Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Absolutely Riveting

I'm currently in the middle of a leather project that requires buckles and rivets. I'm usually pretty self-confident (arrogant? lazy?) on trying new techniques, and often jump right in on the main project. Fortunately this time I tried out my rivets on some scrap leather first, because I immediately ran into trouble. When I riveted my two leather strips together, the rivet tops and bottoms ended up offset from each other!

Rivets of Many Types

When I was trying to figure out how to describe my riveting project, I thought I'd look up rivets on Wikipedia. The article describes several types of rivets, such as solid rivets and pop rivets, but not what I'm using, which are Rapid Rivets (Tandy's brand name for "cap rivets").

I kept looking, and I found a very good tutorial on using cap rivets for making bags (pretty similar to my project: riveting straps). I wish I had found it before I did my trial and error, but then I wouldn't have had half so much fun! But if you want to do anything with cap rivets, I recommend you take a look at Lisa's U-Handbag riveting tutorial.

Riveting Trouble

The first few rivets I set came out similar to the rivet on the right side of the following picture. The cap did get connected to the top of the shaft, but the shaft suddenly bent relative to the bottom part, leaving the top offset from the bottom, usually on about the second whack with the mallet. Not exactly the result I had hoped for.

One of the guys at the Tandy shop diagnosed my problem as two-fold: 1) I didn't have the right kind of hard surface to place the bottom part (shaft piece) of the rivet, and I was using rivets whose shaft was too long for the thickness of the leather I was putting together.

Hard Surface

I've been doing my leather work on the kitchen table (much to the distress of my family at mealtimes). It's a fairly sturdy table, but for setting rivets, you need something really flat and hard, like a big polished granite block or a big chunk of metal. I got myself a little 2-pound metal mini anvil from Tandy for the purpose.

That anvil is so cute! It looks like something right out of a Road Runner cartoon, except it's small enough to hold in your hands. I figure that when I'm not whacking stuff on it, it can serve as a paperweight. It works just fine as the base for whacking rivets.

In the photo above, I have a medium rivet sticking through the hole on the left, and a small rivet on the right. The corresponding caps are in front of them. Note that the diameter of the shaft is the same for both, but the length of the shaft differs. The shorter one is more appropriate for this thickness of leather. The metal cylinder with the red ring and the orange rubberbands is the rivet setter. I put the red (cupped) end on the rivet cap and hit the other (flat) end with my mallet. I have the red nail polish and the orange rubberbands on the rivet setter to give me both tactile and visual clues that I'm using the correct end--I kept trying to use the wrong end on the rivet cap.

Punching Holes

I have this rotary hole puncher that can do six different sizes of holes. Of course, rather than giving hole sizes, they are conveniently labeled 1 through 6. Guess what? 6 is the smallest. One of the first things I did with it was to punch holes in a piece of scrap leather, with one hole of each size. I labeled 1 through 6, and now I have a handy gauge to use when I need to figure out which hole sizes to punch for belts and sandal straps. I can test them by pushing the buckle tongues (the little wiggly bit that goes through the strap hole) through the sample to see what size is big enough, but not too big.

One thing I've learned is that even though the punches are supposed to be self-cleaning, the little leather circles often pile up and get stuck in the punch tubes. This makes punching the next hole more difficult, since you are trying to put a hole through your leather as well as push against the circle buildup. So I push them out with an unbent paperclip periodically.

The other thing for me is that I have fairly small, weak hands, and squeezing this tool hard enough to put a hole through thick leather such as saddle skirting is really difficult! It's easier if you push the bottom handle against the work surface and let your weight do more of the work (hey, can I use that as an excuse to eat more?). Rubber-coated gardening gloves help too. They help keep the tool from slipping out of my hands.

When I'm doing rivets, I need to punch holes first for the rivet shank to go through. They work best when the hole is small enough to be a tight fit on the shaft (back) piece. That's a Size 6 hole on this punch.

Smaller Rivets

In the photos above, I show two sizes of rivets. I had initially been using Medium Rapid Rivets. Since I needed a shorter shaft, I switched to Small Rapid Rivets. Unfortunately, the caps and backs of the rivets are smaller in diameter to go with the shorter shaft. For my project, I prefer the look of the medium rivets over the small, but fortunately it's only a slight preference. So since I can choose to do my design any way I want, I decided I "want" to use the smaller rivets!

Riveting Results

I really like the results of joining pieces of leather with rivets. It's very clean and neat and quick, unlike hand stitching (not quick!) or nailing (not neat), both of which I'm also doing in my current projects.


Dan Wright said...

Those punches suck. Get yourself a hollow punch (first google link is and you will be much happier. You only need the size for the shaft of the rivets you are using.

Dan from Savs

Sara said...

Hi Dan,

This is actually my second rotary punch--I've had the first one for years--got it somewhere so I could punch new holes in my belts back when I was really skinny! That one doesn't have a hole on the back end of the tube for the smallest hole, though, so when it fills up you're in trouble! This one is much better quality than my old one, which was also pretty dull. I'm finding that practice is helping a lot, and for thinner leathers (not saddle skirting or 9/10oz leather), it works pretty well. I also have a "Maxi-punch" set ( ) that is halfway to the full hollow punches you mention. I like those pretty well.

For all of them, though, sharpness is everything. I had no idea when I started this stuff that the single most important skill was going to be how well I could sharpen things! I'm getting better...

I looked at the Amazon link, btw. The punches look good, but a 2-pound (metal) stone hammer? Yikes! Gotta use a mallet with these leather working tools.

Dan Wright said...

The Amazon link was just a Google return. As long as you have a good backing hollow punches are the bomb. Glue a couple layers of heavy leather together to make a punch pad. Put that on a solid surface (or your anvil) and you are set.