Introduction: Sewing and Tooling a Packable Leather Toolbox
I used to travel with my work tools in a shoebox, but after one particularly wet season I decided I needed something a little more sturdy and more personalized though soft enough to still be packed into a checked bag without becoming damaged. I decided on leather not only because I was familiar with the material, but also because it can be so easily customized and I enjoy working with it.
Step 1: Materials and Tools
Leather- I used half a shoulder of 7-8 oz. leather. This is a tool box so I wanted it to be heavy and durable. When picking out a hide you will want the cleanest looking hide with as even a thickness as possible throughout. For this box I didn't use a pattern, but if you would like to, draw it and cut it out to bring with you so you can arrange the pieces on the hides available. Often sale hides will have blemishes, but if you can position your pieces around them, you can save some money on the leather. For a lighter keepsake or jewelry box 5-6 oz. is heavy enough, though I think lighter weight than that will not be durable enough.
Cutting tools- there are tons of possibilities here, I'm highlighting what I use.
- heavy duty shears- I used two types, a sewing shear intended for knits that has little teeth that help grip the leather but mark its edge and a gardening/bonsai style shear with smooth blades. These are especially useful when working with thinner leather (anything under 7-8 oz.)
- window scraper with straight razor blade- I like straight razor blades for cutting thicker leather along a ruler. Past that I look for anything comfortable in my hand (I have small hands).
- box cutter with straight razor blade- again this has a straight razor blade and fits comfortably in my hands. These two cutters are also very easy to change out blades as they dull.
- cork backed ruler- for measuring and cutting small edges. If using on dry leather any ruler will work, but if using on wet there has to be something between the metal and the leather or the leather will stain. I found this out the hard way with the lid. A wooden ruler with a metal edge or a plastic ruler will work, but be careful of cutting the ruler with the knife.
- carpenter's square (not shown)- this is useful for cutting the right angles for corners, if metal only use on dry leather
- needles- I typically use a size 12 needle, it should be sized to the thread so there is no bulk at the eye of the needle. Mine are sail needles which I had from work, but leather needles or large darning needles will work.
- small pliers- any pliers that fit your hands will work (small hands=small pliers), but it's better if the gripping surface is smooth or at least well worn so the needle isn't damaged when pulling it through the leather.
- sailor's sewing palm- these are hard to find but usually available online or at West Marine. The base of the needle fits into the thimble in the palm and the strength of your arm pushes the needle through while your fingers grip the shaft of the needle. I have both R and L hand so I can push with both hands. If this isn't available finger thimbles and/ or pliers work pretty well if a little slower.
- thread- this is a spun polyester available through Sailrite. There are many many options here (colors, weight, material) go with something in the 10-18 oz. range and size needles to it or vice versa and it will work. Bring your needles with you and ask to open a package or describe them over the phone (keep labels) or bring the thread with you when buying needles.
- beeswax- sometimes tricky to find. The thread will need to be waxed repeatedly as you sew into the leather to keep it from snarling and so it glides smoothly. After threading the needle wax, wax, and wax.
- bone fid- for making corner creases and burnishing edges. A sturdy piece of plastic will also work, as will a wooden version of this tool.
- edge beveler- this tool cuts the 90 degree off and edge so it is more easily beveled. The edges on this box will be visible, so I burnished them so they looked finished.
- awl- I use 2 typically, the smaller one I made out of an old, broken needle and a C.S. Osburne speedy stitcher. Both work well, I find the smaller one fits my hands better. The awl needle or prick size should be larger than whatever size sewing needle you use. The Osburne awl has multiple sized needles that can be switched out, so it is more flexible of a tool.
- pricking wheel (optional)- this will ensure you get even stitches. It marks the leather to guide where to punch holes. I didn't use this, I eyeballed the distance and also used a ruler.
- edge groover (optional)- this tool takes a small strip of leather out at a distance from the edge. The stitches will sit lower into the leather. I decided I like the texture of a raised stitch so didn't do this. To get something halfway, make a groove with the bone fid and stitch in the groove.
