What Is Tooled Leather?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Tooled leather is leather which has been worked in some way to be decorative as well as functional. The designs on tooled leather range from the simple to the ornate, and they are part of the artistic tradition of many nations. Collectively, things which have been made from this type of leather are often known as leather crafts, in a reference to the craftsmanship which went into their construction. Numerous examples of leather crafts can be found for sale around the world, ranging from Italian boots to Western saddles.

Woman with a flower
Woman with a flower

Leather is an animal hide which has been treated so that it will resist decay. Once treated, leather can be cut into various shapes, or treated with additional substances to be hard, soft, waterproof, and so forth. Designs can also be imprinted into leather through leather stamping, leather carving, leather burning, and dyeing or painting. Objects like metal and gems may also be attached to the leather. Often, multiple tooling techniques are used on a single leather project, as many of these techniques complement each other when used well.

Humans have been working with leather for centuries, as archaeological evidence and paintings clearly indicate. It is probable that the idea of decorating leather emerged around the same time that people figured out how to cure skins. Artistic expression through leather decoration is clearly documented in many human cultures, running the gamut from Aboriginal painting on leather to ornately carved and gold leafed covers for books created during the Middle Ages.

Industrialization has allowed companies to create tooled leather with the use of machines, making it much more affordable for consumers. Tooled leather belts, shoes, and jackets are very common, along with mass produced saddles, upholstery, and similar leather goods. It is also possible to purchase leather which has been worked and tooled by hand, although it is generally more expensive. Hand-tooled leather goods can truly be works of art, especially when they come from the studio of a talented leather worker.

People who are interested in tooling leather can find the basic tools at many craft stores and in shops which specialize in leather working. Leather working classes may also be offered in some communities, so that interested people can learn the basics of the craft. Many artisans learn leather working as part of their artistic training, ranging from people who specialize in movie props to saddle makers.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


My father's prized possession is a tooled leather saddle, with intricate designs on it. It has been passed down in his family of horse ranchers for generations.

It really is an art form, in my opinion. The saddle is beautiful, and it takes a lot of talent to create something like that.


I think tooled leather is just beautiful -- the more detailed, the better. I have always wondered how it is done. I didn't realize there were classes available to learn how to do it. I would love being able to create and design my own tooled leather products.

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