How to Make a Sheath for a Knife (Or Anything Else)

by Darren Bush on September 10, 2013 · 25 comments

in Manly Skills, Projects

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Sometimes you want an item close at hand: not in a pocket, but right there where you need it. A pocket watch, compass, knife, cell phone, or any other item you don’t want to dig for are all great candidates for a leather sheath. You might want to make something to hold a multi-tool or any specialized tool you may want to keep handy at all times. If you’re a widget lover and can’t find a case for your widget, just substitute widget wherever it says knife.

This article is useful for the knife you (might have) made, but also teaches the method of wet-shaping leather. When saturated, leather can be stretched and molded to fit different objects.

Materials and Tools

  • Leather, medium weight (5 to 6 ounces)
  • Rotary cutter or X-Acto knife
  • Pencil
  • Cardboard from file folder
  • Rowel wheel
  • Fid
  • Groover tool
  • Waxed artificial sinew or thread
  • Leather-stitching needles
  • Pie pan of water
  • Spring clips
  • Saran wrap
  • Tape
  • Dishtowel

How to Make a Leather Sheath

Step 1: Draw Your Pattern

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Lay the knife out on your piece of cardboard and roughly trace around the blade and as much of the handle as you want to cover with your sheath. The pattern is not symmetrical, as the back of the sheath has an extension that ultimately will be folded down and stitched in place to make a loop through which your belt will be threaded. Again, this doesn’t have to be perfect, and better too large than too small.

Step 2: Cut Out and Assemble Your Pattern

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Using a pair of scissors, do a rough cut to see how your pattern looks when the knife is laid out.

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If you’re happy with it, fold the pattern in half along the line that will make the back of the blade part of the sheath and trim the overlap so the pattern is symmetrical. Push the paper against the blade to see where it lies within the pattern. You can see in the photo a slight crease in the cardboard, which shows plenty of clearance between the edge of the cardboard and the blade.

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Next, use a little bit of adhesive tape to actually make the pattern the same three-dimensional shape as your leather will be. This allows you to make adjustments now while it’s easier.

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You can see that I have trimmed back the pattern to even it out and give the handle a little more exposure. A little more trimming and we’ll be ready to cut out the actual sheath leather. Cut the tape holding your pattern together, and flatten it out.

Step 3: Trace and Cut Your Piece of Leather

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Trace your pattern onto the wrong side of the leather (the fuzzy suede part). This is because a) it’s easier and b) it sets up the belt loop so the right side is facing forward. I tend to ignore the belt loop section of the pattern and use it just as a guide to trace a long piece using a ruler to make sure it’s long enough and straight.
Cut out your leather using a rotary cutter, but do not cut into the inside corners where the blade part of the sheath meets the belt loop, as you will over-cut and make unsightly nicks. Stop short of those spots and use an X-Acto or sharp knife to finish the cuts.

Step 4: Start Forming the Leather

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Wrap whatever your item is in plastic wrap, using plenty of it, and tape to tuck everything in nicely.

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Assemble your dishtowel, item to be sheathed, a pan of hot tap water, and your spring clips. Place the sheath part of your leather in the hot water. It will change color and bubble a little as the water seeps into the leather. Just a few minutes is plenty.

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Place your leather on the dishtowel and fold the towel over on the leather and push down to pat it dry and squeeze out the excess water. Place the knife on your leather and fold it over, forming it over the handle as you go. Using spring clips, clamp the leather in place and work the leather so it forms naturally around the blade and handle. You can form the leather with your fingers so it hugs the handle. Set it aside to dry, but I usually check it every five minutes for the first half hour to make sure the leather is moulding the way I want it to.

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You can work with your leather again after several hours (depending on the heat and humidity) or leave it overnight. When the leather is dry, remove the spring clips and you’ll be left with a sheath “husk.”

Step 5: Trim the Sheath and Prepare to Stitch the Seam

Using the rotary cutter, trim the sheath to size by taking off the rough edges and following the contour of the blade and handle. You’re cutting through two layers of leather that has been water-hardened so it’ll take a little more pressure. Go slow and don’t cut yourself.

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Using a leather gouge, cut a shallow groove into the leather following the edge of the sheath seam. You can do this freehand or use a gouge with a built-in guide.

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Mark your stitches in the groove using a rowel tool. Six holes per inch is fine. If you don’t have a rowel tool, you can do it freehand and go slow and careful-like.