Tooling and beveling tools
- swivel knife- this is commercially available but I found I couldn't get a good grip on because of my smaller hands so i took a cold chisel and cut it to the length I wanted then wrapped it with copper wire so my hand wouldn't fatigue while gripping it. I sharped the edge on a stone then stropped it with a scrap of leather and some rouge jewelry polish, toothpaste also works.
- bevelers- I made two different sizes, one for large curves and one for smaller, tighter curves. These were larger nails that I bashed with a hammer to tilt the head offset and then took a file to them so make the head square. If you make your own be sure that any sharp edges are filed off or they will cut your leather instead of shaping it.
The first time you walk into a leather shop or a hardware store it's tempting to buy specific tools for specific patterns or pre-packaged sets. Checking out some youtube videos with give you an idea of the most used tools for tooling, and because I liked a simpler tooling effect, but intricate pattern I only have a few tooling tools (that sounds confusing, but isn't meant to)
Step 2: Patterns
For the box I already had a shoe box about the size I wanted. I took the dimensions off, redesigned the lid for storage while in use, and figured out how to secure the lid.
The body ends up being 3 pieces, two sides and a body panel. The joints are simple folded overlaps instead of butt joints, which will hopefully add to the strength of the body.
The box is 11 1/4" x 5" x 7"
The long body panel is 17 1/2" x 11 1/4"
The sides are 5" x 7" with 3/4" tabs along every edge but the top.
The lid needs to be a little larger than the body, but should fit snugly around the body.
The lid is one piece with tabs that fold up and the corners are sewn together. This piece won't hold much weight and won't be grabbed and smushed when I'm searching for a tool, so I went with a different type of joint here.
The lid ended up being 11 1/2" x 7 1/2" with tabs on each side.
The front tab is 2", the back is 3", and the two side tabs are 1 1/2".
- Layout the patterns on the dry leather and mark the corners on the back/ rough side of the leather.
- Using a ruler (metal is fine here), connect the corners, mark the edges where you are going to cut the pieces, and the edges that will be folded. I used a cheap black ball point pen. All the edges that are marked will be beveled and the black cut off, so there won't be any on the finished box. This is also why I mark on the back of the leather, it is the side that gets the most work and tinkering so marks disappear. At this stage double check you haven't omitted measuring out a side or a line that will be needed when you cut (measure twice, cut once). If you do make a mistake it's better to just have a line running across the inside of a box.
- Use a metal ruler along the black marked lines and using the scraper or box cutter cut along the ruler, using it to steady the razor as you cut.
- For the pieces with the tabs, cut the larger piece out and then go back and cut the corners. It's easy to move the ruler while you are cutting, especially if it doesn't have cork backing, so press down hard on the ruler and if it takes a few cuts to go through the leather, take it slow and be precise. If you are really struggling to get the razor through the leather, try changing the blade out.
So, now you have a pile of 4 pieces like in the first picture.
Step 3: Beveling and Burnishing
At this point it's time to treat the edges.
- Bevel the edges front and back of all four sides of the three body pieces.
- Bevel the long sides of the lid pieces, but not the corner cut outs
- Dampen, don't soak, the edges with a sponge.
- Bring the piece to the edge of a cutting board or table and using the bone fid run it back and forth really fast. the edge will get smooth and shiny from the friction, but you need to move the fid along the radius so it rounds it.
- Run beeswax on the rounded edges once dry and rub with the bone fid again to heat it and set it into the leather
- Bevel the corner cutouts on the backside of the leather. Start on the long side, go toward the corner, and without lifting the beveler, round the corner to the other side. Instead of just one pass with the beveler go over it a few times until the angle it close to 45 degrees. This will allow the leather to fold up to make the sides of the body and lid.
Step 4: Finishing the Lid
Shaping the lid
- Cut along the fold lines marked on the interior of the lid. Use the same technique as cutting the pieces out by holding the ruler firmly down on the leather and running the swivel knife along it. This time be sure to scoot the ruler out a bit because the swivel knife is wide. Ideally only cut about halfway through the leather.
