A Guide to working with Lasers and Leather
For this Leatherworking Guide, I’m going to demonstrate my process for working the laser with vegetable tanned (Vegtan) leather to create a refillable leather journal cover. Please don't confuse vegtan with vegan leather. Vegetable tanned leather is commonly used for tooling (vegan is not), and I’m going to combine the laser etching process with the tooling process to give the leather a special effect.
Use Design Software to Create Your Journal Cover Design
For this demonstration I have used Adobe Illustrator as my design software, but there are several different programs you can use. CorelDRAW and Inkscape are some examples that also work well with lasers. For this design, the octopus and the text are done as rasters (etchings) and the vector is just the box outline of the journal, which shows me where to cut with my head knife for proper sizing.
Learning how to use your design software in conjunction with what type of laser you have will not be covered here, but should be covered in the laser manufacturer's guide, or forums. It takes some getting used to designing your artwork particularly for lasering, but once you get the hang of it, it should work fairly easily and consistently.
Some things to keep in mind:
The size of your design, versus the size of your laser bed. In this case my laser bed is 12 inches by 20 inches, so my design needs to fit in that area, or I have to raster it in multiple steps
The size of your piece of leather hide. For this demonstration I have taken off the bottom of my Muse Laser and fit the entire hide under the laser. You don't actually need to do this for this project, I was just experimenting with the laser's ability. (More on this below in "Leather Preparation")
Ventilation. Make sure you have vented your laser exhaust outside, or to an air scrubber or fume extractor. Rastering leather creates quite the smell. It's basically the smell of burning flesh, since that is exactly what you will be doing...zapping a cowhide. The smell also lingers, so if you do accidentally get some extra smell in your workshop, I recommend opening a window to let in some fresh air.
To work properly with the laser its best to get your leather piece as flat as possible. The focal length of the laser depends on the surface of your work piece being level and flat. The best practice I’ve found is to cut out a piece of leather that is slightly larger than your project size (about 0.5 inch) and lightly tack it down to a piece of flat plywood, then put that flat piece on the laser honeycomb bed. You can use masking tape, or rubber cement on the flesh side to do this. I don't recommend using tape on the corners of the grain side (the side you want to raster on) because it will leave residue, and might inhibit the leather's ability to take dye evenly and properly.
You’ll see in this photo that the journal cover I’m working on hasn’t been tacked down, and on the left side has a large bump. It worked out well enough in this test case, but I wouldn’t recommend attempting it this way. Definitely tack it down and get it as flat as possible.
Etching (Rastering) The Leather
In this photo we see what the veg tan looks like after the rastering (etching) has completed. Since I was testing to see how the laser worked with a full hide under the machine, I’m now going to have to cut out the vector border marked around the edge with my head knife. (Made by the wonderful Leather Wranglers. I can’t say enough good things about this knife! Get yourself one if you’re a leatherworker, you won’t regret it!)
You can also have the laser cut the vector out completely, but it is my personal preference to finish and burnish the edges to give them a professional looking edge. If you let the laser do the work here, you end up with raw burnt edges, and they do not look very nice. (You can always design your journal cover slightly larger and have the laser cut the vector out, THEN trim it with a knife. Or keep the rough edges! It is your choice, after all, YOU are the Maker! )
Tooling The Leather
Now onto the fun part! The tooling! For this journal I combined the laser etching and the tooling of the octopus. I carefully beveled around all the edges of the tentacles, and made some swivel knife cuts over key details on the octopus to give it that extra pop! This makes the octopus look raised up and three dimensional, instead of flat. This is the key part that makes me a leatherworker first, and a laser enthusiast second. It’s all about the tooling! Woo!
Time To Dye and Stitch
I'm largely skipping over the process of how to dye leather for this guide. If you want more details on this subject, check out my blog all about it here.
After the dye job and applying the sealant lightly with an airbrush, I get to stitching the journal together. You can do this by hand with a saddle stitch, or with a machine. Here, I’m using my trusty Cobra Leather Sewing Machine to get the job done.
Hooray! The journal is now complete. You can see the raised tooling effect around the octopus versus the flatness of the text. I could have chosen a different font that would be more conducive to beveling the edges, but I preferred to leave them flat on this journal. If you're into tooling, try to keep that in mind as you make your design choices way back in step one. It will save you aggravation in the long run because your leatherworking tools excel at certain types of jobs and the laser excels at creating super