A little CNC, a little brass, and a lot of leather: Making our leather coasters

Beverage coasters – or beer mats – for our friends across the pond, are decorative opens that serve to protect the surface under our drinks. They originated in English in the late 19th century.

We launched our leather coasters in October, decidedly several decades later. Coasters are simple products with a simple purpose, yet complex to make, and so we thought you might be interested to know how we dream up the ideas for the patterns on the coasters, and more details about how they are made.

First, we start with a design idea. Of late, we’ve been focused on the classic fabrics of menswear, namely herringbone and paisley. We think each of these patterns is appropriate on leather coasters because leather can hold a very detailed impression once pressed, and each of these patterns is particularly detailed.

A coaster requires a couple of tools. First, leather. Second, two separate dies (one to cut the leather, and one to emboss the leather). Finally, a press (which, in the case of our coasters, is a small eight ton press).

The leather we use is 10 oz English bridle leather. This is a vegetable tanned leather, and gorgeous at that. English bridle leather has a real waxy finish to it. These are coasters that will last a long time. As we’ve previously noted, our leather is sourced from either Wickett & Craig or Horween. In the case of our coasters, they are made with leather from Wicket & Craig.

The design itself is first sketched by hand, or in Adobe Illustrator, but ultimately will end up in Illustrator. The artwork is created to scale. Unlike an image, Illustrator converts a design into a series of mathematical formulas and outputs. Think back to your high school calculus class — each portion of the art is reduced to an equation. This allows a vector file to scale to infinite size without losing any precision. We could conceivably take the pattern for our paisley coasters and print them on notebooks (which we did!) or make a sign for Time Square, using the exact same artwork.

Our paisley design is converted by our die maker using a CNC machine. The artwork is converted to a CNC file. The CNC carves our exact pattern, to scale, into a piece of brass about 1/2 inch thick. CNC machining is pretty amazing technology. For our other coaster designs, a CNC machine was not used, but photoengraving.

Photoengraving is a process that is hundreds of years old. Essentially, the artwork is transferred to film, placed on the metal, and ferric chloride is used to literally etch into the metal. The acid literally eats away at the brass leaving an etched design that replicates our art. We’re talking somewhere in the order of 30/1000 of an inch deep. Following the bath, the piece is then traced, by hand, with a router rotating at around 3,500 rpm. It’s a combination of art and science, but also 100% pure craftsmanship.

We use brass because it is quite resistant to the pressure required to work with leather. Other metals we have used include magnesium and hardened steel. Magnesium is softer than brass (which is a combination of copper and zinc) and less expensive.

We also need a die to cut out the shape of the coaster. There are many die makers in New York, but we have a trusted die maker who makes a very sharp die in the shape of the coaster. With the metal dies in hand, we cut the leather with a die, and then on each piece, we imprint our desired pattern. We use a manual eight ton clicker press to cut into 10 oz thick English bridle leather. What comes out are leather blanks - that is to say, circles of leather in the shape of coaster, before we use the brass die to stamp into the leather. We sell these blanks on our site because people want plain looking coasters. But, assuming we’re turning them into designed leather coasters, we’ll then use our clicker press to imprint our design — very much permanently — into the coaster.

What comes out is an almost completed product. The final step is to seal the edges with a die, and then box them in our kraft packaging.

Once complete, we send the finished product out the door to a happy customer.