What Are The Best Knives For Leather Working?
I spoke a little about the ways to cut leather in my ´How To Start Leatherworking, A Comprehensive Guide´ post, so feel free to check that out for some more pointers, but I want to go over cutting leather again, and discuss some of the options you have when it comes to buying a knife to cut your leather.
Learning how to cut leather isn´t particularly difficult, but doing it right is something you will learn with a little time and patience. Each cut you make in leather needs to be as precise as you can get it, as the end result is dependent on this.
If you don't get all of your lines straight, your stitching line will not look perfect, or you wont be able to get a perfectly burnished edge, so choosing the correct type of knife depending on the type of leather you will be cutting is very important.
What are some examples of leather cutting tools?
Some of the most commonly used tools to cut leather are a rotary cutter, a box cutter/utility knife, or a craft knife. You will probably end up with an assortment of them all as they all have their place in leatherworking. You also have heavy duty scissors to cut leather, skiving knives to slim down parts of a piece of leather to reduce bulk and a whole variety of punches.
The most important thing about your leather cutting tool is that it should always be sharp, and you should´t have hardly any movement where your blade is inserted into the tool. The tip of the blade may need to be a little flexible if you are cutting an intricate pattern, but the setting of the blade should be sturdy, so you can make an economical choice, but do not go for a bad quality tool to cut your leather.
How Do You Prepare Your Leather Before Cutting It?
You need to have a place to cut your leather, the tools you will be using to cut your leather, and a clean and tidy working environment, pretty simple to get started. But let me go into a little more detail and let you know what I think are the essentials to pay attention to when cutting leather, and what you will need.
Where should I cut leather? What is a cutting mat?
No matter what type of leather you are going to be cutting, you want it to be on a flat surface free of any debris, and preferably on a cutting mat. If you cut leather on a slippery surface like marble or glass, the blade will shoot off once you apply pressure to it, cutting an unwanted section of your leather.
If you cut your leather on a wood surface, the blade will dig in to the wood, and will either not move, go the wrong way or you will just dull or snap your blade. A cutting mat is the perfect base to cut leather on, and they come in all shapes and sizes to suit the space you have available to you.
A cutting mat is exactly what it sounds like, a mat, but it has some special qualities that are really surprising. A cutting mat you can use for cutting leather is made up of layers of a special type of PVC. When you are making cuts on the mat, you will of course be making marks in the mat, and I thought this would become a significant expense because we cut on them and punch holes all the time.
But whatever it is in the materials they use, most of the cuts you make that go through to the mat will just self heal over time.
It really does mean that, the mat heals itself over time, and I have not looked in to this too much to be able to let you know what kind of sorcery is going on here, but I can tell you it most definitely works, so to have the perfect place to cut your leather, you have to get yourself a cutting mat.
Cutting mats are pretty cheap, and come in different colors and sizes, but I prefer the green ones. You can also get the mats with measurements and angles drawn in to the mat and this is very very useful. You can do quick measurements, cut angles, a square patch of leather and all without having to measure. A must have in a leather workers tool kit.
How do you mark leather before cutting?
To cut leather, you want to have a nice and visible straight line, and something to guide you to cut it. You will have to mark your lines with a scratch awl and a ruler, then using the ruler again, you rest in on the line, apply pressure so the ruler does not slip and you are ready to cut the leather.
It is always best practice to mark your leather with an awl, but if you don't have an awl this doesn't mean your project goes on hold, you can just use a needle or something metal and pointy and you will be able to get away with this for now, but get yourself a scratch awl.
When you are doing this, you don't want to have the awl at too steep an angle because you don't want the point cutting in to the leather too much and you don't want the angle to be so straight that the tip gets no purchase to leave a mark,
You need it somewhere in between when you can feel the point catching the leather, but you have little resistance when pulling the awl across the leather. This will become second nature to you in no time, but I remember at the start never knowing how much pressure to put when marking the leather.
Do you need a special ruler for cutting leather?
You don't need something too out of the ordinary, a ruler is still a ruler, but we just need a little something extra when choosing our ruler for leatherworking that makes it better suited to our purpose.
A metal ruler is the best option here, because if you have a plastic or wooden ruler, the blade will just keep hitting the edge and chipping away at it. You also need a ruler with different measuring systems on it. One that has inches on one side and cm/mm on the other. A lot of people measure in inches, but when it comes to precision work we need mm.
