A lobster created entirely from vegetable-tanned cowhide

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I’ve been practicing leather work in a strict sense since I was a child, though I only began taking the craft “seriously” for about eight years. The vast majority of those recent years were spent building knife sheaths, bags, arrow quivers, collars, and other such goods that countless other leather workers have built over decades, centuries, millennia.

In early 2020, after being emboldened by success performing an exhaustive study of leather hardening techniques, I decided to take a new path into sculpting realistic models of natural subjects, nearly entirely in leather. I wanted to start creating things that had never been made before. This article is an attempt to condense the most critical lessons I’ve learned through this journey. Since much of my work now is rather unique, I don’t often have the luxury of building upon past knowledge, and must continue to innovate, invent, and discover my own methods to achieve my visions. I want to share what I’ve learned so that future artists can go beyond what I’ve accomplished.

It all started near the beginning of this year, when a good friend of mine, Doug McEvoy, suggested I start making two-dimensional mushrooms from leather, as keychains, which we supposed could be a lucrative product aimed at the mycology fans we are both familiar with. Immediately I thought “2D, why not 3D?” And so it began.

This was my very first leather sculpture, which was supposed to be a chanterelle mushroom. It left a lot to be desired, but the only direction from there was up. About three months later, I completed the lobster pictured at the beginning of this article.

This photo compares my first and second attempts at a chanterelle. Many lessons were learned with each attempt, and through perseverance, my craft developed.

This was my first attempt at recreating Ganoderma lucidum, a popular “medicinal” species:

And my efforts at recreating this mushroom after several tries:

And here are first and second attempts at the iconic Amanita muscaria:

Suffice it to say, my techniques have become well informed through many hours of trial and error. Now, enough backstory. Let’s talk about how you can start bringing your ideas into reality on your workbench. We’ll start by discussing my most often used tools.

Tools

-Round knife

The above-pictured round knife (or head knife) was custom made for me by knife maker David Tate, and remains my very favorite and most versatile tool in my shop. It was built to my specifications including a 1095 carbon steel blade, angled handle, specific blade shape, and aesthetic elements such as maple burl handles and striking red liners. This knife easily cuts straight or curved lines through even thick hide, skives, bevels, and allows me to cut super-fine, tightly packed lines and details. There’s somewhat of a learning curve when using this tool, but I feel having a quality round knife opens doors otherwise closed to the leather crafter.

-Heat gun

Though a hair dryer will suffice, I’d say a heat gun is basically essential for the work I’m currently doing. Much of my style of sculpture requires what I call “accelerated wet-forming”, a technique I’ll go into detail later, and for which a tool like this is indispensable.

-Sculpting tools

While forming, it’s very helpful to have a selection of tools to encourage the leather to take the desired shape. I use modeling spoons, bone folders, burnishing tools, gouges, and even a wood-carving jackknife to assist. Many of these could be improvised, but relying solely on your fingers to achieve tight curves or complex shapes can be dicey at best. Even well soaked leather can be stubborn to move.

-Drafting tools

When working through design phases of patterns, having a handful of drafting tools is necessary. A steel ruler, set of French curves, compass, fabric tape measure, and quick circle drawing aids will all help a lot. (And, of course, a pencil.)

-Tracing paper

I start all my patterns on tracing paper. It allows me to easily see the leather underneath as I transfer the pattern to dampened leather, to ensure correct sizes for detailed parts, and to mirror certain pieces for symmetry.

Insect legs drawn and ready to transfer to leather

-Airbrush

When it comes to dyeing and applying finishes, an airbrush can’t be beat. Wool daubers are the more traditional method, but they don’t provide near enough detail or subtlety to accurately represent the shades and colors of natural subjects. There are many relatively inexpensive options available; you don’t need the most expensive kit on the market- I’ve been using an $80 set from Amazon for years. Practice and technique are far more important than a top-shelf machine here.

-Fine paint and glue brushes

For detailed work, including applying dye to very specific areas, coloring in fine lines, and applying cement into tight spots, a set of good brushes helps a lot. I recommend silicone brushes for applying glue, or alternatively inexpensive chip brushes that can be regularly replaced.

Leather types

For sculpture, by far my most often used leather is 2-3 oz, natural color, vegetable-tanned cowhide. It’s thin enough to shape fairly easily, stiff enough to hold shape well and support structures as needed, easy to dye, and most importantly, can be wet-formed. That is, if you soak this leather in water, hold it in a certain shape, then allow it to dry, it will stiffen somewhat and retain the shape it was held in. My second most often used leather is chrome-free pigskin lining. This is a very thin, soft hide used for specific applications where flexibility is more important than the ability to retain a shape. I also purchase this in the lightest color I can find, to allow for dyeing a range of colors.

