A Knife Sheath to Last
By Jim Sowers
One critical step to making sure your knife stays sharp and well-protected is to have a good, strong knife sheath in which to stow it when not in use. The following are the steps I use to make my sheaths. I’ll show you how to make a pattern to fit a knife you already have, cut the pattern out, and assemble a good strong sheath that should last for many years. But I’ll leave out a few of the more intricate parts of the process, like stamping and saddle stitching. These steps aren’t pertinent to assembling a workable sheath. Information on either of these is fairly easy to find online these days.
Let’s start with a basic sheath.
Materials and tool list
You don’t need the fancy tools to make a good, strong sheath. The tools help, but aren’t necessary.
• 1 piece of 7⁄8-ounce vegetable tanned “belly” leather
• 2 manila folders or other strong paper
• Sharp utility knife
• 150-grit sandpaper
• Neatsfoot oil
• Strong leather sewing thread or copper rivets
• 2 leather sewing needles
• Contact cement
• Leather sealer (like Tan-Kote)
• Edge beveler tool
• Leather v-groover tool
• Leather stitch groover tool
• Leather overstitch wheel
• Mink oil or Sno-Seal
• Vise to hold the sheath while sewing
Sketching the pattern
First, make a paper pattern. These instructions will be for a right-hand sheath. I use manila file folders to trace my patterns. They already have a fold in the center, and they are strong enough to hold up to repeated use if you want to make more than one of the same sheath.
Open the folder and place your knife 1 inch above the bottom edge, and on the center fold. I like to have about three fingers worth of handle sticking out of the top of the sheath, so mark that in the center of the crease and draw a line perpendicular to the crease of the folder at that height. That will be the top of the finished sheath.
Place the knife on the center line of the folder, with the tip at the 1-inch-from-the-edge mark. Place the knife on its back edge, blade up, in line with the crease and roll it to one side. When you roll it, take care to keep it parallel to the center crease. Rolling it this way will help account for the thickness of the handle or guard. After rolling the knife on its side, trace the entire knife with a pencil. This is where it will sit inside the finished sheath.
Using a ruler, make marks between 1⁄2 and 3⁄4 inch all around the outside edge of the blade and handle on the side away from the center of the manila folder. This defines the outside of the sheath pattern and is where you will cut your leather. Connect these marks with your pencil.
To account for the finger guard on your knife — or any wide part of the knife — draw a straight line from the wide part, tracking up to the 3-fingers line that defines the top of the sheath. If you don’t account for that, the knife won’t be able to slide in or out of the sheath.
The next step would be to add any “pretty work” that you might want. It can look nice to put a decorative curve on the top edge of the front of the sheath.
Figure the belt loop in next. On the opposite side of the folder crease from your knife outline, sketch in a belt loop. I figure my loops long enough that a 1 1⁄2-inch work belt should have plenty of room to get through.
Fold the folder shut, and cut only below the 3-inch outside line. Be careful with this step. Do not cut across the top while the folder is shut — you will cut off the belt loop. (If you do cut it or make a mistake on the pattern, just tape it back together and keep going.) Once you have the bottom half of the pattern cut out, open the fold and finish cutting out the top halves. This is the basic pattern for your sheath.
Inside a knife sheath, there is an extra strip of leather called the “welt.” It is a strip of leather that the stitching or rivets go through, and prevents the sharp edge of the knife from ever touching the threads (or metal if you rivet the sheath together). To make a pattern for the welt, make another copy of your sheath pattern on another manila folder.
Draw a line just outside the width of your traced knife. Cut the welt pattern from the first pattern piece you made. Intentionally leave the outside of the welt large. You only need to cut accurately on the bit of the welt that will touch the blade of the knife, the part that goes on the inside of the sheath. It will make gluing the sheath together much easier if you leave it wide on the outside.
At this point, test all the pattern pieces. Fold the belt loop back and make sure it looks like it will fasten in a good spot. Lay the welt pattern strip on your full pattern, and place the knife where it will rest. Fold the full pattern over the knife to make sure it feels like it is large enough to let the knife in and out. If not, this is the time to make a larger version.