The most important part of the ruler for me at least has been to make sure you have a cork backing. When I first started leatherworking and began cutting leather, the ruler used to slip all the time and I would make uneven cuts, cut my fingers, and I did a little looking into it, and ended up sticking thin pieces cut from a wine cork and sticking them to the back of my ruler.
There really was no need to do this as they are really cheap to buy, but what the cork on the ruler does is allow you to apply a lot of pressure to the ruler whilst cutting the leather and it won´t slip. This is really useful and needed when you are cutting through thick leather as this requires a lot more pressure on the knife so you don´t want it slipping.
Now lets move on to the best part, the types of knives we use to cut leather.
Using an X-acto knife to cut leather
I used a few of these kinds of blades when I started leatherworking, but the ones I got were not good quality, the blades didn´t fit great and they were too flexible. This made it very hard to cut leather, but I did not know any better, so I carried on using them until I had a better understanding of cutting leather.
Eventually, I bought myself a number of X-acto knives, and not that you need a lot of them, I just like shiny things and I kind of collect good blades now. But the reason the X-Acto craft knife is great for cutting leather is because first it is cheap, but the tool itself is very sturdy, the blade fits perfectly, and the handle is comfortable to hold.
You don't need to get one with all the bells and whistles. You just need a blade that is simple, has minimal moving parts and is made well. The blades on these knives stay sharp for a while too, but you want to run the blade over leather a few times before and after each use to make sure you keep it sharp.
I will give you a tip I use when the handle of a blade is too thin. You know those silicone hoops you can buy that kids use on their pencils for better grip, but a couple of those from your local stationary shop, it will make a huge difference, especially if your hands get a little sweaty.
Using this type of tool to cut leather is used a lot when cutting thinner types of leather. I would say anything up to 5oz or 2mm and you can use the x-acto knife pretty comfortably.
Different types of precision blades to cut leather
You can also get different shaped blades on precision cutters, there are curved blades, straight bladed, flat wide blades, small thin ones and they can all have their uses. I made a stack of cable holders shaped like a dog head once, and I got a lot of orders one Christmas and had to cut each one out by hand, and they had a lot of detail so I got pretty good with a smaller blade.
I had to cut around some really odd angles, so I experimented with a number of different shaped blades, curved scalpels for cutting leather, and found that some were easier to manoeuvre than others and I could get cleaner cuts on the leather.
This kit comes with three different sized stems, the two metal ones are really handy, and the thicker one is nice when you are cutting thicker pieces of leather because you get a better grip and can apply pressure. The larger plastic handle though, I find you don´t have a great amount of control over the blade, and i couldn't be very precise.
So for your smaller projects and precision cuts on leather, a good quality smaller type knife will be a perfect way to go. Always stay safe when using a blade as well, these are very sharp blades, and just a small slip and best case you will not be making anything for a little while.
If you have experience using tools then just take the general precautions, but if you feel like you have too little control over the blade, you can get yourself a pair of cut proof gloves until you feel more comfortable managing the sharp tools.
I never used gloves, I have pretty tough hands from swinging tools and shovels for half my life, but there were times I wished I had used them. I had a nasty accident with a rotary cutter and went through to the bone once because I wasn´t paying attention. I also slipped with an edge bevel once, and you all know how it feels to take a chip out of your fingertip, but I leave the choice up to you.
Cutting Leather With A Utility Knife
I know I keep going over the differences, but I don't want to confuse anyone, so once again, this blade is called by many variations such as a box cutter, a carpet knife and for the English among us a Stanley blade. But they are all really the same thing.
When it comes to using a box cutter to cut leather, I have been through so many of these. In the name of saving money, I bought so many cheap ones that all ended up in the tool box outside. You tend to think that the prices are high on some things for no reason, for the name, but brand and quality is something to pay attention to in leatherworking.
Best type of box cutter for leather
When you are cutting leather with this type of blade, you want to have minimal movement when the blade touches the leather. If the tool is not made well, the blade is not fitted exactly to fit the dimensions of the tool, then you will have some wiggle. You do not want a fixed blade to move when you are trying to cut a straight line, so make sure you get a good quality blade if you will be using them to cut leather.
My favorite brand for this has always been a Stanley Knife. They come in many different shapes and sizes, some with a fixed blade, some with an adjustable, and somewhere you can even change the angle of the handle, but I keep a standard single fixed blade Stanley knife that has been the go to for carpet cutting for decades, so you can trust it will outlast you.
