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#1 RawhideLeather

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Posted 18 December 2007 - 06:17 PM

Hello fellow leathersmiths. I decided to post this hand stitching guide to hopefully help others avoid the trial and error and weeping and wailing that I encountered when learning how to hand stitch properly and to humbly attempt to contribute to the forum which I perceive as a wonderful thing. If only this type of information had been around when I was first learning! My heartfelt thanks to you Johanna! I offer my apologies beforehand if any of this has been previously addressed as I'm sure that some of it has been.

This guide is not meant to be all encompassing but merely to add to the wealth of information readily available in books. I very highly recommend the book "The Art of Hand Sewing Leather" by Al Stohlman. Al's wife Ann probably hand stitched more items in her lifetime than most of us will ever dream of so why try to reinvent the wheel? I stitch mostly knife sheaths that are approx. 1/2" thick and there are a few hard earned tricks and tips that I'm happy to pass along to my fellow crafters. Since about all I make right now is knife sheaths, this guide may be slanted slightly towards that style of stitching.

Disclaimer: I have only been doing leatherwork off and on for about 40 years now, mostly as a hobby, but as a full time business in the last couple of years. I don't claim to know everything there is to know about hand stitching or to have all the answers. Please note that these are merely my own opinions and observations and are not meant to disparage anyone else's methodology by any means. The way I have learned to stitch works well for me but I don't want to imply that it is the absolute best for everyone else. You are all entitled to your own opinions just as I am. If I make a mistake or two I'm sure someone will be nice enough to point it out for me ; -).

First off, I highly recommend you buy or make yourself a stitching horse. I made the stitching pony that is detailed in the book mentioned above. It was a lot of work to be sure, but it was also a challenging fun project and the end result was worth it to me. If you decide to go this route feel free to email me for a couple of time saving suggestions. I haven't seen one of these in person but the one in the Weaver catalog appears to be well made and at a decent price. They only sell wholesale to licensed businesses though (by the way, a retail license isn't expensive or difficult to come by - do some research online for the state you live in if you're interested in getting one). I'm sure there are some other good stitching horses out there as well. The stitching horse will free up both your hands for double needle stitching and hold the work securely and at the proper level for comfortable stitching.

I have read how some folks like to use a drill or punch or such for the stitching holes. This method could result in a hole that is too big, is difficult to keep aligned correctly on the backside of the project and may not look professional as a result. It also can allow for a looser thread fit which is not very desirable especially if the thread becomes broken somewhere down the road. A diamond shaped awl is the proper tool for the job in my opinion and when done correctly will be almost invisible giving a much neater appearance and more secure stitch. I use a saddler's harness awl for the job.

After roughing up the welt area on the flesh side of the sheath as well as the welt itself on both sides with a hand leather rougher that's made for the job, I then apply the glue (Barge's rubber cement works for me) and allow it to dry for a minimum of 10 minutes. I then assemble the sheath and use spring clamps around the edge with a piece of doubled buckskin underneath the clamps to protect the leather from clamp marks and allow the glue to dry. Then I sand the edge even on a belt sander which makes for a nice smooth even edge. The even edge makes it easier to get a nice uniform channel gouge and also makes it easier to burnish later. I use a 4" x 36" belt sander with a 120 grit belt for this. You can finish sand with a finer grit if you desire. As an aside, your local pawn shop is a great place to pick up some cheap shop tools if you are a bargain hunter like I am. I've purchased the belt sander, a drill press and other tools in great shape for as little as 1/3 the new cost. It helps to have an idea of the item's new price beforehand and be willing to dicker. I rarely pay over 1/2 the new cost for a used tool no matter how good the condition unless it is something I need right away. Don't pay any attention to the sticker price as they intentionally are marked high (sometimes ridiculously so) to allow for dickering which they fully expect from an experienced pawn shop patron. Check the date on the sticker. If the item has been sitting there for more than a few weeks they are more likely to be motivated to move the merchandise at a great price. Usually you can find one shop in your area that has the most reasonable prices and/or is easier to dicker with.

Now, back to stitching! I prefer to gouge a stitching channel on both sides of my sheaths with a stitch groover so that the thread sits just below the surface of the leather. This will protect the stitching from abrasion and will make your work last longer. It also gives you a guide on the backside when pushing the awl through. Of course to do this the leather must be thick enough so as not to weaken it. I would be leery of using the gouge on leather under 8 oz. or so myself. Alternatively, you can dampen the stitch area and merely depress the channel with an edge creaser or similar tool if preferred though this will make stabbing the holes more difficult. After gouging a channel I dampen it and run an appropriate sized stitching space marker in the channel to keep the stitches evenly spaced. I prefer a spacer that has 6 or 7 stitches per inch for my sheaths. I also run the spacer over the stitches when I have completed the sheath. This evens out the stitches and gives it a more finished look. It also helps to make white thread white again, at least with Nyltex it does.

I have found that the textured rubber palmed gloves that you can buy at Harbor Freight and elsewhere work much better for me than leather gloves or just my bare fingers as they offer a much better grip to pull the needles through with less effort, plus they last for a good long while. Since I use the double needle method I use both gloves. I also very highly recommend buying 2 sewing palms - one for each hand. It is basically a piece of leather that fits over your thumb and wraps around your palm which has a vinyl bound iron thimble sewed to it just below the thumb. The palms make pushing the needles through much, much easier as well as safer! I use the large blunt tip egg-eye harness needles size 4 or 5. These help avoid the needle piercing the previous thread when pushing the 2nd needle through which would create a bit of a problem. I prefer the awl haft with the chuck on it rather than the handle with a needle shoved in it which can become loose over time.

Make sure your awl haft fits comfortably in the palm of your hand. Mine didn't so I cut some off the end and sanded it to a slight roundness. You may also want to drill a small hole through the handle near the end and thread a piece or stout thread or cord through it as well as through the sewing palm. Why do this? Well after I dropped mine on concrete for the 2nd time (strangely they ALWAYS seem to land on the blade tip!) and had to spend a couple of hours each time re-sharpening the awl blade I finally got smart - at least temporarily :-). I like to use Nyltex thread. It is good and strong and there is no need for any thread preparation except maybe to cut an angle at the ends to make threading the needles easier, but thread of course is a personal choice.

