There aren't any big secrets about Leatherworking, but the craft can be a bit overwhelming to dive into in the beginning. I asked a Leatherworker I looked up to about getting into the craft, and he gave me great piece of advice. He told me not to buy a beginner's starter kit because I'd probably end up with a bunch of tools I won't use. He then said to "let the project you want to do, dictate the tools you need." This is fantastic advice, but what tools do I buy?!
Disclaimer: Normally my philosophy is to "buy the best, cry once", but with the breadth of tools needed for Leatherworking, it can be a huge investment to buy the best of everything right away. (Will you even stick with your new hobby? Of course you will :) Just checking!) I started out buying many of the tools below, and slowly upgraded them as my projects dictated. A friend of mine asked me how to get into working with leather, and I offered to write him a list of tools he'll need, as well as send him some of the older tools that I had outgrown, which is part of what inspired this post. Most of the lesser expensive tools will do the job just fine for the hobbyist, but if you get serious about the Craft, you'll need to step up your tool game a little. Below you'll find a list that spans both the tools you'll need to get started, and the tools you'll need to get serious. (And if you’re curious about some advanced tools, here’s the link to Part II of this tool buying guide.)
The options for tools are pretty limitless. It didn't seem like that at first, but the more reading I did online about working with leather, the more tools I discovered. In the beginning of any hobby one gets into, there's always a startup cost. A balance needs to be struck between buying enough tools to get started, and not buying too much in case it doesn't work out. That caution about overspending in the beginning can lead to buying cheaper version of tools that will most certainly need to be replaced at some point in order to move forward with the craft. My favorite example of this was a Diamond Shaped Awl Blade from Tandy Leather Factory. Don't get me wrong, Tandy has a lot of good stuff, and the fact that they're so accessible and convenient helps out a lot in the beginning. I got a fantastic book from Tandy to get me started called "The Art of Hand Sewing Leather" by Al Stohlman. Stohlman recommended getting an Awl Haft (the handle that holds the Awl Blade), and a diamond shaped Awl Blade. Tandy has both of those things! Perfect! I placed my first order with Tandy that included a giant side of vegetable tanned leather (which ended up being 1/4" thick. Honestly, I had no idea about leather weights and what they were used for, so what did I know?), waxed linen thread, needles, an awl haft and a diamond shaped blade. I was well on my way and so excited about it. Into the haft the blade went, and ready to poke some holes! No leather was safe! Not so fast. I had no idea how hard it was to poke holes in leather. I went online and found out that my Tandy blade needed to be sharpened in order to effectively do its job. I have a Tri-Stone sharpener for my kitchen knives, and began grinding it down so that all four sides of the blade were sharp and smooth, and the tip came to fine, sharp point. Ahh.....Now we're in business. My hand stitching improved dramatically now that I could get through the leather, and the two hours I spent sharpening that blade were really worth it. After some extended use, the tip of the blade started to bend, and I had to bend it back to keep stitching. It started happening more regularly, and I started looking into other options. I came upon a Leatherworking forum online, and one of the members mentioned how great the Douglas Tools blades were from Sheridan Leather (which sadly closed in May '16). At $27/each, they'd better be good because my $8 blade that I spent 2 hours sharpening was pretty good..... wait. I plunked down the $27 for one blade, and my World of Leather was forever changed. That new blade glided through the leather with ease, and it went through many layers as if they were one. I've been using the same blade now for 4 years, and I think it's safe to say I got my money's worth.
Update (December 22, 2016): I've added affiliate links to some of the tools/items found below, which means if you purchase an item with the provided links, I get a small percentage of the sale which helps to keep this site up and running.
Awl Haft - There are so many wonderful options out there for Awl Hafts and many of them are beautifully hand crafted out of Cocobolo and other exotic woods. Barry King has several sizes for any size hand. The handles with a flat side are great because they won't roll off of your workbench when you put them down.
