No fixed blade is complete without a proper sheath. A sheath will prevent your knife from accidentally cutting or stabbing you or another object when it’s not in use. It’ll also protect the edge from damage, and cushion the knife from any impact that could occur from a drop. A sheath will help you take your knife wherever you want to go.
The natural feel and durability of leather makes it one of my favorite sheath materials. The following instructions from my book, A Modern Guide to Knifemaking, will show you how to make a simple and effective leather sheath.
Tools and Materials:
- Utility knife
- Scratch compass
- Drill press or awl
- 1/16-inch drill bit
- Wood file
- Belt sander
- Spacer set
- Graph paper
- 7- to 8-ounce vegetable-tanned leather
- Contact cement
- Artificial sinew
- Harness sewing needles
- Sanding belts (60- and 200-grit)
- Plastic wrap
- Leather dressing
1. Draw the pattern
Using a ruler, draw a straight line the full length of the paper. This will be the leather fold of the sheath. Place the spine of your knife about 1/4 inch from the line and roughly parallel with it. Then, trace around the curve of the knife edge, leaving a bit of space between the actual edge of the blade and your pencil line. Extend this line up two-thirds of the length of the handle, and make a mark to designate the top of your sheath. Draw a second line running along the knife edge, but make this one about 1/2 inch out from the first line. The space between these two lines is where your welt will go. The welt is a strip of leather sewn between the two sides of the sheath that creates a buffer between the knife’s edge and the stitching.
At the top of the pattern, extend the two lines at least 5 inches past the top of your sheath to create the belt loop. I like the belt loop to be narrower than the sheath, so taper both sides so that the loop won’t be visible when you view your sheath from the front. Make sure you leave enough length so that when you fold the strap down and stitch it, you have a space that’s at least 2 inches wide for your belt. Fold the paper in half on the center seam and cut around your pattern through both sides of the paper to produce two identical sheath sides. Trim the sheath so only one side has a belt loop.
2. Test the pattern, and draw the welt
Place your knife in the sheath pattern, folding the paper pattern at the seam, and see if the knife fits well in the paper. Leather is thicker and more cumbersome than paper, so depending on how thick your leather is, you might need to make your design bigger if the knife isn’t fitting well in the paper. If everything looks good, your next step is to make the welt pattern. Trace the curve of the sheath on another piece of paper. Then, trace the inside line to mark out the pattern for the welt. Cut out the welt pattern, and test it in your paper sheath. The welt should fit neatly inside the seam of the sheath.
3. Transfer the pattern to the leather
Place the pattern on the rough side of the leather. This will be the inside of your sheath. It’s important at this point to think about whether you’re making a right- or left-handed sheath. If you’re making a right-handed sheath, you should have the belt loop side of the pattern on the left side of the sheath when it’s placed on the leather. If you’re making a left-handed sheath, flip the pattern over to put the belt loop on the right side.
Tape the pattern down and trace it with a pencil. Cut through your lines using a sharp utility knife. When cutting out the welt, leave a little extra leather on the outside edge. It can be sanded off the finished sheath, and this way, you can be sure the leather ends up flush. When you have everything cut out, place your knife as it’ll sit in the sheath. Try wrapping the leather around it to make sure everything fits together, and that there will be enough room for your knife.
4. Make belt loop stitch holes
Fold the belt loop down to where it’ll be attached to the sheath, and trace around the piece of leather that’ll be stitched down. Using your scratch compass, make a mark 1/4 inch in from the edge of the leather at the end of the belt loop where the stitches will be going. Roll the spacer set around the seam, following the line you made with the compass. You’ll need the holes to outline the entire area that’ll be in contact with the sheath. Use the drill press with a 1⁄16-inch bit (or an awl) to drill through the marks on the leather.