Once you are pretty sure the pattern fits your knife, mark the “front outside” on the sheath. Doing that now will help prevent you from cutting the leather wrong-side out. If you do that, your right-hand sheath will become a left-hand sheath.
I cut my knife sheaths out of 7- to 8-ounce vegetable-tanned leather. This is a really heavy-duty, thick leather that should last for years. Vegetable-tanned leather is also the leather you can stamp designs into. You can get leather online, or search for leather retailers in your area. The best leather for knife sheaths is called “double shoulders.” Double shoulders are expensive, though. If you’re just getting started, try finding “bellies.” They are the offcuts from around the belly of the cow. They have jagged edges and usually have bad spots, but they’re often inexpensive. You will throw away most of a belly piece, but it’s a cheaper way to start practicing.
Lay your pattern on the leather you chose. Be very careful to place the “front outside” face up on the smooth side of the leather and trace it with a pencil. I sometimes use a red ink pen for this, because the leather coloring dye I use will dissolve the red ink when it comes time to color the leather.
Using a utility knife, or any leather-cutting knife with a really sharp blade, cut out your pattern. Try to keep the blade straight up and down so you get a square edge on the leather. That makes it easier to put the sheath together later.
Next, find the thickest bit of leather you have left, and cut your welt pattern out of it. The welt piece does not have to be pretty; you can use the scruffy bits for the welt. It will all be glued inside. If your knife is really thick, has a thick handle, or thick guard, you can cut out several copies of your welt pattern and glue them together to allow the sheath opening to be large enough to get the knife in and out.
The leather I used for this sheath was very stiff, so when I tried to fold the cut-out sheath shut, it was too stiff to bend down the center. If you run into this problem, you can make a few grooves with a V-shaped chisel, about halfway through the leather, down the center of the inside of the sheath. I use a leather grooving tool, but if you’re careful, you could do it by hand with a sharp knife. This will allow the sheath to fold over for gluing and sewing without fighting you so much.
You can apply this same method where the belt loop will fold. Take care not to cut on the wrong side. As long as you only go halfway or so through the leather, it will not weaken the sheath. Most of the strength of leather is in the top 1⁄3 of the hair side (the pretty side).
Lay your welt, or multilayered welt, on the inside of the sheath where it will go. Place your knife, and fold it all shut. Test again that it will slide in and out correctly. This is the time to make your welt narrower or any other adjustments that are needed for the knife to go in and out of the sheath correctly. To make the bottom edge of the sheath fold shut tightly, you can shave the bottom edge of the welt down to make it thinner. This is called “skiving.”
I use a stitching groover to make two lines on the sheath — one for the stitches to sit in and a decorative one. You do not have to do this part if you don’t have a stitching groover. Placing the stitches down in a groove prevents wear and tear on the thread, but good leather sewing thread on a sheath will last a long time anyway. Also, you don’t have to sew this at all. You can rivet the whole thing together, and it will also be very strong.
If you want any decorative stamping, this would be the time to do it, before you begin to fold and sew it together.
Wipe the outside of the sheath with a coat of pure neatsfoot oil. Put it on thick, let it set for a few minutes, then wipe it away with a dry paper towel or rag.
Next, attach the belt loop. You can rivet it with a couple copper rivets or sew it. Be aware, the copper rivets will be on the inside of the sheath and will rub on the knife. If you use rivets, make sure you sand or polish them smooth.
Take a belt you plan to wear with the sheath, or something that is at least 1 1⁄2 inches wide, and fold the belt loop over it on the back of the sheath. Do this to make sure you can get the sheath on your belt when it’s finished. Mark where the loop sits while the belt or spacer is in there. I used a thick ruler for this part.
With 150-grit sandpaper, or other coarseness, scuff up the inside of the loop, and scuff the spot where it will attach. Be careful to not sand any parts that will show after you attach the loop. Trace the loop with a pencil where you are going to attach it.
Put contact adhesive on the two scuffed spots, per manufacturer directions. After the cement goes tacky, fold it over and put a clamp on it for a few minutes. If your clamp has a rough surface, put some tape over it so it doesn’t mark up the leather.
I make a groove with my stitching groover where the stitches will go to hold the loop. Again, this could also be rivets instead.