OK, we should be about ready to clamp the sheath in the horse and start stitching! I prefer to have my work extending above the jaws by about a half inch or so, that way I can support the work on the back side with my thumb and forefinger as I stab with the awl and it also gives me room to angle the awl up or down if I miss the center of the channel. I also make sure I keep the stitching line parallel to the top of the stitching horse jaws so that my awl stabs are always at the correct angle. You should backstitch at least a couple of threads at the beginning and end of the sewing depending on the thickness of the leather. I usually start by stabbing 3 holes and start my first stitch in the 3rd hole and stitch backwards to the 1st hole and then proceed forward. A pair of linesman's pliers helps to pull the last needle through the double stitched holes. You should always start your first stitch from the back side of the project by the way to be sure you get the needle in the correct hole in case you had to make an adjustment. When I get to the 3rd hole again I only stab one hole at a time from then on. One of the best tips I can give you is this one: don't just stab the awl all the way through and hope for the best as you will certainly be disappointed with the results! I use my index finger on my awl hand as a stop (keep this in mind if you have to shorten your awl haft) so that the awl is just barely peeking out of the other side. I take a quick look at it dead-on and if it isn't in the center of the channel but is close I merely push or pull the awl handle up or down to compensate and then push it through (this is why I find it helps to wear a bright headlamp so that I can clearly see what I am doing on both sides of the work, it also helps when I'm cutting leather). This forces the awl back towards the center and works well. If its nearer the edge of the channel or out of the channel entirely just pull the awl back about half way, adjust the angle and try again! With practice you will soon be able to get it in the center most of the time on the first try. Using this method your missed awl stabs won't be visible and your stitching should be pretty uniform. This is one of the big advantages of stitching with an awl - you can't do that type of correction with a drill bit. Once drilled, it's there for good. Of course when pushing the awl through it is very important to look down directly over the awl so that you can keep it perpendicular to the work. When I am finished backstitching at the end of the project I simply cut the thread flush to the surface. There is no need to tie a knot as the backstitching will hold the thread tight. To cut the thread, I have found that nothing beats a toe nail clipper with a slightly rounded head for quickly cutting the thread flush with the surface with no fear of damaging the leather or nearby threads as is quite possible with a knife.

Since the awl blade must be consistently stabbed at the correct angle (about 45 degrees) in relationship to the channel (please refer to Al Stohlman's book), I sanded a small flat spot on my awl haft (handle) as a quick visual reference point once I got the angle where it should be. I have found that a very sharp awl blade is a must - buy the best you can find. I believe Bob Douglas at Sheridan Leather Outfitters in Sheridan, Wy. has some very good ones. I have also found that even with a sharp blade stabbing through thick leather can be tough sometimes especially with harder leather so what I discovered is that if the awl is first stabbed a short distance into a cake of beeswax it lubricates the awl blade allowing it to pierce the leather easier. If it's still hard to punch the awl through then you need to sharpen or maybe just hone your blade which is an art form unto itself. I made a large tapered hole near the top of my stitching horse's right clamp that is the same size and taper as a new cake of beeswax and just shoved a new cake in there. Since the hole was tapered to a smaller diameter as it goes in, the cake won't fall out when pushed against with the awl even though the hole goes completely through the wood. One cake has lasted for several months with plenty of wax to go. I can just do a quick jab into the cake without letting go of the awl or needles before I stab each hole. I only stab one hole at a time as the holes seem to close back up fairly quickly. I find it's also easier to establish a rhythm this way. I takes me about half an hour to stitch up 9" of completed work with the double needle method and that's taking my time and stitching 1/2" thick leather. Since I stitch a lot of the same items I prefer to cut my thread to the length I will be needing so that I don't have hardly any left over when I'm done rather than using a length that is way too long and harder to work with. It is easy to figure out how much thread you use per inch for different thicknesses of leather if you make notes of how long the thread is when you start and how much you have left when you've finished. Just try to make sure you have enough thread so that you don't run out of it before you're done or you will waste time trying to get going again. You can figure to use about 7 times your stitching length for your thread length (that's for stitching about 1/2" thickness). Your time isn't cheap but thread is!

Well, I guess that's about it. The rest is covered better than I possibly could in the book and it has illustrations to boot. I strongly urge you to learn how to stitch as suggested in Al's book. By not setting down the awl or dropping the needles you will become much more productive in time. I can't say I do everything exactly as suggested in the book (such as exactly how to hold the awl and needles) but I have adopted most of it. Find what works best for you by experimenting. It does take a while to get comfortable with this method and it will feel awkward at first but I have tried others and have found this to be the fastest as well as the most ergonomic method and one which produces the most professional looking stitches as well. Just start out slowly and methodically while practicing on scrap and have patience - it will come to be second nature in time. If I can learn how at my age anyone can! I hope this guide has helped in some small way to those of you that are striving to learn this style of hand stitching. Good luck and Happy Stitching!

#2 rdb

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Posted 18 December 2007 - 06:45 PM

Thanx RawhideLeather. Clear and concise. Good tip/trick for keeping the beeswax nearby.
If there isn't a sewing "sticky", this should be one.
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#3 Luke Hatley

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Posted 18 December 2007 - 08:13 PM

RAWHIDE DID AN EXCELLENT JOB ON HAND SEWING AND IT WILL BE APPRECIATED
BY A LOT OF FOLKS.
BUT TO KEEP A LOT OF YOU LEATHER CRAFTSMAN IN THE KNOW...BUY THE BOOK AT TANDYS THE
"ART OF HAND SEWING" by AL STOLHMAH IT WILL HELP YOU 100%
Luke

#4 Warren

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Posted 18 December 2007 - 11:25 PM

Al Stohlmans book is great. It's what I used to learn. But it doesn't mean I know it all and you brought up some great ideas. I like the wax idea a lot. Also the gloves. Thanks so much for posting this!

#5 ozhaggishead

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Posted 10 December 2009 - 06:53 AM

Thanks........:coffeecomp:....:smashcomp:......:thumbsup:

#6 dustin29

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Posted 10 December 2009 - 11:03 AM

Thank You Rawhide Leather!! You helped me out alot.