Mallet or Maul - ($25-$100)- Never use a metal hammer with your leather tools because it'll damage them. Most mallets and mauls that Leatherworkers use are with Poly or Rawhide. I bought one of these for my starter mallet, and it did the job for quite a while without any issues. When I started getting into bigger projects, I started to see the need for some heavier mallets. It's ok to have multiple mallets/mauls in different sizes because they can all be used for different things. If I had to do it all over again, I would just buy one of these from the start.
Stitching Pony - ($20-$100) - This is a must. A stitching pony holds your project for you, which allows you to use both hands for stitching. I made my first one from lumber I had laying around, but at $19.99, it's totally worth it to buy the cheap one. If this new hobby is your destiny, and you're really committed, you can spring for the more expensive version that'll be a bit more versatile and assist you with a broader range of projects.
Stitching Groover - ($30) - This tool will cut a groove at a preset distance from the edge of the leather and leave a recessed area for your stitches to lay. When the stitches are recessed, they aren't as prone to wear and tear, and look more professional. This one isn't great but it'll serve you very well for getting started with leather.
Overstitch Wheel - ($20) - Once you have your groove cut, use the overstitch wheel to mark the inside of the groove with little divots that'll tell you where to poke your hole with your awl. This makes for evenly spaced, straight stitches and will really step up your game and make your stitching look much more professional. I still use the one I got at Tandy when I first started out.
Steel Square - ($10) - This is an absolute must. I use this for every single project. Helps cut straight and square :) Here's the Tandy version.
Utility Knife or X-Acto Knife - I used this utility knife for a while with lots of success. I've used it less recently as I've been doing finer work with more detail, and I've been using this X-Acto with these blades for a while too. There's always fresh, sharp, and inexpensive blades available. Not exactly very sturdy, and can waver a little when cutting so you need to be really paying attention, or you'll start cutting crookedly. I have one of these beautiful knives that I've been using more and more lately. It stays very sharp with regular stropping, and is quite sturdy, and I highly recommend it.
Skiver - ($75-$130) Thinning down leather is an important step when rolling edges or reducing bulk at the end of a strap. There are big expensive bench tools that can accomplish this task, but I really feel like it’s a basic skill that leatherworkers should master by hand with a Skiving Knife. These knives can be used for general purpose cutting, but really shine as skivers. I started with a basic model, but upgraded to this Aogami Super Blue, and I have to say, Holy Cow. I thought I knew what sharp was before I started using this beast, but I was so wrong.
Edger - An edger takes a square, raw edge, and cuts off the sharp portion, leaving a smooth rounded edge. There’s all different sizes and shapes for all of your projects. I recently picked up one of these gorgeous handmade edgers by Ron’s Tools and it’s not only beautiful, but works like a champ.
Cutting Mat - ($10-$20) - Protect your work surface with a self-healing mat. They come in different sizes and will work on whatever you decide to call your workbench.
Japanese Cutting Mat - ($49) - An indispensable and safe place to use punches, irons, and cutting tools. This thick mat is soft enough to be kind to your tools, but firm and thick enough that it’ll stop your tools from going all the way through. I use this atop my granite slab to make the ultimate punching surface.
Compass - ($25) - A compass, or "scratch-compass" isn't totally necessary, but it's nice to have. It's great for checking spacing, marking distances from edges, finding the middle of a piece, and 1,000 other things.
Japanese Thread Scissors - ($27) - A perfect little tool to keep around for your hand stitching. These little scissors have been by my side for years whenever I’m stitching and work fantastically. I can’t recommend them enough.
Edge Slicker - ($2) - Add a finished look to your pieces with some moisture, and friction created with this.
Edge Finishing - A little burnishing gum and a piece of canvas really transformed my edges. With the right amount of friction and patience, you can achieve professional looking edges consistently. If you’re so inclined, you can even apply some edge paint.
