What Is Tooling Leather?

If you have ever been fascinated by the detailed ornamental work on a piece of leather and wondered if you can try that too, the answer is yes, you can! While almost any leather can be tooled, the best leather for this purpose is known as tooling leather, since it provides the best results.

Let’s see where tooling leather comes from, and how to select a quality leather for tooling.

What is Tooling Leather?

Tooling leather can refer to any type of leather that is used for tooling, although generally it is vegetable tanned leather. The vegetable tanning process makes the leather a bit softer and easier to work with. And since it is often pale brown or white after the tanning, the leather can be dyed to the desired color. Other leathers besides vegetable tanned can also be used, such as bridle and rawhide, but generally the results won’t be nearly as good.

Timberland Wodehouse 1

Tooling leather comes in various thicknesses, so the craftsman can select the appropriate one for each project. For example, a belt will require thicker leather than a knife sheath. The tooling leather can be glued together in layers to make even thicker leather. This is great when designs are cut into the leather which require added thickness.

How Is Tooling Leather Prepared to be Worked

Tooling leather needs to be soft enough to be cut and impressed with stamps and tools, but not flexible or bouncy enough that the stamp impression is erased. Vegetable-tanned tooling leather needs to be moistened with water before it can be worked. The process of wetting the leather is known as casing, and it is necessary in order to stamp and shape it. Casing makes the fibers swell and soften.

First, the tooling leather is moistened by rubbing a damp sponge on the flesh side and then on the grain side. The water should be applied as evenly as possible. The leather can be worked only when it is moist. The tooling is performed when the leather begins to return to its natural color after wetting. The leather has to be remoistened if the tooling is not completed while the leather is wet.


Since most tooling leather is vegetable tanned, its appearance is determined by the tanning process. The process uses natural tannins derived from the leaves, branches and bark of trees and plants. The process results in colors that are rich and deep in natural earthy tones such as browns, beiges, yellows and reds. It also has a distinctive sweet, woody fragrance that is normally associated with leather. Each piece of this leather has unique shades and nuances, which are a mark of genuineness.

Products Tooling Leather is Commonly Used For

Tooling leather is used for personalized and ornamental items, which generally are more expensive due to the quality of leather used and the labor that goes into it. Tooling leather can be used for shoes, bags, belts, saddles, camera and binocular cases, holsters, knife sheaths, clutches and wallets. Even a flask holder!

Advantages of Tooling Leather

Tooling leather is ideal for carving shapes into leather and embossing designs into the surface. Buying high-quality tooling leather provides much better results, with sharp, clear edges that are well-defined. Because it is vegetable tanned, the leather will develop a patina with time and is suitable for dyeing after the product is completed. The leather is also durable and can last for decades.

Disadvantages of Tooling Leather

The vegetable tanning process that is used to make tooling leather is slow and labor-intensive, so it is expensive. It also requires water to manufacture leather this way. Another issue with tooling leather is that hides from different animals can vary greatly, so consistency may be an issue.

How to Care for Tooling Leather

Looking after the leather that is used for tooling or has already been tooled is key to having it last for many years. Because it is not coated with any artificial protecting agents, avoid getting the leather wet. Keep the leather away from heat. If it does get wet, let it dry in a cool place without heating it.

Use animal hair brushes, not brushes with synthetic bristles, for cleaning. Hard brushes can abrade the soft leather if it has been soaked with oils. Clean the leather item once a week if you use it often. Apply oil or cream conditioner directly onto the leather, working it into the grain with your fingers. You can occasionally wax your leather product to keep it in top condition.


Tooling leather is strong, supple and absorbs water. It comes in various thicknesses and varies in color and texture. It undergoes vegetable tanning that uses natural tannins.  In contrast, chrome leather goes through a tanning process involving chromium salts, and this requires shorter periods to treat the animal hides. Chrome leather is softer and has more color options compared to vegetable leather. It is unsuitable for tooling because it is pliable enough that the stamp leaves little impression on the surface.


Leather has been crafted and embellished by tooling for centuries. The skills of leather craftsmen have been passed down through generations. High-quality tooling leather which is suitable for leatherwork is essential to producing a beautiful, long-lasting product that you can own and cherish, perhaps being passed on to the next generation as an heirloom.

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