, my pen tips are old and have had a lot of use, so they don’t require as much heat as newer pen tips do.
Keep a piece of scrap leather nearby to check the heat setting.
Keep a tip cleaner handy and use it often! Especially when burning dark. The gunk builds up quickly and can be difficult to remove. This picture of my shading tip shows the gunk build up after just a few dark lines and blotches were burned.
Cleaning the pen tip is easier using the backside of the metal polishing cloth as it is rougher than the polishing side. Also keeping the heat on a very low setting helped too.
Burn on cool leather. If you need to re-burn over an area let it cool completely before re-working. If the leather gets too warm it loses firmness and it felt more like I was carving/shaping the leather instead of burning it. To put this another way, it was like working with soft butter. When the leather got to this point it was very prone to tearing.
When burning on low to medium low heat I didn’t have any problems with the different techniques I use.
When burning on medium or higher heat the leather grain quickly became an issue. What would happen is that the leather would tear if I burned in one direction, but not the other. I’m not familiar enough with leather to be able to tell you if the tearing happened while burning against the grain or not.
HIGH HEAT – go slow. Use very short strokes as high heat tends to rip the leather. I’ve found I get better result if I just press the pen tip to the leather and lift straight up. Think about it, you are burning on skin. Your skin can bubble and peel when you get a bad burn and leather isn’t much different. Be prepared for a very unpleasant smell.
Don’t burn deep lines as leather isn’t that thick.
Use light pressure when burning. Put another way, I had much better results when I barely touched the pen to the leather. If I applied too much pressure on the pen tip the resulting burn wasn’t as smooth.
When burning really dark; go slow, clean the tip often, and try not to re-work dark areas.
Be forewarned that if the heat is really high the leather tends to char instantly and the charring ‘bleeds’ or spreads. I can’t think of a good word for this, so let me give an example instead. If I’m using the micro writing pen tip and touch it to the leather I would normally get a tiny dot, but if the heat setting is too high I will end up with a very large charred dot. Most of the time it is also very irregular in shape (not round).
*Mar 2018. A new item I’ve encountered is the flaking from the char spots. I had finished burning a dark background and when I flexed or bent the leather a couple of tiny flecks of charred leather fell off. The spot from where the flecks fell off was still dark, but not as dark as the surrounding area. Plus if the light hit the area right you could see a texture change. I burned back over the spot and it seemed to fix it.
Good luck. Leather is not very forgiving.
First I tried the tip of an X-acto knife. Be very, very careful when using an X-acto knife as it’s very easy to remove the skin.
Next I used one of those grey ink erasers as they are abrasive. It wasn’t very precise and didn’t do well on really dark burns.
Lastly I tried a sanding pen used for removing rust from metal. Worked, but not very precise.
Here’s how the test piece looked after I was done. The eraser and sanding pen lacked precision, but all of them abraded the leather and turned the leather whitish looking.
I misted the leather with water.
Then I gently rubbed over the surface with a plastic tool used to crease paper.
Here’s how it looked after the leather dried.
If you need to lighten a section that got too dark, I think that can be easily accomplished. Completely removing a mark without any sort of residue or sign isn’t going to be very easy to do. My best advice is to keep the heat low and go slow. Most of the mistakes I make are due to excessive heat and rushing to get something done.
Like with everything, practice makes perfect. My first leather pyrography project, the acorn, was ok, but nothing spectacular. Each project I gain more knowledge and skill, so my artwork continues to improve. I doubt that I will ever achieve the same level of detail on leather as I can on wood, but I’ll have fun trying.
Here’s my first leather pyrography project. The leaf on the left side isn’t near as smooth looking as the right leaf. That’s due to leather grain. I was burning on a low heat, so if I had known to smooth the leather first I would have gotten better results. Also the far left acorn has a lot of black char marks on it. I don’t remember what I was doing or trying to do, but it obviously wasn’t working.
The leather bookmark was my second project. It was a very basic image, but I was trying to make it 3D looking and failed. So I tried to make it black instead and managed a couple of lines here and there, but gave up on that too.
The fish turned out well, but it’s not a complicated image. The shading is smooth and the overall image is nice. My only complaint about this artwork is the eye. I had the heat setting too high and it charred beyond the bounds of the eye area. Not much I can do about that except scrape a little of the color away.
I’m not thrilled with how the deer turned out, but it was good practice. I learned a LOT while trying to create this image. Yes, the deer’s face is messed up, but what I learned while burning this was worth the wasted piece of leather.
The lion was my first good successful creation of fine art, in my opinion. There is quite a bit of fine detail in the image and tones that range from light tan to black. Pyrography on leather reminds me of oil paintings in that if you view the oil painting too closely you lose the detail and instead see the canvas texture.
That’s it for this blog. I hope I provided some useful information that will help you with your leather burning projects. It’s fun, but can be very challenging medium to burn on.
Have you tried burning on leather? Leave a comment and tell me about it.
Until the next blog,
Originally posted: Jan 5, 2018
Last updated: April 13, 2018
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