Updated: Dec 22, 2020
So which is better? Vintage pricking irons, or modern?
In this short blog post, I will uncover some of the differences between vintage irons and the modern equivalent.
The goal here is to educate you on the differences between them, as well as the pro’s and con’s of each.
By the time you finish reading this, I hope that you will leave with more knowledge, regardless of what tools you choose work with.
Vintage pricking irons, also called stitch markers (a more apt name I think) are designed to mark a series of slits in the surface of the leather to chase with your awl.
You can then fully penetrate the leather with your awl as you stitch with a needle and thread.
As these old irons are only meant to penetrate 1/4 to 1/2 of the leathers thickness, the prongs are tapered quite heavily to ensure toughness (shown below), longevity and prevent bending if dropped.
This means that should you attempt to fully penetrate through a thick piece of leather with these thick wide prongs, you would be left with very large gaping holes.
These are a challenge to close with a hammer after stitching. Not a great look.
So full penetration would constitute incorrect use of a vintage iron unless the leather was very thin.
With the increased demand for ever thinner prongs on pricking irons, today, manufacturers have listened to the needs of many craftsmen and slimmed down prongs, while simultaneously choosing harder steels to make up for the loss of strength.
Many modern pricking irons, also called stitching irons, are capable of penetrating through thick leather without leaving large gaping holes in the surface (within reason).
The benefit of this, is that you can now saddle stitch many leather projects without needing to use an awl.
With the popularity of simple smaller projects, such as wallets, cardholders and minimalist bags, the modern pricking iron has made stitching much less complicated by removing a process that requires a higher degree of skill and increased dexterity.
So where then, do vintage irons fit in?
Predominantly they are used on vegetable tanned leather goods where their wider than usual prong width allows a higher decorative angle and use of thicker thread without bunching.
Some vintage irons are an exception to this, but most have wider prongs than their modern counterparts.
Last year I spoke to a craftsman at Alfred Dunhill in London about the exclusive use of old ‘J Dixon’ pricking irons, and why they as a manufacturer, haven’t switched to more modern alternatives.
‘You just can’t get that traditional look with the modern stitch markers, they don’t leave a mark large enough to stitch through thick leather easily. You can clearly see the marks left by these old irons’.
He predominantly makes large cases and briefcase handles at 5 stitches per inch, and there isn’t a lot of choice at this size from modern manufacturers either.
Even companies such as Hermès still use old school Vergez Blanchard pricking irons, which are traditionally handmade irons still in production today.
Were Hermès to switch to using Amy Roke irons (unlikely), I would probably start buying shares in Amy Roke!
As far as I am aware, no known established luxury goods brand uses any modern pricking irons yet. Though that may change in the future.
I recently welcomed two J Dixon irons into my collection, a massive 4 stitches per inch and an even massiver 3 spi!
They weren’t in the best condition I’ll admit, but the stitches they produce are reminiscent of the stitching I have seen in very old luggage and leather goods.
This is one of the reasons I chose to use J Dixon and G Barnsley irons when making the Bloomsbury attache case last year. It’s a look that is difficult to replicate without a large old iron and a good wide awl.
Outside of case making, thick leather briefcase handles and vintage inspired leather goods, there isn’t a huge need for using old irons, I find the modern versions are just fine.
The only real reason is nostalgia, and a deep connection to the history of the craft.
Finally, let’s look at the pro’s of vintage stitch markers:
Larger marks, easier to follow with an awl.
Wider prongs allow for a more pronounced angle and thicker thread for a given spacing.
A more vintage aesthetic for traditionally made leather goods.
In some cases, it is more cost effective than modern equivalents.
Can be found in many sizes from 3spi to 20spi.
Most brands produced reverse or ‘inverse’ irons.
Now the cons:
Hard to find at any price point.
Wide prongs don’t work particularly well with soft or chrome tanned leather.
Requires more skill with the use of an awl.
Many are not in the best condition.
May require sharpening or fixing bent prongs.
One hit too many can leave marks that are overly large (depth sensitive).
So how about modern pricking irons? Let’s look at the pro’s:
Easy to buy and plentiful.
Generally harder wearing steel.
Narrower prongs work well in soft or chrome tanned leather.
Can mostly be used without an awl up to about 3mm of leather thickness.
Good price range.
No problem buying brand new and unused irons.
And now the con’s:
Prongs can snap when dropped due to hard brittle steel.
A limited amount of brands produce sizes below 2.7mm (10spi) or above 3.85 (7spi).
Sharp thin prongs can leave small marks that are difficult to follow in dark leather.
Not every brand produces reverse or ‘inverse’ irons.
Many are made lightweight which can feel less stable in the hand.
Some brands use the same prong width on various sizes to keep costs down.
I could go on, and I’m sure you could add some of your own pro’s and con’s to each list too, as these are my personal findings from using both.
I hope this has helped to inform you a little more about the differences between the leathercraft old school and the new school when it comes to pricking irons.
Are you looking to learn how to correctly use leather pricking irons? Do you want to get professional results that will have you stitching beautiful seams?
Almost every course we offer sees the use of a pricking iron for hand stitching. Both modern and vintage, with and without an awl.
Check out 'The Techniques Of Hand Stitching', our first ever course that will teach you all about hand stitching, including casting, thread size ratios, edge binding, turned edges, French binding and more.
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