How to Make a Football by Hand: The LEATHER HEAD SPORTS Football Giveaway

by Brett & Kate McKay on November 8, 2010 · 342 comments

in Blog


Editor’s note: There are few things more manly than the independent craftsman. The Art of Manliness would like to support the independent craftsmen out there by featuring from time to time a man who makes a living working with his hands. Today we spotlight Paul Cunningham, the owner of and master craftsman at LEATHER HEAD SPORTS where he makes handsome, handmade footballs and baseballs. Paul gives us a behind-the-scenes look at how he makes his footballs and has donated one of his footballs to be given away to an AoM reader. For a chance to win, see below for details.
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Football is a manly sport. Leatherwork is manly craft.  When you put them together, is there anything more manly?

As the long time Photo Editor for Major League Baseball, I had one of the best gigs in America: looking at baseball photos all day, while working with some amazing photographers, editors and designers.  It was a terrific job, which took me to the World Series every year.

Then, I resigned.  MLB is a special place to work, so when the shine wore off, I knew it was time to move on.

Moving on meant engaging my passions for craftsmanship and sports.  As my days at MLB waned, I began designing and making handsome leather goods. Once I resigned, I was ready to bring my designs to market.

Most footballs today are made cheaply in Asia.  To its credit, Wilson still has a factory in Ada, Ohio where all NFL footballs are made by American hands.  But Wilson is a huge multi-national corporation, and they won’t teach you how to make a football.  I had to figure it out for myself, and I thought it would be fun to share what I’ve learned.

Design

A football is made from four panels sewn together inside out.  Two of the panels are punched with holes to accommodate the laces.  Once the shell of the ball is assembled, it is inverted, filled with a rubber bladder, laced, and finally inflated.

Official NFL footballs are made for guys with really big hands.  Most men struggle to grip and throw an official size football.  I was inspired by the need for a football that would fit my hand, and it had to look old school cool.

Leather Selection

A stack of leather waiting to be turned into LEATHER HEAD footballs. It is indeed an honored cow, whose hide is chosen for such a high calling.

Once upon a time there were hundreds, even thousands of tanneries in America.  Environmental concerns and foreign competition drove most out of business.  The few that remain do a terrific job of producing a wide range of leather styles.  I visited one of the remaining tanneries in America and spent the day looking at leather samples.  I was looking for leather with very specific characteristics:  Brown in color, thick, firm temper, full grain, textured, etc.  Ultimately I wanted leather that would make a beautiful, tough, gripable ball.

After buying and testing many different sides of leather, I finally settled on one that was just about perfect.

A common concern about LEATHER HEAD footballs is their gripability.  An NFL ball is made from leather that has a rough texture embossed onto the surface.  For LEATHER HEAD footballs, I chose leather that has a light texture, but is also fairly oily.  The oil, rather than make the ball slippery, actually enhances the ball’s gripability.  Also, because LEATHER HEAD footballs are designed for average size hands, they are inherently more gripable than an official size ball.

Components

This picture shows all the components of a LEATHER HEAD football

A LEATHER HEAD football is made from the following components:

  • 4 leather panels
  • 4 liners
  • Lace hole reinforcements
  • Polyester thread
  • Bladder guard
  • Rubber bladder
  • Rawhide lace

Construction/Tools

Here are the step-by-step instructions for making a football.

Step 1. Lay a side of leather on your workbench and closely position four panel patterns on it.  With a sharp utility knife, cut the leather around the patterns.

Step 2. Transfer the leather to your die press.  Carefully position your cutting die on the leather and punch out each panel.

A cutting die is positioned on a piece of leather. Each panel is exactly the same shape.

Freshly cut football panels await the next step in the construction process at the LEATHER HEAD football factory.

Step 3. Sew a liner into the flesh side of each panel.

Step 4. Return two of the panels to the die press and with a special die, cut out the lace holes.

Step 5. Punch out a hole for the air valve.

Step 6. Brand your logo onto the ball.