- Still using the ruler as a guide insert the bone fid tip in line with the cut and by running the fid back and forth use the tip to open the cut up. By using the ruler you decrease the chance the fid will slip out and carve a channel in the leather.
- Without the ruler as a guide now insert the beveler into the opened cut and bevel both edges off. Do this a few times to really take out enough leather to be able to fold the leather at a 90 degree angle.
- At this point you will be wetting the leather to fold it so to avoid water stains take a damp sponge and wet the leather on the good side evenly and thoroughly, but not soaked. This is called casing the leather. The leather should change and darken in color. When the leather is wet it is very important to not let metal come in contact with it. This will cause a stain. Also at this point the leather marks very easily, so be aware if it gets set on a tool or edge of a cutting board that mark may be there
- On the good side of the leather really soak the leather where the fold will be. The leather in this spot will need to stretch and the water will allow it to do so. Soak the inside of the fold as well. Just do one fold at a time.
- Using the bone fid again run it along the cut and beveled line creating a deeper groove. I also flipped it flat and used the tip to push more leather out of the way.
- Keep using the fid in the fold line and push the leather up on the good side with your hand. I folded the leather until it was folded flat on itself to encourage more stretching on the good side to get a tighter corner edge. Do this stretching and folding and wetting a little at a time so you don't tear the leather.
- After you can get the leather to easily stay folded up repeat the process on the opposite fold line.
- Repeat the process on the other two sides.
- Allow the leather to dry wedged in between a form to hold the folds you have made. I used a couple of chunks of wood inside the lid and a couple of chunks against each edge to hold them up as they dried.
Step 5: Finishing the Lid
Sewing the lid
Marking where to stitch
Take the ruler and mark a line with the bone fid about 3/16" in from the edge. Determine how many stitches you want and mark each one with a small tick mark with the fid.
At this point you'll need you sewing tools and supplies. Threads the needles with one needle on either side of the thread, so 2 needles per thread. To get a rough guess for the length of thread needed I usually estimate that I'll need two sets of stitches plus the length additionally once so 3 x the length measured singly or each side of the thread 1.5 x. This is the bare minimum needed for the stitching but you will also need slack to work the needles. I think I did about 3/4 of my arm span and had enough room to work. It is always better to have to much and throw the excess away. After threading the needles wax the ever living bajeebus out of the thread. This helps hold the spun polyester together so you don't sew through it as you stitch.
- Put the lid into the clamp rigged up out of a chunk of wood and two paint sticks.
- Using the sponge wet the leather thoroughly but not dripping.
- Using the awl and holding the back of leather punch a hole through one side into the other holding the awl flat so the hole is angled. Remove awl.
- Take one needle, thread it into the hole created and middle the thread, either needle is fine. Still using the same needle loop the thread up and over then back through the same hole in the same direction to create the over stitch. Pull snug, but not hard enough to pull through the leather.
- Using awl again make a hole at the next marked stitch. This time take the L hand's needle and thread it into the hole but only pull about 6" of thread through. Take the R needle and while pulling back towards you with both L threads (so it's pulled to one edge of the hole) thread the R needle into the hole on the far side and pull the needle and 6" of thread through.
- Take the L needle (now on the R) and put it through the loop formed by the thread on that side so that an overhand knot is formed when the threads are pulled tight.
- Grab the needles on the new sides and pull straight away from the leather and each other. Pull snug but not harder enough to pull it through the leather. This is one box stitch.
- Continue the process: poke hole with the awl, thread L needle in toward the close side of the hole, pull 6" through, thread the R needle through the far side of the hole, wrap the thread to form an overhand knot, and pull snug.
- To finish, do one additional overstitch with the L needle before threading the R needle through to tie the knot. Cut the thread close to the surface. If this area will get a lot of pull it is possible to CAREFULLY melt the end of the thread with a lighter and push it into the hole. It will end up sticking to the other thread.
Repeat the process for the other corners until all are sewn.
