Organizing A Youth Group
Leather Craft Program

By Bob Sherman

Putting together a leather craft program for your scout den, patrol, troop or other organization can be very rewarding. Young people react well and take pride in crafting things with their own hands, using their own creativity. I have put together some tips and other information here that should assist you in organizing this for your group.

Sadly, many schools have cut back or discontinued their shop programs and much of today's young people's only experience with crafting comes in the form of mass produced, poorly designed and poorly executed kits from the toy store - typically pre fabricated parts which the children then glue or assemble together with little or no creativity involved.

When I was a younger there was a fair amount of emphasis placed on crafting things, both in scouting and in schools. I still remember with pride that wooden jewelry box I made in 6th grade, and the first leather project I completed as a cub scout - they have engendered a life long love of making things in me. When my children reached scouting age and I became a scout leader I found it remarkable how much that had changed. Our children are bombarded with high technology, and while that is not a bad thing - a well rounded individual needs to know and understand some non technological things as well.

Leather working is one of the oldest skills known to man as animal hides had many uses for primitive humans. Artistic leather working is a far more recent development and is generally considered to have originated in Spain. Brought to the New World with the Conquistadors, it eventually moved north and became popular in the southwestern U.S. To this day, the most popular style of leather carving is the traditional Western floral style.

Generally the most popular type of leather craft for use with groups is stamping. Basically the design is pounded into the leather with a stamp and a mallet. Stamps are available in a wide variety of designs from geometric patterns to pictures. Stamping is very easy to do with little or no experience.

Carving leather is much more challenging and requires a fair amount of dedication to master. It involves cutting the design into the leather, then using special tools to stamp the patterns desired. Because it has a fairly steep learning curve and requires the use of a very sharp knife, carving is not recommended for most youth groups, although it may be suitable for older teens.

Leather is preserved by a process called tanning and different types of tanning give the leather different properties. Leather that is to be stamped or carved should be vegetable tanned (sometimes called tooling leather). Oil tanned leathers will generally take stamp impressions very poorly.

Casing is a term that has its origins before the plastic age. Leather was soaked then placed inside a case (typically a small suitcase type of thing) - hence the term casing. These days most casing is simply done by wiping both sides if the leather with a sponge.

Properly cased tanning leather will accept stamp imprints very well. If you need a short break the cased leather may be placed in a zip lock bag, but it should not be stored more than a few hours this way or the leather will get moldy.

Use a moistened sponge to wet the leather on both sides. Do not soak it. The leather should be slightly moist throughout. Once the leather dries to near its original color, it is properly "cased".

This process takes some time and you may find it helpful to case the leather ahead of time (no more than a few hours) and once it has returned to its original color place it in an airtight bag. Then you simply distribute the leather when the group is ready to begin. Caution: Do not leave wet leather in plastic for long periods as it will get moldy.

Stamping Tools
There are three basic types of stamps commonly used by groups for stamping.

Pictorial Stamps
Sometimes called 3D stamps. These are the most popular for youth groups as each is a complete design in itself. The average size of these stamps is 1 inch x 1 inch. These are the least expensive type of stamp.

Pictorial stamps have an interchangeable handle (on left in photo) which does not come with the stamp. Typically most group crafting setups will include a handle for each person and a variety of stamps that are shared among them.

These stamps are available in a wide variety of subjects including Christian, Celtic, Animals, Birds, Fish, Southwest, Flowers, Mythological, Native American, and more.

Letter and Number Sets
These are basically the same as the pictorial stamps with one handle included with each set. These are available in several styles and sizes ranging from 1/4 inch to 1 inch in height.

Lettering is best avoided with younger children as it requires some patience to do properly, and looks rather bad if not done properly. Basic instructions on the proper technique for letter and number stamping may be found here.

Important - For the most part individual replacement letters are not available so be sure not to lose any.

Carving Stamps
Carving stamps cover a broad range of designs ranging from geometric to small designs such as leaves and flowers, footprints, and musical notes. Although we call them carving stamps, many shapes are also useful for stamping patterns. Their imprints are generally smaller and they are more expensive than pictorial stamps, but the handle is built into the tool.

For group work choose some that make interesting borders when used repeatedly or that can be combined to make a larger design. Some popular categories are veiners, border, camouflage, seeders, geometric, flower, leaf, sunburst, and miscellaneous shapes.

