Posted by Jamie Canterbury on October 19, 2022
If you own a good-quality knife, you want to preserve the blade for as long as possible. A sheath is an essential accessory for keeping your knife sharp. It's there to protect the blade whenever you’re not using it.
Usually, a knife sheath hangs on a belt from the sheath's loop. However, not every knife sheath is the same. Artisans make them so they fit a specific knife, which means you can't just buy any type from the store.
You’ll want a sheath that holds your knife correctly so that it's secure while it's on your belt and you're moving around.
To get that just-right fit, you can make a sheath yourself using easy-to-find materials, such as plastic, nylon, and leather. With a few basic tools, some pieces of leather, waxed string, and these detailed instructions, you can create a knife sheath that lasts for years.
Type #1: Plastic Knife Sheaths
Plastic sheaths are not made from the hard plastic material you may be picturing. Instead, manufacturers use a special plastic called Kydex, a common leather alternative. Kydex is inexpensive and durable, so it’s a good value when you want to make a hard-wearing sheath for your knife.
However, there's a reason Kydex is so inexpensive—many people complain that Kydex sheaths are noisy, and they mar the blade every time you pull out your knife.
Type #2: Nylon Knife Sheaths
Nylon is another popular material because of its low cost. But nylon sheaths are not very reliable. Nylon tends to lack structure, so your blade won’t stay in place, making it more likely to cut through the fabric. Similar to Kydex, nylon is also said to mar the edge.
Type #3: Leather Knife Sheaths
Leather sheaths are the most reliable material for sheaths since they've genuinely stood the test of time. Quality leather is a perfect combination of toughness, stability, and structure. Leather is also much quieter than plastic or nylon, which is why the military uses this type of sheath as standard.
One downside of leather is its vulnerability: It is not immune to rain and sunshine. If you leave a piece of leather out in the elements, it will wear down over time.
How to Make a Leather Sheath
Leather is, hands-down, the most reliable material you can use when it comes to protecting and carrying your knives. But, you won’t have the same sense of fulfillment if you buy a leather sheath rather than making it yourself.
There's something to be said about creating a leather knife sheath from scratch. After all, that's what bushcraft is all about—taking something from nature and turning it into a useful survival tool.
Making a leather knife sheath is a long, precise process, but it's completely worth it. If you're wondering how to begin your leather knife sheath making, then it's time to start with the first step: preparing your workspace.
Step #1: Prepare Your Workspace
There are some things that you should do to prepare before starting on your leather knife sheath.
- Clip your fingernails. Leather can mark very quickly, so it's always a good idea to have fresh-cut nails whenever you're working with pieces of leather.
- Wash your hands every so often. While tough, leather is a demanding material and will pick up dirt and grease with ease.
- Use good overhead and gooseneck lighting. A leather knife sheath requires a lot of patience and some very detailed craftsmanship, so be sure your lights are bright. Use a small lamp that you can bend to your desire when you need to get a closer look at what you're cutting or stitching.
You'll also have to choose the type of leather you want to make your sheath out of. More often than not, you'll want either chrome-tanned leather or vegetable-tanned leather.
Chrome tanned leather is the cheapest option when it comes to leather-making. Craftsmen add a solution of chemicals, acids, and salt to tan the hide. The process only takes a couple of days. In the end, the leather is water-resistant, durable, and flexible.
Vegetable-tanned leather makes up about 10% of all tanned leather. The manufacturing process involves using natural vegetable tannins to alter the protein structures of the hide. The tannins help preserve, strengthen, and provide color to the leather.
After you decide whether you want to use chrome-tanned or vegetable-tanned leather, you'll want to choose your weight preference. Here's a simple list of the different weights of leather and what you could use them to make.
- Light weights are 1 to 5 ounces. Leather artisans use this size for wallets, watch bands, bookmarks, and light upholstery.
- Medium weights are 6 to 8 ounces. You could use this size to make thick pouches, keychains, knife sheaths, and small purses.
- Heavy weights are 8 to 10 ounces. Hardy and resilient, you can use this size for shoes, knife sheaths, book covers, pet collars, and armor.
- Extra-heavy are 10 to 12 ounces. Craftsmen use these pieces to make heavy knife sheaths, thick bags and purses, holsters, and saddles.
The ideal weight for making a leather knife sheath is between 6 and 9 ounces.
Step #2: Gather Your Tools and Materials
The fact is that every how-to guide will list a plethora of different things you may need to make your leather knife sheath. To keep things simple, here's what you should gather for your workspace:
- The knife you're creating the sheath for
- Leather pieces
- Rotary cutter or X-Acto knife
- Waxed thread
- Leather-stitching needles
- Pie pan of water
- Spring clips
- Neatsfoot oil
- Masking tape
- Cardstock, cardboard, or graph paper
- Ruler or measuring tape
- Leather punch or awl
Step #3: Design Your Sheath Pattern
You can design and trace your sheath pattern on a piece of cardstock, cardboard, or graph paper. Or, if you prefer, you can place the graph paper over the cardboard.
