Introduction: Tooled Leather Briefcase

Picture of Tooled Leather Briefcase

The smell of leather...mmmmmmmm...delicious.

Working with raw vegetable tanned leather is a lot of fun. You take a piece of full grain, un-dyed leather that really isn't all that appealing by itself, and turn it in to a work of art. My favorite things to make out of leather are briefcases. There is just something so timeless about a rugged leather briefcase that is hard to describe.

On with the show...

Step 1: Tools & Material

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You can spend a lot of money on leather tools as is true with any hobby (or profession). I have quite a few leather tools that I've procured (mostly from Tandy Leather Factory) over the years. You can also look on eBay for used tools. The tools shown aren't all that I have but are the ones I use the most. You can "get by" in the beginning with just some basic tools such as a utility knife, straight edge, makeshift awl, stitching needles. But as you expand in your leather working you'll definitely want to get more tools. This will greatly improve the fun and quality of your work. You'll also need sponges and rags for dyeing. A cutting surface is essential. I have 4 plastic kitchen cutting boards screwed to my worktop for cutting. And most definitely a solid work surface.

Get a couple of books to look through too. The ones shown are my favorites ( available here ) The first one Leathercraft Tools how to use them, how to sharpen them is the most useful for beginners. You can get these as E-pubs or get a hard copy. I first bought E-pubs then a year later bought the real book.

You'll need a nice piece of veg-tanned leather about 7-9 oz. (that's the thickness) I used about 8 sq. ft. with the waste

Lining leather (about) 8 sq. ft.

Make sure you get good quality hardware. I like If you buy more than 10 of any item you get a discount.

4 - 1" Dee rings (for handle and straps)

2 - trigger snaps (to attach the shoulder strap)

1" buckle

1 Tuck catches

a bunch of rivets (20)

Step 2: Dye Leather

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I like to dye my leather first to make sure it takes evenly. I've had problems before with the dye being uneven because of imperfections in the leather. This way I can dye it first to see where to lay my patterns that will be the most aesthetically pleasing. I do kind of an antiquing process where I use 3 different colors (brown, red, & black) to come up with the finished color. I put them on in layers and use a rag to wipe some off. It's a lot of work doing it this way but I really like the finished look.

Step 3: Lay Out Patterns

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I make my patterns out of heavy paper util I get them all worked out. Then I transfer them to pressed card stock or illustration board. If you are going to make a ton of your product you can make your patterns out of sheet metal so they will last forever. You can cut directly around your patterns or use a scratch awl to mark it on to your leather.

Sorry no pdf's of the patterns. If you look close at the pics above you can see the overall dimensions of each pattern piece.

Step 4: Cut Leather

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Use a steel straight edge for all your straight cuts. Press down firmly as you will need a decent amount of pressure to cut through the heavy leather. Freehand any curves. You may need two passes on the curves to cut all the way through. Make sure you have all your pieces.

I use a strap cutter for the shoulder strap. You'll need one piece (billet) 48" long and another 18" long.

Step 5: Punch Rivet Holes

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Use a 1/8" or 3/16" hole punch for any rivet holes. I mark them all out with my patterns.

Step 6: Add Logo

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I had my logo made into a brass stamp that has two ways of using it. It can be used as shown with a brass handle to stamp it in to wet vegetable tanned leather. It can also be screwed in to an electric iron similar to a soldering iron. That works well on chrome tanned leather as it won't hold a wet stamped mark as well.

Step 7: Skive Sides and Back

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Here you need to take a v-gouge to cut a channel on the flesh side. Make your cut about a 1/3 of the thickness of the leather deep. After channel is cut you can skive the flesh side of the leather down a bit so your finished edge will not be so thick. I like to keep it a bit thick because these bags tend to get loaded up with a lot of weight.

Step 8: Wet Form Sides and Back

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Get a dish of water and a sponge. Wet the entire edge and let it soak in. Repeat 2-3 times until it is saturated. Let set for a few minutes to loosen up the fibers.

Start to form the edge by bending it up with your fingers.

Use a cobblers hammer or a smooth faced trim hammer to tap the bend. This will help it hold it's form.

