Make Your Own Leather Knife Sheaths
By John D. McCann
Some of the leather knife sheaths I was getting with new knives left a bit to be desired. I thought it might be a good time to start hand making my own so I could decide on the type and style of sheath. After buying some leather, a few leather tools, and a few short lessons, I was on my way. Now, after making sheaths for myself and friends, I thought I would provide a short tutorial so you also could make your own sheaths. It's not difficult, but can take some time and effort. This article won't make you an expert in sheath making, but will get you started.
There are two basic types of knife sheaths. The first is the Fold-Over Sheath (also called a Pouch Sheath). This type of sheath uses one piece of leather, which is folded over the knife and sewn along the side. The second type is the 2-Seam style, whereby the sheath is made from at least two or three pieces of leather, stacked, and is sewn around both sides. This article will address the Fold-Over type only.
Before getting started you will need to get some Tooling Leather and a few tools. Both of these can be purchased from Tandy Leather Company. The Tooling Leather I buy is the premium double shoulder, trimmed. I always ask that the flesh side be smooth and dense, not fuzzy and suede like. The weight for sheaths should be between 6-10 oz., and I prefer 7-8 oz. After making some sheaths you will decide what weight is good for you.
For tools, you will need a Groover (I prefer an adjustable Groover which allows you to adjust the width of the groove from the edge), a Spacing-Overstitch Marking Wheel (Also called a Pricking Wheel - you can get one to do 5, 6 or 7 holes per inch, or one that has one handle and three removable wheels offering all 3), a Stitching Awl, A Rawhide Mallet, An Edge Beveller, a Sewing Palm, Harness Needles, and Thread (I use Waxed Nylex Thread). You will also need a good pair of Leather Shears and a sharp knife for cutting leather. A knife I have found very useful for leather work is the CRKT Bear Claw. You will also need some leather cement (I use Leather Weld which is water soluble until it dries) and some dye if you want to dye the leather a certain color. If you are going to make a sheath with a keeper strap and snap, you will need Line 24 Snaps and a Snap Setter Kit (again, available from Tandy Leather Company). You can get some metal clips from an office supply store (to hold the leather after gluing) and for a Burnisher (which is used to seal and smooth the grain surface) I use various pieces of deer antler.
The first thing we must do before starting a sheath is to make a template on stiff paper (I use old file folders). Draw a line on the paper from one side to the other, which will be the center line of the sheath. Lay your knife centered on that line, blade facing up. Then roll the knife, being careful that it doesn't slide, onto its side. Now comes the part that will come only with practice. Draw around the blade leaving about ½" for the welt to be inserted, and draw the welt. The area where the knife will be withdrawn from the sheath can be tricky, but after wasting a certain amount of leather, you'll get better. I wish I could be more precise, but I still make templates that on occasion are too small or large upon completion. If you are going to use a keeper strap, this also has to be added to the template at this point.
I usually draw one side, and then cut just that side out, up to the center line. I then fold the template over the actual knife to check the fit. Then I use the first cut to draw the other side so both sides are the same.
You should continue to check the fit of the template to the knife before finishing the template. The fit of the finished sheath will only be as good as the template.
Once you have finished the template, mark the inside as being the "Inside." You will now choose a choice area of your leather and place the template on the leather with the "Inside" down, facing the leather (If you forget to do this, the ruff side of the leather will face out). You then trace around the template, being careful that the template does not move.
The next step is to carefully cut out the sheath with either leather shears or a knife (I use leather shears). For really tight spots, I use a leather hole punch and then cut to the hole.
If you are going to dye the leather, this is the point at which I do it. Some like to wait until the sheath is done, but I find that if you get any cement on the leather when gluing in the welt, that area does not dye well when finished. You can always touch up areas with dye when completed, especially areas that you bevel after it is sewn.
At this point, you will want to dampen the outside of the leather and start fitting the leather around the knife, to make sure it is going to fit. The belt strap can be folded over (The ruff side will be facing out). Adjust where you want the belt loop to lay, and then mark it. Add some cement to the portion of the loop that will be sewed down, as well as to the back of the sheath where it will be sewed. Let the cement dry a short while and then stick the loop to the back of the sheath and secure with clips, if you can get them in that position. If not, hold the glued section tight, until it dries.