#7 Bullshank

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Posted 21 February 2010 - 07:50 AM

Thanks for this post. You make it sound so simple! I wish u had a pic of ur stitch horse. I have only been making whips but am trying to expand my horizons and really want to make some bags/backpacks as well as other goods. Thanks for a great post.

#8 Hagarsez

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Posted 09 April 2010 - 03:19 PM

Hello fellow leathersmiths. I decided to post this hand stitching guide to hopefully help others avoid the trial and error and weeping and wailing that I encountered when learning how to hand stitch properly and to humbly attempt to contribute to the forum which I perceive as a wonderful thing. If only this type of information had been around when I was first learning! My heartfelt thanks to you Johanna! I offer my apologies beforehand if any of this has been previously addressed as I'm sure that some of it has been.

This guide is not meant to be all encompassing but merely to add to the wealth of information readily available in books. I very highly recommend the book "The Art of Hand Sewing Leather" by Al Stohlman. Al's wife Ann probably hand stitched more items in her lifetime than most of us will ever dream of so why try to reinvent the wheel? I stitch mostly knife sheaths that are approx. 1/2" thick and there are a few hard earned tricks and tips that I'm happy to pass along to my fellow crafters. Since about all I make right now is knife sheaths, this guide may be slanted slightly towards that style of stitching.

Disclaimer: I have only been doing leatherwork off and on for about 40 years now, mostly as a hobby, but as a full time business in the last couple of years. I don't claim to know everything there is to know about hand stitching or to have all the answers. Please note that these are merely my own opinions and observations and are not meant to disparage anyone else's methodology by any means. The way I have learned to stitch works well for me but I don't want to imply that it is the absolute best for everyone else. You are all entitled to your own opinions just as I am. If I make a mistake or two I'm sure someone will be nice enough to point it out for me ; -).

First off, I highly recommend you buy or make yourself a stitching horse. I made the stitching pony that is detailed in the book mentioned above. It was a lot of work to be sure, but it was also a challenging fun project and the end result was worth it to me. If you decide to go this route feel free to email me for a couple of time saving suggestions. I haven't seen one of these in person but the one in the Weaver catalog appears to be well made and at a decent price. They only sell wholesale to licensed businesses though (by the way, a retail license isn't expensive or difficult to come by - do some research online for the state you live in if you're interested in getting one). I'm sure there are some other good stitching horses out there as well. The stitching horse will free up both your hands for double needle stitching and hold the work securely and at the proper level for comfortable stitching.

I have read how some folks like to use a drill or punch or such for the stitching holes. This method could result in a hole that is too big, is difficult to keep aligned correctly on the backside of the project and may not look professional as a result. It also can allow for a looser thread fit which is not very desirable especially if the thread becomes broken somewhere down the road. A diamond shaped awl is the proper tool for the job in my opinion and when done correctly will be almost invisible giving a much neater appearance and more secure stitch. I use a saddler's harness awl for the job.

After roughing up the welt area on the flesh side of the sheath as well as the welt itself on both sides with a hand leather rougher that's made for the job, I then apply the glue (Barge's rubber cement works for me) and allow it to dry for a minimum of 10 minutes. I then assemble the sheath and use spring clamps around the edge with a piece of doubled buckskin underneath the clamps to protect the leather from clamp marks and allow the glue to dry. Then I sand the edge even on a belt sander which makes for a nice smooth even edge. The even edge makes it easier to get a nice uniform channel gouge and also makes it easier to burnish later. I use a 4" x 36" belt sander with a 120 grit belt for this. You can finish sand with a finer grit if you desire. As an aside, your local pawn shop is a great place to pick up some cheap shop tools if you are a bargain hunter like I am. I've purchased the belt sander, a drill press and other tools in great shape for as little as 1/3 the new cost. It helps to have an idea of the item's new price beforehand and be willing to dicker. I rarely pay over 1/2 the new cost for a used tool no matter how good the condition unless it is something I need right away. Don't pay any attention to the sticker price as they intentionally are marked high (sometimes ridiculously so) to allow for dickering which they fully expect from an experienced pawn shop patron. Check the date on the sticker. If the item has been sitting there for more than a few weeks they are more likely to be motivated to move the merchandise at a great price. Usually you can find one shop in your area that has the most reasonable prices and/or is easier to dicker with.

Now, back to stitching! I prefer to gouge a stitching channel on both sides of my sheaths with a stitch groover so that the thread sits just below the surface of the leather. This will protect the stitching from abrasion and will make your work last longer. It also gives you a guide on the backside when pushing the awl through. Of course to do this the leather must be thick enough so as not to weaken it. I would be leery of using the gouge on leather under 8 oz. or so myself. Alternatively, you can dampen the stitch area and merely depress the channel with an edge creaser or similar tool if preferred though this will make stabbing the holes more difficult. After gouging a channel I dampen it and run an appropriate sized stitching space marker in the channel to keep the stitches evenly spaced. I prefer a spacer that has 6 or 7 stitches per inch for my sheaths. I also run the spacer over the stitches when I have completed the sheath. This evens out the stitches and gives it a more finished look. It also helps to make white thread white again, at least with Nyltex it does.

I have found that the textured rubber palmed gloves that you can buy at Harbor Freight and elsewhere work much better for me than leather gloves or just my bare fingers as they offer a much better grip to pull the needles through with less effort, plus they last for a good long while. Since I use the double needle method I use both gloves. I also very highly recommend buying 2 sewing palms - one for each hand. It is basically a piece of leather that fits over your thumb and wraps around your palm which has a vinyl bound iron thimble sewed to it just below the thumb. The palms make pushing the needles through much, much easier as well as safer! I use the large blunt tip egg-eye harness needles size 4 or 5. These help avoid the needle piercing the previous thread when pushing the 2nd needle through which would create a bit of a problem. I prefer the awl haft with the chuck on it rather than the handle with a needle shoved in it which can become loose over time.