I could tell you to go buy the most expensive one out there, but I have been using this type of blade since I was a kid. My family was in construction, so I have always been around tools, and to cut straight lines through leather, there is no better, more reliable tool.
Once you start looking, there are other variations with a longer blade you can snap off, or if you lose stuff allot like me, you have the Stanley Fat Max Pro option where you can actually store your blades in the knife, and this is also a good option, otherwise the basic one will do.
You can find other makers out there, and any similar utility knife you can find that is good quality will do just as good of a job. You will need to change the blades from time to time, and you can sharpen them as well if you want, but you just take one screw off, change or turn the blade over until both sides have been used to their limit, and you can change the blade really easily.
What utility knives you should not use to cut leather
If you can, avoid using blades that fold. A good quality knife will have a high quality locking mechanism, so it less likely you have a mishap, But if you are using a folding knife that feels flimsy, or hasn´t really been tested that well, you want to stay away from a folding blade.
As I mention quite frequently, when cutting leather the first rule is to be cautious. So if I can limit the chances of an accident, then I always will. Having a folding blade to cut leather is increasing your risk of a mishap, so if you do get one of those, make sure it is a good quality one with a very good locking mechanism.
Also avoid using any cheap blade replacements, It may look like blades are the same, but you will find that if you have a retractable blade that comes in sections and you need to snap the top part when it gets dull, a cheap blade may shatter and send an unwanted piece of leather toward you, so buy good quality blades, they really are not expensive.
Another is using a cheap x-acto type blade. You don't want the tip flicking off and coming toward you because you wanted to save a few pennies, so be cautious.
Are Rotary Cutters Good For Cutting Leather
Using a rotary cutter to cut leather is also pretty popular. Once you get used to managing the blade, you can cut out a lot of shapes with it, but I tend to use it for long straight lines or curves. It´s good to use the ruler to cut a straight line in leather even when you are using a rotary cutter.
There are some leather workers out here that cut straight lines freehand, and this is quite the skill to develop, but until then, always use a ruler to guide the blade when cutting leather.
Unless it´s a box cutter, in which case I always choose the Stanley brand, I tend to go for Fiskars next. I lived on a farm as a kid and used to do a lot of large scale gardening, and a lot of the tools were made by Fiskars, and I just remember them always being sharp and working really well, so I carried this over into my adulthood.
The coveted Half Moon Blade for leatherworking
This is the blade for the pro´s, or just for those of you that have a really steady hand. I have always wanted to buy one of these as it makes me really feel like a that point I am a fully fledged leatherworker, and it is just such a pretty thing, how could you not want one.
As you would mostly use this type of blade freehand, you can cut almost anything with this knife but it will require a lot of care, and a good one can be pretty expensive. If you are interested in a decent one that won´t cost you an arm and a leg and want to start getting your practice in from now, then the Tandy Leather Al Stohlman Brand Round Leathercraft Knife is a great option.
The shape of the blade and handle give you the freedom to direct the blade in any way you want, and I would advise watching a lot of video tutorials to get as many tips as possible, and just practise with the knife cutting paper or cardboard so you get a good grasp on how to handle the blade before moving on to cutting leather.
So these will be the main types of blades you will come across in leather working. There are hole punches, and curved punches and a whole assortment of things that make holes in leather, but that is a post for another day.
What are some frequently asked questions about cutting leather?
Once you need to cut some leather, with all the info above I´m sure you will just fine and will figure it all out in a little time with some practice, but if I can help you avoid some mistakes, or let you know some things to expect before you run into them and save you some time then I would like to do so.
So let me try and answer some of the questions I used to ask and look up when I first started leatherworking.
How to cut leather straight?
Simple as it seems, it´s probably the first question you ask yourself when you are about to cut into that piece of leather on the table. I thought it would be the easiest thing to cut a straight line in leather, but if you follow the same basic steps each time you will always get a straight line.
You want to first have a flat surface, and if you have a cutting mat then great, if not, a non-slip surface will be fine (Do not use the floor or the kitchen counter, my partner had some choice words for me when I did this!). The leather needs to be on the flat surface and make sure its clean of any debris.
