12 February 2011

Leatherworking: Wetforming Leather

Ok, so I promised a tutorial on wet-formed leather goods.  I have three leather projects on my docket right now that will call for wet-formed leather: another holster, a jack, and a new commedia mask.  But first, let's talk about leather for a minute.

Because leather had the previous job of holding a cow's insides inside, even after tanning, it contains a significant percentage of elasticity. Just like our skins, leather is primarily made of a group of proteins called collagen.  When you generally hear about collagen it's in one of two spheres: cooking and skin care.  In cooking, collagen is that which gives broths and gravies their unctuous mouth feel and in skin care, it's what contributes to elasticity.

It's this last one that we're concerned with.

Though these projects can be done with other sorts of leather, we'll be working with leather from cows that has been "vegetable tanned", which is to say it was treated using tannins taken from plant sources, usually the bark of trees.  The proteins in the tannins protect the proteins in the collagen to keep the animal skin from rotting as it normally would.

Using water -- the universal solvent -- we're going to weaken those tannins' relationship with their collagen friends.  And then we're going to use that to our advantage, because the weakened bonds will tighten up as the leather dries.

Wet forming leather - to one extent or another - is used in just about every durable leathercraft from purse making to shoemaking to book binding, so its a good skill to have in your toolbox.


Leather holsters are made using essentially the same methods as masks, wet-forming the leather around a form (or the gun itself in some cases).  Pictured at right is a holster and gun belt I made for a brace of retro-scifi laser pistols (cough-NerfGuns-cough) worn for the Arbuckle Rogers costume that debuted at Steamcon II in 2010.

For Steamcon III, I'm expanding the costume and for that I have a new ray gun which needs a holster and harness.  Because the people who make commercial gun tactical gear don't tend to market holsters for Monsieur Buck Rogers and his friends.

The Jack

Of all the odd things said of the English, one of the oddest (at least in my opinion) is their habit of drinking beer from their boots.  Which is silly, because everyone knows that's the Germans.  Anyway, what they meant was that the English were fond of their leather bottels and jacks, long after the rest of Europe gave up that sort of thing.  I suspect that the continent had a more abundant supply of clay.

And they looked little or nothing like the image to the side, but I didn't have a better one handy, so it'll have to do for now.

On the Mary Rose, a number of wooden tankards were recovered and one day I'll probably put one of those together too.  There many leathergoods found, however, among them a leather bucket and perhaps a bottel or two as well, though I can't find the pictures online to link to for those.

I've never made one of these before, but the science is straightforward enough.  The standard approach is to cut a wooden form and then wrap heavy soaked leather around them and let them dry.  Then sew a bottom on and seal the whole thing with beeswax or brewer's pitch.  Not all that dissimilar to the holster, really.

We'll see how it goes.

The Mask
I've been planning to make a Pantalone mask and after that, who knows?  I have made a number of masks now, so I know what I'm doing.  Pantalone, however is bit more expressive than the others I've made and I'm waiting for the right bit of leather to come along for this one.

Yes, I really am that finicky.,  I have to see the mask in the materials or I won't make it.  The mask shown at right is my wife's "bubble mask" in its infancy, though I didn't know she intended the bubble wand at the time.  And I'm not sure she knew it either just yet.

Pantalone is a standard Commedia character, the grasping, plotting old miser with great flowing eyebrows and warts and all the things that a 16th century mask maker would use to ape old age.  This is going to be fun because I intend to get quite crazy with it.


  1. Scott,
    It appears that our interest run parallel.
    I do late 14th early 15th Century and Steampunk. I write today to ask a question about wet forming leather. Do you believe that a one piece crown for a gentleman's Bowler is possible? Have you ever tried? I want a all leather bowler and pride myself on DIY pieces. Any suggestions?
    I have moderate experiance working leather: wax hardening and minor construction projects.
    Thank You,

  2. Yes! In fact, I've seen one. A google image search for "Leather bowler hat" returns quite a few. It would be a bit fiddly getting a nice smooth drape over a form that size, but it's certainly possible if you've the leather to dedicate to some trial & error.

    I've done a bit of hat making and I think that it's certainly possible to wet-form a bowler. I would use the stretchiest, freshest piece of vegetable tanned cow I could get hold of and form the crown and brim separately and sew them together, a fairly standard approach in millinery.

    I'd expect it would be very similar to making a commedia mask as I do elswhere here on the site. You would need to make a hat block that's a denser material than usual. A hardwood would be ideal; most standard hat blocks are made from woods that are soft enough to stick pins into. Wet, drape, stretch, pound it flat, nail it to the bottom, wait for it to dry and trim it off, just like a mask.