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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Need a Sheath? Make Your Own! by Jim Dillard

A hand made sheath will last for years, and by making your own you will have an unlimited choice of options.

I wear a sheath knife all but a few days each year, and that presents a problem. Even though a good knife may last a lifetime, most factory sheaths have only a few years of daily use in them at best, and it is difficult to find a replacement that is a good fit for a particular knife.
True, there are some excellent custom sheath makers out there, but often their work will set you back more than the cost of a good working knife. The answer – make your own.
Another reason to learn to make your own sheath is the project knife. A large number of knife fans enjoy purchasing a kit or blade and putting together a knife that suits their own needs. But again, once the project is finished, it is often impossible to find a safe, durable sheath that is a good fit and actually looks good with your new knife. With a little practice, you can produce a quality sheath that will be equal to or better than one that comes with even a high-end factory knife.

The Project

My most recent project started with an Enzo blade from Ben’s Backwoods. The Finnish made Enzo is a high-quality blade that comes in O1 or D2. It is available either in a kit or as a blade only. I opted for the D2 because it is one of my favorite blade steels and has a hardness of Rc 61. And because my home area provides a wealth of natural handle materials, I decided on the blade only.
The blade was handled with reindeer antler that came from a feral herd that roams the south end of Kodiak Island, and it was finished with an inlay design that appears on ancient petroglyphs found in my home area.

Getting Started – The Sheath Liner

A hard sheath liner not only makes the sheath last longer, it adds a clear element of safety. Some makers prefer to carve sheath liners from soft wood such as pine or basswood. Making a sheath liner from hardwood only takes a little longer and will be much more durable.
Be sure to use wood that is not prone to splitting. For instance, although all varieties of oak are hard, most tend to split. My favorite liner wood is hard maple. It holds up well and the fine, consistent grain makes it easy to carve. Since a liner only requires small pieces, all the wood you need can usually be had for free from the scrap bin of your local cabinet shop.
The process is an easy one. Clamp the liner wood to a table or workbench and trace around the outline of the blade. Next, follow the outline with the tip of a small knife pushing straight down into the wood. This is known as a stop cut and will keep you from cutting past the drawn outline.

Carve deep enough to fit the blade and a little extra. A depth of the thickness of the blade plus 20% more is about right. Try the blade frequently as you carve to insure a good fit.

The next steps must be followed in sequence. Draw a line about 1/8” outside the carved area and cut along this line with band saw or coping saw (the line is shown in red ink in the photo). Then using wood glue, glue this piece to another board and clamp overnight. Saw out the shape of the liner using the carved piece for an outline. At this time the thickness of the liner should also be sawed to about 1/8” to 3/16” on both sides of the blade.

Now chamfer the opening of the sheath with the tip of your knife. This is an essential step. When the knife is put into the sheath, the chamfered opening will funnel the tip of the knife down into the liner. If this is not done, the blade may either catch on the top of the liner, or it may cut through the side of the sheath leather.

Finally, carve the outside of the liner to a round, smooth finish. Sanding is not necessary because the leather will cover up minor surface irregularities.

The Right Leather

The leather you use must be “bark tanned” or “vegetable tanned.” These leathers can be easily wet formed. Most sheaths are made of 6 or 7 ounce leather, with traditional Scandinavian sheaths made of about 3 ounce stock.
Small quantities of leather can be purchased from most knifemaking suppliers. Since I make a number of sheaths for gifts and for trade, I purchase a half hide at a time from Muir & McDonald of Dallas, Oregon. They have been tanning quality leather since 1863, and by purchasing in quantity I can save about half the usual cost. The sheath featured in this article had a total cost of about $3.00.

Choose Your Own Style

By making your own, you give yourself the choice of a sheath style that you like best. Most factory models are made with a belt loop which is an extension of the back of the sheath. The dangling Scandinavian models attached to a cord or outside belt make really good sense in winter when otherwise your knife would be under layers of clothing.

For the Enzo knife I chose a “high-ride” sheath style. I prefer this style in the summer because it keeps the knife out of the way while sitting on the ground or in boats or small planes.

