Some items can be greatly enhanced by adding patterns into the leather. I learned a lot about leather stamping tools while planning out a new project.
Leather stamping tools are metal rods, approximately 6″ in length, that have a unique shape carved into their base. When force is applied to one end of the rod, it presses the shape into leather, leaving a permanent impression. Stamping tools are available in many shapes and sizes, and cost approximately $1-$100 per tool.
When choosing stamps, a few factors can be influential in selecting one that produces consistent, quality results. Let’s explore which options might be best for reliable crafting.
Leather stamping tools are approximately 6” long by .25” diameter metal rods with a uniquely designed stamp on the foot (bottom) used for making impressions in leather by striking the top (or head) of the stamp with a mallet. Stamping tools are cast, CNC milled, cut by hand, or laser cut to form a specific reverse design pattern on the foot. These are used to make unique indentations in vegetable tanned leather creating shapes or patterns. This is accomplished by placing the foot on the leather and lightly tapping the stamp head with a non-metal maul or mallet.
Leather Stamps on Belt
There is a range of options available for stamps. With most tools, lower quality options can be obtained for less expense, to give one a feel for the type crafting that stamping allows. However, especially with stamps, higher quality tools really begin to show their worth, both for inidivual projects, and for their ability to product quality, consistent results over time. Here are some of the most important factors to consider:
- Stainless Steel – Stainless steel stamps are the easiest to maintain and will last many years without degradation.
Plated Stainless Steel – Plated stainless steel will eventually begin to flake off but will be less costly as an initial investment.
Brass – Brass make the best impressions, but are harder to maintain. Brass is a very soft metal and must be protected from accidental drops or bumps against hard surfaces.
- High Carbon Steel – High carbon steel make the best impressions, but are harder to maintain. High carbon steel requires light coats of oil periodically to prevent rust.
As with any type of hand tool, stamps should be clean, rust free, free of damage to the foot. There should be no pitting or missing design elements. One should always “test drive” a stamp on cased leather prior to purchase, whether buying new or used.
Stamping tools can be mass produced, laser engraved, CNC machined, or created using hand tools; one at a time. Mass produced tools are normally cast, causing irregularities and smooth edges where other method allow for sharp, crisp images. Hand made tools also have the distinction of minor differences causing each tool to be truly unique.
Mass produced stamps, typically found in bulk at retail establishments will be the most budget conscious, priced between $5 and $15 typically. Brass stamps, which are typically produced on CNC machines are priced as low as $16 and up. Hand made stamps can be purchased for as low as $45 a piece to as much as $100. The decision boils down to whether or not you can justify the price based on your future products or sales (if one is trying to sell their wares).
Leather Stamps in Various Designs
Stamping tools can be divided into 2 main categories; Carving and Shape. What one might choose will primarily depend on preference for crafting style, and some crafters might enjoy using both. Here are the techniques mainly used, and which type of stamp can be more helpful for each.
Carving stamp are used in conjunction with a swivel knife to accentuate the cut leather, giving it depth. Carving stamps include bevelers, camouflage, seeder, shader, background, figure carving, and veiner stamps. They are best know for their use in floral and Sheridan style leather work.
Shape stamps are used to make specific, recognizable shapes, repetitive patterns, or geometric designs. Shape stamps have specific designs that can be used by themselves or alongside other stamps to create artistically creative pieces. Examples include hearts, leaves, flowers, peace signs, etc.
Geometric or pattern stamps are used to create continuous patterns. A single stamp is used to closely stamp impressions next to each other to create this pattern. The most popular pattern is basketweave used predominantly on holsters. There are numerous shaped stamps that allow the impressions to nest with each other making it almost impossible to determine where one stamp impression ends and another begins.
The most popular pattern is basketweave used predominantly on holsters.
Sets of individual letter stamps include the stamp platen for each letter with a separate handle (rod like) which is used in conjunction with the stamp. Letters and number sets are normally sold separately. Normal size ranges are .25” – .5”. There are several fonts available from Arial type font, script, or fancy.
Patience, spacing, and alignment are your friend when stamping letters. Inconsistencies in letter spacing or alignment are very distinguishable, even to the untrained eye. Thus, it’s important to use patience to ensure proper spacing and alignment between letters while stamping.
Acrylic letter guides are available to assist in proper alignment and spacing. Most sets of letter stamps have a tactile indicator to determine proper orientation to prevent letters from being stamped upside down.
