A few months back, I was contacted by Christopher Schwarz about some leatherwork he was interested in getting done. Now, I've followed Chris for a while now, getting a request like this was a pretty big deal. Especially when said leatherwork was on some Roorkee Chair components that were to be featured in a Popular Woodworking DVD (read Chris' blog post here). Chris had seen a bit of my leatherwork on my Instagram account and felt I was up to the task. I was flying pretty high after that initial email! I mean, I was asked to hand stitch Roorkee chair leather for the guy who actually wrote the book on Roorkee chairs! How cool is that??? So after the initial adrenalin rush died down, I was faced with the reality that this had better turn out as close to perfect as possible! Not only were these chairs a commissioned piece for one of Chris' clients, they would also be forever enshrined in the Popular Woodworking digital library. Nothing but the best would do. I decided to document most of the process for everyone out there. Roorkee's are gaining in popularity, I figured there would be some questions on hand stitching leather. I hope some of those questions are answered here.
This blog post will be just an overall summary of stitching these arms. For a more detailed writeup on leather stitching for woodworkers, you can read my latest article for Furniture & Cabinetmaking magazine here. It covers in greater detail many of the steps that are touched on in this post.
Chris sent the arms to me already cut and paired with each other. There were four arms total, two for each chair. Each arm consisted of two identical pieces. I started the process by gluing the mating pairs together. I use a leather cement that can be found at any leather supply store. Contact cement or hide glue work just as well. Gluing the pieces together ensures all of the holes that are punched will be lined up properly. Not a lot of pressure is required for this glueup, this bond is really only needed until the stitching has been done. I use the pressure from my holdfasts, just the weight alone is enough to secure the pieces without concern of marring the leather. You can also use the weight of a handplane or a few books. The leather can be safely handled after about thirty minutes or so.
It's now time to flush the edges. I use a spear point marking knife for this job. This step is important because the edges serve as the guide for the stitching groover, which in turn serves as the guide for the stitchline. Working thick pieces of leather draws so many similarities to woodworking. Keeping your edges flush and square will result in a better finished product. I do my cutting right on my benchtop. It provides a nice texture to the top, keeping pieces from sliding around. If you're queasy about this, a sacrificial surface or a cutting mat can be used.
For some reason, every photo I took of the grooving process was blurry beyond the point of being useful. So you'll have to settle for a shot of the groover being used on another project. The groover works basically like a plough plane of sorts. It has an adjustable fence that rides along the edge and a small grooving blade. A few passes with a strop does wonders for the cutting ability of this simple tool. Cutting the groove serves two purposes. First, it serves as my guide when punching the holes for the stitches. A straight groove results in a straight stitch. Second, it allows the stitches to sit just slightly proud of the leather surface. After stitching, I use my plane adjusting hammer from Sterling Tool Works to tap the stitches down into the groove. The wooden spud on the end of the hammer is ideal because the convex head won't mar the leather. Now that the stitches sit flush, they are less exposed to wear and tear.
When cutting the groove, you may find that the leather below the surface is drastically different in color. This is normal and isn't a problem. You can use an edge paint to blend in the freshly exposed leather. The fleshy part of leather is similar to end grain in wood in regard to dyes or stains. It absorbs it much more quickly than the face does, resulting in a much darker color. Edge paint doesn't abosrb nearly as quickly, making it ideal for this application. The goal is to blend in the color of the groove,the client wished for the stitches to remain subtle in appearance. I use a cotton swab to apply the edge paint, wiping off the excess quickly. Once all of the grooves are sufficiently blended, it's time to start the stitching process.
The actual stitching process is detailed in my F&C article, I won't regurgitate it here. I did film part of the stitching process for you, though. It's my first real attempt at filming and editing, so grant me some leniency on the quality. I felt it was important to film though, as sometimes it really helps to be able to see it being done. Each arm had 5 linear feet of stitching, taking about one hour each to complete by hand. I sped the video up to make it a bit less boring. For long runs like this, I highly recommend some type of clamping setup to free up both hands. A stitching pony is the traditional tool, but my saw vise works just as well. To see the finished product installed on the chairs, head over to Popular Woodworking and pick up the DVD.