Leather carving is a form of leather working in which pieces of leather are cut with fine tools to make a pattern or design. It may be combined with other types of leather crafting such as stamping or burning for additional impact. Leather which has been carved is said to have been “tooled,” because it has been shaped with the assistance of tools. Carved leather is used in belts, shoes, saddles, and many other leather crafts, and it may also be used as a standalone piece of art.
To carve leather, the leather is first lightly moistened with a sponge or cloth dipped in water so that it swells, making it easier to cut. Leather which has been moistened is said to be “cased,” and it is incredibly delicate. Even the light pressure of a fingernail can leave a mark, and the leather will also readily absorb dyes, so it is important to handle it on a clean surface. The cased leather can be carved with an assortment of tools, and then it is allowed to slowly dry.
Once dried, the leather is usually oiled or conditioned so that it will hold its shape. In some cases, the leather may be painted or dyed after carving, to further bring out the design, or the artisan may use a burning tool to etch a design. Leather carving is also combined with leather stamping, a design technique in which patterns are pressed into the leather with stamps and the assistance of a small mallet. Rather than removing pieces of leather, leather stamping compresses the material, and when the leather dries, this compression will be retained.
Numerous tools are used in leather carving. At a minimum, a fine, sharp blade and a mallet are used, along with a set of small tools which can be used to create specific patterns such as small dots, scalloped lines, curved features, and so forth. Leather carving tools are often available in kit form at craft stores or stores which specialize in leather working materials. Classes in leather carving may also sometimes be offered, for people who are interested in getting started.
The best leather for leather carving is vegetable tanned, since the tanning process allows the leather to absorb water when it is cased. In addition, it should be top grain leather, meaning that all of the layers of the leather, from the outermost layers to the bottom, are intact. Top grain leather is thick and able to handle carving at various depths. Conditioned top grain leather is available at leather working stores, in a variety of colors and sometimes with different finishes applied, to meet the varying needs of leather artisans.