Sewing leather revisited – Making a sheath for my Frost Mora carving knife

Historical Note: I’m not sure who made the knife sheathes. There’s no ‘Scabbard Company’ on the livery rolls in the 16th century. Possibly the Worshipful Company of Girdlers or they were a sub-group of the Leathersellers, who handled most of the miscellaneous leathergoods that made up Elizabethan life. It might even be the Cutlers, who were responsible for all the other bits and bobs associated with knives. Any way you cut it, there were a lot of knives in Elizabethan England. Every knife needs a sheath and mine are no different.

Looking at the projects that have been collecting dust, I think the shoes are probably the most annoying thing to have lingering overlong in the workshop. For one thing, the leather and lasts and tools take up a lot of room and for another, I just really need to get them done because I need a new pair of shoes. (Also, I hate leaving things half-finished.)
Unfortunately, while I haven’t been completely idle since I parked this project in the driveway awhile back, I also haven’t been doing any leatherworking. Cordwaining involves some pretty heavily-developed leatherworking skills, especially sewing, so I need to practice.
You might recall the costrel project, which is a study in heavy-construction sewing techniques. I also need a practice project that uses some of the more subtle stitches and techniques for closing the uppers of my new shoes.

As it happens, my preferred style of knife sheath uses the round stitch to close the seam up the back. And since that’s a fiddly piece of business to learn and I’m in need of practice, methinks I hear a knife calling for a new leather home.

My favorite woodcarving knife has to be this Swedish blade made by Morakniv simply called “The Woodcarving 106“. They sell on Amazon for about $25.00, which is a pretty good price for a knife you won’t want to put down.

It’s a strong little workhorse and can hold an edge like nobody’s business. You couldn’t ask more from a knife.

The problem: they come with a crappy plastic sheath. And that just sucks on a deeply aesthetic level.

The solution: make a new one, of course.
Parts List:
  • A knife
  • 2 poplar scraps slightly larger than the knife blade
  • Shaping tools for wood (knives, spokeshaves, rasps, files, sandpaper… etc.)
  • A piece of vegetable tanned leather large enough to wrap around the knife
  • To make the pattern: See this post about patternmaking
  • Wood glue
  • Quality, long-staple linen thread
  • Two large-eye long darning needles (or boar bristles if you can get them)
  • beeswax
  • sticky wax (if you have boar bristles to use)
  • Stitch marking wheel or ruler
  • curved awl 

A truly razor-sharp knife will eventually cut its way out of any all-leather sheath or die trying. If you make a standard sheath by sandwiching the blade between two pieces of leather as we used to do in Boy Scouts, the knife has an even easier time of it because it can just slice the stitches. Some leatherworkers use rivets instead of stitches and that’s fine, but hardly traditional.

First, some woodworking…

I prefer wood cores (of course), so step one is to make a wooden house for the blade of the knife. I used a bit of poplar I had lying around, but any hardwood will do. We’re going to use two pieces with a knife-shaped void between them to house the blade.

Cut two pieces of wood, slightly larger than your knife blade. Trace around the blade of the knife on one side of each piece of wood.

Use chisels and a router plane to remove the waste from one side (and one side only) leaving a void where your knife sits flush with the wood, like so.

 It doesn’t have to be beautiful, but it needs to fit.

Why did I carve only one side of the sandwich? Because in any joinery project, it’s unwise to leave a wedge (like a knife blade) sitting against a seam. You’re just asking to get that seam split apart.

Glue your sandwich together using the glue of your choice and clamp it gently while it dries (or use rubber bands as I have done). 
You can use hide glue for the period touch. For knife sheaths, though, I prefer Tightbond III because it’s waterproof and I’m more concerned about rust than turning out a period-perfect piece. This isn’t really a reproduction of a period piece anyway, though the techniques are sound and were used during our time frame in this capacity.
Note that my pieces are rather thick. Partly that’s because I’m using a scrap and partly it’s because I wanted lots of room to maneuver when I got around to shaping the glued-up piece. 

Let it sit overnight to cure.

Make sure the knife sits securely in the void you carved out and then use spokeshaves, chisels, rasps, and handplanes to cut it down to the bare minimum of wood. I left roughly 1/8 inch of wood on every side of the knife blade.

Seal the wood. You can use an oil finishes for a period-appropriate sheath, or you can cheat and use polyurethane like I did. The next part of the process will expose this wood core to the damp and my woodworking often takes place out of doors in less-than-ideal conditions. It’s your choice. 

Insert the knife into the wood sheath and wrap it in paper and masking tape as we did when making the pattern for the shoes last year. Note that the sheath goes about halfway up the hilt of the knife. That’s on purpose. It helps protect the knife and will keep it from slipping out of the sheath quite so easily.
There’s only one seam, up the back, and the edges should just meet. For more information on this style of patterning, see this post here: Wrapping Peasants – Pattern Drafting Part I and this post here: Drafting patterns for leatherworking.

Note #1: Remember to decide how you’re going to attach it to your belt before you get to the cutting leather stage.
Note #2: If you want to incise, tool, or otherwise decorate your leather, do so before you begin sewing. I admit that I have at least once forgotten to do that. For tools like this one, I like mine a bit plain.

