Leather can be a very forgiving material to work with in bag-making projects. It is supple yet durable and hard-wearing. However it does required a different approach than that of sewing cloth. Depending on what type of leather you use and how thick the sample is, it may be a task to manipulate it into the right size and shape for your needs. For the most part, smaller animal skins means the leather is thinner, making it appropriate for sewing with a conventional home sewing machine yet it also means the square area is often not large enough to cut out one solid piece for big projects and joining is required to make the final size required for your design. This is particularly true when trying to create bag strapping.
Skiving is the process used in bag-making to reduce the thickness of leather, especially in areas that are to be bent or folded and which must be pliable without becoming weakened. It is usually performed on the “flesh” side of a piece of leather rather than the “finished” side, and results as a “bevel” on the leather’s thickness to thin it out and reduce bulk.
Generally it is most often done along the edges of the leather where joins are formed, at the end of straps to allow for a better fitting of buckles or where handles are to be sewn into place and if done carefully, can even thin a very small area of leather around a punched hole to allow for a depressed hidden rivet. The latter can also be used to allow a secure set-up for a snap fastener or a bag clasp that would otherwise be slightly too thick for the length of the snap post.
- Be careful when working with extremely sharp blades.
- Use new blades with each project; a razor sharp edge on your knife is essential.
- Granite slab or glass works best for a hard smooth cutting surface
- Work on an uncluttered solid flat surface that is well-lit.
- Use woodworker’s safety tape on your fingers if desired.
- This is not a process to engage in when you are distracted or tired.
Choose the appropriate tool for the job. For skiving an edge along which a stitched or riveted join will be done it is probably most easily achieved with a straight skiving knife (aka a skife) or a Mackay knife. You will find that a sharp utility blade will work as well. Whatever type of blade you use, make sure it is extremely sharp. Place the leather face down, with the fleshy side up. Bevel your edges by holding your skiving blade at the angle you need for your bevel – for shallower bevels, hold the knife more horizontal to the surface of the leather, for a deeper bevel, hold it more perpendicular. Slide the blade along the edge while placing tension on the hide with the fingers of your non-cutting hand. Push the back of the blade with the index finger of the same hand for a smooth edge.
“skife (above); Mackay knife (below)”
With the skife, simply place the leather on a flat work surface and hold firmly in place. Hold the leather firmly down on a hard and clean surface such as granite. Choose a work surface that is smooth and cannot be damaged if your blade slips and cuts into it.
Hold the blade at a low angle with the tip against the edge of the leather. Slice in a fluid motion to bevel the edge of the leather. The tool should be towards one end of the leather, protruding over the edge and resting at a slight angle as illustrated.
Apply enough pressure for the blade to bite into the leather and carefully draw the tool towards you, trimming the edge as you go. The depth of the cut (and therefore the thickness of the leather remaining) is dictated both by the amount of downward pressure exerted and by the angle at which you hold the knife itself; usually between 30 and 45 degrees.
To use a Mackay knife or utility blade, the action is pretty much the same as the skife except you are pushing the blade away from you rather than drawing towards you. Also there is no guard or other guiding fence on how deep you cut; it is purely down to your own control over the blade itself and holding the leather firmly. One slip and it could easily ruin your leather piece and possibly your fingers. Little and often is the key here. You can always keep going over the leather, removing thin strips each time. Remember, you can always take it away but you can’t add it back on. Repeat the skiving motions all over the surface of your leather until you have thinned your piece down to the thickness you wish.
There you have it. Bevel those edges and keep a steady hand.