Updated: Mar 10, 2021
Do you ever encounter issues on the rear side of your stitches? Have you ever been happy with the face side, but appalled by the rear of the seam?
This common problem may not be your actual stitching technique!
So trying every trick in the book to neaten up the rear side may leave you frustrated and disheartened.
As they say, 'better the devil you know, than the devil you don't'. It is better to be aware of an issue so that you can make changes, than not be aware of the issue at all.
One problem when using sharp pricking irons and fully penetrating through the leather, is the tiny slits on the rear side can be particularly hard to see. Especially in softer leathers that tend to 'heal'.
It is possible, that while you think you have punched through consistently, there is every chance in fact, that the pricking iron did not penetrate completely straight.
This may leave you thinking that your stitching technique is to blame. It might be! But this blog aims to remove one problematic pricking iron variable, so that you can focus on your saddle stitching.
There are a number of reasons that your pricking iron/ stitching iron/ stitching chisel punches through incorrectly at an odd - and often inconsistent angle.
So, I have provided you with a demonstration and explanation of the 4 most common mistakes to avoid.
Let's get started.
Issue #1: The offset pricking iron.
Probably the most common issue that causes stitches on the rear side to be closer or further away from the edge than the face side of the leather.
With a new focus, this is also the easiest problem to solve.
Typically this issue occurs when your eyes are not looking straight down the seam that you are creating, and you are punching at an odd angle without realising.
Or perhaps your focus is only on the leather you are marking and not the handle you are holding!
Arrange the leather so that your seam is pointing towards the mid line of your body.
Making sure that the handle of the pricking iron is perfectly vertical, look down at the line you are marking, then just before you strike with your mallet, take one more look at the handle to ensure it is still perfectly upright, keep everything still - then hit.
Issue#2: Hitting your pricking iron at an odd angle.
This issue is often harder to spot as it happens so fast.
That laser like focus on keeping your pricking iron straight has your brain hitting it on autopilot.
Unfortunately your autopilot may not be too concerned about throwing a hammer straight down on a vertical axis so that all it's energy forces the prongs through the leather straight and true.
So while your pricking iron is nice and upright, hitting it at a slight angle will force it of it's vertical centre.
The effect will be as though you were holding your iron at a slight angle from issue #1 above.
Worse is when you have been doing everything correctly, but one particular bad hit has caused say, 8 of your stitches on the rear side to be out of line with the rest.
You normally only notice this after hand stitching your seam in full. Damn.
Ensure that your elbow is high so you can strike straight down from a height. A low elbow by your side can have you impacting at an odd angle.
Issue #3: The leather - it's not flat!
Another hard one to spot because you are normally looking straight down from above at your work.
There are a number of reasons that leather can raise up and cause the same negative effect as the above two issues.
It can be as simple and annoying as a piece of leather scrap (say from skiving or edge beveling) underneath your piece and raising it up.
Another reason is pressing too hard on your iron when it is very close to the edge, especially if you are punching through an edge that has a bevel cut skive that tapers.
Whatever the reason, a simple remedy is to use your little finger and the side of your hand to keep pressure on your work piece - also, try to keep a clean workstation!
Issue #4: Punching above your weight.
Punching too close to the edge for a given weight or thickness of leather can cause a very strange problem on the rear side of your stitches.
I'm no physics expert, but I'll do my best to explain:
When you punch through leather with a pricking iron, you are essentially displacing (pushing aside) the leather fibres as you cut through.
All things being equal, if you were to punch through a piece of hide right in the very middle, your iron should travel straight down - all things being equal.
Things tend to be un-equal when there is more mass resisting one side of your iron than the other.
So that tiny 1.5mm strip of leather between your pricking iron and the edge, offers far less resistance than all the leather on the other side of your piece.
In essence your pricking iron will want to move towards the side of least resistance -the edge, as it cuts through.
So, what effect does that have? Well, you may have punched through your piece of leather 1.5mm from the edge on the face side (good side), but on the rear your marks are 1mm, 0.5mm, or even touching the edge!