A strip of pigskin dyed and ready to be applied as the neck of a box turtle

Subject study

I think I could write a book on this topic alone. When people ask how long it takes me to build some certain sculpture, it’s difficult to answer, largely because I’m not sure if I’m supposed to count the many hours spent staring at dozens of photos of the creature I’m trying to build. Speaking of which, I’ve yet to build a sculpture while having an actual specimen of the subject in hand; everything created so far has been entirely from memory or photos. When I begin a new project, the first thing I do is Google around for as many high-res photos of the subject as I can find, from as many different angles as possible. Very often I need to go back again and find more photos when I come to some certain detail that needs clarification in my mind.

I’ll gather my photos and just sit for hours in front of my laptop, staring at them, turning them around in my head, imagining approach after approach to rebuilding it in leather. A sort of guiding concept I like to use, is to imagine that the photos I’m looking at are of this creature already made out of leather; I ask myself how this artist must have accomplished this task. “If what I’m looking at is leather, what methods do I suppose they could have/must have used?” Then, all I have to do is copy their work!

Observing, imagining, cross-referencing various photos, and thoroughly digesting every little shape of the subject probably makes up half the time of the entire build. You have to be able to have fun with this. If it’s not fun, your brain won’t engage, and you won’t be able to see the solution. Sometimes, this process means returning to the photos after days or weeks to give the mind time to organize and rest. Don’t rush it.

If you happen to have an actual specimen to hold and look at, so much the better!

Patterning

Once you feel you’ve studied the subject enough to have a decent idea of your approach, it’s time to begin drawing patterns. Now’s when you get out the tracing paper, pencils, erasers, and drafting tools.

Break your subject down into simple, coarse, 3D shapes. This will inform your base structure and how to go about building it. Open up these shapes in your head. Unfold them into two dimensional outlines with your imagination, then draw them. Don’t overthink it; just jump right in and put pencil to paper. Often times I’ll cut shapes out of leather several times, forming, fitting, then discarding after making adjustments to the original pattern. You’re going to waste some leather, it’s inevitable and it’s how you’ll zero in on the correct shape. As you become more experienced, you’ll get better at this and will find yourself arriving at the proper approach more quickly and with less waste.

For symmetrical shapes, I first score a line down the center of the tracing paper, and fold along that line. I then unfold the paper and draw just half of the needed shape along one side of the line, then fold it again and trace the other side to ensure consistency.

When you’re happy with your pattern, transfer it to leather. Use a spray bottle to lightly mist the hide, lay the tracing paper on top, and use a blunt scribing tool to lightly go over the pattern. Remove the paper and the lines will remain in the leather. Cut it out, shape it to fit, adjust and repeat if necessary.

Accelerated wet-forming

A critical quality of vegetable-tanned cowhide, when it comes to leather sculpture, is its ability to be wet-formed. When this leather is thoroughly soaked with water, then held in a certain shape and allowed to dry, it will become somewhat more stiff and retain the desired shape. This technique is widely used in the construction of all manner of leather goods. Most often the leather is allowed to dry naturally while clamped to a rigid form. Unfortunately, when sculpting, this is often not feasible mostly due to the large number of pieces used in a sculpture and the enormous amount of time it would take to complete a project; not to mention the difficulty of clamping certain small parts in place, in tight corners. For this reason, I’ve developed a method I call “accelerated wet-forming”. It begins as usual by soaking the leather in room temperature water, then using sculpting tools and wooden forms to achieve the proper shape. However, I then speed up the drying process using a heat gun on the lowest setting. Given the thinness of the leather I usually use, this means I can have my finished shape in a matter of minutes instead of days.

There are some caveats when using this method, however. I usually hold the leather in place with bare fingers- heavy gloves are too bulky and don’t allow for good detail, so one must be careful not to burn hands and fingers during drying. Keep aware of how air will flow from the heat gun across the leather, and try to direct it away from your skin. There’s also the risk of scorching the leather by being too aggressive with the heat gun. I don’t want to say this is “wrong” technique- sometimes, scorched leather may be desired, depending on the final effect you’re aiming for. Just be aware that scorched leather will darken, and will take up dye unevenly, giving a mottled look. If mottled is what you want, maybe you should scorch it! Or, if the leather you’re shaping will not be seen in the final product, scorching may not matter much to you and you can crank up the heat to move things along a little more quickly.

