Every knife starts with a pattern outline. I use manilla folders as it is just stiff enough to use when tracing and flexible enough to fold around the knife. All three profiles are traced onto the paper.
A compass is used to further outline the knife to allow room for the welt. I just eyeball it from experience. I suppose it is around 1/2” extra around the outline.
It’s cut out now, folded over and trimmed around to match all the way around. There is a lot of extra room and much of this will be trimmed off later. If you try and save a couple inches here, you will make the sheath too small and will have to start over. Make the edges a little large, especially at first.
I have traced the pattern onto the flesh side of the leather. Note that is dyed also. It comes out looking a bit rough but it is better than leaving it natural. You don’t have to dye the flesh side but it is just a nice touch. I use a utility knife to cut out the leather. I have sharpened the utility blade using my belt grinder to a very sharp convex edge. The blades come sharp of course, but putting a sharp convex edge really makes a difference. You can use shears or heavy duty scissors but after using a sharp blade like this, it will be what you want to use. (note: I now use an industrial leather cutting tool.)
All cut out including the welts. This utility blade has a large sliding knob that tightens the blade in place. A typical sliding blade utility knife just doesn’t work as well.
The metal boot clip is positioned on the outside of the sheath and trace marks are made for the slots it will need to go through. Keep things straight by ‘trying it on’. You probably want a right hand sheath so make sure you mark it out on the correct side. I’ve made more than one lefty by mistake.
The slots are cut out. Just enough for the top to slide through and the bottom ‘bump’. It probably doesn’t make a lot of sense here with out actually holding one of those clips but when you make your first one, it will.
Here is the outside of the sheath. Half of the clip is outside of the sheath, half is inside. That is why we needed the top and bottom slots.
And here is the inside of the sheath showing the other half of the clip.
The 2 oz leather (it doesn’t have to be 2 oz, it’s what I had on hand) will go over half of the inside. This will cover the metal clip so it doesn’t scratch the knife.
Here I am test fitting the knife. The welts are laid out and adjusted to make sure the knife is snug and doesn’t rattle. A knife that rocks around in a sheath will get dull in a hurry. Just to the right of the sheath you will see a 2 piece rivet, gun metal black in this case, that I will use to rivet the sheath to the leather. Basically, you stick the shank through the hole, snap on the other side and smash it with a hammer. Make sure the shank side is inside the sheath. This way in case the rivet fails, the shank will still be in place to help hold the clip.
The glue up starts. I use Tanners Bond contact cement from Tandy. Contact cement works by gluing both sides you want attached, waiting a few minutes for it to dry to a low tack and then sticking them together. It works amazingly well. This glue will continue to set over the next couple days so well that you will tear the leather before the glue joint comes apart. Here, I am gluing the inside of the sheath where the belt clip will (removed for the moment) and then I will glue the sheath liner. When both have set up, I will put in the clip and stick them together.
You can see both sides have cement applied and are drying to tack set.
The clip has been installed here and riveted. For a little extra hold, you can place some cement on the inside of the clip if you like. The liner is just to the left and will be put on next.
A little fuzzy, but that’s OK. Cemented pieces need to be either pounded or heated to finalize the set up. Here I use a small hammer to pound set it. Light taps are all that’s needed or you will end up putting a lot of dents into the leather on the out side which won’t look very good. You won’t see this in any pictures later but after this liner was attached, I skivved (pronounced sky-vd) the top edge of the liner so it wouldn’t catch the knife tip. Basically, you just shave off the square edge using the sharp knife or skive tool.
The pictures look a little grainy because they have been compressed quite a bit. Here you see the back side of the sheath with the liner in place(underneath). You can see the rivet too.
Here is what the inside looks like so far. The welts are laying on top. I have traced where the welt will go with pencil so I know where to place the cement.
Now I am starting to cement for the welts. Some on the sheath, some on the welts themselves.
Here I use the heat gun to speed things up a bit. Remember, two ways, pounding and heat. In this case though, I’m just using the heat gun on low to speed up the drying of the cement.
Once the stitch groove is in place, now it is time for the stitch wheel. This is basically a metal star with sharp, evenly spaced points mounted on a hub. When you drag it along the surface of leather it leaves little dimples where you will eventually insert your needle. It’s job is only to give you an evenly spaced stitch mark. I have modified mine by grinding off every other point so my stitches are larger than most. Less sewing this way and just as strong. I also find it more eye appealing. Once I have made my dimples, I use an extra fine point sharpie marker to highlight the dimples so I can better see them when I use the awl to make the holes. Start at the top or bottom of the groove but make sure it comes out where you want at the end. Normally, I have to manually adjust the last stitch space so it ends where I want it to.
