What makes a good leather sheath? Sharpshooter Sheath Systems' Reid Hyken has produced high-quality sheaths for the likes of Bark River Knives and Benchmade, and he knows a thing or two about leather, so we decided to pick his brain for answers to some common questions.
A good way to learn how to recognize high-quality leather work is to understand how the best sheaths are made -- and no one, in our opinion, does it any better than Reid and Sharpshooter.
First, not all leather is the same. "Cows have complexions, just like people have complexions," Hyken says. "That's where it starts -- with the hide."
Hyken buys his leather from just two tanneries, each of which employs a vegetable tanning process. He chooses material for its character as much as for its "grade," looking for uniform thickness and an even (not smooth) "flesh side" (the rougher inside surface of the leather).
Borrowing a culinary term, Hyken says that he looks for leather with a specific texture. "It should be al dente like good pasta, not stiff like cardboard."
Once the hides are in the Sharpshooter shop, Hyken's crew carefully examines each one, selecting certain sections for various sheath components. Leather judged to be substandard is rejected.
When it comes to a sheath's construction, beyond the leather itself, there are several key factors.
"A knife is always trying to cut its way out of its sheath," Hyken says. "That's why the welt" -- a strip of leather sandwiched between the front and back panels of the sheath, where the knife's edge makes contact -- "is so critical. It should be thick and heavy, to keep the knife from doing what it wants to do."
The next important consideration is stitching. Hyken uses US-made, rot-resistant polyester thread at five stitches per inch -- no compensating row of rivets or staples. But as obvious (and attractive) as the stitching is, that's not the only thing holding a sheath together.
"It's obvious when a sheath is put together with cheap glue," according to Hyken. "Look at the exposed places at the ends of the seams -- is the glue holding? If it's starting to gap, even when it's new, it won't last."
When it comes to hardware, Hyken uses only US-made, nickel-plated brass fasteners. On the interior of some of his sheaths, a nylon "snap cover" protects the knife's blade from scratches -- a nice touch.
The final gauge of a sheath's quality is the finish, especially the edges. When asked how he achieves such a smooth finish and rounded edges on Sharpshooter sheaths, Hyken shares a trade secret.
"It's all done by elves," he says with a wink. "But seriously, I have a background in making furniture, and I learned from a guy who varnished the sides of drawers. It's the same attention to details."