At this point, some people say you should let the joint dry overnight before sewing. It is up to you as I usually start stitching in about a half hour. Mark where you want to place your stitches on the belt loop and then use your Groover to make a small groove around those marks. Don't make the groove too deep, but deep enough so when you stitch it together the stitches will not stick up above the leather.
Once the groove is complete, lightly dampen it and take your Pricking Wheel to mark inside the groove the proper spacing for your stitches (I use 7 stitches per inch, which is used for holsters, as I think it provides a better finished appearance. But many people use 5 or 6 holes per inch). When completed you should see a small impression where each stitch hole must be punched.
Now that the groove is marked where your stitches will go, you need to hand punch each stitch hole with a Stitching Awl and Rawhide Mallet. This is where you need to be careful. You must ensure that the awl stays straight up and down or you holes will not be spaced the same on the opposite side of the leather. You can wax the awl on occasion so that it slides through the leather and pulls out easier. Use an old piece of leather under the area you are punching, so you do not ruin the point of your awl.
Now it is time for our first stitching. You will need two Harness Stitching needles and the waxed thread. To calculate the length of thread you will need, measure the overall distance you will be stitching, multiply by four, and then double that. This is longer than I have seen recommended, but works for me. I always have thread left over, which in my opinion, is better than running short.
Now you need to thread one needle on each end of the thread. To start sewing, pick a hole to start. Being you will be back stitching at the end, I normally select an area of stress, in this case the side of the belt loop against the belt. This will provide double stitches in that area upon completion.
Now we will begin our hand stitching. Push one needle through the hole and continue to pull until both needles are side by side. At this point you are at the center of the thread. Now push the needle on the front side through the next hole in line. Then, using the needle on the other side, push that needle through the same hole that the front needle just came through. The needles should now be reversed, with the original front needle at the rear, and the back needle at the front. Pull the thread on both sides firmly and evenly. Don't pull too tight, as you want the stitch snug, but not too tight whereby it cuts the leather or breaks. Continue in this manner until you are all the way around.
When you get to the end of your holes, you need to back stitch a couple of stitches to lock the stitches. You do this by stitching back over your last two stitches in the opposite direction. It gets a little tight here pushing the needles through, but you can do it. Then carefully cut off the remaining thread and you're done with the belt loop.
Now comes the fun part, folding over the sheath, gluing the welt in place, and then completing the stitching for a finished sheath. Again you will need to wet the sheath on the outside (not soaked, just dampen it). Lay the knife inside and check the fit. Work the damp leather slowly so it doesn't crack. Does the knife look like it fits right, especially in conjunction to where the welt will be glued?
At this point, being there is a keeper strap; the male line 24 snap must be positioned on the side of the sheath before it is folded and sewed. The female snap on the keeper strap can be installed at this time (I often wait until the sheath is completed to ensure a tight fit). I installed the snap on this sheath so you could see it in position for the photos.
It is now time to glue and clamp the welt in place. You do this in the same manner in which the belt loop was glued. After the glue on the welt is dried, you will now need to dampen the leather again and work it over the knife, whereby the two sides line up where you will do your final stitching.
After the gluing of the final fold has dried (some people wait overnight and impatient people like me wait an hour or so), we must groove and hand punch the stitch holes for the final fold-over. You can now stitch the final section in the same manner as we did with the belt loop.
Once the final stitching is completed, you can check the side of the sheath where the welt was installed. If all three pieces of leather is not even, I trim the area with a sharp knife, such as the CRKT Bear Claw. Some people also use a belt sander with a very light grit paper. I prefer the knife.
When the seam with all three edges is smooth and even, it is time to bevel the edges with an Edge Beveller. All edges can be beveled to provide a nice rounded appearance, even around the belt loop on the back.
Once you bevel the edges, you can touch up those areas with dye, using a small dabber, paint brush, Q-Tip, etc. Now dampen the leather and carefully work the knife into the sheath. Make sure it goes in and out alright. With the knife in the sheath, dampen the edges, and begin burnishing (rubbing back and forth vigorously) with a smooth antler tip. This smoothes the edges and provides the sheath with a finished appearance. You can now finish the sheath by rubbing it with a water resistant finish.
Well that's how easy it is to make your own sheath. Practice with the various tools on scrap leather before you start on the real thing. You will thank yourself for not ruining a good piece of leather. With a little practice you will soon be making sheaths for fixed blade knives, folders, multi tools, fire starters, and anything you want a leather sheath for. Enjoy your new skills.
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