Then you mark your line with a scratch awl and a metal ruler, then apply pressure to the ruler keeping it level with the line, with your choice of blade, place it as close to the ruler edge as you can and whilst applying even pressure, cut the leather towards you.
It can take a few go´s before you are used to the amount of pressure to apply to different types and thicknesses of leather, but just practise with some scraps and you will be a pro in no time.
What is the best way to cut thin leather?
If you are cutting a thinner leather, like lining for a bag, you want to use a cutter that is going to apply even pressure over a larger area. If you use a blade with a pointy edge, you will end up catching and pulling the leather as you are cutting it. Using a rotary blade to cut leather stops this from happening as you are rolling the blade over the leather and pulling it towards you.
You want to have your leather prepared, your line scored, and a flat surface with a non-slip surface. Then place your ruler along the line you will be cutting, place the rotary cutters blade as close to the edge of the leather as you can, and whilst applying pressure downwards, cut along the line. You do not want to try and cut really fast, it doesn´t take much to fly off to the side with a sharp blade.
What is the best way to cut thick leather?
Cutting thick leather is a lot easier in comparison, in that you don't have to worry about the leather dragging and pulling when you cut it. What you need here is a really sharp utility knife, and for leathers around the 1.5-2.5mm range, you can do this with a good X-Acto blade.
My preference to cut thick leather though is always going to be my trusty Stanley. I know the blade is never going to bend or break, the handle is solid, the blade fits well so there will be no movement, just pressure and pull.
Whichever blade you choose to cut thick leather, I learnt that if the leather is too thick, then you can make a number of passes over the same line when cutting to get a nice clean cut. So make sure you have your ruler firmly pressed down on the leather, you don't want it to move at all until the leather is completely cut through.
As with all methods of cutting leather, you still need the basics of prepping the leather and the surface you will be cutting on, and always take the necessary precautions to work in a safe manner. Our fingers are how we get paid in this business, so it pays to be cautious.
How to cut a leather belt?
A leather belt will mostly be made of a thicker type of leather like 8oz and more even. You can also make thinner belts for formal wear and the process of cutting the belt is pretty similar.
What you really want in this case is a leather strip cutter. Until I got my hands on one of these, I would mark long lines and cut them bit by bit with a blade, but I could never really get it spot on, so I eventually bought a cutter designed to cut belt strips. Tandy leather has a really good one that is really cost effective. Sell a couple of belts and it pays for itself.
Best knife for cutting leather semi-circle
Why would you need to cut a semi circle shape in leather you may ask. Well lets say you cut that strip out for your leather belt, the end of most leather belts are not square, but will have some type of shape to it. A popular way is to cut two curves that meet at a point, but you also have just a semi circle shape for a lot of them, or the end of a watch strap, bag strap, you will see this shape a lot.
Now do you have to have a specialised tool to cut a semi-circle in leather, the short answer is no. I still see videos from Corter Leather where he will use an ordinary coin to cut rounded edges, and I do this a lot also with anything that's metal and round pretty much, and this is a great way to up your knife skills, but the tools have their place.
If you start making say a large number of keyrings, and you need to round off the edge, a set of punching tools that will cut a semi-circle shape in leather can be a great way to increase your efficiency. Cutting each one by hand vs resting a punch and hitting it one time with a hammer is quite a difference.
Final words on how to cut leather
So as you see, there is quite a lot to know about how to cut leather, but in its essence its not that difficult, just that there are many variations of leather and knives to take into account if it is going to be something you are doing all the time. Each one of the blades mentioned has it´s own unique property, so as far as the best knife to cut leather, it will come down to your preference at some point.
If you are just making a one time project, then you really just need a ruler and a sharp blade and you will be fine. Like if you need to trim a but of fray leather from somewhere or shorten a piece of leather that is not being used for any aesthetic purpose, even a good pair of scissors will cut through a small piece of leather.
I really want to help aspiring leather workers be able to find all this kind of information in on place, and not have to go through so much trial and error that costs time and money, and for the curious that just wants to learn a little more about leather working, I am just as happy to speak to you all.
I would love to hear your comments, tips on cutting leather, and let me know if there is anything that doesn´t ring true to you or if you found a more efficient way, I would love to hear about it and share.
There is quite a lot to learn for the new leather worker, so if you enjoyed this, check out these other posts:
How To Start Leatherworking, A Comprehensive Guide
Glueing Leather, A Comprehensive Guide Of Glueing Leather To Everything