Make sure your awl haft fits comfortably in the palm of your hand. Mine didn't so I cut some off the end and sanded it to a slight roundness. You may also want to drill a small hole through the handle near the end and thread a piece or stout thread or cord through it as well as through the sewing palm. Why do this? Well after I dropped mine on concrete for the 2nd time (strangely they ALWAYS seem to land on the blade tip!) and had to spend a couple of hours each time re-sharpening the awl blade I finally got smart - at least temporarily :-). I like to use Nyltex thread. It is good and strong and there is no need for any thread preparation except maybe to cut an angle at the ends to make threading the needles easier, but thread of course is a personal choice.

OK, we should be about ready to clamp the sheath in the horse and start stitching! I prefer to have my work extending above the jaws by about a half inch or so, that way I can support the work on the back side with my thumb and forefinger as I stab with the awl and it also gives me room to angle the awl up or down if I miss the center of the channel. I also make sure I keep the stitching line parallel to the top of the stitching horse jaws so that my awl stabs are always at the correct angle. You should backstitch at least a couple of threads at the beginning and end of the sewing depending on the thickness of the leather. I usually start by stabbing 3 holes and start my first stitch in the 3rd hole and stitch backwards to the 1st hole and then proceed forward. A pair of linesman's pliers helps to pull the last needle through the double stitched holes. You should always start your first stitch from the back side of the project by the way to be sure you get the needle in the correct hole in case you had to make an adjustment. When I get to the 3rd hole again I only stab one hole at a time from then on. One of the best tips I can give you is this one: don't just stab the awl all the way through and hope for the best as you will certainly be disappointed with the results! I use my index finger on my awl hand as a stop (keep this in mind if you have to shorten your awl haft) so that the awl is just barely peeking out of the other side. I take a quick look at it dead-on and if it isn't in the center of the channel but is close I merely push or pull the awl handle up or down to compensate and then push it through (this is why I find it helps to wear a bright headlamp so that I can clearly see what I am doing on both sides of the work, it also helps when I'm cutting leather). This forces the awl back towards the center and works well. If its nearer the edge of the channel or out of the channel entirely just pull the awl back about half way, adjust the angle and try again! With practice you will soon be able to get it in the center most of the time on the first try. Using this method your missed awl stabs won't be visible and your stitching should be pretty uniform. This is one of the big advantages of stitching with an awl - you can't do that type of correction with a drill bit. Once drilled, it's there for good. Of course when pushing the awl through it is very important to look down directly over the awl so that you can keep it perpendicular to the work. When I am finished backstitching at the end of the project I simply cut the thread flush to the surface. There is no need to tie a knot as the backstitching will hold the thread tight. To cut the thread, I have found that nothing beats a toe nail clipper with a slightly rounded head for quickly cutting the thread flush with the surface with no fear of damaging the leather or nearby threads as is quite possible with a knife.

Since the awl blade must be consistently stabbed at the correct angle (about 45 degrees) in relationship to the channel (please refer to Al Stohlman's book), I sanded a small flat spot on my awl haft (handle) as a quick visual reference point once I got the angle where it should be. I have found that a very sharp awl blade is a must - buy the best you can find. I believe Bob Douglas at Sheridan Leather Outfitters in Sheridan, Wy. has some very good ones. I have also found that even with a sharp blade stabbing through thick leather can be tough sometimes especially with harder leather so what I discovered is that if the awl is first stabbed a short distance into a cake of beeswax it lubricates the awl blade allowing it to pierce the leather easier. If it's still hard to punch the awl through then you need to sharpen or maybe just hone your blade which is an art form unto itself. I made a large tapered hole near the top of my stitching horse's right clamp that is the same size and taper as a new cake of beeswax and just shoved a new cake in there. Since the hole was tapered to a smaller diameter as it goes in, the cake won't fall out when pushed against with the awl even though the hole goes completely through the wood. One cake has lasted for several months with plenty of wax to go. I can just do a quick jab into the cake without letting go of the awl or needles before I stab each hole. I only stab one hole at a time as the holes seem to close back up fairly quickly. I find it's also easier to establish a rhythm this way. I takes me about half an hour to stitch up 9" of completed work with the double needle method and that's taking my time and stitching 1/2" thick leather. Since I stitch a lot of the same items I prefer to cut my thread to the length I will be needing so that I don't have hardly any left over when I'm done rather than using a length that is way too long and harder to work with. It is easy to figure out how much thread you use per inch for different thicknesses of leather if you make notes of how long the thread is when you start and how much you have left when you've finished. Just try to make sure you have enough thread so that you don't run out of it before you're done or you will waste time trying to get going again. You can figure to use about 7 times your stitching length for your thread length (that's for stitching about 1/2" thickness). Your time isn't cheap but thread is!

Well, I guess that's about it. The rest is covered better than I possibly could in the book and it has illustrations to boot. I strongly urge you to learn how to stitch as suggested in Al's book. By not setting down the awl or dropping the needles you will become much more productive in time. I can't say I do everything exactly as suggested in the book (such as exactly how to hold the awl and needles) but I have adopted most of it. Find what works best for you by experimenting. It does take a while to get comfortable with this method and it will feel awkward at first but I have tried others and have found this to be the fastest as well as the most ergonomic method and one which produces the most professional looking stitches as well. Just start out slowly and methodically while practicing on scrap and have patience - it will come to be second nature in time. If I can learn how at my age anyone can! I hope this guide has helped in some small way to those of you that are striving to learn this style of hand stitching. Good luck and Happy Stitching!


Rawhide,
As a rank newbe to leather work as a new hobby for a 'OLD' horse (73) that don't dare go around power tools after a stroke, I thank you for your expertise and instruction. I tried one project BEFORE I read this and almost was ready to Quit !
Gerry101@mac.com

#9 Demetra Gayle

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Posted 16 March 2011 - 12:54 PM

Hello-- Thank you for your handstitching article. It was very thorough & clearly written. Do you have photos to add to it now?? Would love to see them if you do. Thanks again!

Demetra Gayle

Hello fellow leathersmiths. I decided to post this hand stitching guide to hopefully help others avoid the trial and error and weeping and wailing that I encountered when learning how to hand stitch properly and to humbly attempt to contribute to the forum which I perceive as a wonderful thing. If only this type of information had been around when I was first learning! My heartfelt thanks to you Johanna! I offer my apologies beforehand if any of this has been previously addressed as I'm sure that some of it has been.