With a special jig and branding iron, A logo is burned into each LEATHER HEAD football.

Step 7. Sew the bottom panels together.

Step 8. Sew the lace hole reinforcements and bladder guard in place.

Step 9. Sew the top panels together.

Step 10. Invert the bottom panels and insert into the top panels.

Step 11. Sew bottom and top panels together.

With a heavy duty industrial sewing machine, A football is sewn together.

Footballs are assembled inside out. Here is a fresh batch ready to be inverted.

Step 12. With a stout stick, and strong muscles, invert the ball so that it is right side out.

A LEATHER HEAD football in the process of being inverted.

Step 13. Insert a new rubber bladder, position the bladder guard, and partially inflate the ball.

Step 14. Lace the ball closed; trim the excess lace.

Lacing a LEATHER HEAD football.

Step 15. Fully inflate the ball and admire your work.

Conclusion

The world is teeming with an over abundance of cheap, massed produced junk.  Lately though, a craft movement has emerged to counter this.  It is a movement that attaches greater value to American made goods, often made on a small scale.  It can be seen in a wide range of enterprises, including locavore restaurants and pop up shops.  It also extends to many large brands like LL Bean who are now trumpeting their heritage products.  One of the best examples of this movement is the success of Etsy, a web-site marketplace for handmade and vintage items.

We now live in an internet enabled world that makes commerce available to everyone with an idea and a little gumption. If you have a passion, by all means, engage it.  You never know where it will lead you.

A completed LEATHER HEAD football.

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The LEATHER HEAD Sports Handsome Dan Football Giveaway


If you’d like to get your hands on one of these handcrafted footballs from LEATHER HEAD SPORTS, here’s your chance. Paul has agreed to give away one of his Handsome Dan Footballs to a lucky AoM reader. The beautiful fall weather provides the perfect opportunity to toss the pigskin (well, cowskin) around with friends and family, and this football will make you the envy of your peers.

How to Enter the Giveaway

Leave a comment sharing your favorite football-related memory.

We’ll randomly select one comment and that man will win a handmade Handsome Dan Football from LEATHER HEAD SPORTS.

The deadline to enter is Monday, November 15, 2010 at 10:00 CST.


301 Clockwork November 12, 2010 at 7:59 am

That Big Blue Leather Head football would be fantastic to bring to my Giants tailgates. They’re all sweet though.

302 Chris November 12, 2010 at 8:35 am

Thanksgiving Day football. After gorging on turkey and all the trimmings, we would play football for hours…then head inside for a second (or third) helping of pie.

303 Thad November 12, 2010 at 8:57 am

Toss with my dad.

304 Eric November 12, 2010 at 11:28 am

My brother, two friends, and I would often gather on the Sunday’s of an away game for 2-on-2 tackle game, though all the small hills and trees in the yard made it far from typical. the bumps and bruises were badges of honor. Thanksgiving day was the big game. We would gather up friends, family, and neighbors at a nearby park and play for hours before dashing home to a satisfying post game meal.

305 Mike Squire November 12, 2010 at 12:11 pm

My favorite football memory is sittin down with my dad on sunday afternoons watchin the games all day and than going out and practicing plays in between halfs!!

306 DOC November 12, 2010 at 12:32 pm

Learning how to run buttonhooks, flag patterns, and the art of the one handed catch from my Grandfather Steve, who in the early 40′s was known throughout Pittsburg as “The Red Bandana Kid” and once led his amateur club to a win over the Steelers in an exhibition.

307 Oliver November 12, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Now I have all the manly explanation I needed to manly make my manly football myself !

308 Mike Howle November 12, 2010 at 6:35 pm

Football in its purest form is a game of human confrontation. That is why we love it so. It is about overcoming fear, measuring oneself against a person who may be bigger, faster, or more talented than you. If you have played the game on any level you have felt that fear. In the huddle when your number is called with the game on the line, or in the trenches, digging in to keep your opponent out of the end zone. The game is memorable because of what it shows us about ourselves and what it teaches us about our own unconquerable sprit.

