My Favourite Tool: Heather Murphy’s soldering iron for leather drawing

Soldering iron

The idea for this tool adaptation emerged as I was experimenting with some leather offcuts. Having trained originally as a paper conservator and just started a job at the British Library, I felt inspired to learn more about the various elements of book conservation and history. At the time I was investigating tooling and ways of decorating leather; learning how various tooling foils could be applied to leather with heat. I was particularly interested in how blind tooling can be used to impress patterns onto leather without the use of foil, and this made me wonder about the different possibilities these processes and materials might hold. Coming from a background in fine art, in particular drawing, my first thought was, can I draw with this? 

Having seen previously how the heat from a soldering iron could be used to apply various foils to leather, I wanted to try this myself to see if I could expand my drawing work onto this material. I therefore decided that a soldering iron should be the next addition to my toolkit. Researching the different types of irons, I saw that you can buy not only digital soldering stations, but also various tips for the iron, which are designed for different applications of solder. From my perspective, they looked perfect for adapting into diverse types of ‘pen’ nibs that could create different kinds of marks in different thicknesses. 

Soldering iron and various tips

Recalling my research on blind tooling leather, I wondered what sort of blind tooling effect the hot soldering iron could create. I began to use my new iron as a pen to draw lines directly onto the leather. At first, this seemed to leave no impression other than a barely visible indentation caused by the pressure. I increased the heat to see if this made any difference. This time I was able to use the iron like a pen, creating dark lines on the leather by scorching the surface.

Testing the iron on leather offcuts

Continuing my experiments, I found the best temperature settings and the best pressure and length for my marks to achieve different results on various types, colours and finishes of leather.

Testing the tips and heat settings

I also remembered that when blind tooling, the leather can be dampened before the application of the hot irons, and thought this might also have an effect on the lines from the soldering iron. I sprayed some of the leather offcuts lightly with water to see if this would also affect the types of lines created, allowing me to achieve better results on pieces that had previously not received the marks well. 

First finished drawing using the iron on a leather offcut

Having figured out a way to draw lines on the leather, my concern was now that these might somehow disappear, but so far all have remained visible. The idea for the future is to use this technique to decorate leather items – wallets, jackets, belts, (books?).  Ultimately, this was just a fun experiment without much useful application in improving the daily life of a conservator, but the soldering iron is still one of my favourite tools!

Using the soldering iron to draw
Finished illustration on a leather offcut
Happy Christmas!

All images courtesy of Heather Murphy.

Heather Murphy is the conservation team leader for the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme. Since graduating with an MA in the Conservation of Artworks on Paper from Camberwell College of Arts in 2015, Heather has worked with a number of institutions, including the BFI National Archive, The Royal Collection, Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Stanley Kubrick Archive, as well as undertaking conservation work for private clients. Alongside conservation training, Heather has also worked for a number of studios and workshops doing picture framing and bespoke leather and vellum work. Heather also holds a BA in Fine Art Painting from Wimbledon College of Art, and continues to maintain her own drawing-based art practice, which has become increasingly influenced by her work for museums and archives and by the materials involved in book and paper conservation.

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