Rawhide Knife Sheath

The finished sheath at home in the woods

I’ll admit right from the start this project started as an idea, something I’d never tried, and not something I’d seen attempted in person but the theory seemed sound and worth an experiment. I say this as because I can’t claim this is the best route or indeed the only route, however, it did fit the bill of items I had available and the end look I was aiming to achieve. The idea came about from reading up on tanning leather and some work I was doing to up my skills in this area. A chance reading of a line in a book led me to realise that the Sami (indigenous people of northern Scandinavia) like to tan their leather quickly, with a high concentration of tannins, to leave the centre of the skin as rawhide so that it sets hard rather than supple.

The idea of a hard sheath finish was something that appeals to me as my kit gets a lot of use all year round so sturdy is always a good option. I do, however, like to wear my knife round my neck rather than on my belt so something that is comfortable against the skin in hot or cold conditions is an added bonus. This set me thinking of a two part knife sheath – the centre completely rawhide based for a rigid, perfectly moulded sheath with an added covering of a fur on skin for feel and aesthetics.

My E Jonsson knife paired with it's new home
My E Jonsson knife paired with it’s new home.

It’s always nice to go into a project knowing the end result can be awesome so it was with a certain level of trepidation I started this and had to accept it may fail or not be fit for purpose and end up a showpiece rather than something that was practical. My mind wasn’t put at rest when I contacted a few leatherworkers for pearls of wisdom and they all said it was not something they had tried as rawhide and fur were difficult to work with and no customers had requested this sort of style so they’d not given it a go. I’m pleased to say it turned out exactly how I wanted it to so at least you can enter into your experiment with a certain level of confidence.

What you’ll need

  • Paper or material for template
  • Rawhide – you’ll need to soak this to make it soft and supple
  • Fur on skins – sufficient to cover the end product, I used 2 rabbit skins
  • Lacing or thread for finished decoration
  • Pen or pencil
  • Tape measure or ruler
  • Electrical tape or suitable means of protecting the knife
  • Glue – something suitable for leather
  • Clamps or heavy items
  • Sharp knife for cutting rawhide and trimming excess fur away
  • Drill and drill bits
  • Awl
  • Pins – not essential but certainly helped

Getting started
The first thing to achieve is to have an idea of the shape of the sheath you want to have. The instructions that follow are based on the sheath you see above but obviously you can tweak these to fit your own ideas. To play around with shape wrap your knife with a piece of paper, material or anything else flexible that will enable you to see the shape and cut it out to size when you’re happy. I wanted to have the back of my sheath perfectly flat to sit against my chest with the outward face moulded to the shape of the knife. I also wanted to make sure the sheath wouldn’t twist so a nice wide style was going to help with that enormously. This made the first step quite easy as I was able to lay the material on the table and fold it over my knife to get an idea of the size needed before I marked it and cut it out. This template was then transferred to the pre-soaked rawhide and then cut out.

Knife sheath template cut out from the wet rawhide
Knife sheath template cut out from the wet rawhide.

Before you move on to the next phase it’s really important that you wrap and protect your knife. I used electrical tape as it’s water resistant, this is especially important if your knife is carbon steel and prone to rust but is also essential to make sure the sheath has a little bit of a spacer so the final fit isn’t too tight.

Knife protected ready to go in the wet rawhide
Knife protected ready to go in the wet rawhide.

Get ready to wait… and wait… and maybe wait a bit more
It’s now time to wrap the knife in the rawhide making sure it’s the exact shape you want the finished item to be. It’s really worth taking a lot of time with this as if it sets wrong the only choice you have is to soak it and start again. Once it’s all loosely in place get the clamps on – I laid it on a chopping board to achieve the flat back then used some strips of wood on the front moulded surface to get crisp edges and spread the force of the clamps. I confess this was my second attempt. I don’t own clamps so I originally tried heavy books which worked from a weight point of view but reduced airflow to the skin so the drying process wasn’t working well. Some borrowed clamps later and this route was established as the better alternative.

Clamp down and ready to wait
Clamp down and ready to wait.

I can’t stress enough how patient you have to be for the drying to fully happen. My first attempt I took the weight off after about 5 days and woke the following morning to find it was buckled totally out of shape as their had obviously still been moisture in the skin. The clamps were left on for around 10 days and often put outside in the sun but always when I was around just in case rain came through to undo all my work so far. So just to summarise this step, wait ages and then maybe wait a bit more… and then give it another day or two before you take the clamps off.

The fully dried sheath moulded to the knife
The fully dried sheath moulded to the knife.

