The thought of having to skive leather brings a mixture of feelings to various leather crafters. There are those who loathe the thought of using a skiving knife, and those that relish the opportunity to shave leather.
Crafters that enjoy using this quintessential leathercraft tool, are usually those who know how to sharpen a knife to a razor edge.
Crafters that hate it, are probably still furiously stropping the same factory edge that came with the knife 3 years ago, confused as to why ‘stropping no longer works’.
Now, this post isn’t about how to sharpen, as text and images can't really teach this skill properly. Rather, today I want to talk about my favourite skiving knives, showcasing shapes and styles and what they're used for.
But before I go into that, I want to talk about steel. Steel quality and hardness do play a role in skiving success, but not as much as technique and sharpening, not by a long way.
So, try not to get caught up in the details regarding steel.
I have used various skiving knife materials over the years from N690, HSS, 1085, 440c, and various unknown carbon and stainless steels with good success.
But, there is always a trade off. An incredibly hard ‘super steel’ that shows fantastic edge retention, is also going to show fantastic ‘blunt retention’. Meaning, when the knife becomes too blunt to use, it is much harder to sharpen back to a razor edge.
Hard steels also take more stropping before use and can also be prone to chipping if pressed too hard against a paring stone or worse, dropped.
Chipped steels in the high hardness range may end up requiring hours of work on a sharpening stone, or more likely a diamond hone.
On the flip side, softer knife steels will lose their edge faster, however they require less stropping before use, and when the edge becomes dull and needs resharpening on a stone, it takes considerably less time and effort.
There is no ‘best’ steel with this in mind, yet I would always recommend a beginner obtain a good carbon steel blade to learn on.
Trying to learn how to sharpen while using high hardness steels (58 Rockwell and up) will probably lead to frustration and a general dislike for the tool.
One of my favourite skiving knives started out as a carbon steel putty knife made by Hamilton. No idea what steel it is or how hard, but it sharpens and strops easily and can shave hairs on your forearm without actually touching your forearm!
So, let’s delve into a few styles of skiving knive and explain their uses.
English style skiving knife
If you’ve noticed my spelling of colour, favourite, aluminium etc on my blogs, you’ll know I'm English. So no points for guessing my favourite style of knife!
This knife is best known for its angled single bevel blade and flat handle. In fact these knives don’t normally come with any additional handle at all. They are very basic in nature and the flat profile allows you to get very low to your work without having to bring your hand over the edge of the paring stone for clearance.
The angled tip with the bevel side up allows for very precise work, especially on thin skins where this knife really comes into it's own. This knife is also known as a 'paring knife'.
German style skiving knife.
Although the skiving knife in the above image is a hybrid of sorts with the English style, the German version usually sports a slightly curved blade.
While this style is still suitable for paring the edges of your leather projects, the German is much better for general thinning work. Either tidying up the work of your bell skiving machine after splitting, or thinning a small area away from the edge.
The benefit, especially when used bevel side down, is the heel and the tip of the blade can be kept away from the flesh side of your leather, and only the belly of the blade (then middle) removes material.
When thinning work needs to be done, the tip and heel (extreme ends) of the cutting edge is where damage is most likely to occur, usually by accident as your leather contorts under pressure from the knife.
Asian style leather knife.
Going by many names, this style of knife is not actually designed for skiving alone, but for cutting, chopping and yes, skiving too.
The blade is usually short and perpendicular to the handle, which is essential when this tool is used for pattern cutting.
In the context of skiving knives, it can be used bevel side up or down. However, with the bevel facing up as illustrated in the image above, shallow skives are going to be a challenge as the handle restricts how low the tool can go.
In the hands of a skilled user, this tool can work very well, but for beginners, the 'Jack of all trades, master of none' design can make make proficiency take much longer. Especially when compared to owning a dedicated leather cutting knife and a separate skiving knife.
A detail knife is much like any other skiving knife, just much smaller. Almost anything can work as a detail knife as long as it is small enough. A craft knife, scalpel, or as in the image above, a repurposed metal hacksaw blade.
These small knives can fit into tiny places and awkward angles that a full size blade cannot. Essential for many fine leathercraft projects that contain a lot of detail.
The Vergez Blanchard HSS skiving knife.
Ok, so this isn't exactly a category of knife, but rather a knife anyone can buy.
Many of my knives are made by me (the ones with Finch England on them), but as a non-custom off the shelf blade, it is my favourite.
Often seen at the ateliers of Hermès, their choice of knife is not for no reason. The steel holds an incredibly sharp edge for a long time.
However, this is not a beginners knife as it doesn't come with a sharpened edge. With steel this hard (and it is!), you need decent sharpening skills and ideally, diamond abrasive plates. But when it does sharpen up, skiving is an absolute breeze!
If you'd like to discover more about sharpening skiving knives (and other leather knives too!), I recommend the following video courses:
'Techniques Of The Blade'
(read more HERE)
Intermediate to advanced.
'Techniques Of The Blade Part 2: Advanced Sharpening'
(watch preview HERE)
Now, tell me about your favourite skiving knife in the comments below. What do you like about it?