Finishing the exposed edges on bespoke leather goods is a great way to improve an item’s look and durability. There are a variety of techniques and unique aesthetic options, each with their own characteristics. Most importantly, since cutting leather exposes the inner fibers, finishing a raw edge dramatically enhances the longevity of an item by making them less susceptible to wear and damage.
Natural edges are simply those that have been compressed and slicked, leaving the natural color and leather fibers present. Compression is often achieved by a process called burnishing. This process is used to slick an edge by rubbing raw leather with tools, using a combination of pressure and speed. Then the solidified and polished edges are typically sealed with wax, to secure the newly compressed fibers in place. Wax can even add a subtle shine and water resistance. Natural edges are the basis for the next two types of finishing and are common in a variety of leather working styles used today.
Dyed edges are a variation of natural edges. They are prepared in much the same way, yet spirit or oil based dyes are used during the finishing process to add color to the otherwise natural edge. The dye’s pigment will become embedded in the leather’s fibers, while allowing leather’s grain to remain visible. This aesthetic component is common in Western American saddlery, and is one of my personal favorite styles of edge finishing.
Painted edges also add color to natural edges. However, paint covers the leather instead of penetrating the fibers like dye. Multiple layers of paint are often applied, sanded and heat treated to create an incredibly smooth surface. This can be a time consuming process, but when done properly has one of the most refined looks. This is a hallmark technique in a lot of high end European leather work.
Folded or turned edges are those that have been folded and turned back on themselves, leaving no cut leather exposed. This is achieved by extending a piece of leather past its intended edge, then thinning and folding it over. The leather is then generally glued and stitched in place. Turned edges are particularly useful on leather with a loose grain structure, where other finishing techniques may not be applicable. This style of edging is popular for handbags, as it is durable, requires little maintenance and has a refined look. Bound edges are similar to this technique and may be discussed at a later date.