Whatever you decide, start by drawing a line down the center from top to bottom to divide the piece in half. This line will represent the fold of the leather knife sheath.
Position and trace your knife to the left of the centerline. Then, place the top of the blade approximately ⅛" from the centerline so that the sharp edge faces outward.
Step #4: Trace the Sheath Pattern
Use a pencil to trace around the knife, starting approximately ⅛" from the tip of the blade. As you follow the blade's curve, draw a line around the sharp end of the knife.
Continue with a curved line ⅔ of the way up the handle, but don't trace directly along the handle since it's thicker than the blade, and you'll need extra material to wrap it.
Step #5: Measure and Trace the Welt Pattern
Next, you'll measure and draw the welt. The welt is that extra bit of protective material that goes on the sharp side of the blade or the side of the sheath, which prevents the blade from cutting through the leather knife sheath. To do so, create a second curved line 9/16" to ⅝" away from the first curved line.
"A knife is always trying to cut its way out of its sheath," says Sharpshooter Sheath Systems' Reid Hyken. "That's why the welt is critical. It should be thick and heavy to keep the knife from doing what it wants to do."
Step #6: Cut Your Sheath and Welt Pattern
For the sheath pattern, you'll fold the paper along the original centerline you drew. Then, unfold the paper and cut out the left side of the design, stopping at the centerline. Cut along the edges of the sheath pattern.
You'll create the welt pattern from the original. The space between those two curved lines on the original pattern represents the space for the welt. Cut along the inner line of the original markings and about ¼" beyond the centerline.
Using a rotary cutter or an X-Acto knife, cut the traced lines on the leather. Be sure to stop at tight corners where the sheath meets the belt loop and use your X-Acto knife for better accuracy.
Step #7: Transfer the Pattern onto the Leather
Put the leather on the work table so that the soft side of the sheath is facing up. This side of the leather is easier to draw on when tracing. Also, marking the “wrong side” with the pattern sets up the belt loop so that the right side is facing forward.
Before you begin, decide whether you'll wear the sheath on the right or left side of your belt. It makes sense to have the sheath on the right side if you're right-handed and vice versa. Turn the pattern so that the belt loop is on whichever side you prefer.
Place the pattern onto the leather and secure it with your masking tape. Lightly pencil the pattern onto the leather directly over the masking tape.
Then, use your X-Acto knife to cut out the pattern.
Step #8: Mold and Form the Leather
One of the most interesting parts of the process is when you mold the leather. It’s something you might not expect as a first-timer as it sounds a little complex at first.
You'll need your dishtowel, the pan of hot tap water, and the spring clips to get started.
Place the leather sheath in hot water for a few minutes. Expect it to change color and bubble a little bit. Then, put the leather on the dishtowel, and fold the towel over so you can push and pat it down to try. Make sure you let any excess water drain out of the towel during this step.
Put the knife on the leather and fold it over so that it forms the right shape. Use your fingers to form it over the knife handle so that it's hugging tightly. Then set it aside to dry.
Step #9: Attach the Belt Loop
It's a good idea to attach the belt loop before you begin stitching the sheath. To do so, you'll fold your belt loop over to create the desired size and then trim it if necessary. Make sure it fastens to just below the top of the sheath.
Using your leather punch or awl, make a row of holes on the ends of the belt loop as well as the top of the sheath. Trim all excess leather off the end of the strap.
Use your needle and thread to stitch the loop. Tie off the thread after three visible stitches and cut it close to the knot. (When you’re finished, you can also use a leather sheath dangler as part of the loop.)
Step #10: Stitch the Welt Pattern
Punch a hole between 9/16" to ⅝" in diameter at the bottom of the sheath along the centerline. Put the welt on the leather and secure it with masking tape.
Step #11: Trim and Stitch the Sheath
Using your rotary cutter or leather gouge, cut a groove into the leather along the edges of the sheath seam. You can do this freehanded or using a guide, like this one.
Then, mark your stitching with six holes per inch with a rowel tool (or freehand again, but a guide is always going to be more accurate).
Once you've poked the holes on the top side of the sheath, lift that top layer and do the same to the bottom layer.
Step #12: Insert the Knife for Fitting
The ultimate test of all your hard work is to see whether or not your knife fits securely in the sheath. It should be just a bit snug during its first fit, but keep in mind that the sheath will loosen a little over time.
At this point, you can also add some finishing touches, like dying the leather and fixing up any seams that may need extra attention. Be sure to buff the leather and oil it, as the oil will give the leather enough lubrication to allow it to flex and move over time without cracking.
Creating your very own leather knife sheath requires hard work and planning—but in the end, you'll see that it's completely worth the effort. Having a finished product that you made with your own two hands is an unmatched reward.If you're interested in more DIY guides and how-to demonstrations, then be sure to check out the Self Reliance Outfitters YouTube channel and Survival Blog, where you'll find dozens of informative articles and videos on everything bushcraft and wilderness survival.