Here’s a recent project I pulled together in the fall: an embossed leather passport holder. It’s a lot easier than it sounds, although I did a fair amount of research beforehand, both on the making of passport holders as we as watching several hours of YouTube video tutorials on leatherworking. But now I give you the simplified version on this DIY leather case here.
I’ll start by saying that I started this project with one leatherworking experience under my belt: I made a leather belt and holsters for my Mara Jade costume, so I knew leatherworking is a lot easier than it looks. Still, this was my first time to try embossing or any level of detailed work in leather.
PART 1: Trimming, Stitching Holes, and Folding
First, you’ll obviously need some leather. You’ll need a piece about 15cm x 30cm (6″ x 12″). It needs to be something labeled as “tooling leather”. Something light; not dyed. If you’re in the US, I highly recommend Tandy Leather Factory (their online store is great, but you can also find a limited selection of their products at local craft stores); in Japan, Tokyu Hands has a good leather department (which a much wider selection of tools in their online store).
Next, you’ll want to trim the leather to size with a sharp hobby knife. A passport is about 9cm x 12.5cm (or about 3.5″x5″). You need space at the top and bottom to do some stitching, about 0.5-1cm (0.25-0.5″) and you’ll have to decide how far you want the flaps to fold over to create pockets for the front and back covers – perhaps 3-5cm (1-2″). I trimmed my piece to 14cm (5.5″) tall, then folded the leather around a passport to see how wide of a piece I needed – about 25cm (10″). My final measurements were about 14cm x 25cm (5.5″x10″). That said, you could certainly leave it long and trim the ends after you make the stitching holes (next step).
Measure twice, cut once.
Save the scraps as test pieces.
[Close-up of tools for puncturing and enlarging stitching holes]
Now, you’ll need to make holes along the top and bottom for stitching. The idea of stabbing dozens upon dozens of tiny holes in a straight line at uniform distance seems quite daunting; luckily, they make a handy little tool for this (see above image). First, wet the leather uniformly. I use a sponge and a bowl of water. You don’t want the leather TOO wet, but it needs to be wet nearly every time you work with it. To avoid water stains, wet the whole piece every time, even if you’re only working with a small area. Next, simply put a ruler down along the line where you want to stitch, about 0.5cm (0.25″) in from the top and bottom, and press down as you run the tool along the length of the leather. You’ll then probably have to further open the holes with a thin, pointy tool that will be available in the same section. (Perhaps if my leather was thinner, that would have been unnecessary.) I worked over a small piece of cork board, which I highly recommend – it makes it easy to stab those holes without worrying about what’s behind the leather (your hand, a hardwood floor, a cheap countertop, etc…)
Next, with the leather wet, fold the leather around the passport, creasing the leather over the spine and the ends of the front and back covers and lining up the stitching holes in overlapping areas. While it doesn’t really needed to be folded yet, I felt it helped a lot when placing my designs for embossing. At this point, you might need to do a little final trimming to make sure both front and back pockets are of equal length (so it looks nice). Do NOT iron the flaps flat; I tried it and it burned my test piece (even though I was not ironing directly on the piece). Ironing was recommended by another site, but it didn’t work for me.
PART 2: Embossing
This is not as difficult as it looks.
First, you need an image. You could sketch your image on a piece of paper or, if you rely on stick figures as heavily as I do, I recommend doing a Google image search. Copy and paste the image into a PowerPoint slide, resize it a half dozen times, print it out, and see what size fits the intended area. Trim the image with some space left around the edges.
Next, place your image on the dry leather and trace LIGHTLY with a stylus. Yet another tool you’ll find at your local craft store, the stylus is basically a fine-point ballpoint pen without ink…possibly you could just use a pen, but the stylus is only a couple bucks, works very well, and can be useful later. You really don’t need much pressure here, but try a line or two, then lift up the corner to check if you’re not sure.
[Here's how the leather looks after tracing lightly with a stylus only]
[And here's the difference between the traced and the cut lines: the L and E, as well out the outer square, have been cut, while the rest of the lines appear dull because they have only been traced.]
Now, remove the image and trace the lines into the dry leather with a hobby knife, cutting about half-way into the leather. Yes, CUT into the leather. I had trouble believing this, but it works. Try cutting a few lines on a scrap to get an idea of how much pressure you need to cut half-way in. If you have a good, sharp knife, you won’t need much.
[Leather cut and wet: you can barely see the lines of the cuts.]
Next, wet the leather. Just like when we cut it, it should be uniformly wet, but not too wet. Keep the water and sponge (or whatever you’re using) so you can re-wet the leather as needed.
[A little pressure is all that's needed to bring out the details beautifully]
Then, using the tools of your choice, apply pressure to one side of each cut, pressing it down so the other side appears to stand out. Start working around the area that you want to appear closest, and finish with the area that you want to appear furthest away. My research led me to believe a mallet and a variety of tools were necessary for this, but one funky tool got me through almost the entire project, and I never had to incite my neighbor’s complaints with incessant pounding. I simply slowly moved around each area, trying to achieve a smooth finish. I went more lightly at first, and then revisited areas to apply more pressure to achieve my desired effect. Practice on those practice cuts you made on the leather scraps first to get an idea for how it works.
You’re almost done now.
PART 3: Staining, Finishing, and Stitching
These two steps can perhaps be done in either order. It seems like it would make more sense to first stain, then stitch. I did it the other way around because I was afraid of the stain clogging up the stitching holes…but that seems unlikely. If you stitch first, like I did, the stain kind of clogs up around the threads, yet never gets under them… Your choice.
For this project, I was working with leather finish that had brown stain incorporated into it. You could, of course, get seperate stain and finish. You could also just do a clear finish if you want to keep the natural color. I ended up doing layers of clear and brown to achieve my desired result (largely because I had trouble getting the stain evenly distributed).
[This picture was taken after the first coat of brown finish]
Apply stain/finish to the leather. Use a smooth rag…or perhaps some cut up sponges, if you happen to have a plethora of sponges but no rags… I suggest moving in circles as you work the stain into the leather. I rotated colored and clear finish; the clear finish helped to even out and lighten up the brown stain’s color. Of course, the stain will collect more in the embossed areas, which helps bring out the design.
Stitch along the top and bottom. If you do this after staining, you’ll obviously need to wait until the stain has dried completely. PoppyTalk’s post described saddle stitching, which looks pretty good. Effectively, you’re stitching it twice through the same holes. Here’s a short, simple YouTube video of the technique that I wish I had watched beforehand. You’ll need a lot more thread than you expect. Seriously. I used about 1.5 meters (5 feet) for the top and bottom EACH. Although it’s not necessary to stitch all the way across the top and bottom, I thought it gave the passport case a better finished look that way. Your choice. I also found that a regular needle served me better than leatherworking needles, which were much too large for my purposes in this project.
I would also recommend a water-proofing spray, but I couldn’t find it locally. Maybe I’ll add it later.
And that’s it! You’re finished!
List of stuff you needed:
Tooling leather (15cm x 30cm / 6″x12″)
Water (in a bowl)
Rags / sponges (for water, stain, and finish)
Image to emboss (drawn, printed, copied, whatever)
Awesome, smooth, slightly rounded tool for pressing*
Handy tool for making evenly spaced holes
Little stabbing tool (for making said holes bigger)
Leather stain (optional)
Leather water-proofing spray (optional)
Thread (for leather-working, very heavy duty)
I hope this helped. If you have questions, please leave a comment and I’ll e-mail you. You can also check out the post on PoppyTalk; I visited a lot of sites when preparing for this project, but their post was the most helpful one.