Now I am putting the welts in place following my trial fit pencil lines.
I am going to have to fold this leather over if I want to make a sheath. Here I am carefully wetting the inside of the sheath where the crease will be. I will also wet the outside. I use a solution of Pro-Carve in a spray bottle. Pro-Carve soaks in quickly and loosens the leather a bit so it will fold easier. Water works just as well but will take a few more minutes to soak in. I make sure I don’t get any of the cement area wet. Note the cement has been applied on top of the welts we have just put on.
I also wet the outside before I fold the leather. If I don’t the leather surface will crack as it is bent over and the sheath will eventually fail much quicker than what it will with out doing this. Pro-Carve is simply mixed with water. I keep a spray bottle full of it all the time when I am working leather. We will be using it again later.
Just after wetting the sheath, but before cementing, I trial fitted the knife by folding the leather over and checking the fit. I saw that I needed a little extra clearance around the bolster. In this picture you will see I have added an additional spacing welt. It might be an inch long. You can see it has been skivved to a slope. It gets cemented in just like the rest. You can see the leather is wet and the glue is ready. If you get glue on the outside, let it dry and use a pencil to lightly ‘erase’ it away. Dye doesn’t stick where there is glue and that will matter later. If you get a little glue on the inside, it won’t matter and it won’t hurt the knife.
The knife is in place and the leather is folded over so the cemented welts are joined. You have just a little wiggle room but generally as soon as the two cemented sides touch, they better be in the correct position. (If you have tear it apart, do it quick. You will have to reapply fresh cement and wait.) Most of the time this cement sticks like the dickens and no clamp is needed. Here I am using a clamp with very light pressure (don’t want any marks in the leather) just for the picture. I almost never have to clamp if the cement is properly applied. In this case, the cement was a little light so I had to sneak some in the crack, let it set and then stick it together. No big deal.
The sheath is now glued up and is an ungodly mess of over lapped edges and glue ooze. I didn’t line up the edges when folding it over, I lined it up for a snug fit with the knife in place. This is why we have a little extra in the edges at the start. Ignore over laps. When it is glued up, I use my sharp edged utility knife to rough trim the excess leather away. Once that is done, it’s off the ginder to smooth things out. Using a fresh, sharp 120 grit belt. The edges are all ground flush and smooth. I get the contours I want in the top of the sheath and the outline. Remember that extra width to the welts? This is where it pays off. The leather will glaze from the grinding and the heat, which is just what we want for a nice finished edge. Your grinding belt will load up so use one of those rubber sticks for belt cleaning like wood workers use.
We are no where near done. Here are some of the tools we have left to use. From top to bottom: a stitch groover, an edge creaser, a stitch wheel and a french edger. The stitch groover carves out a narrow little channel for the linen cord we will use to stitch it. The little channel recesses the thread for wear protection. It also looks nice. The creaser is the final tool we will use and it puts a little finishing touch around the edges. I don’t have a picture of the creaser in use. Just use it as one of the last steps. The leather doesn’t have to be wet to put a nice mark in it with this tool. The stitch wheel helps you put in an evenly spaced stitch. The french edger (freedom edger now?) is another finesse tool that rounds off the sharp exposed corners of the leather.
I use the edger right after I grind the sheath to knock off the loose leather feather edge. Just run it along the edge and it will chamfer the square corner. Once the edges have all been ground and the sheath profile is what you want, we use the stitch groover. Carefully, trace around the outline of the sheath where you will be stitching. Do this on dry leather. Wet leather clogs it up. A little bee’s wax helps but I never seem to think of it in time. We only do the front side right now. We will do the back later.
Here I am marking the stitch wheel dimples with an extra fine sharpie marker. I don’t want to mess up and make the holes in the wrong place which I used to do often until I started doing this.
In my drill press I have mounted an awl point. It is nothing more than a very sharp pointed 1/8” rod. I use a little bee’s wax as a lubricant if it is sticking. You can do this by hand using a hand awl, but why when it is this easy? Chuck up the awl, turn on the drill, line the marks up and ‘drill’. This method leaves a nice burnished hole for stitching which we will close up later. On my drill press, the table swivels left or right. I have the table swiveled over and small 1/8” hole drilled through the table 1/4” from the edge. I line the table up with the awl so that it goes right through the hole. I lay the sheath on the edge of the dill press table and poke it through. It is important that you keep the sheath level when you do this so the holes on the back side don’t wander all over the place. Remember, keep it level!
