Nix's Sheath Tutorial -- Part Five
As noted, I’m going to sew this sheath. Sewing is incredibly strong and durable. Maybe more so than other techniques.
However, you could use rivets or staples to assemble your sheath. Some sheath makers like to use rivets to attach the belt loop, the reasoning there is that the knife could accidentally cut the stitching and detach the belt loop. Not likely an issue with rivets. However, rivets can wear the leather and weaken over time. So I don’t buy this approach.
In my opinion, sewing is the way to go.
If you are concerned about the stitches getting cut, you can protect them a bit by cutting a stitching groove into the interior of the sheath. But I find that when the stitches are well tensioned, they sort of sink into the soft interior anyway, so I don’t bother.
Maybe I will change my approach if I lose a knife due to a detached belt loop.
Before I get started, I want to discuss the preferred stitch for leather work: the Saddle Stitch.
This stitch is very strong and requires no knots to finish off. Saddle makers have been using this stitch since saddles were invented and there’s no reason to do it differently as far as I can tell. Moreover, it is self locking in leather.
To use the saddle stitch, two needles are place on one piece of thread, one at each end. One needle is passed through the leather from front to back, the other from back to front.
But how long a piece of thread?
I learned that you’ll need 7-8x the length of the stitch line. So, for 3 inches of stitching, you’ll need about 24 inches of thread. I once ran out of thread with a few inches of stitching to go, and now I use about 10x as much thread as the length of the stitch. This turns out to waste a bit of thread, but I’m not in business, and running out of thread isn’t fun.
It’s not really a problem if you do run out of thread, but you’ll end up with some funky looking stitches in the middle of your stitch line.
The other challenge is trying to get nice even stitching. Even stitching is really beautiful. My stitching tends to be ok. There are two factors that help your stitching be even: 1) clear marking, and 2) even, consistent tension on the thread, on both sides.
Another factor is not manipulating the leather too much. Since we have ‘cased’ the leather and it is a bit damp, if we tug on the leather we can actually bend and distort it. So being careful in the way the leather is handled also makes a difference (I know because I consistently mess this up and my sheaths and stitching end up looking a bit messy. )
To get the stitching marked out evenly, I use a couple of different tools. Don't worry, you can just use a ruler or gauge and mark your holes directly on the leather.
Here are three options I use:
1) plain piece of leather with even intervals marked. This can be handy because it works around curves to a degree (more so if you use a thin thong as a gauge.
2) “Pricking irons”. These are a set of small awls that have teeth spaced about 7 per inch. I really like these as they mark consistent, clear holes.
3) a rotating stitching marker. I ran this toothed wheel over the scrap leather. You can see it makes a nice even pattern to follow. However, with a bit of pulling and tugging on the leather, the marks can fade out. The wheel is great for running around curves. I like to use a fine pen to mark the stitch points after I run the wheel over my stitching lines.
Enough talking, let’s get that belt loop sewn in so I can show you some more details.
With my first couple sheaths, I glued my belt loops in place before stitching. But….I found that if the glue got a bit messy it was hard to clean it up. And that mess could affect the way the stain came out during finishing. So I stopped gluing my belt loop in place, and just stitch it now.
First a quick check to be sure a belt will fit:
Now, I simply punch in a starter row of holes, using those to ‘tack’ the tab of the belt loop in place, and then I finish marking my stitching holes.
First few stitches in place:
At this point, I like to ‘back-stitch’ my starter holes. This is nothing more than stitching backwards through the same holes. This locks the thread in place (through friction). I don’t think this step is necessary, but it increases my confidence in the strength of the stitch. I always back-stitch at least four (4) stitches.
Here I’m using the round awl to re-open one of the holes so I can start back-stitching.
So after back-stitching, my thread is locked in and the belt loop is ‘tacked down’. I finish laying out the rest of my stitching holes.
My layout isn’t perfectly symmetric, but don’t sweat it, you’ll do better.
Now the stitching can be finished up:
At this point, I’ve stitched all the way around the edge of the belt loop tab. To lock the stitching in, I need to back-stitch at least 3 stitches (I go a minimum of 4 stitches). Four stitches leaves one end of the thread on the inside of the sheath, and one on the outside. I take the outside thread and back-stitch it once more to get it on the inside.
This way, the stitching is locked in, smoothly transitioned, and the tag ends are hidden on the inside.
You could clip these with a nail clipper, but I left them long so you could see what was going on. The tag ends won’t be a problem.
With the belt loop sewn in, we can close the sheath up and stitch it the rest of the way.
I use more glue to get the folded sheath to hold in place. This isn’t necessary, but it makes things easier for me. You could just clamp the sheath closed and sew it up. But, for me, gluing it together just makes sense.
Once the glue is dried, I dampen the spine of the sheath, again to make it easier to flex and fold. Folding dry leather isn’t good for the leather and is much more difficult.
Technically it’s a sheath now….but not one that will last long. We still have to sew this sheath up.
You could just use an awl and needles and stitch it up now. I prefer to to a bit of layout. I use either a stitch groover or a pair of dividers to trace a parallel line along the edge of the sheath.
The grooving tool actually cuts a thin bit of top grain out of the leather. Technically this weakens the sheath a bit (most of the strength in leather is in the top grain.), but it also provides a small space for the stitching to sit down in, which may protect the stitching from abrasion a bit.
I don’t know how much of this is theoretical and how much is practical.
The dividers work best if the leather is dampened. They leave a slight indentation. That is nice, except when the leather is getting worked; sometimes that indentation gets erased as the leather gets manipulated.
The divider idea could be duplicated easily by just using two nails driven through a thin piece of wood at the appropriate width for your project. I used this technique for my first sheath and it worked just fine.
For this sheath, however, I used the grooving tool.
The little groove at the top is purely decorative. Just an accent line.
To layout my stitching points, I used the pricking irons. These make nice clean holes. I started out in the corners. The number of stitching holes may not line up perfectly with these irons. I don’t want a short stitch landing just in front of a corner (that would look odd). So I always start my layout in the corners and then cheat somewhere in the middle. Even with the pricking irons, I'll still need to use a sharp awl to complete the holes.
In this case, the stitching holes came out pretty close to perfect. Just luck.
I start at the top corner and work my way down and around to the bottom tip. Again, though, I start four stitches below the corner and stitch up to the top:
Then I back-stitch down. This locks my threads in at the start.
I then just stitch my way all the way to the end. This shot was just to remind me to say that as you stitch, be sure to apply even pressure to each end of the thread as you go. After each stitch, I give each end of the thread a little tug.
Not great, but not bad.
Here I have reached the end of the stitching line. I’ve also added a diagonal row of stitching marks to secure the wide portion of the welt in the corner. This will also allow me to add a tie-down hole later.
I’m just going to back-stitch my way to the diagonal and then stitch up the diagonal.
After stitching up the diagonal, I back-stitched (perhaps ‘over-stitched’ is a better term) back down the edge.
We now have an actual sheath!
I tested the fit….
The knife has ended up a bit deeper than planned. There is still a bit of trimming to be done, so we’ll see how it ends up.
You can see I also took a punch and cut a tie down hole in the bottom. This isn’t a drain hole. The stitching and cement will have made the edge nearly water-tight. I won’t really use it as a tie-down, but I thought it was fun to throw in. Might have been centered a bit better, but I was in a rush to get dinner made.
At this point, I’d be a bit surprised if you weren’t thinking something like, “uhh, Nix, that sheath looks like a hot mess……” Yeah, me too.
But we still have more to do and these things seem to improve with a bit of attention and finishing. That will have to wait though……….