In even simpler terms, one side of your seam may end up closer to the edge than the other.
Ok Phil, so what do I need to do to remedy this?
Glad you asked.
Remedy #1 Avoid punching too close to the edge on thick dense leather especially.
If you are a beginner: Aim to punch your holes the same distance from the edge as the distance between each prong. i.e. a 3mm iron punching a minimum of 3mm from the edge.
If you have an SPI iron (imperial stitches per inch), instead of doing maths and working out how many 64ffftthhss of an inch that needs to be, place the end prong on the leathers edge (match the angle) and use the second prong to make a mark - follow that mark with dividers.
With experience (or with an awl) you can break this 'rule' of thumb and stitch closer to the edge if the design calls for it.
Remedy #2 You can counter this lateral movement by angling the iron inward slightly.
I have on occasion done this, but it is my least recommended solution as it requires practice, experience and results can vary from leather to leather.
If you don't understand what I mean by this, don't worry, it's not best practice and I'd rather you didn't attempt it.
Remedy #3 (best) Make up your item larger than needed, then cut to size after punching and stitching.
So lets say you have a card wallet that is 80mm x 100mm. Make it 85mm x 105mm, then trim 5mm off around the edges after stitching.
This is basically adding mass to the edge to prevent the iron from wandering. After stitching you also have a nice clean edge for painting or burnishing too.
What should correct use of a pricking iron look like?
Now you can focus on your saddle stitching technique knowing that your holes are marked perfectly straight through.
So how about cleaning up your stitching technique?
Well, the video course 'The Techniques Of Hand Stitching' will help you to understand the skills necessary so you can create beautiful clean stitching.
I discuss the basic techniques, tools needed, casting vs un-casted hand stitching, as well as edge binding, turned edges and French binding too.
This will be the foundation for all the other courses that we offer you (38 video courses as of April 2020 - and growing!).
Eliminate Confusion - Gain Confidence - Master Your Craft
Click > HERE < to view the Course Guide
5 BONUS pro tips
Tip #1: Use a mallet with enough weight.
A light mallet makes glancing blows and twisting more likely. 10 - 12 oz (280g - 340g) is a good overall weight to use, but beginners may do well to use a heavier mallet that adds stability to your strikes in the 16 oz (450g) and above region.
If you rarely mark your stitches for awl use (partial penetration), but prefer to punch all the way through the leather, you may want to choose a heavier mallet, beginner or not.
Heavy mallets do more of the work for you, light mallets have you using more effort in the strike for the same result - more effort = less accuracy.
Tip #2: Use a mallet with a large enough striking face.
I recommend a strike face of no smaller than 1-1/4'' (32mm) wide. As a beginner you may want to go up to 1.5'' or 2'' (38mm - 50mm) in strike face diameter (the part that contacts the pricking iron). This reduces the chance of a bad hit or a glancing blow.
Tip #3: Consider wrapping your handle in leather.
Especially in summer, your hands can get sweaty and slippery. Using leather that absorbs sweat will give your hand a sure grip. It also makes for a fun project while reducing hand fatigue. https://youtu.be/ThU5UMX_uGA
Tip #4: When marking your stitches, have a strong light coming from your 2 o'clock position (if you are right handed) or from the 10 o'clock position (if you are left handed).
The idea is to have the shadow of your pricking iron away from the line you are following in your leather. This helps to ensure that you don't incorrectly mark your project.
Tip #5: Choose a mallet with Nylon or acetate faces.
These hard plastics will not damage your pricking iron, but being as hard as some metals, they offer better energy transfer than softer plastics or rubber.
Rawhide is another option, but when they begin to deteriorate, bits of rawhide can get everywhere.
You can also use softer metals such as copper, brass or aluminium mallets made for the automotive industry. But unlike Nylon or acetate, they will begin to mushroom over time with every impact. Plus they may be too loud for apartment dwellers.
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