Drive Punches - There will be lots of holes to punch for belts, buckles, rivets, snaps, etc., so you'll need to get some punches. These drive punches at Tandy are more than adequate and have served me quite well since the beginning. They come in all different sizes and you'll have to let your project dictate which sizes you'll need.
Strap Cutter - A Classic. It cuts straps, belts, strips, etc. You get the idea.
Needles - I use these Harness Needles and break them very infrequently, and they've been very good to me. John James needles are also terrific and come in a variety of sizes so you can find the size that’s right for you.
Thread - There are two brands of thread that are the Gold Standard in the leather world, and I’ll talk a little about each one here. Maine Thread Company makes 100% waxed polyester thread in Maine, USA, which is fantastic stuff and I've been using it for years. I use 0.035" for most projects. The other is Ritza Tiger, which is absolutely gorgeous and comes in a huge variety of rich colors. What I really like about Tiger thread is that it’s braided and sits very neatly against the leather when stitched and has a lovely wax content. I personally prefer the 1.0mm size (which is very close to the 0.035” Maine Thread).
Wet Molding Tools - Making cases/sheaths for your tools a great way to protect them, but it’s also a great way practice some fundamental leatherworking skills. These Barry King Molders are really helpful to get wet molded leather closely contoured around your items. Once you’ve honed your case/sheath making skills, it’s a natural step to larger knife sheaths, holsters, and even pockets for bags.
Glue - Stabilizing your piece before stitching is really important and glueing edges together effectively is how that’s accomplished. I’ve been using Barge religiously for years, and I can’t recommend it enough. However, sometimes you need to glue in tight areas and a goopy rubber-like cement simply won’t do. In those instances, I’ve been very happy with this awesome water-based French glue or this Japanese version, and sometimes apply it with these little precision bottles. They put exactly what you want, exactly where you want it. I’ve been using expired credit cards to spread glue across large areas, but recently discovered these awesome little spreaders. They’re perfect for smaller applications when accuracy matters.
Pricking Irons - My advice is to learn how to stitch with an awl first, but once you’ve mastered that, you’ll definitely want to dive into some pricking irons. They’re great for pre-punching stitching holes which saves a lot of time when you sit down with your needles and thread. There are lots of these on the market at various price points, but it’s worth investing in quality when it comes to your irons. At a minimum, you’ll want one with 2 teeth for going around corners, and one with multiple teeth (the more the better) for long stitch runs. If you’re looking for an inexpensive option to get you started, you can try these Japanese style diamond irons.
Wholesale Club - Tandy has a membership club which has an annual fee of $35, but saves you about 15% off of every purchase. It's worth considering as it'll pay for itself in no time. They also recently started a Military Appreciation Program that's completely free and gives an Elite Membership to Active Duty, Veterans, and their spouses, for life.
A Great (Modern) Book On The Subject - Michael Gartner at Lone Wolf Leather in Sweden recently released his gorgeous book in English titled Lone Wolf Leatherworking, and it's filled with tips and tricks, projects, and tools. It's a gorgeous book for reference and inspiration.
Lastly, but certainly not least... LEATHER! This is a beginner grade, tooling side. It's Veg-Tanned Leather that's great for all sorts of projects. This link will send you to a 5-6oz weight which is a good weight to start with as it's great for lots of projects. A little too thick for a wallet, but has a million other uses. It's not a high quality leather, but great for practicing. Once you've honed your skills, you can step up to some nicer leather.
This is only a small sampling of the tools I use, and I could think of a hundred more to talk about, but I wanted to give a basic introduction to some of the basic tools necessary for Leathercraft. Let your projects dictate the tools you need, and if you have ANY questions about a project you're considering, let me know and I'll answer the best I can, and also point you in the direction of the right tool for the job. I've made plenty of mistakes buying tools, and it would be delighted to prevent you from doing the same. It's my absolute pleasure to share my experiences with anyone who's interested in pursuing Leather craft.
In case you missed the link tucked away in the text above, I've created an advanced version of this list if you're looking to expand your Leather Tool Arsenal even more.