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Leather Burnisher FAQ, Information & Tips

Welcome to the learning area of!  Here I'll talk about the care and 'feeding' of your new Cocobolo/Rosewood leather burnishers and a few tips on how to use them.  Use the table of contents below to navigate to the topic you wish to view and at the end of each section, the ^ back to top button will return you to the beginning.  If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me!


 Why Burnish Leather?

Burnishing is the process of smoothing (slicking), dying and polishing the edge of your leather to produce a fine, glossy edge, generally in a contrasting or complimentary color than the main body.  Unburnished edges of cut leather have a sharp unrefined look and have a tendancy to fray and look worn faster than a burnished edge.

 Rosewood or Cocobolo?

This is funny question to those in the woodworking trades. 
Rosewood refers to any of a number of richly hued timbers, often brownish with darker veining, but found in many different hues. All rosewoods are strong and heavy, taking an excellent polish, being suitable for guitars, woodturning (billiard cues, the black pieces in chess sets etc), handles, funiture, luxury flooring, etc.

Most Rosewoods are oily in look and feel. This oil lends a strong, unmistakable floral odor even to well seasoned wood. Standing up well to repeated handling and exposure to water, a common use is in gun grips and knife handles. It is very hard, fine textured and dense, but is easily machined by experienced woodworkers.

Woods in the family of Rosewood (
genus Dalbergia) that are commonly used are: Cocobolo, Honduran Rosewood, African Blackwood, Tulipwood and Kingwood.  Generally found in South America and SouthEast Asia, Cocobolo and Honduran Rosewood are two of the more commonly used rosewoods in woodturning, such as the leather burnishers, as it is easy to acquire from mills and suppliers that grow it specifically for sale and aren't farming rainforests for it. does not use or condone the use of endangered Rosewood species such as Brazilian Rosewood or Madagascar Rosewood.

If you would like a specific wood used in your burnisher, we are happy to work with you regarding your preference.  The woods we normally have available are: Cocobolo, Honduran Rosewood, Tulipwood, Kingwood.  Wood color choice is important to some folks and we can appreciate that but keep in mind that not all woods, even from the same forest or tree for that matter, will look exactly the same.  Check out the photo below for an example of how Cocobolo from different regions can come in a variety of colors and hues:

 Cocobolo vs. Domestic Woods

Why use Cocobolo instead of domestics woods like maple, walnut, ash or others?  Well, the biggest reason is actually in the details...the grain detail that is.  Domestic woods are typically faster growing than exotics like Rosewoods and thus their spring wood tends to be wider and softer than the hard winter wood.  Domestics are also notorious for wavy, undulating grain patterns that while beautiful to look at, is disruptive to their torsional strength and spring wood wear.  In the picture below, you can see from left to right the differences between Tulipwood, Figured Maple and Cocobolo.  Notice the wide open grain and wavy winter wood lines in the maple whereas the Tulipwood and Cocobolo have nearly straight grain lines and very little space between the spring and winter wood.  The density and oil content of the rosewoods also makes them superior for burnishing.  The tighter grian and oil help repel heat and burnishing compounds like water, soap and dyes, keeping them on the surface where you want contact with the leather.  Domestics, being less dense and having no natural oils to speak of, have a tendency to absorb moisture and heat, robbing your leather of burnishing power and causing the burnisher itself to wear unevenly and in bad cases, warp to unusable shapes.

L to R: Tulipwood, Figured Maple, Cocobolo

 Cleaning your Burnishers

The handy thing about a quality cocobolo burnisher is how easy there are to clean.  Over time they will build up residue from the burnishing compound and the leather itself.  The residue will be easy to see as it will simply be a black coloring of the wood in the channels used.  To clean your burnisher channels, simply take a strip of 400 grit sandpaper about 1" wide X 6" long and fold it in half across the width.  Then start to fold it again, but don't crease it.  you're looking to make a rounded end.  Pinch it between your thumb and index finger to maintain the loop and with the burnisher turning at a slow speed, lightly set the sanding loop into the channel.  When the black wears away and you can see the wood return to it's natural color and smoothness, you're done.  For larger channels, simply allow the loop to expand wider and for smaller channels, simply pinch further down to shrink the loop to fit.

I generally only need to do this 2-3 times a month depending on how busy things are.  The picture below illustrates how to hold the sandpaper & introduce it to the burnisher channels:

 Rotary Tools, Drill Presses & Burnisher Speeds

Your new cocobolo leather burnishers are designed to work in a certain range of speeds depending on the type of burnisher, those for dremel use and those for drills & drill presses.  Operating them at too slow a speed can be a pain as the burnisher won't be able to build enough friction heat to work causing you to want to press harder.  Only light pressure is required to burnish.  You want the tool, specifically the friction & heat it generates when spinning against the leather, to do the work. 

Well, wouldn't a higher speed make it work better then?  Not necessarily, increasing the speed can actually cause the heat & friction to build too quickly and before you know it the burnisher has burned off the burnishing compound (see the next section) and is now literally burning the edge of your piece to a nice black char.  A good mid range is the idea, you want a manageable speed that doesn't require much pressure and allows for even movement at a comfortable pace.  Here are the suggested speeds:

Dremel/Rotary tools
: Turn the speed dial to the halfway mark.  This should be approx.15,000 rpms at the shank diameter (1/8").  This means the outer edge of the burnisher is spinning at around 3,000 feet per minute.

Drill/Drill Press
: most modern drill presses have 5 step pulleys ranging from 800-3000 rpms.  The second step should be around 1000-1100 rpms.  This is the suggested speed, however if your normal use of the drill press requires the lower 800 rpm speed, this is fine it simply means you'll move the leather over the burnisher a little more slowly.

 Burnishing Compounds, Edge Dyes & Waxes

So now you have your burnisher, some leather, the machine and are ready to go!  Not yet need a burnishing compound!  Ask any number of leatherworkers what they use and you'll likely get an equal number of responses.  The following is simply my take on the subject as I learned it from Bob Park.  Saddle Soap + Water. Glycerine Soap works also.  Simply add some soap & water to a dish to create a slickening agent, dip your fingers in and rub a small amount onto the edges of your leather (preferably after they have been edged & sanded properly).  This will lubricate the edge of the leather and help disperse the burnisher friction & heat more evenly.  It also helps the two from sticking together or abrading as you burnish.  A couple of other popular compounds, though not my recommended ones, are Gum Trag, beeswax, and saliva.  Obviously, saliva isn't sanitary so it's out.  The other two aren't my favorites as they both will seal the edge of the leather, hindering the ability to dye the edge further after burnishing if desired.

Once the piece has been burnished with a non-sealing compound, you can then apply a contrasting color edge dye or simply seal with your finish of choice and buff to a shine.  The final buff should be done by hand as using a rotary burnisher over a finished or edge dyed edge will result in the burnisher melting, abrading or heat cracking the edge paint, none of which are desirable.

For any other questions please contact me at:

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