Finishing Tooled Leather

I recently had a friend from Slovenia email and ask about my method for finishing my tooled leather.  I’ve wanted to take the time to write this information and answering that email has given me the perfect opportunity.

I want to share this here to thank the followers of this blog and especially all my customers.  Please read with my hope that you will find this useful in your work…

My process for finishing tooled leather is as follows.


When tooling has dried, apply Neatsfoot, or olive oil with a piece of saddle shearling fleece sheepskin (used to line western saddles) which has been trimmed to about 15mm and roughly 70mm x 100mm.  I apply the oil with one half of the fleece as evenly as I can in a circular motion and then immediately use the un-soaked half, or another piece of fleece, to wipe and even out the oil application.  You can let the work sit for a brief time and allow the oil to penetrate somewhat.  You don’t have to leave it overnight as some people claim.


I use nitrocellulose lacquer that is made for finishing guitars to seal the surface and provide a resist for the antique (Fiebing’s, I like the tan color for most things, Dark Brown for brown colored skirting).  Use a piece of fleece for this lacquer also.  It will take some practice to get this mastered.  You don’t want it to be thickly applied.  I do the same with lacquer as with oil, wiping it with a cleaner piece of fleece before it can start to dry.  Lacquer dries extremely fast and will become messy and sticky if you let it build up.  You don’t want to be able to see a coat of lacquer on the leather the way you would with paint or varnish on wood.  This film of lacquer will be dry in minutes, and you can move straight on to apply the antique paste.  Again, no waiting overnight as some would tell you.  Lacquer is not very flexible and will crack if it is applied to thick.  If you’ve seen an old guitar with a crazed/cracked finish you will understand what I mean.


I thin my antique paste to the consistency of thick cream.  It is left thick enough that it won’t run off from a paint brush.  I use mineral spirits, a paint thinner here in the US known as Naphtha.  Any type of mineral spirit paint thinner will work.  I apply the antique with a natural boar bristle sash type of round paint brush. These I believe are more common in Europe.  With this type of brush, I can pounce, or push the antique down into all the cuts and details.  If the paste is left as thick as it comes from the manufacturer it will not flow into the work the way I want it to or be able to be cleaned off sufficiently.  Work quickly, and on most pieces bigger than a wallet it is good to work in sections, so it won’t start to dry and be more difficult to wipe off.


When the antique has been evenly spread and worked into the tooling, I first wipe the excess off with paper towel, then follow immediately with a larger piece of fleece which is left at its full length.  The idea is to remove as much of the paste as possible.  This piece of fleece will become filled with the antique paste and must be replaced as it fails to remove the paste from the details.  I later trim this fleece to be able to use it for other applications such as the Fiebing’s Bagcoat that I use as the final topcoat.


Bagcoat and Tancoat are very similar.  Bagcoat is thinner, and I prefer the way it looks as well as the way it goes on.  Tancoat can be used.  I apply this topcoat with a piece of fleece also, spreading it with a piece that has been trimmed, and then wiping it off with a full thickness piece to create the thinnest film possible.  These products leave a beautiful lustrous result; however, they are not durable or water resistant.  If used by themselves without the lacquer the work will spot if water is dripped on it.  The smallest drop will cause water spotting.  This does not happen if lacquer is applied first.


Thanks for checking in, and please leave comments and questions so I can get an idea of the things you folks would like to see covered in future posts on this blog


7 thoughts on “Finishing Tooled Leather

  1. I’ve wondered how you got such a beautiful finish.thanks for sharing this,where could I find guitar lacquer any special brand? Thanks gordon

    1. Mohawk Classic Instrument Lacquer,. Wood Craft, or Amazon search.

  2. Some of you have contacted me asking where to get the lacquer that I wrote about. Here is an answer to one of those queries.

    I used to use a spray can, but just sprayed it onto the fleece for the resist. I want it on there as thin as possible. I also don’t want the antique on their thick either, so don’t worry about a little coming off. But I don’t use lacquer for the topcoat. That makes it too thick. Spraying it as a topcoat will make it way too thick. That’s why I just use bagcoat as a topcoat. If you get most of the antique off it will look more lustrous. On a saddle especially, you don’t want a thick coat of lacquer. It resists future oiling on the parts that don’t get much flexing, the seat, back jockeys, and fork. That’s why a lot of makers won’t use it at all. Stewart McDonald Co sells a high-quality guitar lacquer. Also, Mohawk brand musical instrument lacquer is what I have here in the shop. I don’t have the scumming problems with it that I’ve seen in other lacquers. Especially on dark colored leathers. These lacquers have more plasticizers in them to accommodate the expansion and contraction of acoustic instruments.

    Here is a link to a web search for the Mohawk lacquer.

    Here is the Stew Mac link. I haven’t used their lacquer, but expect it to perform the same.

  3. Thanks for this informative post. Can Neatlac or WyoSheen be used the same way you use nitrocellulose lacquer? I have always been under the impression those products required some drying time before applying antique paste.

    1. Hey Doug.
      Meatloaf and wyosheen are both nitrocellulose lacquers. Even a fairly thick coat of lacquer on wood dries in about 15 or 20 minutes. On leather it’s almost instantaneous.

      1. I just noticed that my spell check wrote meatloaf instead of Neatlac. 😮 Hahaha!

        1. Haha, I new what you really meant. I think if you use Google Translate “Meatloaf” translates to “Neatlac”.

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