Then use a bone folder to crease the inside of the fold on the grain side of the leather.

Set aside to dry.

Step 9: Tool Your Design

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There are a few different techniques that I have seen on youtube and have read in leather books. Most tend to do all the tooling before you dye your leather. Everybody seems to come up with their own technique that works for them. But being that I like to see how the dye takes on the whole piece of leather before I cut all my pieces, I tool or stamp it after I dye it.

Some call it tooling some say leather carving, it's all the same thing. It's the process of cutting and stamping wet vegetable tanned leather to make an embossed surface.

First- Completely saturate the area to be stamped. Some let it sit overnight in the water. I just let it sit until no more bubbles come out of the leather's surface.

Second- You can transfer a design on to the leather by placing a piece of paper on the area to be stamped and drawing over it with a dull pencil or a tool that has a blunt tip.

Third- Use a swivel knife to cut the design. Don't cut more than a third of the way through the leather.

Fourth- Use a bevel stamp to emboss the deeper areas of your design. This will give a 3D effect.

Fifth- Add details and fill background. You can use modeling tools to depress areas of your design. I also used an awl to add some stippling.

Step 10: Dye Tooled Area

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If you dyed the leather ahead of time you may have to dye some of the cuts or any areas exposed by the tooling. Then you can use a darker dye to highlight any shadows or just to antique it.

Step 11: Add Some Dees

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Burnish any exposed edges on your dee strap. I like to rivet the inside and then sew the outside. It gives it a nice finished look. Use contact cement to attach until sewn. Scuff up the leather wherever it is to be glued to give it "tooth", that is, something to grab on to.

Step 12: Make Handle

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The handle is made out of two pieces of leather. One measures 1'"x16 1/2". The other 4 3/4"x4 3/4". The strip will two folds in it where the dees are located. Cement and rivet together after burnishing the edges where the dees are. Wet the other piece of leather and form around the handle. Let it sit overnight to dry. Cement together, stitch, cut edge and finish edge. I like to give the handle a nice bend. If your leather is tough you can wet the whole thing again to do this.

Step 13: Make Handle Keeper

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Cut a strip of leather about 1 3/8" wide. Notch with a large hole punch where the dees for the handle will be attached to the body of the bag. Cut sewing channel with a groover. Bevel edges, dye and burnish all edges. Glue, rivet and stitch the middle section to the back/front flap of the bag.

Step 14: Attach Handle

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Slip the dees over the handle keepers edge. Cement, glue, rivet and stitch

Step 15: Attach Tuck Catch

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You can figure out where your tuck catch needs to go by clipping the whole bag together kind of as a mock up. I do this when I'm designing a new bag and I need to see where the handle or any buckles will be placed. I already had my patterns made here so I just marked them and attached.

Step 16: Add Stiffeners

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You can use pressed gray board to stiffen up the sides and bottom. Use contact cement to adhere.

Step 17: Inside Pocket

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I use a thin leather to line my bags. It is a soft leather that is used for lining fine dress shoes. The pocket has an accordion side to make it more roomy for documents. I also add a pen holder and a smaller pocket for a phone. You need to sew the pocket and attach it to the piece of lining leather before you cement the liner in.

Step 18: Punch Holes

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Use a stitching fork to punch the stitching holes through the front and back piece with the liner.

Step 19: Attach Liner

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It's not totally necessary to line your bag but this allows you to add stiffeners,pockets, and hide the backside of any hardware. Using a leather contact cement paint both surfaces to be adhered. Follow the manufacturers recommendations on how to use. But generally you allow it to dry a little bit (loose it's shine) before pressing the two sides together. You can use a small roller to firmly adhere the two sides together. Trim off excess taking care not to back cut it or cut it shorter than the hide. I use shish kabob skewers to keep "premature adhesion" from happening (Hey, it's a serious medical condition). Then you can pull them out one by one as you lightly press the lining on to the back and sides.