309 Matt November 12, 2010 at 9:39 pm

I was on the football team during high school. In my whole career I played one play, and it was a run to the opposite side of the field.

310 Tom Kregenbild November 13, 2010 at 4:30 am

Thank you for this awsome article.
I think I will try to make one by myself.

311 Amanda November 13, 2010 at 7:36 am

In the heydey of The Hogs I was a very young girl living with my parents in Alexandria, VA. My father had become quite taken with the Washington Redskins and adopted them as his own and I, as any 3 your old is wont to do, did whatever my father was doing and rooted right alongside of him.

One day my grandmother called from New Jersey and, in the the background, heard a cacophany of things slamming and my yelling and screaming. When she asked my father what in the world was going on with his 3-year-old girl he explained he had wondered the same thing a few minutes earlier. Upon investigation, he discovered that I had taken all the dolls in my room, lined them up in two roughly equal rows facing one another, would mumble something inaudible- say “HIKE” and smash them all together.

When he asked what I was doing I said I was “playing Redskins”.

Some years later I learned there was a ball involved in all of this.

And I have been a faithful, fervent fan of the Washington Redskins ever since.

312 Ryan November 13, 2010 at 12:39 pm

I remember when my Dad gave me my first real leather football. I was super excited, and we played for hours. Too bad I have tiny hands and can barely throw. Can’t wait to teach my little guy

313 Joshua Haidet November 13, 2010 at 12:55 pm

A bunch of random memories really–watching the Browns with my Dad and family, going to high school football games, getting a new football for Christmas from my Aunt, playing in the back yard with my brothers, leaves falling all around. Good stuff.

314 Kevin November 13, 2010 at 2:12 pm

During college I played intramural flag football every year. I was a receiving center and punter. During my junior season after I snapped the ball I ran out for a pass and my quarterback through a ball that seemed like it was going to be just out of reach. In fact I thought it was but tried to dive for it anyway. Next thing I know my neck and head are flat against the ground and my body is all up in the air and I am just kind of sitting like that and the ball is in my hands. I start looking around for the Ref and making the catch hand single to see if it was a catch or not and to my surprise it was! Apparently I dove for and caught the ball and end up on my head on the ground. I am glad other people where there because I don’t remember a thing about the catch but afterwards everyone was telling me how great it was. The best catch I will ever make and I don’t even remember it!

315 Ted November 13, 2010 at 2:42 pm

When I got married I told my wife that I watched football, and that she could either learn to enjoy the game with me or go do something else. Two years later she knew more about the game than most of my friends, and to this day is a huge fan.

She won’t allow the name of the team from Indianapolis to be spoken in our house, and she loves the Ravens. :D

316 Ray November 13, 2010 at 3:03 pm

My proudest and most profound football moments happened Tuesday November 2 and will stay with me the rest of my life. I’m a Mississippi State Bulldog and one of our own, Nick Bell, died of cancer that day. That night, hundreds of students and friends rang their cowbells in remembrance. I know that today when we play Alabama that Nick will be watching the team and ringing his cowbell. And I know my bulldogs will play their best to honor his memory.

317 Mike Traylor November 13, 2010 at 8:34 pm

I live in Texas where high school football is truly king. Like all boys in Texas, I grew up with thots of winning the state championship with my high school team. My brother and I would spend hours each day tossing the football around dreaming of football glory. Neither of us were part of a championship team, but the memories I have of those days are fond, and I follow football to this day.

318 Kyle Egolf November 13, 2010 at 10:51 pm

Playing football in high school. Friday night scrimmage and we were in goal line red zone defense. I was playing right tackle. My job was to stop whoever came through my side of the line. The ball was snapped and of course they came to my side. The other team’s fullback was about 2 ft shorter than I was and he tried to go through me. I wrapped him up and drove as hard as I could. He went down but his helmet came with me. After the play was over I had to check if there was a head still in the helmet. I found no head so I set the helmet on the ground and returned to the sideline because I had stopped the run and the ball was turned over. We lost that game but I will always remember almost ripping a guy’s head off that night.

