Stingray skin. The most unforgiving of the exotics

Updated: Dec 22, 2020

What is stingray skin?

Stingray skin, also known as shagreen, is the upper portion of certain species of shark and ray used in leathercraft.

Today, the skins that we buy to make wallets, watch straps, wrapped boxes and small bags, are from farmed stingrays in Asia. In particular, Thailand.

The skin has a fibrous flesh side made up of collagen fibres, much like regular leather, but that’s where the similarities end.

The surface is made up of small spheres, sometimes called pearls, that are larger in the centre and smaller on the outer edges of the skin.

Each tiny sphere is made up of a hard substance called dentin, with an even harder outer coating of enamel. Very similar to your teeth!

The stingray uses this tooth like outer armour as a defence system against attack, which is why the spheres only cover the area of the ray around the vital organs. 

During processing, the soft meaty exterior wings are removed (for food consumption), and the upper layer of shagreen is sent off for tanning.

This is why stingray skin isn't consistent with the shape of a live ray.

Most stingray skins are chrome tanned which allows the skin to remain strong and flexible for product manufacture.

There are two types of finishing for shagreen.

One is simply left unsanded before being dyed a particular colour, which gives a caviar like look to the finished skin (see picture above), the other is sanded.

Sanding is done after the dying process where a machine sands away a portion of the surface exposing the un-dyed dentin underneath the enamel.

This gives a uniform thickness across the skin which is desirable for book binding, small cases and wherever a raised effect is undesirable.

Finally, the sanded skin is put through a machine which imparts a polished finish that catches the light, providing a striking appearance (see below picture).

As leathercrafters the issues we face when using this skin are many.

Cutting the skin is the first hurdle.

The material that prevents a predator's sharp teeth from penetrating this armour layer, is also resistant to the knife, pricking iron and awl.

Edge finishing can also be a challenge.

Especially with unsanded skins, as the variation in the surface allows edge paint to seep between the spheres through capillary action, and the finished result is less than desirable.

Stitching is another hurdle.

Since no awl can safely penetrate the dentin/enamel layer. Doing so risks stabbing yourself, or worse, blunting your awl blade 😉.

Another problem that plagues us is the texture itself.

No thread is tough enough to tell this unusual surface what to do. The spheres then play havoc with stitching consistency and the look of the completed product.

So how do you tame this wild and unforgiving skin?

Rather than fight the natural tendencies and properties of this precious skin,

it is best to understand it’s strengths and weaknesses and

work with the skin rather than against it. 

In the NEW course coming at the beginning of February, I will be showing you how to make a beautifully finished project using stingray.

I will be sharing with you how I navigate all of the above issues and considerations with a simple uncomplicated project that will focus on the skills of the skin.

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