When we admire a piece of leatherwork, such as a satchel or belt, we don’t really think too much about the edges, even though most of us like to run our fingers down them to feel the quality of the finish.
The beautiful, smooth, finished edge, in a sense, frames the item, giving it a professional, high-quality appearance. Not taking the time to burnish the edges is like leaving the job only half done.
What is burnishing leather? Burnishing leather is the process of sealing and smoothing the rough, raw edges of a leather item to produce professionally finished edges. Although there are many techniques, most involve sanding, beveling, polishing, burnishing, and buffing.
When you burnish leather, you’re adding the finishing touches to complete your leatherwork. It’s similar to placing a favorite photograph in a well-crafted frame to protect it and highlight its beauty.
In order to achieve that perfect edge for your leather, you’ll need to have some essential tools and be familiar with a few techniques that will make the process easy and result in a professional edge.
Decide Which Burnishing Tool Makes Sense
In order to make sure those edges are smooth, you’ll need a tool that will create friction.
Although leather has been processed and does have a finish that’s smooth and even, cutting the edges exposes the fibers, causing them to appear raw, frayed, and worn.
The heat caused by creating friction will smooth out those frayed edges and give the piece a finished look.
By far, the most popular burnishing tool is a wood leather burnisher.
Because wood doesn’t heat up too quickly, it works well to create friction, leaving the leather with a smooth edge and a natural appearance.
Depending on what leather item you plan to burnish, the process can be time consuming, but having the correct tools and employing the proper techniques will make the end result well worth your efforts.
A Basic List of Tools for Burnishing Leather
Burnishing Leather by Hand
Burnishing Leather with a Machine
|Gum or Beeswax||Gum or Beeswax|
|Wood or Metal Burnisher||Wood, Metal, or Glass Attachment|
|Canvas or Cloth for Buffing||Canvas or Cloth for Buffing|
Of course, using a machine burnisher saves time, but many crafters enjoy the satisfaction that comes with completing a project with only hand tools.
The decision is totally up to you, and either method will give you a nice end result.
For hand burnishing, you’ll want to invest in a high-quality, solid wood burnisher like this one, which features four different sized burnishing slots for a variety of leather thicknesses.
These wood burnishers, also known as wood edge slickers, are quite affordable and will last for years.
Just remember that they’ll require a good bit of muscle power on your part, and watch out for the heat produced as you work.
Some leather workers prefer more exotic wood such as cocobolo which is a type of rosewood, because of the added strength, durability, and overall appearance.
The choice is yours. It’s really a matter of preference and additional expense.
Other options include brass or other metal burnishers that can be used by hand or attached to a drill or rotary tool.
However, these often heat the leather too quickly and can leave unsightly marks on your item, so use with caution.
On the other hand, glass burnishers don’t heat the leather too quickly but still work well to get the job done.
Their rectangular shape may be a little more awkward to hold for long periods, but some crafters prefer them over wood models.
When to Use Machine Burnishers
When you plan to produce a lot of leatherwork, it just makes more sense to use a machine.
The thought of spending 45 minutes to an hour hand burnishing an item that you’ve already spend hours on can be disheartening.
This is where a machine burnisher can help. They only have a few drawbacks.
- They’ll cost a bit more.
- They’re not as reliable as manual versions because they’re comprised of moving parts and a motor, which means there’s the possibility of a breakdown.
- Care is required to prevent burning the edges.
I think that one of the easiest, most affordable options is to invest in a high-quality Dremel rotary tool.
These tools typically come with a variety of attachments for sanding and polishing work, but if yours doesn’t have what you need, you can easily pick up a set of leather burnishing tool attachments for a modest price.
You can also find burnishing tools that can be attached to a power drill, which might be very convenient if you happen to already have one.
Just remember to watch your speed so you won’t burn the leather.
The prices of more powerful machine burnishers shoot up quickly and may not be worth the expense if a simple attachment to your existing tools will get the job done.
Another drawback to the more powerful models is that they aren’t portable.
They’re usually mounted onto a tabletop for stability while you work, allowing you to apply varying amounts of pressure to get the desired look.
Of course, they do usually come with a multitude of burnishing attachments, such as sandpaper or plastic burnishing tips, which would cut back on later expenses.
Depending on your situation, the advantages may outweigh the cons, and a power burnisher may be just the right tool for you.
Other Important Items For Burnishing
Because there are so many different ways to burnish leather, there are a lot of different tools that can be used in any combination preferred.
The hard part is always getting started with some basic tools.
After experimenting with some of these items, you may find that you want to explore other options, but for now, it’s best to just stick to the basics.
You’ll need gum tragacanth or beeswax to give the leather a glossy appearance. Either of these products works to seal the edge and give it a glossy finish.
Beeswax does a fantastic job, but I recommend Weaver Leather Gum Tragacanth for the best results.
Special Note: If you plan on dyeing the leather, do so before burnishing as the gum tragacanth or beeswax will seal the edges rendering the dye ineffective in this area.
The rest of the items needed depend mostly on whether you’re burnishing by hand or using a machine and on your own preferences.
You may need a slicker, sandpaper, edge beveler, water, paper towels, and a leather conditioner such as jojoba oil.
Take a look at the steps for burnishing leather edges in order to get a better idea of what you may need.
Steps to Successfully Burnishing Leather Edges
Step 1. Sand the Edges
Once you’ve cut the edges, you’ll need to sand them until they are smooth and even. If you saddle stitched the edges, make sure they’re even. If you used glue, make sure there’s no excess glue hanging off the edges.
Step 2. Bevel the Edges
Take a beveler and run it right down the edges of the leather. Bevelers (like these) are tools that no leatherworker should be without.
They give a fresh cut piece of leather that smooth, rounded edge that naturally happens over time. Beveling also keeps the edges from folding over while you’re burnishing, so don’t skip this step.
Step 3. Coat the Edges
This is fairly easy to do. You just have to choose which product you want to use to achieve a coated edge.
Some use water, and others make their own mixtures, but using wax or gum seals the edges so nicely that I’d recommend using one of them.
Step 4. Burnish the Edges
This should be your final step. If you decide to burnish by hand then you’ll be using one of the wood pieces that doesn’t attach to a portable machine or power drill.
If you decide to use a power machine, remember to make sure it’s either mounted in place or sturdy enough to press the leather against it.
If you use gum or wax to coat the edges, it will heat up and seep into the cracks, sealing it completely and creating a near-perfect shine.
Sometimes crafters buff the finished edges with canvas for a beautiful shine. Sometimes they simply allow the wax to settle in and dry.
That’s All There Is to It!
When you are first getting started, there’s bound to be a learning curve, but you’ll soon figure out what works best for different projects.
In no time at all, you’ll develop the confidence and skill required to move on to more complicated projects and will be more than capable of producing a professionally finished edge on practically any leather item.
For a detailed explanation of what tools you’ll need for basic leather projects, be sure to check out my guide on commonly used tools of the trade.