319 Grant November 14, 2010 at 12:10 am

Man, I have so many great memories of playing football with friends growing up. In fact, this thanksgiving will be the first time we won’t get together for some football and turkey. The best part was always trying to get away with playing tackle football when our mothers weren’t looking.

320 Robin November 14, 2010 at 12:41 am

As a girl, I could only enjoy watching my high school football team from the sideline, my boyfriend’s dad was a coach, so it was the next best thing. I throw pretty well for a girl, but not nearly as well as my manly husband, whom this ball would be a gift. Love your blog.

321 Kenneth Johnston November 14, 2010 at 1:24 am

Football memories are always among the most stirring. The gridiron is the closest most men will ever come to combat. And the senses are heightened in a similar way. The smell of that grass and two a day practices in Lower Alabama in August where the rain stops just in time for practice to resume. Then the electric chill of friday or saturday night when you know in your soul and in your bones that you are about to do something special and when it happens its like a dream. After high school my favorite football experience is playing platoon on platoon on a Iraqi Army base. We gathered quite an audience and it was intense. There are not many games which create such packages of memories.

322 James November 14, 2010 at 5:33 am

Well, my football memories are many and varied, as I’ve played many codes, but being born in Canada and growing up in Australia throwing the pigskin with my wonderful father was one small way I could maintain ties with my place of birth. There’s not much ice in Australia you see…
These were great days, and now that I live thousands of miles from my family I think back to those days in the park running barefoot in the grass enjoying the simpler things, and longing to be back there again doing the same before it’s too late.

323 Matt November 14, 2010 at 12:03 pm

Just last year, my Dad, my brother, and i went in my back yard to play football with my uncle, with whom we had been recently reunited. It was just us four playing an impromptu game of two-on-two football, but it brought us together. That was good.

324 Jason Ford November 14, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Our offical ‘Cry’ before each game was ‘If your going to be a bear, be a Grizzly’. (Edit)I just spent the last twenty minutes thinking through and typing out MY best memory from high school and then relized that right now, this very moment my greatest memory is about my oldest son. Last year first game of the pop warner season his team was tied in the 4th quater with the clock ticking away. I’m on the sideline coaching and watching the opposing team march down the field, their running back cross the first down marker on 4th down as our DB makes a huge hit knocking the ball loose. A few kids start diving for the ball knocking it quickly towards the sideline, I look up to see my son, the far side tackle, running towards to pile. This next part happens in complete slow motion. Our eyes meet, I yell ball, ball, ball. He looks down and dives over the pile tucking the ball tight just at the sideline. He jumps up looks at me, again making eye contact as four or five of his team mates grab him and slapping him on the helmet. Our offense takes over, marches down the field taking the game. The look in his eyes, that hunger he had during that one moment in time-that is my greatest football memory.

325 Ryan W. November 14, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Back in elementary, a bunch of boys and myself decided to play some two hand touch football for recess. A boy named Cosner, one of the school bullies, decided to join in. He knocked the people on my team around, giving one of my friends a bloody nose and kicking another in the stomach, all the while trying to make our friendly game of two hand touch more violent.
So when he had the football and was billowing forward with his elbow pointed at me, I sidestepped him and put my foot up. He tripped over my foot and ate dirt hard. He got up and started saying a lot of words I didn’t know the meaning of then, if you know what I mean, when a recess lady heard him and took him inside from recess for his conduct.
We then continued our friendly game of two hand touch and had a blast. Good times!

326 Joe G. November 14, 2010 at 3:35 pm

The “Shabbos League”

Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish home added a lot of interesting experiences to my childhood, but one in particular had to do with football. When I was younger I hated sports, I was small, scrawny and uncoordinated, and I would much rather stay inside and watch T.V. than play ball, but this wasn’t always an option.