Once your pattern is transferred to leather and the shape cut out, dunk it under water briefly. 2-3 oz veg tan only needs ten seconds or so. Take it out and wipe or shake off excess water. Use your tools to begin suggesting the final shape to the leather, then introduce the heat gun. Start gently by just warming it up, then move back to the sculpting tools. Continue to shape the leather, then heat, then shape again, then heat again until the leather returns to the light color it was when dry.

Beginning shaping a mushroom cap

Base building

Since the thin cowhide being used isn’t the strongest or most rigid leather out there, you should begin your sculpture by creating a base structure upon which final, visible details will be built. I often use thicker hide for this when possible, up to 5-6 oz or heavier.

Turtle shell scales being applied to a heavy base layer

The base structure can be very simple in shape- for insect bodies I often create nothing more than a cylinder, and final details are rigid enough to stand on their own once cemented to this foundation.

Sometimes it’s necessary to construct additional support structures as the build progresses. Below is a rear leg of this turtle, before thin pigskin was applied over it for the final appearance.

Still, sometimes proper support structures can’t be used for one reason or another; in these cases, I sometimes use wire hidden underneath the leather for particularly delicate parts such as insect legs, or a stitch here or there, concealed under top layers of leather, to hold pieces in proper anatomical alignment.

Detail building

Once the firm foundation of the sculpture is built, you’re ready to move on to the fine details that will be visible on the finished piece. This often involves a lot of trial and error, and tracing paper can be very helpful here. Hold the paper on top of the base, tape it if possible, and use a pencil to trace the next piece. When you do this, cut out the leather piece with a bit of margin to allow for error and final adjustments.

As before, it’s important to plan well ahead of the build. Consider how various pieces of your subject may overlap; not just in shape, but color as well. Think about how they’ll be dyed and cemented for the appropriate effect. Work slowly and methodically, regarding each new piece as a project unto itself.

Cementing

My cement of choice is Barge, and it’s nearly all I use for holding a sculpture together. Stitches are rarely needed. When fully cured, this adhesive is extremely strong- if you tried to pull pieces apart, you’re likely to tear the leather before the cement gives way.

The common method of using this type of cement is to apply it to both pieces of leather to be bonded, allow it to dry, then press or even lightly hammer the pieces together. But, this is kind of a one-shot deal. Once the two glued pieces of leather are pressed together, it can be very difficult to reposition them. For this reason I often don’t allow the Barge to dry fully before placing a new piece on a sculpture. This gives me some time to adjust before everything is solid. Once the piece is where I want it, I’ll either hold it in place by hand until the cement is dried enough that it won’t easily move, or use small clamps so my hands are free to work on something else while I wait.

Having silicone or chip brushes on hand makes applying cement much easier, and a dedicated glue pot is helpful for keeping your cement from becoming a gooey mess.

Dyeing and finishing

Once your pieces are cemented together, or perhaps before, you should think about matching the leather color to your subject. As mentioned before, I strongly recommend using an airbrush to apply dye. I usually apply several colors in layers to achieve desired effects, and very often mask off certain sections to keep the wrong colors off of those spots. When layering colors, I generally begin with the lightest color first, and end with the darkest.

Like with every step along the way, plan far ahead, work methodically. Visualize what you’re trying to accomplish first, and maybe try your ideas on some scrap pieces before attempting the real deal.

Yellow dye applied to a turtle shell, masks applied…
Orange applied next, masks removed…
Then details applied with a hand held, conventional brush.

The final finish applied will depend on the appearance of your subject. For shiny creatures, I almost always use resolene, an acrylic finish. This is also sprayed on in airbrush, and several coats are done. I like to apply this top coat as soon as possible in the build, to help prevent smudging dye or getting it on my hands and accidentally coloring parts I don’t want dyed that color.

Shiny resolene applied once dyeing is finished.

The following photos show the sequence of dye used when coloring Ganoderma lucidum:

Masking off the white edge
Yellow dye applied
Orange…
Red…
Dash of purple…
Mahogany up the stem…
Mask removed…
And a couple coats of resolene to finish.

Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive course on every technique used to create every sculpture, but should be enough to get you started and hopefully develop techniques of your own.

I’ll leave you with a parade of a few of my recently completed pieces. (To answer a common question, the transparent insect wings are made of leather and gelatin; I’ll need to write up a separate article on those!)

Thanks for reading!

Jason