This guide is not meant to be all encompassing but merely to add to the wealth of information readily available in books. I very highly recommend the book "The Art of Hand Sewing Leather" by Al Stohlman. Al's wife Ann probably hand stitched more items in her lifetime than most of us will ever dream of so why try to reinvent the wheel? I stitch mostly knife sheaths that are approx. 1/2" thick and there are a few hard earned tricks and tips that I'm happy to pass along to my fellow crafters. Since about all I make right now is knife sheaths, this guide may be slanted slightly towards that style of stitching.

Disclaimer: I have only been doing leatherwork off and on for about 40 years now, mostly as a hobby, but as a full time business in the last couple of years. I don't claim to know everything there is to know about hand stitching or to have all the answers. Please note that these are merely my own opinions and observations and are not meant to disparage anyone else's methodology by any means. The way I have learned to stitch works well for me but I don't want to imply that it is the absolute best for everyone else. You are all entitled to your own opinions just as I am. If I make a mistake or two I'm sure someone will be nice enough to point it out for me ; -).

First off, I highly recommend you buy or make yourself a stitching horse. I made the stitching pony that is detailed in the book mentioned above. It was a lot of work to be sure, but it was also a challenging fun project and the end result was worth it to me. If you decide to go this route feel free to email me for a couple of time saving suggestions. I haven't seen one of these in person but the one in the Weaver catalog appears to be well made and at a decent price. They only sell wholesale to licensed businesses though (by the way, a retail license isn't expensive or difficult to come by - do some research online for the state you live in if you're interested in getting one). I'm sure there are some other good stitching horses out there as well. The stitching horse will free up both your hands for double needle stitching and hold the work securely and at the proper level for comfortable stitching.

I have read how some folks like to use a drill or punch or such for the stitching holes. This method could result in a hole that is too big, is difficult to keep aligned correctly on the backside of the project and may not look professional as a result. It also can allow for a looser thread fit which is not very desirable especially if the thread becomes broken somewhere down the road. A diamond shaped awl is the proper tool for the job in my opinion and when done correctly will be almost invisible giving a much neater appearance and more secure stitch. I use a saddler's harness awl for the job.

After roughing up the welt area on the flesh side of the sheath as well as the welt itself on both sides with a hand leather rougher that's made for the job, I then apply the glue (Barge's rubber cement works for me) and allow it to dry for a minimum of 10 minutes. I then assemble the sheath and use spring clamps around the edge with a piece of doubled buckskin underneath the clamps to protect the leather from clamp marks and allow the glue to dry. Then I sand the edge even on a belt sander which makes for a nice smooth even edge. The even edge makes it easier to get a nice uniform channel gouge and also makes it easier to burnish later. I use a 4" x 36" belt sander with a 120 grit belt for this. You can finish sand with a finer grit if you desire. As an aside, your local pawn shop is a great place to pick up some cheap shop tools if you are a bargain hunter like I am. I've purchased the belt sander, a drill press and other tools in great shape for as little as 1/3 the new cost. It helps to have an idea of the item's new price beforehand and be willing to dicker. I rarely pay over 1/2 the new cost for a used tool no matter how good the condition unless it is something I need right away. Don't pay any attention to the sticker price as they intentionally are marked high (sometimes ridiculously so) to allow for dickering which they fully expect from an experienced pawn shop patron. Check the date on the sticker. If the item has been sitting there for more than a few weeks they are more likely to be motivated to move the merchandise at a great price. Usually you can find one shop in your area that has the most reasonable prices and/or is easier to dicker with.

Now, back to stitching! I prefer to gouge a stitching channel on both sides of my sheaths with a stitch groover so that the thread sits just below the surface of the leather. This will protect the stitching from abrasion and will make your work last longer. It also gives you a guide on the backside when pushing the awl through. Of course to do this the leather must be thick enough so as not to weaken it. I would be leery of using the gouge on leather under 8 oz. or so myself. Alternatively, you can dampen the stitch area and merely depress the channel with an edge creaser or similar tool if preferred though this will make stabbing the holes more difficult. After gouging a channel I dampen it and run an appropriate sized stitching space marker in the channel to keep the stitches evenly spaced. I prefer a spacer that has 6 or 7 stitches per inch for my sheaths. I also run the spacer over the stitches when I have completed the sheath. This evens out the stitches and gives it a more finished look. It also helps to make white thread white again, at least with Nyltex it does.

I have found that the textured rubber palmed gloves that you can buy at Harbor Freight and elsewhere work much better for me than leather gloves or just my bare fingers as they offer a much better grip to pull the needles through with less effort, plus they last for a good long while. Since I use the double needle method I use both gloves. I also very highly recommend buying 2 sewing palms - one for each hand. It is basically a piece of leather that fits over your thumb and wraps around your palm which has a vinyl bound iron thimble sewed to it just below the thumb. The palms make pushing the needles through much, much easier as well as safer! I use the large blunt tip egg-eye harness needles size 4 or 5. These help avoid the needle piercing the previous thread when pushing the 2nd needle through which would create a bit of a problem. I prefer the awl haft with the chuck on it rather than the handle with a needle shoved in it which can become loose over time.

Make sure your awl haft fits comfortably in the palm of your hand. Mine didn't so I cut some off the end and sanded it to a slight roundness. You may also want to drill a small hole through the handle near the end and thread a piece or stout thread or cord through it as well as through the sewing palm. Why do this? Well after I dropped mine on concrete for the 2nd time (strangely they ALWAYS seem to land on the blade tip!) and had to spend a couple of hours each time re-sharpening the awl blade I finally got smart - at least temporarily :-). I like to use Nyltex thread. It is good and strong and there is no need for any thread preparation except maybe to cut an angle at the ends to make threading the needles easier, but thread of course is a personal choice.

