Swivel Knife Tips for the Beginning Leatherworker

By Jim Linnell, Elktracks Studio

Something I wish someone had shown me when first starting out is how to properly use the swivel knife. Learning how to work this tool is hard enough, but learning how to use it if were dull and not working right makes it even harder.

One of the first things you need to do is learn how to get it sharp and keep it sharp. Keep it polished up so that when you’re working, it’s not dragging in the leather and making it more difficult to control than what it would be.  Leather is tanned with a variety of oils and minerals, which can cause a build up on the knife and create friction when trying to pull the swivel knife through the leather. By stropping the knife regularly with jeweler’s rouge, you are polishing the blade to keep it working smoothly.

The next thing to note is that this is a fingertip-controlled tool. When you’re holding this tool, what I show folks initially in a beginner’s class is how to grab it, you hold it with just your fingertips. You place your forefinger into the yoke up to about the first knuckle and your thumb is on one side. Your other fingers are on the opposite side and I have my ring finger resting on the side of the blade here. That’s pretty much the grip.

Then I let the side of my hand here rest of the table or on the leather so that I get good balance with it. You make the cuts by sticking just the corner of the blade into the leather and drawing the knife towards you, making the cuts. It gets its name, swivel knife because the body of the knife turns. That’s what aids you in doing nice, smooth, curving cuts. When you’re doing these swivel cuts, you do all of the rotating with your fingers that are along the side of the knife and then you do all the pushing down with that yoke, with the forefinger that’s in the yoke up there.

That’s the basic grip and that will be something that you’ll have to practice with because you probably don’t use any other knife in that kind of a fashion. As you’re cutting, you want to try to follow the lines that you’ve sketched on the leather as closely as you can. You want to put enough pressure on the yolk so that you get good depth in your cuts. I usually try to get the cuts to go maybe 1/3 to 1/2 the thickness of the leather. That usually gets you a maximum amount of depth out of a piece of leather when you’re doing the other stamping steps. It gets the design to really stand out.

You need to always keep your leather turned so you can see what you’re doing. If you watch any of my videos, you’ll see that I rotating the leather frequently so I can get a good look at what’s I’m doing. Learning how to get good, clean cuts and learning how to do them accurately, is an important thing.

What’s even more important than that is you gotta do it. You have to do a lot of practicing.

I wish somebody had told me that early on, too. I’ve practiced a lot over the years but if I’d had put some time and effort into practicing how to really use this tool properly, it sure would have made a lot of that a lot easier. It would have made my projects better.  It would have saved me a lot of frustration if I had just practiced more regularly on some scrap leather.  Early leather instructors such as Lou Roth and Jim Gick would have their students practice just swivel knife control up to 30 minutes a day.  After 50 years of practice, I understand why they started their students that way.

You just have to be willing to take some time, take some scrap, and learn how to use your tools. Learn how to make them do what they’re supposed to do. If they’re not, then work at it until you can make them cut the way they’re supposed to, but the hand holding the swivel knife makes much more of a difference than the quality of the tool itself. You just have to spend time practicing.

Born and raised on a ranch in eastern Montana, Jim Linnell has had leatherworking in his blood ever since his first visit to the Miles City Saddlery. The sounds and smells of those visits are some of the most vivid memories he has of that early introduction to the leatherworking world. Now, after spending the last 47 years working with leather, those sounds and smells are still a part of his life. Jim has conducted classes or workshops on leatherworking in 42 states, including Alaska and Hawaii. He has also taught in Canada, England, Norway, France, Spain and Puerto Rico. Jim’s leather art has been featured on magazine covers, catalog covers, in galleries and at countless shows. In the leatherworking world, he has received some of the most prestigious of their awards. The Al Stohlman Award, the Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Master Leather Artisan award from the Academy of Western Artists are some of the better known.


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How to Wet Leather

By Jim Linnell

Something I get asked often is “What are some of the important things that someone should know when they first get started in leatherworking?”

One of the first and most important things that I wish someone had shown me was the proper moisture content in a piece of leather. Having it properly dampened, having just the right amount of moisture in a piece of leather, determines how well your tools react. It determines how much color and the burnish you get out of your leather. Getting the right amount of moisture in it is critically important. In leatherworking, we refer to the dampening process as casing the leather.

When I case my leather, I use just regular water with a sponge.  You want to avoid kitchen sponges because often they have soap added to them when they are manufactured, but other than that, really any sponge will do.

What I try to do when I first initially wet down a piece of leather is dampen it so that the moisture gets maybe halfway through that piece of leather.

It is important that you don’t start working with it right away. When you let the leather start to return to its original color, that’s usually when it will work the best. Then you’re ready to start cutting in your design. I usually only apply moisture to the grain (smooth) side of a piece of veg tanned leather. Applying moisture to both sides often results in your leather being too wet.

Leather that is too wet will take cuts and impressions easy enough, but cuts will want to close up and stamp impressions will not be crisp. Leather that is too wet will usually not give you that rich burnish in the impressions. The result is a design that lacks crispness and detail.

Leather that is too dry will be difficult to cut and cuts will not open up nicely. Your swivel knife will feel like it is dragging rather than gliding smoothly through the leather. Impressions will take a lot of force to get any depth and while they may have a little burnish, they will not have the rich color that they should. As you do more leather carving, you will learn to recognize these signs and learn how to keep your leather at that perfect moisture content that gives great results.

Another common question is “How do I know when I need to re-wet my leather?” Generally, I let the leather tell me since everything from humidity to elevation can impact the rate at which the leather dries out. Some people have different theories or techniques for figuring out if the leather needs to be re-moistened, however, I’ve found what works best for me is to look to see if the cuts are opening up like I want them to and if my tools are getting a good burnish. If not, the leather may either be too moist or too dry. This is something that you’ll get better at determining the more and more you work with leather.

To learn more, watch the video below: “Leathercraft Tips for Beginners with Jim Linnell”.

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