Because my family was Observant we kept the Sabbath. Now that meant that not only could we not do work on that day, but we also couldn’t do many other things, and one of those things was use electricity. That meant no T.V., no Saturday morning cartoons, no video games, no nothing.

For a kid this was a debilitating blow to my weekend enjoyment, seeing as a whole day free for T.V-Watching was automatically eliminated. To add to this there was really nothing to do(aside for reading, and at the time that was worse for me than nothing), I couldn’t even do homework because that involved writing, which was another prohibition. And it wasn’t just me, most of my friends shared my aversion to sports as well as my religious obligations so we all had the same predicament. We quickly realized (begrudgingly) that the only thing to do was actually go outside to play sports.

The town I grew up in was in upstate New York and there were plenty of open fields, so we decided that football was the sport we would play. It started off at first as something we would do just to pass the time. We were really bad and it became more of a hang-out than a game, but somewhere in that period of time things started to drastically change.

It all began when we realized it might be more interesting, and help speed things up, if we had set, fair teams. When we did this it just so happened that the most even teams involved my group of friends being separated by what street they lived on. Capitalizing on this we thought it would be great if we gave them names and assigned them colors (To this day I still remember the names: The Charlotte Sharks, The Deerwood Devils, The Hillside Hammerheads and The Cara Cougars).

From there it spiraled into intense competition and what ended up happening was that almost all of our free time became dedicated to getting our teams to be the best they could be. Instead of talking about video games in school, we started talking about plays and strategies, and instead of going home and watching T.V. afterwards we would go and practice. Not only did this “Shabbos League” help me gain an appreciation for football and get better at sports, it also made all of us better friends and taught us a valuable lesson about trying new things and all the good it can lead to.

327 Kori Lopreore November 14, 2010 at 4:31 pm

Playing football every friday evening at college until the lights went out. It was a great way to unwind after a week of school and it forged some truly unbreakable bonds. Best times of my life.

328 Steven November 14, 2010 at 6:33 pm

My favorite memory is playing backyard football with my two older brothers and their friends. Everybody can remember games that started out “touch” and ended up being more like a street brawl. However, at the end of the game all that mattered was everyone made it home without too many grass stains.

329 Russell November 14, 2010 at 6:55 pm

My favorite memories are growing up watching football on Saturdays and Sundays with my Dad. My favorite personal moment would have to be watching my New Orleans Saints win a Super Bowl after so many years of mediocrity.

330 Cody Hittinger November 14, 2010 at 8:10 pm

Back in high school I used to get together with old and play football in the green belts near my house. We didn’t do flag football, mind you, it was full contact or nothing at all. Now every time my shoulder pain acts up, I am reminded of fond memories.

331 David Cox November 14, 2010 at 9:08 pm

Playing flag football with my dad and brothers in the backyard as a kid. Good times.

332 Kirk November 14, 2010 at 10:02 pm

I played football (poorly) in high school, and as a third string offensive lineman backing up a couple of future college players I didn’t see the field much. But when I did I’ll never forget what a thrill it was. A favorite was when I was filling in for an injury-depleted defensive line in practice and I repeatedly beat the guy ahead of me in the depth chart off the ball and got to the QB. He went on to play for Oregon, but I still can say that he gave up 3 sacks to me that day.

333 Marko November 15, 2010 at 12:47 am

I still remember my first pro football game. I went with my Dad to see the Browns play the Chargers at the old Cleveland Stadium in 1974. Great memories.

334 Darrin Crow November 15, 2010 at 9:17 am

I majored in interpretive speech at a small private college in NW Florida. Now, I’m not the most athletic of guys, as the speech major might have suggested, but I really liked to play football for fun. I couldn’t really throw well- or catch for that matter, but the running and the tackling I could. When I found out that several of the other guys in the speech department didn’t even know how to play football, well I knew this had to be remedied. We started playing sometimes in the evening under the live oaks. It wasn’t long before we found our worthy opponents, too- the Bible Majors. These guys were studying passionately to go out and preach one day, and they did just about everything with the same passion. And losing to the speech majors in football would be suitably apocolyptic, that they played hard. Which just meant that we cheated even harder!

