Sheath making is a rewarding hobby and a valuable skill for the outdoorsman. Certain knives belong in leather, and Kydex simply can’t compare to the natural look and feel of leather. I learned leatherworking skills from my former boss at the Wilderness Learning Center, Marty Simon. He is a master leather-worker with decades of experience. The following methods and steps are my own variation based on what I learned and what works for me. Other sources may prescribe different methods or steps, and you will find your own individual style after making a few projects.

Tools It Takes

Before you begin working with leather, you will need some basic tools and materials to create a simple pouch-style belt sheath. I’ve pared them down to the most basic and affordable. As you get better in the craft, you can decide to purchase more dedicated leatherworking tools. Having access to power tools speeds up the process, but the steps I’ve outlined can be done entirely without them.

WHAT YOU’LL NEED

  • 7/8 oz. vegetable-tanned leather
  • Artificial sinew thread
  • Saddle stitching needles
  • Dremel tool or power drill or awl
  • Contact cement
  • Utility knife and cutting board
  • One-handed leather punch
  • Compass or fork
  • Ball-peen hammer
  • Shot glass/ heavy glass bottle
  • Sandpaper of various grits and wood paint stirrer or belt sander
  • Plastic wrap or tape
  • Fiebings Leather Dye & Wool Daubers
  • Fiebings Tan Kote
  • Brush nylon fabric
  • Water
  • Pencil, red pen, graph paper, manilla folders

 

knife sheath

A deep pouch sheath is a secure way of carrying your blade. It provides retention and protection for the edge and most of the handle.

Instructions

Step 1. Select quality vegetable-tanned leather in a suitable thickness. Most belt sheaths are done in 7/8 ounce leather. If possible, examine your leather for any blemishes or marks from barbed wire or processing. Leather “single shoulders” can be purchased for about $50-$75 from tandyleatherfactory.com—multiple sheaths can be made from one. In general, heavier leather is good for axe covers or heavier tools and lighter leather for pouches.

Step 2. Trace your knife on graph paper for a left-hand pattern. Create a center line and place the knife edge up on it, staying in line with the tang. Roll it to one side and trace the blade shape. Trace the intended pattern for the leather and leave at least 0.375 inches from the edge. Once you have one side drawn, fold the paper and trace the other side against a window or bright background. When folded over, this should give you enough room to insert the knife with good retention. [Optional: Cut out this sketch and transfer it to the manila folder.] Cut this out and transfer it to the leather. Use a red pen when drawing on the leather as it doesn’t show once dyed. Make sure to transfer this to the finished side of the leather. Since you traced it lefty, when you transfer it onto the finished leather it will come out right-handed. If you plan on reusing the stencil you just created, you should indicate on it what side is top and what side is bottom. 

Step 3. Cut your leather with your utility knife carefully. Pay attention to the angle of the blade to ensure that it is cutting straight through and not leaving sharply angled edges. Also, try not to apply too much pressure with the finish side down. If your cutting board has deep cuts in it they will transfer to your leather. Once you’re done cutting it, dampen the leather with water to make it flexible.

Step 4. Glue your belt loop first. Rough up where the leather will be glued and apply your contact cement. Give your glue plenty of time to become tacky before adhering the two sides together. Let it set before moving to the stitching. Space your stitching approximately 1/2 inches apart and 1/4 inches in from the edge to retain strength in the leather. I usually create a “shield” pattern and avoid closing the top, to maximize strength. Punch holes and stitch twice through using a saddle stitch. Melt your ends and then hammer down the stitching. 

Step 5. Space the stitching on the body of the sheath with your compass or fork tines and punch holes from the top. Just like your belt loop, your stitching should be at least 0.125 inches in from the edge. A leathercrafting fork can be used to emboss the leather along the stitch line. This means pressing down on the top of the finished side to leave  indentations. I prefer embossing instead of using an edger that removes a thin groove since this weakens the leather.