Here is the back side after all the holes have been ‘drilled’. See how they are evenly spaced between themselves and evenly spaced from the edge. This will take a little practice. I think I have made twice as many sheaths as I have made knives because they are so easy to mess up. If you make a mistake on a knife, you usually end up with a smaller knife. If you make a mistake on a sheath, you end up with scrap.
Now is when we stitch groove the back side. We go right over the holes from the last step. You may have to wiggle around a bit to match the groove with the holes.
I use unwaxed, multi strand linen cord, natural color for stitching. I dye a bunch up in advance and when I run out, I dye up more. I also wax the cord after dying with bee’s wax. Wax helps hold the thread a little tighter in the hole, makes it easier to stitch with and keeps fraying down when stitching. I wind a large amount onto a popsicle stick using my hand drill. I soak it in dye until it is the color I want and let it dry. Then I pull it through a block of bee’s wax by hand and re-spool it onto the popsicle stick again using the hand drill.
Most pro leather workers use a stitching pony to saddle stitch using two needles. I don’t do enough leather work to bother with one so I do a simple over and under stitch starting at one end, going to the other end and then come back to the start. On the second pass, I will often have to use a pliars to help pull the needle through. When I reach the end, I back stitch a few holes and then on the back side of sheath, pull tight on the thread, drop in a very small drop of super glue into the stitch hole and nip off the thread at the surface after the super glue has set. No knots, it’s bad form. Also don’t forget to double stitch at any pressure points.
When the stitching is done, run the stitch wheel back over the stitches a few times to push them into the stitch groove and make things look a little neater and cleaner. Don’t forget the back side. When ever I look at some one else’s sheath, I always look at the back to see how much of a craftsman they are.
Here it is all stitched up. Still plenty to do but we are getting closer.
It looks a little plain at this point so we want to add a little visual interest. We are going to form the leather a around the bolster. First we spray it with some more Pro-Carve and let it sit a minute or two. Of course, you can use plain water too.
Molding leather around an object, in this case a knife, is called Bone Folding. I suppose the name comes from the old days when polished bones were used but now days they are mostly plastic. I use my own hand made bone folder made from micarta that I have polished on both ends. The idea is to case the leather (get it wet so it is pliable and will stretch a little) and mold it around the object using the bone folder. It’s really pretty easy and adds a nice touch.
With the knife in place and the leather wet from the Pro-Carve, I start to push in, stretching the leather to form around the bolster of the knife. It only takes a couple minutes to get a nice form. I will fold it around the top of the finger guard so it will help to hold the knife in and if I’m lucky, give the sheath a nice little pop when I put the knife into it.
Here you can see the outline of the bolster in the leather and where I wrapped it around the top of the finger guard. It almost looks molded to the knife.
Now we have lot’s of raw edges left and raw leather showing from the stitch groover and possibly a few scratches here and there. I use antique leather stain and go over the entire sheath paying attention to the stitch groove and edges. It make take a couple coats. This will not dramatically change the color of your dye. It will color the raw edges and add a slightly darker tint to the leather that has a good coating of dye already. It’s pretty neat stuff. The bottle on the left is Super Shene. A Tandy product but there are several others on the market. It gives the leather, well, a sheen. A personal preference if you want it or not. I like it.
Once it’s antiqued, I throw it in the food dehydrator to dry off. It only takes a couple minutes. I use a food dehydrator all the time making sheaths. If I want a very hard leather sheath, I get it fairly damp, almost dripping wet and put it in the dehydrator at 145 degrees. It will come out very hard. Leather undergoes a change at 145 degrees and up to make it very hard. You probably won’t want to make sheaths this way as regular stiffness leather is often preferable. After the stain is dry, I’ll put on a couple light coats of Super Sheen and toss it back in for a couple minutes to dry. Super Sheen tends to leave streaks so apply it in smooth strokes. I just a small cotton rag to wipe it on and clean off excess with a dry rag.
The final step is to buff it up with some wax. I use Bri-wax furniture natural color wax. This stuff is great. I coat everything with it including my entire knives before I ship them. It cleans and gives a nice, deep luster. On a sheath, I’ll buff it in but there is always a little extra white residue after it dries. When that happens, I’ll warm it with my heat gun to melt it in and wipe off the rest with a dry cloth.
Here you can see the side of the sheath and if you count carefully, 5 layers of leather. You can see the extra 1” build up we added during the trial fitting.
The back side. Looking closely, you can see the edge crease marks for finishing detail.
And here’s the finished product. I think it came out OK.
Mickley Custom Knives