Introduction: Sculpted Leather Tech Cases
Most of us use similar technology to power our lives, laptops, tablets, smart phones. The cases we choose for our devices have become almost as important for defining our style as our shoes or haircuts, so why not truly personalize them by creating our own?
Leather is a perfect material for creating device cases, it is sturdy an durable and gives you a wide variety of design options. To create cases for my laptop and tablet, I chose to use a magical leather working technique that I'd been hoping to try for a long time: wet-forming.
Wet forming leather is basically sculpting. You soak leather in water and then mould it into three dimensional shapes that keep their form when the leather dries. The process is wonderfully tactile, and when done right the results are amazing. The best thing about the method I used is that you can really personalize your own projects by choosing the objects you sculpt over. Looking for the right object also makes for a pretty fun treasure hunt.
In this Instructable I will show you how to create two different styles of technology cases: a sleeve type case for a laptop, and a folding book style case for a tablet, each decorated with forms sculpted using different objects.
This project was partially inspired by the amazing work of Wei Li, who used digital fabrication technology to create luggage sculpted around the forms of her own body.
Step 1: What You Need
- Adjustable V-gouge
- Edge beveler
- Burnishing tool
- Stitching groover
- Stitching wheel
- Diamond stitching chisel - I used one that creates holes 1/8" apart, it was useful to have one that has switchable heads with different numbers of prongs so you can go around curves etc.
- Rotary hole punch
- Ball point leather modeling tool for sculpting details
- Exacto knife and extra blades
- Thick waxed thread and a leather needle
- Narrow, strong double sided tape
- A quartz slab or other very hard surface and a softer poundo board to put over it
Leather Dying and Finishing Supplies:
- Gum Tragacanth for burnishing
- Black Pro Waterstain for the Laptop case
- Turquoise Pro Waterstain for the tablet
- Gold Cova Color to detail the bugs on the laptop case
- Leather sealer like Pro Gloss Finish
- Strong Leather glue like leather contact cement, or tanners bond
- Clean sponges for applying dye
- Swabs or Q-tips -Small paintbrush
- Disposable paintbrushes for glue
- Disposable cups for epoxy and dye
- Clear ruler and metal ruler
- A hammer
- Pencil - having some pens or pencils in different colors can also be useful when patterning
- Scissors for cutting paper
- Epoxy or other strong fast setting glue
- A large deep, rectangular baking dish, pot, or other container for hot water
- Sandbags or bags filled with rice to weigh down leather during sculpting
- 2-4 oz milled veg tanned leather - At least 8 square feet for the laptop and 5 1/2 square feet for the tablet.
- *Important: Choosing the correct leather for this project is crucial! The first leather I tried didn't work well at all and left me feeling discouraged until I found the right one. Your leather absolutely has to be veg tanned, and from my experience, it seems like it also needs to be milled, which makes it much softer than the regular, un-milled veg tanned leather. I used a this 3-4oz milled double shoulder from Tandy, and I would almost have preferred something slightly thinner. The first piece I tried was not milled and it didn't pick up the details of my objects very well at all. I would recommend picking your leather out in person if you can, and asking to test a small piece by wetting it. If it soaks easily and gets almost mushy like clay in your hand it will probably work well.
- Clasps for your cases - I used these for both the laptop and the tablet
- Rivets and gate rings to match your clasps if you want to add a strap to the laptop case
- Paper or oaktag
- Wax paper, freezer paper or saran wrap
- Pillow stuffing or expandable spray foam for filling in your sculpted shapes
- Large pieces of cardboard or scrap plywood - at least 24"x36" for the laptop and 24"x24" for the tablet
- Objects to sculpt your leather over
Step 2: Find a Fun Object to Sculpt
I explored a lot of options when trying to figure out what objects I could use to make interesting forms and textures in my leather. I went to toy stores and hardware stores and raided my own craft bins and the tool collection at the Instructables studio. There are almost infinite options of things your could use, but there are also some constraints you need to keep in mind.
-Your object needs to be relatively flat, probably no more than 1" high with no undercuts, and a curve of no more than 180 degrees. In other words, a ball won't work, but a ball cut in half and laid on it's flat side would be great.
-Very small details with relatively deep relief are bad, for example, I tried to form over Legos, and that really didn't work. But as you can see, the low relief letters on the wrench I molded came through pretty well.
