One of the first things people think of when considering kit is usually what armour they require, and whilst there are lots of gorgeously tooled, patterned, studded or plain leather bracers sold through various online suppliers, a leather bracer is a good project to start with if you’re tempted to start leather working as part of your hobby.
I have very little experience of leather working as I leave it to my OH (along with repairing our chainmail) but he was willing to let me photograph a project he was working on so I could show you that, with a little patience and practise, you too could be making your own bits of armour!
For more tutorials and kit walk-throughs, see Tutorials.
When I’m talking about leather I’m meaning the “finished” type of leather (the sort that already has been coloured and treated) not the fleshy coloured veg tanned stuff. Whilst the latter is excellent if you’re wanting to shape or wet mould your creations, dye them to your own satisfaction, or play around with serious decorations like carving or stamping, its a bit expensive and delicate for what we have in mind at tackling your first leather projects. We’re lucky in that we have a leather working shop nearby (Le Prevo), but we also have local fabric shops that occasionally have a windfall of leather scraps/pieces on sale. With the local leather shop we can sometimes ask for advice or tips from the guys who work there, who are usually willing after a bit of banter to offer guidance on how best to work the material – working the material is often their job or part of their hobby, and people often enjoy sharing their own experiences. The local leather shop also sells buckles, rivets, tools and assorted sundries, but I’ve spotted a few bits at the fabric shop too if you keep an eye out. However, these things are also available online. Some tools are also available in Maplins or normal fabric shops.
We (when I say we I mean my OH) don’t make enough projects to warrant ordering a whole hide, but usually go to the scraps/bits box at the leather shop and pick through the pieces in there. Sometimes you can be lucky and find a large piece of leather for a reasonable price that has been discarded due to some marking or a visible brand or damage which makes it unusable as a whole, but since we’re only going to be making something for your arms (or legs as the principle is just the same just on a different scale) it’s unlikely to cause you a problem.
You can also scrounge leather from other sources – old leather jackets (if you’re willing to butcher them), old leather sofas, leather cushions, satchels or other finds in charity shops if you’re willing to put the effort into hunting down alternatives. These are likely to be more distressed than a “fresh” hide, but if you’re looking to make something that seems to have already seen a few fights then it’s just added character.
Making your bracers
Once you have bought your material, it’s time to gather together your tools. I include below the list of things my OH uses, and the alternatives that might be more readily available.
- Paper and pencil
- Masking tape / sticky tape
- 2p piece (or sturdy round object)
- Scissors / Stanley knife (preferably a sharp cutting implement, ideally not used with food)
- Cutting mat (or clean chopping board or similar flat stable surface that will project your worktop)
- Metal ruler (or sturdy ruler)
- Metal piece (this is often supplied with rivets when bought in a commercial pack)
- Block of wood
- Sharp stitching awl (or a sharp narrow pointed *thing* to make holes. Alternatively a sharpened bradawl will do and can be found in hardware shops for woodworking)
- Leather needles (or good sturdy needle that can carry the thread you’re using)
- Wax (to wax your thread)
And not forgetting your materials!
- Rivets – buy more than you need! (if using)
- Buckle (if using)
- Boot lace (if using)
- Cord or strong thread – ideally linen which should be waxed or good quality polyester general purpose thread or upholstery thread (if using)
- Leather thonging (if using)
Making the basic bracer
You first make a basic template of your bracer by wrapping a piece of paper around your arm and marking the points where you want the bracer to close along the length and forming the shape.
Use your compass to draw a curve at the wider edge if you choose. Depending on preference, round the corners of your work. My OH uses a 2p piece for ease, but any sturdy round object would do the job. Cut out your template and test it against both arms to check suitability of fit and adjust if necessary.
Tape your template onto the leather using masking tape, or sticky tape folded to make double-sided tape, and carefully trace around it using a pencil. Leather marks relatively easily, particularly if you prick or cut the surface with a sharp object.
Lift off the template and carefully cut along your marked line. It is better to cut too large and trim off the excess than risk cutting a narrower piece because of a slip of the hand. This can be long and tedious, but your care will pay off! Cutting along a metal ruler can help keep you working to a straight line.
Try your cut piece on your arm and trim any rough edges and make corrections. Cut your second bracer and test and adjust in a similar manner.
Using pencil carefully mark your decoration and any holes that are required unless you are leaving the surface plain. It is common to mirror any designs on both pieces. Line up your punch over these holes and cut each one carefully.
Adding buckles and straps
If you’re adding a pair of buckles you’ll either need to have bought a set or bought the metal buckles to make your own. For bracers it’s typical to do two or three buckles down each arm, which are normally attached to the inside edge of the finished bracer so that the buckle is facing upwards when the bracer is put on the arm. This is, however, personal preference, but I know I prefer to pull the strap upwards through the buckle than trying to work it downwards when in a hurry.