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Place your sheath on a plastic cutting board and using your fid, create holes in the indentations you made with your rowel tool. Use a small mallet and tap your fid lightly. Once you have poked all your holes, lift the top layer of the sheath and do the same thing on the bottom, as your fid will have started holes on the bottom layer too. Make sure they line up or your stitching will not be fun. If you do not have a fid, you can use an ice pick or other pointy thing. Fids work a little better because they make a small slit, not a hole.

Step 6: Sew the Belt Loop in Place

It’s much easier to sew the belt loop now before stitching up the sheath. Fold your belt flap over to the front and adjust it so it’s the size you want, and trim it to size. It should fasten just below the top of the sheath. Any deeper and you may run into problems with the handle not seating well in the sheath.

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Using your four-prong punch, make a row of holes in both the end of the belt loop and the top of the sheath as shown. If you don’t have a leather punch, you can use a fid or ice pick or anything sharp and pointy. Trim excess leather, if any, off the end of the strap. Using your needle and artificial sinew, stitch the loop, going in and out until you have three stitches showing. Tie off your thread and cut your sinew close to the knot.

Step 7: Sew the Seam

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Using a single needle and sinew, start sewing from the bottom of the piece near the top of the sheath. Stitch the side going up through the leather and down through the next hole. You could use a double needle technique here, but for such a short seam, a single needle technique is fine.

Once you reach the tip of your sheath, turn around and go up from the bottom, doing the opposite of what you just did. The effect is to create a stitch that will not unravel, and with the groove in the leather, the thread is protected and sits flush or below the surface of the leather. Tie off your knots, then thread your needle in and out the end holes a few times, finishing by threading the needle through one layer of leather and then pull tight. Cut the lacing flush with the seam and it will be hidden.

Using the wooden end of your fid, burnish the seam of your sheath to even out the stitching and push the stitches down into the sheath.

Step 8: Insert Knife or Other Object

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Insert your knife. It should be just a bit snug — it will loosen just a little bit over time. Put it on your belt. Revel in the knowledge you made something cool.

 

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

1 James Petzke September 10, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Definitely a big project, but looks like a fun one. I’ve never made that involved of a sheath before, I may have to try it!

2 Steven September 10, 2013 at 7:56 pm

The “Mexican Loop” style sheath/holster is also a good place to start.
Also, one can often find a good piece of leather in the “scraps and pieces” bins at many leather/craft supply stores. There are usually good quality pieces in odd shapes that are excellent for small projects like this — and at a low price. I’ve made several small sheaths and gun holsters using scraps that cost pennies on the dollar.

3 J September 11, 2013 at 2:23 am

Not just any leather will work on something like this. You specifically need vegetable tanned leather, wet forming won’t work on any other leather. Also, leather can have the look & feel of ‘veg’ tanned leather & be tanned using other methods.

4 Dan September 11, 2013 at 6:32 am

you forgot to include a welt, a strip of leather along the edged side of the blade that the stitching goes through. it protects the stitching from the blade and gives the sheath more rigidity and more protection from slicing through

5 Paul September 11, 2013 at 7:52 am

It can be a good idea to include a welt (a strip of leather – about 1 cm or 3/8 of an inch – that forms a border round the knife blade and slots in the middle of the two stitched sides of the sheath: otherwise you risk your knife cutting through your stitches when you insert it into the sheath.

6 Rachel September 11, 2013 at 9:24 am

Looks like a fun project. Here’s a very simple “no stitch” knife tutorial http://www.primitiveways.com/pt-knifesheath.html (I actually used brass rivets to close the open edge, although it’s not strictly necessary)

7 Darren September 11, 2013 at 10:56 am

@Dan and Paul, didn’t add a welt because the knife blade is thin. Certainly adding one is a good idea, but for starters, this is a good method.

8 Brandon C September 11, 2013 at 10:57 am

Could be a fun project for some of my toys. I’ve been meaning to commission some leatherwork, no crime in trying it for myself.

9 Spencer September 11, 2013 at 11:36 am

i’ve done this, but I used a welt. Made a sheath for a knife and an ax. I don’t have the fancy tools so that made it quite the endeavor. But I’m working on a second ax sheath now!

10 Claire W September 11, 2013 at 2:22 pm

Great instructions! Makes me nostalgic for Tandy Leather Co.

11 Don Smith September 11, 2013 at 4:55 pm

Not a big project at all. I’ve made them many times and also holsters for pistols. Very satisfying but I admit I prefer Kydex now a days

12 JAson September 12, 2013 at 9:09 am

Great article! Where would you guys recommend as a source for this type of leather?