-Curved shapes are generally better than sharp, angled shapes.
-Your object should be fairly hard. The beetles I used were a medium soft plastic, and they still worked great, but something softer than that would probably not hold its shape enough to be sculpted over.
-The more separate objects you add, the harder it will be to form over each object. This is true especially if the objects are high relief. I had much more trouble forming over the two beetles on my laptop case than the wrench and metal screen on my tablet because the beetles were high relief objects spread far apart so they wanted to pull the leather away from eachother as I sculpted.
Beyond that, you can really just experiment and have fun. I would suggest getting some of extra leather so you can try samples of a few objects before you commit to anything.
Step 3: Creating the Laptop Pattern
I decided to try making two different types of cases for my two devices. For the laptop I made a version of a sleeve case which protects the computer when it is not in use. I also added a second flat pocket in front and loops on the sides that could hold an optional strap so I could use the case as a shoulder bag.
To pattern the laptop case I first sketched my design, then used my laptop to get the proper dimensions for the pattern. I measured the length and width of the closed computer and added 2” to each of these measurements to account for the thickness of the laptop and some ease. Then I drew out a pattern using these measurements.
I wanted to make my pattern out of as few pieces as possible, but I also wanted sculpted areas to have a second layer of leather under them to help stabilize the shapes and keep them from stretching out with wear. I figured out how to accomplish this by making the whole thing out of two pieces layered on top of eachother. The inner piece forms the body of the case, and the outer piece has the shapes sculpted into it and also creates the extra front pocket.
When a doubled layer of thick leather like this is folded over, the outer piece needs to have some extra material at the fold to accommodate bending around the inner piece (imagine a book binding). Therefore I added 1/2” to my outer layer pattern at both the bottom and top folds.
Once I had my pattern created, I made a negative of the outer layer which I would need in order to accurately cut out the leather once I had sculpted my forms.
Step 4: Creating the Tablet Pattern
For the tablet, I made a folding book type cover that would protect the device even during use. I also gave this case a small handle to make carrying it around more practical.
I traced my tablet onto paper and then created a pattern that would hold the tablet in place with leather tabs and also fold over onto itself like a book.
I added a tab to close it, gave it a handle for easy carrying and also created a separate inner layer to stabilize the whole case and make the handle more sturdy.
Once I had my pattern created, I made a negative of the outer layer which I would need in order to accurately cut out the leather once I had sculpted my forms.
When I put this pattern together, I realized that it didn't quite work in the way I had hoped, so I had to make some slight design alterations which I will describe later.
Step 5: Preparing for Sculpting
To get a clear, detailed form during the sculpting process, you need to stabilize your objects so they stay in one place while you are mushing the leather around them with your hands. I did this by adhering my bugs, wrench and metal mesh to large pieces of cardboard in strategic places.
I wanted the cardboard to be at least as big as my leather pattern pieces so I would have a smooth surface around my objects. I used a 24”x36” piece for my laptop case and a 24”x24” piece for my tablet. I used my pattern negatives to trace the outlines of my pattens onto the cardboard, then I took my objects and placed them on the cardboard where I wanted to create sculpted areas on my cases. Using epoxy for the bugs and wire mesh, and double sided tape for the wrench (because I wanted to be able to use it again later), I fixed my objects down to the cardboard.
I wanted my bugs to lie a bit flatter than they did naturally, so I ended up having to basically disembowel them with an exacto knife. I felt pretty horrible cutting them up like that, even though they were only plastic, but I don’t think they knew the difference.
Step 6: Sculpting
Now I was ready to sculpt my leather. I used my pattern negatives to cut out pieces of leather roughly the size I needed. Sculpting will take up some of the surface area of the leather, so you definitely don’t want to cut out your exact pattern pieces before you sculpt.
I filled a large, deep baking dish with warm water, and submerged my leather in it, using my hands to fold and press it until it had stopped releasing air bubbles. When it had soaked for a few minutes, I took it out of the water and patted it dry with a towel.
Then I spread the leather out over my cardboard fixture, making sure it covered and overlapped the whole area of the traced patterns.
I began sculpting by gently pressing the leather down around my objects and into the shapes and crevices of each form. I made sure to form any large topographic features before trying to capture small details. For the two bugs I focused on one of them first, roughed out the shape, then placed a sandbag over it so it would stay in place, and moved on to the next one. I went back and forth between the two, capturing more detail each time.