I use an overstitch wheel in the groove to mark evenly spaced stitches. To use an overstitch wheel, dampen the grooves with a little water, then roll the wheel down the groove. I sometimes have trouble seeing the markings later, so I blacken the bottom of each dent with a pen to make it easier to see. If you don’t have an overstitch wheel, you can make even marks with dividers or a ruler. Another tool you can get to mark the stitch spacing is called a pricking iron. They come in sets of threes; a wide one for long runs, then shorter ones for getting around corners.
The easiest way I’ve found to make the holes through the leather is drilling with a tiny drill bit, 1⁄16 inch or so. Some leatherwork purists will say this is the worst thing ever, so you could also punch the holes through by hand with an awl. I don’t get results that are worth the extra time that method takes, so drill straight down through at each pen mark if you do this.
I have a special vise called a stitching pony to hold the sheath while I stitch. You can put your sheath in any type of vise that will hold it where you can get to the holes. Make sure you put some padding between the leather and the vise jaws, or it will get dirty and make marks on your sheath. Other than that, you can squeeze it between your knees and stitch it like I did for years.
I won’t explain entirely how to saddle stitch here. If you want to learn beautiful stitching, I recommend the Al Stohlman book, “The Art of Hand Sewing Leather.”
The gist is to take a piece of leather sewing thread as long as your arms are wide. Put a leather hand-sewing needle on each end. Push the thread through the first hole so you have a needle on both sides of the leather. Pull the string through so there is an even amount of thread on either side of the hole. Push the left-hand needle through the next hole, pull it through, and push the right-hand needle through the same hole from the right side. Now the right needle is on the left and the left needle is on the right. Pull tight. Repeat. When you get to the last hole, sew it, and then sew backwards through the last two holes to keep it from coming apart. That is the nitty gritty, but if you really want to do nice sewing, research the saddle stitch or get someone to show you.
An optional step is to put a sealer on the inside of the sheath. I use Tan-Kote. If you do this step, make sure you don’t get it anywhere the welt is going to be glued.
Once you have the belt loop sewn, use the manila welt pattern strip and mark where the welt goes on the inside of the sheath, front and back. Glue the welt onto the inside-front of the sheath first. Make sure you only put glue where the welt line shows it will be covered. You don’t want contact cement on the inside of the finished sheath getting on your knife.
I generally mark and drill my holes through the front of the sheath before I glue the sheath shut. This seems to work better for me, not having to drill through the entire thickness of the sheath in one go. This really makes a difference if you had to make a welt with multiple thicknesses.
Glue the whole thing shut now. Using contact cement again, careful to follow the manufacturer instructions. It is good to let it set for a few hours to let the glue set up. The welt will stick out on the outside because we left it wide when we cut it.
Once the glue is set up, cut as much of the excess welt off as possible with a knife. Then I sand the outside edge all smooth on a power sander with 150-grit or coarser. This makes everything line up on the outside, and it looks really clean. If you don’t have a power sander, a piece of 150 grit sandpaper wrapped around a bit of flat wood will do just fine.
I use another leather-specific tool here, an edge beveler or edger, to cut a chamfer on the outside edges of the sheath. This makes it look tidy, but if you don’t have this tool, you can skip this or hand sand the edge to clean up the sharp edge.
Drill the holes all the way through the sheath now, or punch with an awl. Again, you could put the sheath together with rivets.
To burnish the raw edge, run a damp sponge with clean water down the edge and rub the length hard with a piece of canvas or scrap of denim. Scrub hard, long strokes, the length of the leather you are burnishing. This closes the pores of the leather and makes it harder for dirt to work its way in.
Rub the outside with another coat of neatsfoot oil and let it soak in. If you want even more water protection, let the neatsfoot oil sit overnight and apply a coat of mink oil, Sno-Seal, or any other leather waterproofing you like.
You are done. Enjoy your new sheath. It should last for years.
Bladesmith, woodworker, and leatherworker, Jim Sowers lives in northeast Kansas. He’s been making stuff with his hands since he was able to hold tools. He has taught furniture making, carpentry, leatherwork, fly tying, and several other handcrafts. He works primarily in metal, wood, and leather, and enjoys helping others learn to work them, too.
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