5. Glue the belt loop and redrill the holes
Contact cement, in combination with stitching, will ensure that all the seams of your sheath are tough enough to withstand whatever you put them through. As a bonus, this technique will also keep everything in place later on as you drill and stitch. To help the cement adhere better, use your file to rough up the smooth side of the leather where the belt loop will be attached to the sheath, as well as the side of the loop that’ll be stitched down. Apply contact cement on both pieces of leather, and let it dry for a bit, according to the instructions on the bottle. Press and hold the 2 pieces together to make sure they bond. Redrill the holes you made in the belt loop, through both the belt loop and the sheath.
6. Stitch the belt loop
Use a basic running stitch to go through all the holes, and then stitch back through the alternating holes to fill in the spaces. It can be tough to work the needle through the leather with your fingers, so I like to grab the needle with a pair of pliers and push and pull it through that way. It’s easy to break needles doing this, so keep several spare needles on hand. Every two or three holes, tighten your stitches by pulling on the sinew. To end the sinew, go back through a few stitches and then tie a knot. Finally, use a match to melt the end of the sinew.
7. Glue the seam and the welt
Note: Once the welt is glued in, it’ll be almost impossible to make adjustments, so test your sheath with the welt in place before applying the contact cement. Once again, make sure your knife has enough space to lie inside the sheath. Mark where the edge of the welt will lie by tracing it with a pencil. Use your file to rough up the smooth side of the welt. Carefully apply contact cement to the area you traced, as well as the same area on the opposite side of the sheath, and both sides of the welt. Wait for the contact cement to set, and then press all 3 layers of leather firmly together. At this point, it’ll really start to look like something!
8. Sand the edge
Using 60-grit sandpaper on the belt sander, sand down the edge of your sheath until all 3 layers of leather are flush together. Once flush, switch to a finer 200-grit belt to soften the sharp edges of your grind a bit, which will make it look a bit cleaner. Also, defining the edges of the sheath will give you a more definite edge to work off of when marking out your stitch holes in the next step.
9. Make the stitch holes for the main seam
Use the scratch compass to make a line around the entire edge of the sheath, about 1/4 inch from the edge of the leather. Use your spacer set to mark out the holes for drilling and drill through all 3 pieces of leather to make the stitch holes.
10. Stitch the sheath
Cut a piece of artificial sinew thread four or five times the length of your sheath. Thread a needle with the sinew. Starting 3 holes from the top of the sheath, push the threaded needle through the hole. Pull the end of the sinew and even the two sides up so that half of the sinew is on one side and half is on the other. Then, thread a needle on the other end of the sinew so that you’ll have two needles to work with.
Stitch back up with one needle through the holes you skipped using a running stitch. When you reach the top, come back down the sheath until you get back to where you started. Do the same thing with the needle on the other side, going through the same holes again. This creates a backstitch that reinforces the upper corner, which is the part of the sheath that takes the most abuse and is most vulnerable to wear and tear. Once you’re back where you started with both needles, start stitching down the sheath. Stitch two or three holes before switching to the other needle and filling in the spaces.
11. Add the final touches
Soak the leather in warm water for 5 to 10 minutes, or until it starts to soften. Meanwhile, wrap the entire knife in plastic wrap and secure the wrap with tape. This will keep the water off of your blade and prevent it from rusting, as well as give it a little more bulk so that it’ll come out of the sheath easily, even after the leather has dried and shrunk.
After soaking, remove the sheath and place the wrapped knife in it. Allow the sheath to dry around your knife. Once your sheath is completely dry, remove your knife and take it out of the plastic wrap. Try inserting and removing your knife a few times to see if it’s a good fit. If you’re not happy, rewet the sheath and try forming it again. Note: Leather dressing makes the leather water-resistant, so make sure you like the way your knife fits before applying the dressing. Finally, cover the sheath exterior with a few coats of leather dressing and admire your work.
Laura Zerra has completed survival challenges on Discovery Channel’s “Naked and Afraid.” This project is excerpted from her book A Modern Guide to Knifemaking (Quarto Publishing).