3D printers provide an alternative to creating custom stamps without in-depth knowledge of CNC type equipment or the artisan crafting it by hand using a dremel. Custom stamps allow for individuality as well as meeting the specific needs of a client. There are many sources to have custom stamps made. These can be made out of resins, brass, or steel. Many leather crafters use these to create their maker’s mark logo or insignia.
Tools made in the 1960’s and earlier are considered vintage tools in leatherworking. Finding stamps without numbers, names, or “stainless” presumably mean that it may be vintage. There are some exceptions. Most of these vintage tools were handmade, not in mass.
Professional stamping tools are typically handmade, higher quality, and more expensive than mass produced versions. The quality and workmanship are better, and they are priced accordingly. Professional tools may use the same materials as used in mass produced tools; brass, stainless, mild (low carbon) steel, or even high carbon steel. The detail in the stamp cuts will be more defined or very fine which can’t be reproduced easily or repeatedly in mass produced stamps.
Border stamps create a continuous pattern around an outer edge or cut line on leather. It is typically a seamless pattern or a series of shape or camouflage stamps spaced evenly around the border of a piece. They create a nice outline for your project.
DIY stamps can range in size from .1” to large sizes up to 3”. They can either be produced on 3D printers or by making cuts in metal plates. For easy designs, one can relieve metal from brass punches to create unique stamp patterns.
Hackbarth stamps originated with Ray Hackbarth, but then was acquired by Ellis Barnes. Ellis was one of the originators of tools that eventually became the Craftool brand sold by Tandy. Lonnie Height, who apprenticed under Ellis for years took over the business and is still selling tools under the Gomph Hackbarth name.
Each tool is made by hand using files, lathes, mills, and other handtools. Tools are made of either stainless or mild steel. There is usually a waiting list for these tools and are much more expensive than others available.
Tandy Craftool stamps originated from RBS tools (Lou Roth, Ellis Barnes, and Al Stohlman (one of the greatest authorities in leather working)). These tools are now mass produced overseas and are readily available throughout America at Tandy Leather stores.
Barry King tools are highly sought after tools that are quality made on CNC machines in the United States. There are several stamp shaped tools available, but most are carving stamps used in conjunction with a swivel knife. The tools are more expensive than Craftool and the quality is much better.
Robert Beard Tools are premier tools. The care and thoughtfulness in the designs shows the obvious collaboration with other leather workers to continue building new quality tools. There is approximately a one year waiting list for his tools unless you can catch him at a show where he may have some available for sale.
Here is a helpful tutorial on different stamping tools and how to use them.
Leather Working Stamps
Robert Beard tools are often regarded as the best leather stamping tools. They are usually the most expensive due to the crisp impressions, perfectly shaped divots, and sharp lines created one tool at a time by Robert himself.
For best results when stamping, leather must be dampened or cased with water. Adding water to leather allows the fibers in the leather to relax and loosen up a bit so that the strike of the stamp leaves a nice crisp indentation in the leather. It is possible for the leather to be too wet. Imagine leaving shoe prints in dirt.
If the dirt is dry, footprints would not be very distinguishable. When you walk through a muddy area, the outline is not always crisp. When it is just right, you could almost make a plaster cast image of the shoe print. Stamping leather is the same concept.
Stamps can be made by relieving designs using hand tools, power tools, laser engraving, or CNC machinery from metals and plastics… Types of material for stamping include brass, steel, thick plastics, resins. The material must be thick enough where it can stand up to the method of material relief as well as taking the pressure when stamping the leather.
DIY metal stamps can be as thin as .125” where plastic or resins may need to be as thick as 1”. Larger patterns will require more thickness to evenly distribute the design and take pressure required to make an impression. These large stamps may even require an arbor press to make the impression deep and clear.
A border stamp is evenly spaced and aligned images applied to leather parallel to the border. Rarely will the length of the border be directly proportional to the stamp being used to make the border. To ensure the irregular spacing is not noticeable, make sure to start stamping at one end for a few stamps, then start on the other end and work toward the middle. It is less obvious to see spacing differences in the center portion of the border line than at the ends or corners.
Leather stamping can be an enjoyable technique to have in one’s crafting skillset. The right tools can make the work smooth, and the results something to be proud of. Additionally, quality tools can produce exctionally crisp and realistic impression, while lasting years and often decades with proper care and maintenance.