Finishing Leather Edges

Posted on: January 27th, 2015 by Jamie @ Leathersmith Designs

Quality Increased by Finishing Leather Edges

When I was in my early teens, I first discovered the importance of finishing leather edges well.  The finishing methods learned and discussed in this article apply to vegetable tanned leather which is a firmer leather as opposed to soft garment or soft bag leathers.

In the 1970’s, while still in Junior High School, I was selling my leather goods at the Festival of the Arts.  A stranger commented that he liked my work. However he nicely pointed out that if my leather edges were smooth where the  leather was sewn together, it would add to the overall quality.

It turned out that this stranger was the internationally recognized leather sculptor Rex Lingwood that was living in Halifax at the time.  His sculptures have been exhibited widely in North America, Europe, Great Britain and Australia in both group and solo presentations.  I also proudly own a leather craft book he wrote called “Leather In Three Dimensions”.  When I asked for some suggestions, he kindly invited me to visit his studio and he shared some edge finishing techniques with me.  The main thing I was neglecting to do was sand my edges smooth.

Sander For Finishing Leather Edges

Over the years since then, I have had different pieces of equipment set up for sanding leather edges by various sanding drums. Some drums were home made wooden wheels with foam and sandpaper attached that my Uncle Clint Wilson made for me on his lathe. At one point I even bought a 7 foot shoe maker’s finishing machine that had numerous wheels for working on edges. As my shop became more congested with tools and workbenches, I sold this large shoe repair leather edge finisher as it was taking up too much space for what I needed to do.

Finishing leather edges of knife case on sanding drum.

Finishing leather edges of knife case by sanding it smooth.

Twenty some years ago I converted a furnace blower motor into a edge finishing sander.  I had asked a furnace repairman to save a motor for me when a furnace was being discarded.  At the time I used a sanding drum from Sears.  I bought a bunch of sanding sleeves at the time but many years later, when I tried to buy more sanding sleeves I found they were no longer carried for that size drum any more.  Apparently Sears had discontinued that tool line.

I called many wood tool companies trying to find an alternative and got great results with Lee Valley Tools. Bob who works at Lee Valley Tools in Halifax came up with the solution for me when he asked what I was trying to do.  He sold me a nice drum set kit and a shaft adapter.  He suggested I could pick up a 1/2 inch drill chuck from Princess Auto since he no longer carried them.  I wanted to continue to use my motor and hold my leather products vertically to sand the edges.  I suppose I could put a sanding drum in a drill press and run my work horizontally but I was used to finishing leather edges this one way for decades. As well, I was used to seeing work held vertically for sanding at a shoe repair shop I used to visit regularly after school when I was a teenager.

Drum sander with motor set up for finishing leather edges.

Motorized drum sander made for finishing leather edges.

This homemade leather edge finisher that I use in my leather shop everyday consists of a furnace blower motor with an electric switch purchased at a hardware store for turning it on and off.  An extension cord has been cut and attached to the motor so I can plug the motor into a wall socket.  You can check with an electrician to do this as well as switching wires to change the rotation direction of the motor should you have to do so.  The board is C clamped to a workbench for easy removal in case I need the bench space.

The shaft adapter attaches to the motor shaft with two allen key bolts. The drill chuck screws onto the threaded end of the shaft adapter. Choose a sanding drum size and sanding sleeve grit from the Lee Valley Tool kit and tighten it in the chuck with a drill key.

To cut down on leather dust from the sander, I screwed a leather strap loop to a piece of wood to insert my shop vac tube into near the sanding disc.  I still advise using eye protectors and a shop mask even though the shop vac captures most of the leather dust from sanding the leather edges.

Beveling Leather Edges

Leather edge rounded with beveler leather craft tool.

Rounding corner of leather edge with beveler leather craft tool.

After the edges are sanded, I continue finishing leather edges by rounding the corners with a beveling hand tool.  The larger the number on the beveling leather tools, the more leather is removed from the corner of the edge.

Coloring & Burnishing Edges

The last step of finishing leather edges seems to vary from leather worker to leather worker.  Each leather worker seems to have their own preference for coloring and burnishing the leather edge.   There are a lot of leather dyes and finishes to choose from.

Edge finish applied with foam applicator along edge of leather.

Applying Fiebing’s Edge Kote with sponge applicator to leather edge.