Wrinkles want to form in the leather around large objects. You can fight this to a certain extent by moving the leather around, stretching and flattening it, but I realized that I mostly needed to embrace the wrinkles and I actually liked the way they looked in the end.
As the leather dried slightly, it captured small details better, so I kept going back over certain areas.
I used a ball point molding stylus to get more definition on the details of the wire mesh, but I wouldn’t recommend using any tools for most sculpting. They tend to leave unattractive marks on the leather. For this same reason I would also make sure your nails are short when sculpting.
It was not a totally straightforward process, but I found it fairly intuitive and quite enjoyable.
Step 7: Curing the Leather
Once I had my forms sculpted to my liking, I pinned the edges of the leather down to my cardboard and weighted the cardboard down, so it would stay flat as the leather dried.
I simply left my leather to dry overnight, but you could use a hair dryer, or heat gun to dry it faster. Placing your leather in a 250 degree oven for a few minutes, closely observed, will dry it very nicely, and make your form more durable, but it was difficult to fit leather of this size in an oven.
Step 8: Cutting and Marking the Laptop Case
When the sculpted leather pieces for my laptop had dried, I used my pattern negative to cut out my final pattern piece. First I traced it with an awl, then I cut it out with an exacto knife. I used my other pattern piece to cut out the inner unsculpted layer of my case in a slightly thicker leather because that was what I had around, but you could easily use the same leather for both layers.
To cut out the small openings on the sides of the case where the straps will attach, I used a hole punch at each corner, then cut with my exacto between the holes.
Finally I used my stitching groover as well as a ruler and an awl to mark where all the sewing lines were going to go.
Step 9: Cutting and Marking the Tablet Case
I cut out the sculpted outer layer of my tablet case the same way I had cut out the laptop, by positioning my pattern negative over the sculpted area, tracing, and cutting.
I also cut out the inner layer I had patterned for the case in a slightly thicker, unmilled leather, but I ended up altering this part of the design later.
I used my V-gouge to groove the lines where the outer layer would fold over on itself, and used my stitching groover as well as a ruler and an awl to mark where all the sewing lines were going to go on each piece.
Step 10: Punching the Laptop Sewing Holes
Once the sewing lines on the inner and outer pieces of the laptop were marked, I folded the outer layer over on itself, wet the sewing lines with a sponge and used a diamond stitch chisel to punch the sewing holes.
Then I partially assembled the case using double stick tape to attach the inner and outer layers. I took my awl and marked a few sewing holes through from the outer layer to the inner layer in strategic places that would ensure that everything aligned properly when it was sewn together later. Then I took the whole thing apart again and punched the rest of the sewing holes into the inner layer separately.
Step 11: Punching the Tablet Sewing Holes
I used the same method to punch the sewing holes into the two pattern pieces of the tablet, folding the outer layer over on itself before punching the first set of sewing holes, then using this piece to find the correct placement of the holes on the inner layer.
Step 12: Dying the Bugs
I decided to try a combination of metallic paint and black stain on the leather of my laptop case.
I first detailed the sculpted bugs using a paintbrush and gold Cova Color leather paint. Then I used a sponge to spread several coats of black Pro Waterstain over the entire surface of both pieces of leather, inside and out.
I was really pleased with the effect of the gold under the black. It really made the bugs stand out and gave them a nice antique metal sort of quality.
Step 13: Dying the Tablet Case
I thought the tablet case would look good in a two-tone color scheme. I used turquoise Waterstain on the outer layer and black Waterstain on the inner layer. I also made sure to dye the edges and underside of the outer layer where I knew they would be visible.
The turquoise Waterstain looked very dark and splotchy when I first applied it, but after a few coats, it dried to really beautiful, even color.
Step 14: Finishing the Laptop Pieces
Before I sewed them together I finished the pieces of the laptop case by beveling the top edges of the inner and outer pockets, re-dying them with Waterstain, and then burnishing them to a shiny finish with gum tragacanth and a wooden burnisher.
I also treated the inside of both pockets with Pro Gloss Finish since it would be hard to do this once the pieces were assembled.
Step 15: Gluing the Laptop
I wanted to fill the hollow space inside my sculpted bug shapes with something to stop them from getting crushed, so I filled them with pillow stuffing and glued circles of fabric over them. In retrospect, I think it would be better to use something more solid, like hardening spray foam, but the stuffing does give them some extra support.
