Most of the custom knives that I made in my blacksmith shop over the years have had scabbards made by folding the leather over on itself. This method enables one to make a scabbard out of just two pieces of leather, the one-piece body and the stitch guard, if so desired.
I do not use stitching with this design because rivets don’t rot or break, plus they are highly resistant to being cut if you take a hard fall on the scabbard. Knives cutting out of the scabbard during a fall from horseback resulted in many cowboys carrying folding knives instead of more useful sheath knives that are stronger and have more comfortable handles.
The finished scabbard is soaked in melted candle wax to waterproof and stiffen it. The wax is allowed to completely permeate the leather as opposed to coating it. Scabbards not so treated become sodden quickly in the rain or after a dunking in water. Unwaxed leather is also softer, more flexible and easier to cut—not the features you want when trying to safely contain a razor-sharp blade. As you will see, this scabbard is as tough and durable a design as they come. It is also easy to make.
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Prep Your Hide
You will need heavy cowhide that will bend without cracking. If it cracks, it is no good. Never omit this simple test as I have had new leather bought from a reputable dealer fail it. It didn’t look rotten but it was.
To begin with, you can make a paper pattern or simply draw on the rough side of the leather. Drop down on the leather as far as you want the belt loop to be before it’s folded. Lay the knife down on one side and trace around it. Now lay it on its opposite side, facing the other direction, with 1/2 to 3/4 inches separating the two tracings depending on the thickness of the leather. Mark off half an inch in front of the edge of both sides so you will have room to close the scabbard with the rivets.
Make a second 1/2-inch strip in front of the blade, and cut it completely out to form a stitch guard to keep the blade edge away from the rivets and to further stiffen the scabbard. The stitch guard does not have to completely seal off the bottom of the scabbard. A gap at the bottom, where the stitch guard is too short to butt up against the fold at the back of the scabbard, will allow water to drain out and facilitates cleaning the inside of the scabbard when that becomes necessary. A high-pressure garden hose applied to the mouth of the scabbard or the gap at the bottom is messy but effective. Draw a line at the back of the blade to mark the scabbard mouth.
Belt Loop & Safety Strap
Within the width of the blade, mark out a strip above the body of the scabbard to form the belt loop. Pay attention to which side of the blade you lay the belt loop on, because this determines whether it will be a right-hand scabbard or a left-hand scabbard.
The safety strap is next. One good reason for a double guard is that it allows the safety strap to go over the back of the blade, where it will not be cut when the blade is drawn. This strap can be riveted to the back of the scabbard or it can be made one piece with the scabbard body. It should angle sharply over the guard in line with the future location of its snap fastener. A shallow angle can enable it to be slipped over the guard without being unsnapped—that’s not what you will want to have happen.
The leather now must be folded, and this means wetting it thoroughly so it will take a set when it dries. Fold the two halves evenly together and work them together tight with finger pressure. Fold the belt loop back so that it is flush with the top of the scabbard and let it dry.
The belt loops must be riveted down using short gilt leather rivets. Punch two holes at the base of the belt loop. Mark the spot on the back of the scabbard when the belt loop is put in place so you can punch the corresponding two holes in the scabbard body. Put the rivets with the hollow base on the outside of the scabbard with the smooth heads on the inside of the scabbard. If the hollow base is on the inside of the scabbard it can hold moisture and dirt against the knife. Flatten them down with a hammer.
Now punch a hole for the snap in the front of the scabbard and put on the bottom snap. The trick here is to press down hard with the punch that is riveting the two parts of the snap together, so that the rivet forms properly without bouncing out of place during hammering. If the rivet can be turned it is not tight enough. It must be immovable in place.
Glue the stitch guard in place on one side and let it dry. Keep pressure on it with your hand until it is stuck together to stay. You don’t want gaps popping up. When the first side is dry, glue the other side down and let it dry completely. If the edges of the scabbard are uneven you can drag them along a rough piece of concrete to file them down even. This method also works to bevel the sharp edges.
Take a ruler and lay out dots along the scabbard edge for the rivets. These should be 1 inch apart and a ¼-inch from the edge of the scabbard. A punch can slip on this much leather and make a slanted hole, so take a drill bit the width of the trunk of the rivet at its base and drill the holes for the rivets.
Insert the rivets from the back side so the hollow base is on the back of the scabbard and take a hammer and flatten them down. You should have long gilt leather rivets for this job but not extra-long rivets.
Put the knife in the scabbard. Stretch the safety strap tight over the guard and press it hard against the snap on the scabbard body. This will leave a ring impression. Take your punch and punch out the center so you can insert the top snap. Because of its rounded head, it requires a small cup-shaped anvil to rest in when hammering its rivet. Remember to keep a strong downward pressure on the riveting punch.
Waxing is next. Get two pans and some Gulf Parrafin. The inner pan will hold wax and the outer pan will hold water to keep the wax from overheating and blazing up. Heat the wax slowly without getting a violent boil in the water pan. Once it is all melted, immerse the scabbard. Use a couple of spoons to manipulate it in the wax. The rivet heads will cool the wax at first, but when the wax they’re in contact with melts you know that you are getting good saturation of the leather.Use the spoons to make sure that the belt loop is pulled away from the scabbard body so that the wax can get everywhere. If the scabbard is too long for your pan, hold it upright and dip melted wax into the mouth and over the sides. The leather will turn a dark brown once filled.
Take the scabbard out of the leather, pouring the wax inside the scabbard back into the pan as you go. Quickly wipe the scabbard dry with paper towels before the wax cools and hardens. Wax in the hollow bases of the rivets can be gotten out with a toothpick later if need be.
Insert the blade in the scabbard and close the snap while everything is still hot. Mold the scabbard to the blade with finger pressure, keeping the paper towel between you and the hot scabbard. Make sure that the edge of the scabbard is straight and not crooked from the hot molding process. Let everything cool and remove any excess wax adhering to the blade. You have just made one of the most durable scabbards possible.
This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN ™ issue #174. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.