Step 6: Carving Leather, the Practice Piece
I doodled up a design to practice curves and beveling before I started on the finished piece. The steps as an overview are:
- Draw design- can be anything, though I would make the practice piece close to the final design so practice the best way to get at tight corners, curves, spirals, overlaps, that type of thing
- Transfer design to tracing paper- this holds up well over damp leather
- Case leather entirely- lightly dampen the whole of the leather until it is a darken even color
- Transfer design- just as the leather starts to dry use a ball point pen or dull pencil to trace over the lines. It isn't necessary to push hard as the cased leather marks easily. Hold the tracing paper steady and do small section at a time
- Cut design- using the swivel knife cut the design into the leather using the marking lines as guides. Either pushing or pulling the knife works but keeps the blade at an angle
- Bevel the design- using the beveler push down on either or both sides of the cuts to give the design depth. the beveler should be angled down and rocked slightly so the face isn't flat. The leather will start to dry out at this point, but re-dampen the section you are working on in small areas as it dries.
Step 7: Carving and Beveling the Side Panels
I wanted the design to flow into the seam created on the sides so carved the design first then shaped the panels to be sewn. For the design I did a huge flowing motif and then cut tracing paper to the size of the panels and found where I liked a seam to trace the section for each panel. The two actually butt up against each other and the design is continuous across the top edge.
- Case the leather- with a damp sponge wet the entire surface evenly. When the leather has just started to dry the edges will be returning to a lighter color.
- Line up the tracing paper on top of the side and quickly trace the design with either a pencil or ballpoint (pencil will mark less if you go through the paper). Hold the paper tightly and trace quickly yet deliberately starting from the inside of the design and working out.
Carving the leather
- Dampen the leather in the section you want to start on. I carved the same way that I traced the design, starting from the inside working out.
- Hold the swivel knife so the blade is at an angle and start carving. I used a combination of turning the swivel knife and turning the leather.
- Continue carving the design in, dampening the leather as you go. Be careful on the edges, it's easy for the swivel knife to skip off the edges.
Beveling the leather
- Dampen the leather again in the area you want to start with.
- Bevel the edges of the cuts to create highs and lows on parts of the design to highlight. The beveler is held with the edge into the cut and using different angles pushing or pulling it along to press the leather down. I usually have a basic idea where I want to be beveled, but make changes as I do it. Using the beveler like this instead of hammering the tool into the leather creates a different texture and almost lightly burnishes the edge of the cuts.
Shaping the sides
Do it the same way as the folding the sides for the lid. With the carving on the outside you will need to be careful to not mar the design as you work the leather folded. Try to use the minimum amount of water needed to get the leather to move, too much water will raise up the beveling.
Step 8: Adding Ties to the Body Piece
To keep the lid secure I used a combination of button studs and grommets with ties through them. I figured stitching ties to the body would be easier before the side panels were on.
Sewing the ties
- Cut two strips of leather slightly smaller than the inner diameter of the grommet. Mine are 1/4" by 7" with one end square and the other tapered.
- Using the swivel knife flat cut a slit into the body panel. You can either match the ties to where the grommet is or the grommet to where the tie is. To make the slit bid enough I used 5-6 oz. leather here and used the tip of the bone fid to open the slit a little wider. I also beveled the inside edges to remove some bulk there.
- Feed the tie thru the slit with the square end on the back side of the leather and the two goods sides both aligned (see pic for orientation)
- Mark and punch stitching holes through both pieces of leather using the awl.
- Set up a pair of needles with thread and stitch using same technique as the box corners with no overstitch. Used here the stitch is called saddle stitch. I ended up using a clothes pin to hold the tie in place while I sewed it. I also put a double stitch on the bottom most stitch for a little extra strength.
- Using the flat of the bone fid rub it over the stitching to smooth.
Step 9: Sewing on the Side Panels
In adding the side panels I wet the edges of the body panel so they were easier to sew of the body and only wet the edges of the carved side panels. I did the bottom edge first and then sewed up each side. To measure out enough string I made each piece about 4x the length of the edge.