OK, we should be about ready to clamp the sheath in the horse and start stitching! I prefer to have my work extending above the jaws by about a half inch or so, that way I can support the work on the back side with my thumb and forefinger as I stab with the awl and it also gives me room to angle the awl up or down if I miss the center of the channel. I also make sure I keep the stitching line parallel to the top of the stitching horse jaws so that my awl stabs are always at the correct angle. You should backstitch at least a couple of threads at the beginning and end of the sewing depending on the thickness of the leather. I usually start by stabbing 3 holes and start my first stitch in the 3rd hole and stitch backwards to the 1st hole and then proceed forward. A pair of linesman's pliers helps to pull the last needle through the double stitched holes. You should always start your first stitch from the back side of the project by the way to be sure you get the needle in the correct hole in case you had to make an adjustment. When I get to the 3rd hole again I only stab one hole at a time from then on. One of the best tips I can give you is this one: don't just stab the awl all the way through and hope for the best as you will certainly be disappointed with the results! I use my index finger on my awl hand as a stop (keep this in mind if you have to shorten your awl haft) so that the awl is just barely peeking out of the other side. I take a quick look at it dead-on and if it isn't in the center of the channel but is close I merely push or pull the awl handle up or down to compensate and then push it through (this is why I find it helps to wear a bright headlamp so that I can clearly see what I am doing on both sides of the work, it also helps when I'm cutting leather). This forces the awl back towards the center and works well. If its nearer the edge of the channel or out of the channel entirely just pull the awl back about half way, adjust the angle and try again! With practice you will soon be able to get it in the center most of the time on the first try. Using this method your missed awl stabs won't be visible and your stitching should be pretty uniform. This is one of the big advantages of stitching with an awl - you can't do that type of correction with a drill bit. Once drilled, it's there for good. Of course when pushing the awl through it is very important to look down directly over the awl so that you can keep it perpendicular to the work. When I am finished backstitching at the end of the project I simply cut the thread flush to the surface. There is no need to tie a knot as the backstitching will hold the thread tight. To cut the thread, I have found that nothing beats a toe nail clipper with a slightly rounded head for quickly cutting the thread flush with the surface with no fear of damaging the leather or nearby threads as is quite possible with a knife.

Since the awl blade must be consistently stabbed at the correct angle (about 45 degrees) in relationship to the channel (please refer to Al Stohlman's book), I sanded a small flat spot on my awl haft (handle) as a quick visual reference point once I got the angle where it should be. I have found that a very sharp awl blade is a must - buy the best you can find. I believe Bob Douglas at Sheridan Leather Outfitters in Sheridan, Wy. has some very good ones. I have also found that even with a sharp blade stabbing through thick leather can be tough sometimes especially with harder leather so what I discovered is that if the awl is first stabbed a short distance into a cake of beeswax it lubricates the awl blade allowing it to pierce the leather easier. If it's still hard to punch the awl through then you need to sharpen or maybe just hone your blade which is an art form unto itself. I made a large tapered hole near the top of my stitching horse's right clamp that is the same size and taper as a new cake of beeswax and just shoved a new cake in there. Since the hole was tapered to a smaller diameter as it goes in, the cake won't fall out when pushed against with the awl even though the hole goes completely through the wood. One cake has lasted for several months with plenty of wax to go. I can just do a quick jab into the cake without letting go of the awl or needles before I stab each hole. I only stab one hole at a time as the holes seem to close back up fairly quickly. I find it's also easier to establish a rhythm this way. I takes me about half an hour to stitch up 9" of completed work with the double needle method and that's taking my time and stitching 1/2" thick leather. Since I stitch a lot of the same items I prefer to cut my thread to the length I will be needing so that I don't have hardly any left over when I'm done rather than using a length that is way too long and harder to work with. It is easy to figure out how much thread you use per inch for different thicknesses of leather if you make notes of how long the thread is when you start and how much you have left when you've finished. Just try to make sure you have enough thread so that you don't run out of it before you're done or you will waste time trying to get going again. You can figure to use about 7 times your stitching length for your thread length (that's for stitching about 1/2" thickness). Your time isn't cheap but thread is!

Well, I guess that's about it. The rest is covered better than I possibly could in the book and it has illustrations to boot. I strongly urge you to learn how to stitch as suggested in Al's book. By not setting down the awl or dropping the needles you will become much more productive in time. I can't say I do everything exactly as suggested in the book (such as exactly how to hold the awl and needles) but I have adopted most of it. Find what works best for you by experimenting. It does take a while to get comfortable with this method and it will feel awkward at first but I have tried others and have found this to be the fastest as well as the most ergonomic method and one which produces the most professional looking stitches as well. Just start out slowly and methodically while practicing on scrap and have patience - it will come to be second nature in time. If I can learn how at my age anyone can! I hope this guide has helped in some small way to those of you that are striving to learn this style of hand stitching. Good luck and Happy Stitching!



#10 King's X

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Posted 16 March 2011 - 04:29 PM

Thanks for taking the time to write this up and post it for others to see/use!
Greetings from Central Texas!

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#11 TexasLady

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Posted 25 June 2011 - 06:55 PM

6/25/11
What a great article! I'd made a very thick, hand-stitched sheath for my nice Gingher, 8" scissors, a couple of years ago, as one of my first projects. I've so much enjoyed keeping my scissors in that sheath. Yet, the back side of my stitching is crooked,... not wildly crooked,... just not 'straight'. I've been making small knife sheaths today, from scraps. I intend to give one to each of my fellow students in a college class I'm taking,... and one for the teacher,... 14 in all. (Yes, I know,... What was I thinking?) I bought little paring knives at the Dollar Store. They come 4 for a dollar on a card -- all the way from China, of course. I stamped each student's initials on the fronts of the knife sheaths. Plus girls get a rose with leaves, and boys get a daisy with leaves. I've punched out the holes, because, before reading your article, I didn't know how to get the backside to look good, and the punched holes at least take care of 'that' problem. I just loved your meticulous description of how to get the stitching to look good on both sides. I have copied and pasted what you wrote to a Word doc. and saved it to my computer's documents. I look forward to trying out every tip you've given when I make my future knife sheaths. Thanks so much. - TexasLady

Edited by TexasLady, 25 June 2011 - 06:59 PM.


#12 Kieran

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Posted 20 August 2011 - 08:29 AM

One little trick I find very useful, if you are stitching throuh thick leather, Get a Champagne cork. hold the flat end of the cork against the leather, it will help support the leather and you will never get an awl blade in your finger again.