335 Nate November 15, 2010 at 9:37 am

I remember several years ago playing football all night with my youth group at a lock in. I was playing with some guys who actually played highschool football. My moment in the spotlight was on one of the kickoffs. I managed to receive the kickoffs and took off down the left side of the field. There was a guy waiting for me and I knew I had to do something. I quickly fainted left, then spun out to my right, leaving the guy confused and on the ground. As I cut to my right, there was another guy trying to tackle me. I went to cut to my left, but my foot hit a pile of leaves so I slipped and went down. If I managed to pass that last guy, there was a wide open lane straight to the endzone. I relieved several compliments from the guy that I made a good run. Although I didn’t score, it was definitely a run to remember.

336 Adam November 15, 2010 at 10:46 am

Ah, my favorite football memory. I remember playing at recess on the playground throughout elementary school. The teams were usually split among lines of popularity, with the good and popular players on one team, and the less popular and less coordinated on the other. I was one of the less popular ones, but I was as good as the players on the other team, so I usually was the quarterback of my team. Even though we’d lose most of the time, I got to have my hands on the ball, and we had our moments of glory.

I remember our fastest receiver: his last name was Lucy, and his nickname was Juicy Lucy. I remember one pass from 4th or 5th grade, he outran everyone, and I just threw it as far as I could, and he caught it running backwards right before the goal line.

We played a little baseball and basketball throughout the year, but football was the most popular option. I’ll never forget those fond memories of playground glory!

337 Lee Barker November 15, 2010 at 2:45 pm

Our high school football team was 1 and 11 at the end of the season. I was on JV and never got to play a Varsity game until one game when we were getting creamed 47-0, and they sent the second string in. I read the option play and nailed the QB, causing a fumble setting up the only TD we had in the game. Next day a photo of that fumble made the paper, but they got my name wrong and a guy who didn’t even suit up due to an injury got his name in the paper instead of me. It was a great moment for me nonetheless.

338 Jared November 15, 2010 at 4:56 pm

Favorite memory for me was a turkey-bowl flag football game with an 80 yard interception return for TD with a couple good moves in there somewhere. I had to put my rec-league career on hold a couple years ago to coach my 8 yr old son’s flag football team and it’s been so worth it. More memories on the way…

339 Rudy Hernandez November 15, 2010 at 6:10 pm

Catching 3 touchdowns one drill weekend when I was in the US Army Reserve. I was out of shape, but I was open.

340 Jeff November 15, 2010 at 7:04 pm

My all-time favorite football memory is of Thanksgiving ’92. I was 10 years old, and we had gone home to Texas to visit the family.

Football is religion in Texas, and Thanksgiving is its High Holy Day for Dallas Cowboys fans.

While Grandma and the aunts were making supper, all of my uncles, cousins, and my dad and granddad were out in the cul de sac splitting up into teams. We played an intense game of Two-Hand Touch football until called inside for supper.

After the meal was finished, the entire clan (over 20 of us) gathered to cheer Dallas on. They won, we cheered and cleared a space on the floor.

My uncles laid out masking tape on the rug like a football field and played a tournament of Flick Football (where you take a piece of paper and make a triangle, then flick it towards the other end).

Uncle John Mark won all of the games and lorded over it for the rest of the night. It was the best Thanksgiving ever. It was also the last time I saw my uncle John Mark alive. We went back to California, and before another year had passed, he was killed in a car accident. My last, best memory of my uncle is a day full of family, food, and most especially, football.

341 Aaron W November 15, 2010 at 10:21 pm

My favorite memory of the game of football would be when linebacker John Mobley broke up a pass by Bret Favre to solidify the win for Denver in Super Bowl 32. I will always remember that game.

342 PointSpecial November 15, 2010 at 10:34 pm

That’s one good looking pig skin!

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