Molding the Leather

At this point it is a good idea to make a paper pattern. Place the knife in the liner and form the paper around them. It makes handling easier if you tape the knife handle to the carved liner. Remember that due to the thickness of the leather, it will take a piece of leather larger than the paper. I like to leave at least 1 1/2” extra. It is better to trim off a little leather than to have to start over.
Transfer the pattern to the leather and cut. Be sure that your pattern is laid out in a manner that puts the smooth side of the leather on the outside, unless you are going for a period or rustic look such as the sheaths in the following photo, in which case you will want the rough side out.

Next, soak the leather in water or rubbing alcohol. I prefer alcohol because cuts down the molding and drying time to about half of using water. When the leather is limp, it is time to form it around the knife and liner.
If your handle material or finish is prone to staining or damage by the alcohol, be sure to wrap the knife with kitchen cling wrap before starting this step. This will keep the handle dry during the rest of the process.
If your purpose is to duplicate a typical factory sheath, simply take the leather out of the soak and holding it in your hands, form it around the knife and liner. In most cases the leather should be brought together along the edge of the blade. Since I opted for a compact hip-hugging style of sheath on this project, I put the leather on a cutting board and formed it with the back of the sheath as a flat surface.

It is important to work the leather around the handle. Keep forming the leather against the handle with your fingers until it stays on its own. A good job here will result in a snug fit that will hold the knife in place even when the sheath is upside down.

Drying Time

While the leather is drying, you will need to either clamp the two edges of the leather together or, in this case, weight them down to keep them from curling. Be absolutely certain the clamps or weights are placed only on the EXTRA leather. If anything is placed on the wet leather, it will leave a permanent impression, so clamp only the leather that is to be trimmed off.
Let dry over night at room temperature. Then remove the knife and liner and let dry another day or two. This can take longer if you used water.


Due to the high-ride design I chose for this sheath, the belt loop on this sheath is made of a separate piece. No matter which style you choose, glue the belt loop to the back of the sheath using rubber cement. When dry, draw lines where you want the stitching to run.
There are two high wear areas where even heavy thread is likely to wear through. These are the back of the sheath and the inside in the handle area. This wear can be completely avoided by inletting the thread below the surface of the leather. The inletting can be done with a small woodcarver’s “V” tool, or since I am more used to having a knife in my hand, I use the tip of a very sharp blade to cut a groove the depth of the thread.

Once the grooves are cut, mark the stitching holes. This spacing can be marked with a ruler, or for a few dollars you can buy a stitching marker that will save time. An inexpensive stitching marker is pictured in the above photo.
Since this leather is too heavy to push a needle through, use a small drill to drill the marked holes. Although a 1/16” drill bit makes the job easier, a smaller number 58 or 60 wire gauge bit will make a hole small enough that it will grip the thread.
Using a needle with a fairly large eye such as a common embroidery needle, stitch the holes with waxed, nylon leather thread. If you have used the smaller drill bit, you may need to use pliers to pull the needle through the holes.
Once the strap is sewn on, glue the sheath liner to the inside of the sheath. Be sure to have the knife in the liner while gluing to assure good alignment.

Finishing Up

The process from here on is pretty obvious. Mark and drill holes on the outside of the sheath. Stitching can be in a simple straight line, or create geometric patterns within parallel rows or stitching as in the following photo. Be creative.

At this point, you have the option of using a leather dye or leaving the leather a natural color. Then embellish the leather with your own personal designs if desired. The ocean theme on my knife handle was carried over to the sheath by burning seaweed on the sheath using a common woodburner.
Last, sand and burnish the exposed edges of the leather and coat the sheath with a waterproof finish, either lacquer or acrylic. Then do the final stitching.

A sheath made in this manner will give you years of service, and of course for the average knife enthusiast, there are few things more satisfying as making your own.


Wildcat said...

very nice sheath work there!!!

JeffOYB said...

Hi Ben... Sheaths are way-important. A big lesson here is that EVERY edged tool needs one. I just now posted some thoughts on the subject at my OYB site. I'll post a link there to your shop because I know you sell some separate ax and hatchet sheaths. Saws, files and rasps need them, too! Personally, I'm looking for simple, rugged solutions. I'm happy to work with wood and leather to get it done -- probably a snap rivet will figure in, too. Thanks! --JP

JeffOYB said...

ps: Whups, sorry, Ben... I just checked your site and I couldn't find any separate ax/hatchet sheaths. I must've remembered wrong. Well, let's still see what we can do to make sure ALL our edged tools have sheaths. I'm trying over here to do it for mine! --JP