Punching the holes
- Measure in 3/16" from the edge of the body panel and out from the crease of the side panels. I made a groove here with the bone fid to mark the line, the stitches will hide the mark.
- Find the center of the bottom edge of the side panel and make a hole. Do the same for the center of bottom section of the body panel.
- Mark holes every 1/4" along the line starting at the center hole. Punch these holes with your awl. Be certain you are making the holes straight. You should be ending about 1/4" in from the end of the line.
- For the sides mark 1/4" up from the bottom of the line, this will be the first hole. On the body panel mark the
1/4" up from the crease. Continue marking until you reach the top edge, again these should end about 1/4" from the top.
- Punch through all the holes.
Sewing the sides on
- Measure out the thread and set up the needles like the previous steps.
- Start on the bottom edge first. Using one hole in from the last hole middle the thread and make one stitch towards the last hole. Use a closepin to hold the side panel in place while you stitch.
- At the last hole change directions and stitch along the line towards the other end. This doubles the first stitch.
- Continue stitching toward the other end.
- At the last hole stitch back along the previous stitches to make another double stitch at the end and finish like before. The bottom edge is now done.
- On the sides start at the bottom and put a double stitch in before continuing up the edge.
- Continue stitching until you reach the top hole.
- Go through the top hole with only one of the needles. Using that same needle make a stitch over the edge and back through the same hole in the same direction, creating an overstitch at the top. Now take the other needle and complete the stitch like normal.
- Double the next stitch like on the bottom edge and finish.
- Continue around all four edges until the body of the box is finished.
Step 10: Adding Hardware and Treating
At this point I added the hardware to the lid and body of the box. I recommend getting a few extra pieces and practicing on some scrap leather to get the hang of how each type goes together.
I chose button studs for the side closure. They come with a special tool to set them and it's pretty easy. Punch a hole the size of the shaft, push the bottom piece through, place the stud over top and using the anvil hammer to set the rivet. These are also available as a screwback, which is even easer. To set the corresponding hole in the lid you will need a hole punch the size of the stud. Punch the hole where you want the closure then using the swivel knife make a cut from the punch hole toward the top of the lid, it should look like a keyhole. Bevel the inside of the slit (make sure it went completely through) and I smoothed out the edges with the bone fid.
Grommets set similar to the button studs, but have a hole in the center. Punch a hole in the edge of the lid that lines up with the ties you've already sewn in. It should be higher than Slid the bottom of the grommet through and place the top over it. Place it on the anvil and use the mandrel and a hammer to set the grommet. These are sold with size corresponding grommets, don't try and get away with "close enough" or they won't set right.
There are a huge variety of different ways to treat leather, this is what I prefer. I ended up with a few stains on the box from where it had sat against bare metal while it was wet. In an effort to hide these I tried a few different stains and colorings that would only slightly alter the color (or it can be dyed). For a final finish I used Fluid Film which I rubbed in and then buffed after it wouldn't soak anymore in. These should only go onto the box after it has completely dried, I made up a little wooden platform for it to dry on upside down. After dry I rubbed it with Cordovan red shoe polish which highlighted the carving on the sides but didn't do much to hide to stains. I decided, since it was a toolbox, I could live with the mistakes and went on to coat it with Fluid Film. Fluid Film is pretty hard to find in hardware stores but easily ordered off Amazon. I found it through a John Deere tractor shop locally, as it is a part they stock, so shop around. It comes in a few different varieties, I use the regular type and have used both the aerosol and the brush on (I prefer the brush on). I sprayed the inside of the box first so it had more time to soak in, then sprayed the outside. I rubbed the Fluid Film in using my hands (it's only lanolin and paraffin) and then sprayed more on until it wouldn't soak in anymore. This does turn the leather a darker color. Once I had coated the box I used a rag to wipe out any excess and then buffed the good side of the leather with a clean rag. Let this dry/soak up overnight, stash your tools in it and you're finished.