I have used Fiebings Edge Kote for years to give a hard color leather finish.  The leather can be smoothed down by burnishing the edge with a denim cloth that had been coated with beeswax.  Burnishing is smoothing the leather edge with friction by rubbing it with a cloth in one direction for a number of times until smooth.

For years I used to attend craft shows where a fellow leather craftsman used to apply Fiebing’s Leather Dye to the edge of belts. Then he would rub paste saddle soap into the edge and burnish with a cloth.  The edge was slicked very smooth with this leather edge finishing technique.

A saddle maker from years ago that had his leather carvings displayed in art exhibits used another technique that gave a smooth glass edge finish.  He dyed the edge with Fiebing’s Leather Dye.  Then he dampened the leather edge with water and slicked it numerous times with denim or waxed paper.

When I used to visit shoe repair shops, they would use an edge ink on the edge of the shoe’s sole.  This edge ink contained a wax that made a smooth waxed edge when the inked leather sole edge was heated from the friction of a rotating rubber finishing wheel.

Some leather workers even made their own finish from a mixture of corn starch and water which they applied to the dyed leather edge.  Other leather crafts people use acrylic leather paint while others just apply the leather dye without doing anything else.

If the leather edge is nice and smooth, you have lots of leeway in developing your own personal preference for finishing leather edges with different dyes, waxes, finishes and burnishing techniques.  A well finished edge improves the overall look of your leather craft project.

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Posted in Leather Craft Techniques

10 Responses

  1. Charles Newcomb says:

    Thank you! Edge finishing has always been difficult for to get right . Your tips have made it much easier.

  2. Paul says:

    I like making my own tools, it gives the projects a more ‘I’ve done that feel’ thank you for the ideas.

    • Yes it is a nice feeling to have created something yourself. I am not skilled in making tools but starting off in leather 40 years ago, I ended up making a lot of my own leather craft tools due to lack of finances. They included imprint stamps made from grinding and filing spike heads, awls made from grinding screw drivers into diamond point shapes, hole slot punch made for a project at my school’s metal shop, anvil hand cut and ground from railway track, work bench made from tree stump, table attachment and jigs for my sewing machine, electric leather groover with guides from a router etc.

  3. Subhpratik Bhattacharjee says:

    Serves as a great help. Am still confused about the difference between edge ink, and edge paint. Also, what wax do they use in making edge Inks as it peels off in Tropical climate and on oily leathers. Am using edge ink from SESN and of Girba, both are at par. Would be grateful if you revert.

    • I am not familiar at all with SESN or Girba brands that you are using. I have always used Fiebings leather finishes which are made in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. Fiebings products work great in USA and Canada climates. You could check directly with Fiebings to see if there are any issues with using them in tropical climates. Their website is http://www.fiebing.com/ . We have used Fiebings Edge Kote and Fiebings Acrylic Dyes on our tooling leather products that have been conditioned with neatsfoot oil and we have never had problems with peeling. The edge inks I referred to in the post are used by shoe repair shops and would not be suitable on a lot of other leather products as some edge ink brands have some color rub off but they do work great on shoe sole edges.

      • Blini says:

        Hey thanks for the feed back. I tried using fiebing but it keeps peeling off from oily leathers. Then I found out a method of using solvents like diethyl glycol and it turned out pretty well when made into an emulsion with wax. Works wonders now.

  4. Tomas VL says:

    HELP PLEASE!

    I cut some bracelets in the lasercutting machine and the leather looks firm and smooth, but for some reason when I apply the edge coat, the leather starts to wrinkle, like as if I had it for years!! I bought the edge coat at Tandy leather, what could be happening? Please.help me feel free to contact me on my email. lecuonatomas@gmail.com

    Greetings from MX!

    • We have been using http://www.leathersmithdesigns.com/edge-kote-118ml/ since the mid 1970’s and never experienced what you described so I don’t think I will be of much help. We cut all our shapes with a knife or cutter. I have no experience with laser cutting. I could be wrong, but isn’t laser cutting burning through the leather by laser? If the edge is burnt, maybe the edge kote doesn’t react well with it. Another thing to consider is did your edge kote freeze when shipped to your supplier. Some water base leather products get ruined if they freeze and thaw. Let me know if you find an answer.

 

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