Once this was done, I aligned the two layers of the case and glued the back panels and sides together in preparation for sewing.
Step 16: Sewing the Laptop
To sew the layers of my laptop case together I used a leather needle and thick black waxed thread to create a saddle stitch.
There are two ways to do a saddle stitch: the two needles at a time method, or the one needle, two passes method. I've tried both and I prefer the one needle, two passes method. For a great description of how to use two needles see this excellent Instructable by jessyratfink.
To use the one needle, two passes method, I just threaded a single leather needle with a long strand of waxed thread and began sewing at one end of a line of sewing holes. When I got to the other end of the sewing holes, I turned around and sewed back the other way, this time filling in the opposite spaces between sewing holes, making the stitches look like one unbroken line similar to a sewing machine stitch. When I got back to the beginning I back stitched a few stitches to secure the thread before cutting it. Whenever I ran out of thread I just did a few backstitches and then started a new thread.
Step 17: Finishing the Laptop Case
To put the finishing touches on the leather of my laptop case I used my skiving tool and exacto to even out the layers along each edge.
Then I beveled all the edges with my edge beveling tool. I made sure all the edges and sewing holes were dyed black, and then I used Gum Tragacanth and the wooden burnishing tool to burnish the edges. Finally I applied a coat of Pro Gloss Finish to all the exterior surfaces of the case.
Step 18: Adding Hardware to the Laptop
I think choosing the right hardware for a bag is very important and I tend to like very simple and minimal hardware.
I used a simple brass plated clasp to secure the flap of the laptop case. I marked and cut a hole in the flap, and attached the female part of the clasp. Then I used the position of this half of the clasp to mark where the other half should be installed on the body of the case. I attached this piece so the back of it was hidden inside the front pocket.
I wanted the option to carry the laptop case as a shoulder bag, so I created a simple strap for it with two gate rings that could attach it to the triangular openings on each side of the case.
Step 19: Gluing the Tablet
To begin assembling my tablet case, I first glued the handles of the inner and outer layers together, then checked to see how the rest of it was fitting together with the tablet inside. Because this pattern had to fit exactly to hold the tablet in properly, it was hard to tell if it was going to work quite right before assembling it in leather.
As it turned out, when I tried it at this point, it wasn't quite fitting the way I wanted. The flap wasn't long enough to cover the front of the tablet, and I didn't like the way the inner layer was making the leather bunch at the fold. I didn't want to discard the piece, so I made some simple adjustments that fixed the problems.
Step 20: Fixing the Tablet
To fix the issues with my tablet case design I first I cut away the second side of the inner leather layer. Then I punched a second row of sewing holes to better secure the large flaps. I dyed the inside of the molded wrench area black, as it would now be visible. Finally I created a new leather piece that would be sewn into the end of the flap to extend it, and dyed this piece black.
Before I moved on to gluing and sewing I also used my tablet to find the right place to punch a hole for the headphones.
Step 21: Sewing the Tablet
After making these adjustments, the rest of the tablet case went together easily. I sewed two of the remaining seams on the flap and went around the handle with a saddle stitch. I left the seam that would connect the second side of the inner and outer layers un-sewn because I wanted to attach part of the closure between these two layers.
Step 22: Adding Hardware to the Tablet
I added the same a simple brass plated clasp to the flap of the tablet case. I marked and cut a hole in the flap, and attached the female part of the clasp. Then I used the position of this half of the clasp to mark where the other half should be installed on the body of the case. I attached this piece so the back of it was hidden between the inner and outer layers of the case, and gave it a little extra stability with a second layer of leather.
Then I sewed the last seam that attached the inner and outer layers at the fold.
Step 23: Dressing Up Your Devices
Now I have two beautiful and wholly unique cases for my laptop and tablet, and they can show their faces in public without looking just like all the other devices.
The tablet fits snugly into the four leather corners inside the case, and the leather flaps on the opposite side can hold a notebook or other small items you might want to carry with you.
The laptop case can just be used as a sleeve to protect you computer, or you can buckle on the strap and use it as a shoulder bag, with an extra front pocket for papers, etc.
Discovering the sculpting capabilities of leather though this project was really exciting. The technique is wonderfully low-tech, but the results seem to amaze and baffle a lot of people. I foresee a lot more leather sculpting projects in my future.