Marking out
Now you’ve got the solid rawhide sheath you need to mark out the holes for the lacing and means of suspension which as I explained for me is round my neck. I had originally planned to lace as a cross stitch but the holes I created weren’t big enough to take the lacing twice through the same hole. Keep this in mind as the rawhide will have absolutely no give and will not be pierced by a needle so take your time to really think this step through and mark out accordingly. I used a tape measure to get a consistent line in from the edge and then marked holes at regular spaces. The 6 holes you see closer to the knife shape itself are for the suspension system. I did 6 so that I could have a cross over design that would help it lay flat and reduce pivoting. Once you’re happy get the holes drilled. I used some wood drill bits in an electric drill because the centre spike of the drill bit meant i could place it exactly and have confidence it wouldn’t slip. They weren’t overly happy going through the rawhide so HSS bits may have been better but the placement was more important than speed of hole creation.

Marking out the lacing holes and holes for neck cord
Marking out the lacing holes and holes for neck cord.
Holes drilled ready for lacing
Holes drilled ready for lacing.

Matching to the fur
To get the best placement I put the sheath onto the fur side of the skin so I could select the best colour consistency and also ensure the fur is running from the top of the sheath to the bottom i.e. the direction of the head of the animal to its rear. Once I was happy with the position I wrapped the fur round the rawhide and then turned it over so I could draw round the rawhide to mark out. This marking was only for placement guidelines as I cut the excess away afterwards to ensure the glue couldn’t come into contact with the fur.

Working out the best position for the fur
Working out the best position for the fur.
Wrap the fur round the rawhide and slide it out
Wrap the fur round the rawhide and slide it out
Mark around the rawhide to show placement
Mark around the rawhide to show placement.
All marked and laid flat ready for glueing
All marked and laid flat ready for glueing.

You’re now ready to apply the glue. I used a specific leather glue but if you read the details of most strong glues like UHU you’ll find they are suitable for leather. I figure if they can stick your fingers together you must be on the right path (but please don’t stick your fingers together!!!). Follow the instructions on the glue to apply to the surfaces, for example I had to apply the glue to both the rawhide and the fur before pressing together. Once this is done get the clamps back on for the time needed to let the glue set.

Allow the glue to set under pressure
Allow the glue to set under pressure.

Now the glue is set you can take the clamps away and using an awl pierce the the fur through the pre-drilled holes to make it easier to find them again when the fur is in place on the front. You can then use a sharp knife to trim away any excess of the fur.

Use an awl to pierce holes into the fur hide
Use an awl to pierce holes into the fur hide.
Trim away the excess
Trim away the excess.
The back all done
The back all done.

It’s now time to get the fur attached to the front. Repeat the process of placement to get the best fur colour and direction. You do need to be careful for the next step to ensure no glue gets onto the back. I did wonder whether it would be best not to have trimmed the excess but felt that had been the right decision as it’s the easiest way of getting the crispest edges without losing too much fur. Get the clamps back on while the glue bonds, I also used some wood again just to make sure the mould of the sheath was followed tightly. Once it’s all set remove the clamps and trim off the excess of the front panel.

Get the glue applied to the front
Get the glue applied to the front.
Get the clamps back on to ensure it bonds
Get the clamps back on to ensure it bonds.
Remove the clamps and trim the excess off the front panel
Remove the clamps and trim the excess off the front panel.

At this point I needed to find the pre-drilled holes again. Rather than use the awl I opted to use pins as markers to take the guess work out of where the next hole was when I was lacing. It does introduce an element of danger which is always quite entertaining for anyone in ear shot but it really does help so it’s worth enduring being stabbed every so often when your focus slips.

Pins pierced through all three layers
Pins pierced through all three layers.
Pins pierced through all three layers
Pins pierced through all three layers.

Now it’s time for the lacing. The stuff I used was rounded leather lacing dyed red to contrast with the grey of the rabbit fur I’d used but again the choice is yours, in fact edge lacing isn’t even necessary but it does create a nice look and add a bit of durability against all the knocks it will get in use so it’ll help stop the layers pulling apart.

As I said earlier I had originally wanted a cross stitch but ended up doing a simple whip stitch. I won’t explain how to do these stitches as it’s best for you to research the style you want to create. All I did do is make sure the end of the lacing was trapped under several stitches on the back of the sheath to hold it in place so that I didn’t have to put a knot in that would stop it laying flat.

Lacing begins trapping the end under the stitches
Lacing begins trapping the end under the stitches.
Lacing finished around the edge of the sheath
Lacing finished around the edge of the sheath.

To finish things off I had to do as put the lacing in for the suspension system. This again started from the back at the hole to one side at the lowest point. I had it cross over the curve of the knife at the front and thread through to the back of the sheath before emerging to the front again on the highest hole. I then created a loop big enough to fit over my head and hang on my chest in the position I wanted it to sit before passing lacing back down the other side of the knife before making the cross over to the last hole. It was then a case of tying things off at the back as flat as possible and tidying up the fur lay with by stroking and trimming off any excess fur to make tidy edges. There you go it’s all finished and ready for action.

If you have a go at a rawhide based project I’d love to see your creation so be sure to send us some pictures.

Woodland ways Instructor

The finished sheath at home in the woods
The finished sheath at home in the woods.

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