13 Jak September 12, 2013 at 12:03 pm

I have a machete I would like to do this for. However, the blade is wider near the tip than it is near the hilt. This method of sheath would not permit the tip of the blade to pass through the top of the sheath. Does anyone have any suggestions?

14 Cal September 12, 2013 at 8:02 pm

@Jak
leave a slit on the spine side of the sheath, near the top.The thick end will pass through the large opening where it would otherwise meet resistance. then add a small piece of leather and a simple button as a clasping device.

15 Nimdock September 15, 2013 at 1:44 am

Sweet. Once I get the tools together, I’m going to make a sword sheath this way for my wakizashi. I’ve been wanting one for a long time. The blade is curved, though. How much of an issue will that be?

16 Casey September 15, 2013 at 9:47 pm

having made multiple knife sheaths, and even a few holsters; and countless other things along the way. I would like to point out that you should sew it before you wet mold it; fixed blade knives can also benefit from having a kydex insert made along side it (kydex is a thin plastic that can be molded with heat in an oven) and it will prevent someone from cutting through the sheath on accident. Great starter project for anyone interested in leather crafting though.

17 Casey September 15, 2013 at 9:52 pm

@Nim
wouldn’t change it too much; you’ll need a nice long and wide piece of leather. Word of caution, if your sword is sharp, you’ll want a wooden core or something to prevent yourself from cutting through your sheath. however I’m going to assume that your sword came with a scabbard, in which case you might want to look into building what’s called a “frog hanger”, since I’m guessing that you want to hang it on your belt

18 Phillip September 18, 2013 at 1:12 pm

I’m going to try this one! I made the knife from the previous post, and this looks like a good follow-up project.

19 Alphabet Soup September 18, 2013 at 3:41 pm

To those recommending a welt or some other protective layer for the blade:

If I were to use this tutorial, how/at what point would you recommend that I incorporate it?

20 Darren Bush September 25, 2013 at 10:49 pm

Phillip/Alphabet, you insert the welt when you start to stitch the seam. On a straight edge of a piece of leather, use your rowel tool to make holes that match the spacing of the holes on your sheath edges, about 1/8″ from the edge of the leather, then poke holes with the fid. Then trim the leather strip off, leaving plenty of leather, 1/2 to 3/4″. Line up the welt with the edges of the sheath with the extra leather on the outside, where you can trim it off later.

When you stitch it, you have to go through three layers instead of two, so it might take a little more oomph.

Have fun!

21 Anthony October 24, 2013 at 3:53 pm

Excellent DIY. Just finished mine. I have an awesome fixed blade from Jericoh Blade Works but I did not like the bulky kydex sheath that came with it. I do however love the leather sheath I just made for it with the help of this tutorial. Definite man skill. I appreciate it.

22 Steven Edholm November 24, 2013 at 9:44 am

I would vote for the welt too, regardless of blade thickness. friction on the handle should hold the knife in, not the friction on the blade. If anything, a thin blade is more likely to work into the seam and cut the stitches. I put welts in all my edged tool sheaths. It isn’t too much harder and makes all the difference in durability and safety. I like the clip idea. That’s pretty nifty. I’ll typically make the sheath first, then wet and mould the leather. I also like the sock type sheaths as illustrated in this post. Some sheaths cover just the blade with a snapping strap to hold the knife in, usually because the knife has a guard to keep the hand from slipping up over the blade. My advise, cut off the guard (super irritating and limiting and of almost no practical use) and make a sock sheath like the one presented here. I do like to make my sheaths deeper though. An inch of handle protruding is more than enough to extract the knife quickly, and deeper means less likelihood of it coming out of the sheath by accident. Sheath knives rock! Pretty soon we’ll live in a world where you can’t carry a sheath knife anywhere near another human, no matter what you’re use or intentions. :(

23 Scott. M March 14, 2014 at 5:35 pm

Thanks for the article! I am looking forward to making my own sheath shortly.

Well other people won’t know if Im carrying a sheath knife or not.

24 B. Fife April 14, 2014 at 3:43 am

Scott, check your local / state laws, if your fixed blade knife is discovered (for instance if you are forced to use it to defend yourself) you could be charged with a concealed weapon violation. Weapons laws are mostly silly as they only restrict non-criminals, but be aware of the risks.

25 Anthony April 14, 2014 at 4:11 am

Thanks for the guide. I am going to find a day to make a diy sheath. Nothing can be fun as of making something from your own bares hand.

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