Step 6. Use your sheath to create another outline on the leather for a welt/spacer. Trace this out approximately 0.5 inches wide. It is OK if your welt extends beyond the edge of the sheath body since the excess will be sanded flush later in the process. When you make certain types of two-piece sheaths, your welt should be the thickness of the blade, or thicker. For this pouch style, however, it is usually the same thickness as the main body. If you decide to create a fire-steel loop (see sidebar) you will need to cut out a section of your welt where that will go. Make sure you position it in a location where you will have clearance to put it in and take it out. Glue your welt to the inside of the bottom piece first and then glue the top piece down to close off your pouch. Make sure to allow time for the glue to set.

Related Stories: Axe Sheath & Sling

Step 7. Drill holes through the punched holes on the top of the sheath using a small drill bit and a Dremel tool or power drill. It helps to put your sheath on top of a hard backer like a piece of wood. Forcing a dull drill bit through the sheath will cause it to stretch the leather and tear it at the opening, causing it to be unsightly. Also, be careful putting the drill bit in the hole as it will run on you and mar the outside finish of your sheath if you’re not careful. Drill holes as straight as possible to retain a straight stitching line on the back of your sheath. 

Step 8. Measure out how much thread you will need by tracing the intended path with a length of thread two times. Once this is done, double the length. It is always better to have slightly more thread than not enough. Saddle stitch the main body of the sheath with two needles entering the same stitching holes from opposite sides. I like to start at the bottom of the sheath and work my way to the opening. This leaves the bottom appearance tidy and the melted ends of the thread are less noticeable at the top. Burn the thread and mushroom over the melted end. Hammer down the stitching.

Step 9. Finish your edges by sanding. Work in one direction. Use heavy grit sandpaper to “hog off” the excess, then finer sandpaper to remove the sanding scratches. Use a shot glass or a piece of deer antler to burnish the edge of your sheath—it gives the welt and edges a smooth, finished appearance. Burnishing is done by lightly wetting the edges and rubbing the shot glass over the leather to give it a glazed look. Burnishing takes time and elbow grease, but the final product will be worth the effort.

Step 10. At this stage, you are set to wet-mold your sheath. Coat your knife in oil and wrap it in plastic wrap or packaging tape. Insert your knife into the sheath and then dampen the leather with water. Use your fingers (avoid scratching the leather with your nails) to push the leather against the contours of the blade and handle. Special molding tools are available if you want to save your fingers. You can also mold your sheath and put it in a soft padded press/vice for more definition. This will give your knife sheath a custom-fit look. I don’t leave my knife in the sheath as it dries. Instead, I let the leather take shape and dry empty.

Step 11. Once your sheath has dried, you can now dye it. Use a wool dauber to cover it in a thin layer of dye. Avoid applying too much as it may bleed on your clothes later. Also, apply the dye in one direction—away from you. It is unnecessary and a waste of good leather dye to dye the inside of the sheath. Set your sheath aside or hang it by the belt loop to dry.

Step 12. Apply a thin layer of Tan Kote or another leather protectant with a wool dauber or a scrap piece of cotton cloth. This will keep the leather from bleeding dye and from picking up stains. Buff to a desired sheen with a polyester or synthetic cloth.

Pouch sheath

The author’s BRK Fox River knife riding in the pouch sheath with handy fire steel.

Additional Steps

I’ve omitted other steps in this process that are nice refinements but not necessary. It is possible to pare (a.k.a. skive) the edges of the belt loop and the inside of the pouch, include a fire-steel loop, use stamps to border your sheath, and do dual-color leather dying techniques for more show. With the steps provided, you will be able to create a functional belt knife sheath. Once you have these down, you can add these style elements to your future projects. Before you know it, you will want to trade in all of
your nylon and Kydex sheaths for those you craft out of leather.    

This article originally published in AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  2014-#158 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN®  magazine are available here              

Related Stories: Add a Fire Steel Loop To Your Sheath