#13 GADDABOUT

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Posted 30 October 2011 - 09:34 AM

Rawhide your write up is great. There is a better way to hand stitch than the method you use.
Get an awl half and a needle from The American Straigh needle or one for the Landis 16. These needles have a hook on one end and sharp enough to make it's own hole. Get a long length of thread you intend to use. Push your need thru the leather where you intend to start. Hook your thread over the needle and apply preasure to keep it on hook. Pull the thread thru. Now pull one end thru so you have a thread on each side. Now push needle thru, form a loop and hook the needle with it. Keep pressure on it while pushing it thru. Pull enough thru to form a loop that you can pass the other end thru. Pull both end tight so they can form a lock stitch in the middle just like a sewing machine does. This is very easy and fast.


#14 leathershaper

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Posted 23 March 2012 - 09:15 AM

I appreciate the article. I was using the awl from the wrong side. I could never understand why my holes look so horrible. I was also doing all the holes before stiching. It sure helps when you do it the correct way. Once again Thanks.

#15 Thunderingthompson

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Posted 29 March 2012 - 06:53 PM

could you share the pattern for thestitching horse ?

Cheers
James

Hello fellow leathersmiths. I decided to post this hand stitching guide to hopefully help others avoid the trial and error and weeping and wailing that I encountered when learning how to hand stitch properly and to humbly attempt to contribute to the forum which I perceive as a wonderful thing. If only this type of information had been around when I was first learning! My heartfelt thanks to you Johanna! I offer my apologies beforehand if any of this has been previously addressed as I'm sure that some of it has been.

This guide is not meant to be all encompassing but merely to add to the wealth of information readily available in books. I very highly recommend the book "The Art of Hand Sewing Leather" by Al Stohlman. Al's wife Ann probably hand stitched more items in her lifetime than most of us will ever dream of so why try to reinvent the wheel? I stitch mostly knife sheaths that are approx. 1/2" thick and there are a few hard earned tricks and tips that I'm happy to pass along to my fellow crafters. Since about all I make right now is knife sheaths, this guide may be slanted slightly towards that style of stitching.

Disclaimer: I have only been doing leatherwork off and on for about 40 years now, mostly as a hobby, but as a full time business in the last couple of years. I don't claim to know everything there is to know about hand stitching or to have all the answers. Please note that these are merely my own opinions and observations and are not meant to disparage anyone else's methodology by any means. The way I have learned to stitch works well for me but I don't want to imply that it is the absolute best for everyone else. You are all entitled to your own opinions just as I am. If I make a mistake or two I'm sure someone will be nice enough to point it out for me ; -).

First off, I highly recommend you buy or make yourself a stitching horse. I made the stitching pony that is detailed in the book mentioned above. It was a lot of work to be sure, but it was also a challenging fun project and the end result was worth it to me. If you decide to go this route feel free to email me for a couple of time saving suggestions. I haven't seen one of these in person but the one in the Weaver catalog appears to be well made and at a decent price. They only sell wholesale to licensed businesses though (by the way, a retail license isn't expensive or difficult to come by - do some research online for the state you live in if you're interested in getting one). I'm sure there are some other good stitching horses out there as well. The stitching horse will free up both your hands for double needle stitching and hold the work securely and at the proper level for comfortable stitching.

I have read how some folks like to use a drill or punch or such for the stitching holes. This method could result in a hole that is too big, is difficult to keep aligned correctly on the backside of the project and may not look professional as a result. It also can allow for a looser thread fit which is not very desirable especially if the thread becomes broken somewhere down the road. A diamond shaped awl is the proper tool for the job in my opinion and when done correctly will be almost invisible giving a much neater appearance and more secure stitch. I use a saddler's harness awl for the job.

After roughing up the welt area on the flesh side of the sheath as well as the welt itself on both sides with a hand leather rougher that's made for the job, I then apply the glue (Barge's rubber cement works for me) and allow it to dry for a minimum of 10 minutes. I then assemble the sheath and use spring clamps around the edge with a piece of doubled buckskin underneath the clamps to protect the leather from clamp marks and allow the glue to dry. Then I sand the edge even on a belt sander which makes for a nice smooth even edge. The even edge makes it easier to get a nice uniform channel gouge and also makes it easier to burnish later. I use a 4" x 36" belt sander with a 120 grit belt for this. You can finish sand with a finer grit if you desire. As an aside, your local pawn shop is a great place to pick up some cheap shop tools if you are a bargain hunter like I am. I've purchased the belt sander, a drill press and other tools in great shape for as little as 1/3 the new cost. It helps to have an idea of the item's new price beforehand and be willing to dicker. I rarely pay over 1/2 the new cost for a used tool no matter how good the condition unless it is something I need right away. Don't pay any attention to the sticker price as they intentionally are marked high (sometimes ridiculously so) to allow for dickering which they fully expect from an experienced pawn shop patron. Check the date on the sticker. If the item has been sitting there for more than a few weeks they are more likely to be motivated to move the merchandise at a great price. Usually you can find one shop in your area that has the most reasonable prices and/or is easier to dicker with.

Now, back to stitching! I prefer to gouge a stitching channel on both sides of my sheaths with a stitch groover so that the thread sits just below the surface of the leather. This will protect the stitching from abrasion and will make your work last longer. It also gives you a guide on the backside when pushing the awl through. Of course to do this the leather must be thick enough so as not to weaken it. I would be leery of using the gouge on leather under 8 oz. or so myself. Alternatively, you can dampen the stitch area and merely depress the channel with an edge creaser or similar tool if preferred though this will make stabbing the holes more difficult. After gouging a channel I dampen it and run an appropriate sized stitching space marker in the channel to keep the stitches evenly spaced. I prefer a spacer that has 6 or 7 stitches per inch for my sheaths. I also run the spacer over the stitches when I have completed the sheath. This evens out the stitches and gives it a more finished look. It also helps to make white thread white again, at least with Nyltex it does.