This is where we begin practicing our cordwaining in the guise of sheathmaking…

Boar Bristles and Closing Awls

Waxed Ends (skip if you don’t have boar bristles/just want to use needles)

I’m going to sew this up using boar bristles instead of needles. This is the period-appropriate method of work for shoemakers and bookbinders. The sharp, flexible bristles are attached to the end using sticky wax and cleverness. I’m rubbish at it and need lots of practice, but Francis Classe is great at it and provided us with a great tutorial on how to go about it.  I do a lot of reinventing the wheel on this project, but I can’t best Francis at something that he taught me, so if you want to go the bristle route, you should follow that link and learn to do it right.

Some modern shoemakers have good luck using heavy-test fishing line in lieu of the boar’s bristle. If you don’t have access to a boar or its bristles, there are those who swear by it. I’ve never tried it, though, so I trust your Google-fu to let you figure it out. I tried to find a link to a tutorial I could share but only found references to a dead site.
Your mileage may vary.

Why boar bristles and fishing line?

We’re going to perform something called the “round stitch” which follows a curved path through the leather. In order to pull that off, you use a curved awl to create a tunnel through the leather from the top to the edge. Then, you need to be able to push your ‘needle’ through that tunnel. 
You can do this with long, slightly flexible needles like long darners and I’ve had decent luck doing so in the past, but a piece of sharp, flexible, keratin like a boar bristle or a similarly flexy bit of fishing line are a godsend and speed things up.
I’ll get more into the boar bristles and waxed ends when we tackle the actual shoes. This is really just a test run…

Curved awls

The two outside awls are the same as in the previous photo. They are made from antiques, which I bought from the extra stash of a cordwainer friend of mine. You don’t have to haunt antique stores and bug your shoemaking buddies for their tools, though. These closing awls are still sold new by some specialty retailers, or you can get by with that middle awl with the knurled piece for changing the blades. It was purchased new from Tandy Leather, just last year. Just make sure the cross-section is oval rather than round to prevent tearout.

Closing: The Round Stitch

Use your marking wheel (or a ruler, dividers, etcetera) to mark an even stitch distance all around the edge of your seam on both sides, 1/4 – 1/8 of an inch back from the edge. 

Make sure that the marks on each side a exactly parallel to one another.
My depth is wandering quite a bit here. You can see why I feel like I need the practice.
Use your curved awl to create a hole that angles from the mark made by your stitch marker curving toward and out the edge of the leather. The depth should be just a bit deeper than half the leather’s thickness. THIS TAKES A BIT OF PRACTICE. I’d advise using some scraps to practice.
Too deep and your seam will pucker. Too shallow and you’ll tear out.

Al Muckart — a reenactor and craftsman who writes the Where Are the Elves? shoemaking blog — created a tutorial that illustrates quite well how to do this. I’ve linked to it in the footnotes at the bottom of the post.

Wet the leather in warm water to make it a bit stretchy. You don’t want to soak it too long or to use boiling water. This is not “cuirboulli“, which would be too stiff for this particular purpose. Just hot tap water is fine and don’t soak it for too long. (You just want it pliable and a bit stretchy, but don’t want to leach all the collagen out of the leather.)

Roll the leather between towels to get the excess water out and then wrap it around your wooden core with the knife still in the sheath. Oil the blade and seal the wood and you should be fine for the amount of moisture we’re talking about, but now you know why I sealed my wood. (Some sheath makers wrap the knife in plastic wrap, which isn’t a bad idea.)

Either create your waxed ends or thread two flexible needles on either end of a piece of strong hemp or linen thread. I stipulated “long staple” which refers to the length of the fibers that were spun to create the thread. The longer the staple length, the stronger and more durable the resulting thread.

Working from both sides at once, sew back and forth across the gap. Note: people who make puppets and stuffed animals refer to as a “ladder stitch” while other leatherworkers may call it a “butt stitch”. Shoemakers call it a round stitch, so we’re going with that from now on.

The rest is stitching and letting the leather dry.

That open end is on purpose. It’s traditional for to leave that little curled fishtail on Scandinavian knife sheathes.  I’m not sure if there’s a practical purpose to it other than making the sewing easier because you don’t have to ease the pattern around the point. It will be cut back a bit when I’m finished.
A lot of Nordic fishermen settled along the coast in Washington state, and I’ve seen antique fileting knives that have sheathes like this where the tip was cut to a little fishtail shape.  I’ll just be slicing mine off at a pleasing (to me) angle.
Yes, that’s blood on that bit of tissue you see above. Remember to respect sharp tools. And remember that the sharper the tool, the less damage it does when it does cut you. 

Now we just have to let the leather dry, then dye it to our desired color and finish it with a bit of wax and polish.

Further Reading:

  1. Cordwhatnow? A layman’s guide to shoemaking tools & terms School of the Renaissance Artisan, posted January, 2014
  2. Basic Techniques of Construction (Including waxed ends and how to use them)
    by Francis Classe at his Raised Heels cordwaining blog
  3. The Round Closing Seam in Shoemaking (PDF)
    by Al Muckart of the Where Are the Elves shoemaking blog

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