A buckle is typically made of the outer frame, with a bar through the middle on which the prong / tongue of the buckle is fastened.
Cut the strap for each buckle and lay them out. My OH punches a pair of small holes at a reasonable point towards one edge of the strap and with a Stanley knife cuts a slit between the pair of them through which the prong of the buckle is passed. A pair of holes is then punched for the rivet to close the leather around the bar of the buckle, and another pair of holes is punched near the end of the strap to attach to the bracer, with a matched pair punched in the bracer itself.
Thread the prong of the buckle through the slit and fold the leather around the bar, securing the shorter piece in place with a well hammered rivet. This should now look like a traditional belt buckle.
Another set of straps should be cut which will be threaded through the buckle and used to secure the bracer onto the arm. This should have a pair of holes punched at one end with a set of smaller holes punched along the length. This will be attached to the bracer on the opposite side to the buckle and will, when brought round, thread through the buckle. The prong is then inserted into one of the smaller holes at the correct fit of the bracer and the free end can either be secured under a small strip of leather held in place on the bracer by stitching or some rivets, or just tucked under the bracer to keep it out of the way.
The straps will sag and begin to pull over time from use and the warmth of the body softening the leather, so do not be alarmed if you find yourself having to adjust the hole you use or having to punch more onto the strap at a future date.
Rivets can come in many styles, but the application is the same for those which come in two parts or as a single piece.
If your rivet has a back piece put this into the hole from the underside of your bracer and put the top bit in place, or just put the single piece through the leather from the front. The holes punched for the rivet should be slightly smaller than the rivet itself (see manufacturer’s instructions) and the rivet shouldn’t fall out when the piece of leather is handled. At the beginning it might help to put each rivet in and hammering it individually, but with a bit of practise you can speed up the process by putting several rivets in the prepared holes and hammering a load in batches.
Place the block of wood somewhere stable and which will not be damaged if you miss striking the rivet. Put the metal piece atop that and put the rivet squarely over this metal piece.
Strike the rivet firmly with the hammer, holding the bracer in place with your free hand. Avoid hitting your thumb, because it hurts!
The rivet should grip the leather firmly and stay in place, but not punch through the leather. If you’re not sure, use some of your extra rivets to practise on some scrap leather before working on your bracer.
Lacing up your bracer
If you choose to lace up your bracer rather than buckle it, you need to decide how you want to lace up your bracer and work out how many holes you need and the spacing between them. Mark these on the leather and punch a generous hole along the long edges of your bracer. You want to leave some space between your holes and the edge of the bracer as the lacing will be putting pressure into the material and if the hole is too close to the edge there is a risk the lacing will tear through the leather over time.
Here are a few lacing techniques – there is the traditional criss cross way of lacing up the bracer (think boots or trainers) or you could use a method known as spiral lacing that is designed for single lace to work up the closure, though this would have to be laced each time. An alternative is to lace the bracer like a corset so that the slack is taken up by the middle loops. These are then tied in a bow and the ends tucked out of the way. There is also a way of lacing for one handed tying that relies on the friction in the lacing, but I’m not sure how good this’ll be in an active LARP environment.
Lace the bracer up using a bootlace or nice bit of ribbon or leather thonging. Keep this lace/ribbon/thong a reasonable length so that you can keep the bracer laced when you remove it – that way you only have to tighten the lacing, not rethread the lacing each time. Tie the lace in a bow, knot it, then tuck the loose ends back under your lacing or the edge of your bracer.
You may need to tighten your lacing over time as the leather warms and softens with contact with your body heat.
Once you’ve finished your bracers try them on and admire your handiwork. Look at you, you made yourself a pair of leather bracers and don’t they look fine? Now go wear them on and adventure and go be a hero or something!
Dealing with (sodden) wet leather
You’ve been larping all day and you’re covered in mud. Your kit is sodden and your leathers are limp and dripping. All your lovely handiwork is ruined … or is it?
First of all, don’t panic! Lay your leather work out and whilst damp clean off the mud and dirt as best you can. Then put your pieces of kit somewhere dry that is away from sources of direct heat (e.g. radiators) and expose as much of the surface as you can so it has a chance to dry naturally. You might need to reshape your armour a little after drying as leather stiffens naturally as it dries, but over time it will remould itself to your body/limb with your body heat.
If you are unfortunate enough to be unable to dry your leather fully (due to being on site for several days) or having forgotten that single lone bracer amongst your bag of kit and discover it to have developed … well … a collection of mould, here is a quick way to guarantee cleaning it up – mouthwash. Pour an amount of mouthwash into a separate pot and dip a rag or cloth in it before giving your kit a through working over, working the mouthwash into every crack, crevice or seam that might be harbouring mould spores. You’ll smell minty fresh afterwards, but the antiseptic quality of mouthwash will likely kill anything growing on your gear.