Revisit: the ash shelf

Leather work

Two leather strops supports the shelf, and we need to sow a loop at one end. The first task: splitting a wide piece of leather into two equal parts. There are special tools for making leather strops; belt makers use a tool that looks pretty similar to a marking gauge. You set the fence to the desired width, start the cut and then just pull the strip of leather to continue the cut. I don’t have one of those, but I have a very sharp marking wheel. Which worked out great!

After marking the width, I used a sharp knife to cut all the way through the leather. Time to sow the loops. Here are the tools I use:

To the right you’ll see a black leather shaver. It is just a razor blade held in a curved holder. I use it to shave the thickness of the leather tip down so that the overall thickness is reduced. I taper the leather slightly, resulting in a nice joint. It would not look right if I feathered the tip down to zero here, so I left a bit of “meat” (so to speak).

Second from the right is a marking tool for spacing the holes for the seam. It ensures equal distance. Not a needed tool, really – but nice to have. It is VERY useful when making sheaths for knives as you have lots of holes to make. The spur wheel does not penetrate the leather (although it could if you press down hard enough). It just makes small indentations, and you use the next tool to make the actual holes.

To make the holes, we use the reddish brown handled awl. It is curved so that you can angle the holes easily. For a knife sheath, we want the holes to exit on the side edge of the leather, pulling the leather together like you would close a wound. It makes for a nice and discrete seam.

The last tools are just regular heavy duty sowing needles and waxed linen thread. I start by putting the thread through one hole, leaving one needle on each side. I then sow by putting the thread through the next hole with needle 1, then I put needle 2 through the same hole and yank the thread really taut. Afterwards, the needles has swapped sides. Rinse and repeat.

To finish off, I sow through the first hole one more time, but this time I exit the needle between the two layers of leather. I then put two knots on the thread, cut the thread ends off and tuck the knots into the leather. It will never loosen. Another option is to do the knot, then poke the needle between the leather layers “inside” the rectangle. Before yanking the needle all the way through, cut the thread so that the end will slip off the needle somewhere inside the seams. I’ve done that on knife sheaths with great success.

With four strops done, I needed to turn some buttons. I use those as a decorative element at the back of the self, but also as a backup should the contact cement that secures the strops to the shelf, ever fail. The knobs goes through the leather and are glued into the shelf. I made a turning blank and quickly turned four pieces with the skew tool. Some are afraid of the skew, but I like it – it is fast and accurate. Here is an image mid-turning on my puny little lathe:

Afterwards, I cut the pieces to length and sanded off the head of the knobs to remove any trace of the neighboring stem. With that out of the way, all the parts for two shelves are made. A quick check for sharp edges, plane tracks and other imperfections followed by a swipe with sand paper or the card scraper, and the shelves were ready for some finish.

I put a coat of Osmo Top oil 3068 natural on the backs of the shelves. I left a slightly thick coat (yeah, yeah, I know!!!) since the back won’t get any wear and I don’t want to spend more time on finishing the backs. This means that I can work on all the other surfaces while resting the shelves on their backs.

I put three THIN coats of Osmo Top oil on the shelves (like you are supposed to do – no Osmo slather!), over a period of three days. I then masked off the area where the leather strops will be glued to the shelf and scuffed the surfaces with sand paper so that I removed most of the wax from the Osmo. This also gave the contact cement a bit of “bite” into the wood itself.

After a bit of contact cement work that became more and more funny (…..!!), I mounted the straps and cut them to length. I then used a hole punch and a drill bit to make a hole in the shelf for the wooden plugs, which I glued with Titebond I. A quick wipe with leather conditioner, and the shelves were finished.

A fun project indeed!

This is the first time I’ve made more than one piece of a project. It was a good learning opportunity where I noticed where to do repeated task end to end, and where it would be beneficial to do a certain task separately. Batching out the part blanks, plane each part smooth and sowing the eyes in the leather strops was “end to end” style jobs. Making the slots for the shelf planks was not; since I hand planed the planks they ended up ever so slightly different in thickness. Fitting each shelf to its slot (easier to swipe off a thou from the shelf than filing a thou off of the end grain in the slot…) is the perfect example of such a task.

If I were to make a bunch of these, I would probably rely more on machines for the repetitive tasks. But even then – it is so much faster to plane a board smooth than to sand it! Less dust and noise, too…

This was “serially” fun to do, and giving one away is very rewarding to me. I know it will be a treasured gift that will last for generations!

And that’s a key point for me – making stuff that lasts. I’m going to the wall for that goal!

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