I have found that the textured rubber palmed gloves that you can buy at Harbor Freight and elsewhere work much better for me than leather gloves or just my bare fingers as they offer a much better grip to pull the needles through with less effort, plus they last for a good long while. Since I use the double needle method I use both gloves. I also very highly recommend buying 2 sewing palms - one for each hand. It is basically a piece of leather that fits over your thumb and wraps around your palm which has a vinyl bound iron thimble sewed to it just below the thumb. The palms make pushing the needles through much, much easier as well as safer! I use the large blunt tip egg-eye harness needles size 4 or 5. These help avoid the needle piercing the previous thread when pushing the 2nd needle through which would create a bit of a problem. I prefer the awl haft with the chuck on it rather than the handle with a needle shoved in it which can become loose over time.

Make sure your awl haft fits comfortably in the palm of your hand. Mine didn't so I cut some off the end and sanded it to a slight roundness. You may also want to drill a small hole through the handle near the end and thread a piece or stout thread or cord through it as well as through the sewing palm. Why do this? Well after I dropped mine on concrete for the 2nd time (strangely they ALWAYS seem to land on the blade tip!) and had to spend a couple of hours each time re-sharpening the awl blade I finally got smart - at least temporarily :-). I like to use Nyltex thread. It is good and strong and there is no need for any thread preparation except maybe to cut an angle at the ends to make threading the needles easier, but thread of course is a personal choice.

OK, we should be about ready to clamp the sheath in the horse and start stitching! I prefer to have my work extending above the jaws by about a half inch or so, that way I can support the work on the back side with my thumb and forefinger as I stab with the awl and it also gives me room to angle the awl up or down if I miss the center of the channel. I also make sure I keep the stitching line parallel to the top of the stitching horse jaws so that my awl stabs are always at the correct angle. You should backstitch at least a couple of threads at the beginning and end of the sewing depending on the thickness of the leather. I usually start by stabbing 3 holes and start my first stitch in the 3rd hole and stitch backwards to the 1st hole and then proceed forward. A pair of linesman's pliers helps to pull the last needle through the double stitched holes. You should always start your first stitch from the back side of the project by the way to be sure you get the needle in the correct hole in case you had to make an adjustment. When I get to the 3rd hole again I only stab one hole at a time from then on. One of the best tips I can give you is this one: don't just stab the awl all the way through and hope for the best as you will certainly be disappointed with the results! I use my index finger on my awl hand as a stop (keep this in mind if you have to shorten your awl haft) so that the awl is just barely peeking out of the other side. I take a quick look at it dead-on and if it isn't in the center of the channel but is close I merely push or pull the awl handle up or down to compensate and then push it through (this is why I find it helps to wear a bright headlamp so that I can clearly see what I am doing on both sides of the work, it also helps when I'm cutting leather). This forces the awl back towards the center and works well. If its nearer the edge of the channel or out of the channel entirely just pull the awl back about half way, adjust the angle and try again! With practice you will soon be able to get it in the center most of the time on the first try. Using this method your missed awl stabs won't be visible and your stitching should be pretty uniform. This is one of the big advantages of stitching with an awl - you can't do that type of correction with a drill bit. Once drilled, it's there for good. Of course when pushing the awl through it is very important to look down directly over the awl so that you can keep it perpendicular to the work. When I am finished backstitching at the end of the project I simply cut the thread flush to the surface. There is no need to tie a knot as the backstitching will hold the thread tight. To cut the thread, I have found that nothing beats a toe nail clipper with a slightly rounded head for quickly cutting the thread flush with the surface with no fear of damaging the leather or nearby threads as is quite possible with a knife.

Since the awl blade must be consistently stabbed at the correct angle (about 45 degrees) in relationship to the channel (please refer to Al Stohlman's book), I sanded a small flat spot on my awl haft (handle) as a quick visual reference point once I got the angle where it should be. I have found that a very sharp awl blade is a must - buy the best you can find. I believe Bob Douglas at Sheridan Leather Outfitters in Sheridan, Wy. has some very good ones. I have also found that even with a sharp blade stabbing through thick leather can be tough sometimes especially with harder leather so what I discovered is that if the awl is first stabbed a short distance into a cake of beeswax it lubricates the awl blade allowing it to pierce the leather easier. If it's still hard to punch the awl through then you need to sharpen or maybe just hone your blade which is an art form unto itself. I made a large tapered hole near the top of my stitching horse's right clamp that is the same size and taper as a new cake of beeswax and just shoved a new cake in there. Since the hole was tapered to a smaller diameter as it goes in, the cake won't fall out when pushed against with the awl even though the hole goes completely through the wood. One cake has lasted for several months with plenty of wax to go. I can just do a quick jab into the cake without letting go of the awl or needles before I stab each hole. I only stab one hole at a time as the holes seem to close back up fairly quickly. I find it's also easier to establish a rhythm this way. I takes me about half an hour to stitch up 9" of completed work with the double needle method and that's taking my time and stitching 1/2" thick leather. Since I stitch a lot of the same items I prefer to cut my thread to the length I will be needing so that I don't have hardly any left over when I'm done rather than using a length that is way too long and harder to work with. It is easy to figure out how much thread you use per inch for different thicknesses of leather if you make notes of how long the thread is when you start and how much you have left when you've finished. Just try to make sure you have enough thread so that you don't run out of it before you're done or you will waste time trying to get going again. You can figure to use about 7 times your stitching length for your thread length (that's for stitching about 1/2" thickness). Your time isn't cheap but thread is!

Well, I guess that's about it. The rest is covered better than I possibly could in the book and it has illustrations to boot. I strongly urge you to learn how to stitch as suggested in Al's book. By not setting down the awl or dropping the needles you will become much more productive in time. I can't say I do everything exactly as suggested in the book (such as exactly how to hold the awl and needles) but I have adopted most of it. Find what works best for you by experimenting. It does take a while to get comfortable with this method and it will feel awkward at first but I have tried others and have found this to be the fastest as well as the most ergonomic method and one which produces the most professional looking stitches as well. Just start out slowly and methodically while practicing on scrap and have patience - it will come to be second nature in time. If I can learn how at my age anyone can! I hope this guide has helped in some small way to those of you that are striving to learn this style of hand stitching. Good luck and Happy Stitching!




Hi I am new to leather working, Looking for ward to learning from all you pro's out there





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