Basketweave stamps are similar to carving stamps, but are used in a pattern. Instructions for basketweave stamping may be found here.

Stamping Tool Care
With proper care your stamps will last a lifetime.

  1. Never hit stamps with a metal mallet or hammer. This will chip the plating and make them rust easier. Use of a wood, rawhide, or polymer mallet is essential to preserve your stamps.
  2. Never use stamps on anything but leather.
  3. Never put stamps away wet.
  4. Always store stamps in a dry area.
  5. Avoid dropping stamps whenever possible.

As mentioned above, metal hammers should never be used on stamping tools. Although there are many suitable mallets on the market, simple wooden ones are the most cost effective and the mallet of choice for group use. Normally you will want a mallet for each person.

Work Surface
A firm work surface is vital to get good stamp impressions. It will also protect your furniture from over zealous stamping which may go right through the leather. Generally the heavier this is the less noisy it will be when stamping.

Experienced leather workers use marble or granite slabs for this, but they are expensive and heavy. For most groups, 3/4 inch MDF (medium density fiber board) cut into 12 inch squares is fairly inexpensive and works well.

I try not to discourage children from using the stamps in any design they like, however those under 12 years old will generally just turn the leather into an unsightly mess without some guidance. Creating a sample or two using your available tools to show some of the patterns possible will usually cause them to give a bit more thought to what they are stamping rather then just selecting stamps they like and stamping them willy nilly all over the leather.

This close up of the above sampler shows several easy patterns that were made with just 2 stamping tools (veiner and camouflage tools).

In general, samplers for groups should only have easy to copy designs.

Although some group leaders like to have the group paint the finished project, I don't recommend this for most groups. Generally the paint will get slopped on and ruin what might otherwise be an impressive project. I always prefer staining the leather to painting.

For working with groups, always choose a water based stain and finish. My personal preference is a Hi-Liter which accentuates the stamp impressions, followed by a Super Shene application once the dye dries. If you are on a very tight time frame consider using an All In One stain and finish.

Keep in mind that leather is skin and many leather stains will stain your skin as well, so be sure to test this beforehand. Dyes that stain skin should be applied by the group leader (you can wear rubber gloves if needed). This will prevent a lot of mess.

My preference for applying water based stains and finishes are cheap sponges cut into applicator size pieces and dampened slightly before use.

Project Selection
Always have your group work on the same project to simplify things for yourself. I personally always use pre cut kits for groups to reduce my preparation time. Many of the kits suitable for group use are available in bulk 25 packs at substantial savings. Some suggested projects are Key Fobs, Bookmarks, Wristbands, and Neckerchief Slides.

Whenever possible bear in mind the age and gender of the group when selecting projects as well as stamps. Younger children will not have the amount of dexterity or patience needed for complex projects. Likewise many teenagers will have little interest in puppy or kitten stamps for example. Older teens may really enjoy a more complex project involving lacing such as a wallet or ID case, but bear in mind that those will take several one hour sessions or one long session to complete.

How Much To Get
When purchasing for a group I usually plan on 3 stamps per person as these will be shared. One mallet and one stamp handle per person is recommended as waiting for someone to finish using one is not much fun. If you plan on using lettering, one lettering set to be shared among the group is typical.

The amount of projects will depend largely on the available time. Allow approximately 30 minutes per small project so figure on two small projects if you need to fill an hour's time slot.

For staining and finishing, a four ounce bottle of each should suffice for approximately 20 completed projects.

If you are new to leather working or it has been a long time, consider ordering some extra leather to practice on beforehand. Instructing is much easier if you have a better working knowledge of what needs to be done.

Running a leather working program for your group is fairly simple but takes a bit of preparation. I have tried to list all the commonly overlooked aspects of this here so you can avoid any major pitfalls.

Disclaimer: The information presented here is accurate to the best of my knowledge and common leather working practices as of the time of this writing. This article was originally published to the internet in July 2009 and has been modified and republished in April 2012. The author and the publisher accept no liability for the use or misuse of any of the information presented in this article. This article is presented for informational purposes and is used at your own risk.

Author: Bob Sherman

Publisher: Bobby's Craft Boutique Inc.

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