Step 20: Cement Bag Together

Picture of Cement Bag Together

Carefully paint on contact cement about 3/8" in from the edge on the lining of your front piece where the bottom and sides will be stitched together. You can use a piece of paper (wax paper is the best) as a stencil. Take your time lining your pieces up as you adhere them. If they aren't perfectly lined up your bag won't sit flat. Don't cement the back on yet. You need access to the bottom to stitch it to the side in the next step.

Step 21: Stitch Bottom to Sides

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Use a stitching awl to finish the holes through the bottom piece of leather and stitch.

Step 22: Attach Back

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Adhere back piece to the rest of the case.

Step 23: Stitch and Finish Edges

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First I punch a hole for a rivet at the top edge of each side, front and back. Then Saddle stitch around the perimeter of the front (not the top edge) and back. Once all stitched you need to even out the edges. You can use sandpaper, a Dremel with a sanding drum, or (as I like to) use a piece of glass. Briskly rub the sharp edge of glass along the edge using your forefinger as a fence or guide on the leather. Bevel edges. Touch up with sandpaper. Dye the edge. Rub beeswax on and finally burnish. I sometimes use a cocobolo edge slicker with my Dremel but I always finish it off with a piece of canvas.

Step 24: Rivet

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Rivet the back to the sies.

Step 25: Make Strap

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The strap is made of two 1" strips: 1 @ 48" & 1 @ 18".

Finish all edges.

The long one has a lever snap attached on one end with two rivets the other end is the billet side. Come in about 3" from the end and punch a hole every 1". Put in as many as you'll need to adjust it correctly for your size.

On the 18" piece attach a buckle on one side and a lever snap on the other.

Step 26: Add Finish

Picture of Add Finish

At this point you are pretty much done. I like to touch up the dye job and add some low lights or antiquing. Then I use a good conditioning paste let it soak in for a day and finally paste wax. This Step really makes the leather look great and the wax will protect it for a while from water. You'll need to reapply every 6 months or so to keep it looking great. Don't worry if you get some scratches on it, they just give it personality. I prefer a used look than a pristine piece.

All done!


Zexetor (author)2016-01-23

Excellent project! I have only one thing to add, as a fellow leatherworker: When cutting leather, remember that it is organic material. As such, there can be varying degrees of density that can "catch" or add drag to your knife as you are cutting. Be very mindful of the hand that is holding the ruler, since these spots can sometimes cause your knife to "skip up" onto your metal ruler, resulting in a trip to the emergency room for five stitches to close the wound made by burying the blade into the side of your thumb to the bone..... Just sayin'...

ksykes (author)2015-12-09

Great write up. I love your design as well. Thanks for this inspirational instructable, makes me want to get my leather working tools out and take it up a level.

jyo001 (author)2015-12-03

The blue stitching really works on this. Great job!

badideasrus (author)2015-10-27

i was already a big fan of one of your other bags, but this one really appeals to me. i have a thing for Yggdrasil, and old trees, and this just rocks. and the blue thread is a really nice touch.

i'd intended to try and make the other bag, but now i really want to try this one. only... i'm afraid to try carving the tree. XP. ((and i have no real tools ><))

Phiske (author)badideasrus2015-10-29

This one would probably be a bit easier if it's your first leather project. The tree is super simple and you can rework it as you go. Go for it!

badideasrus (author)Phiske2015-11-08

if you say so :P. i actualy already made forms for your other bag from the pictures.... XP. but.... i like this one...

i dont have much in the way of carving tools >>. a really cheap wood carving set is all i have available to me. another thing i'm worried about is the punching of holes.... i dont have a surface to do that on proper like. any suggestions for a cheap alternative to a steel plate on a workbench? :P

where did you get blue leather thread anyway?

Fezder (author)2015-11-07

Nice, great instrcutable! Gotta get leather and start ''playing'' with it seems :)

JosephJ25 (author)2015-11-04

You have me interested in Leather works and i think I will start this. Could you please tell me what tools i will need as a novice and where to get them. BTW I'm not rich lol.

Wonderful job and I'm proud of you.

Phiske (author)JosephJ252015-11-05

You might have most of it lying around. cutting board, utility knife (snap off kind), sand paper, rotary hole punch or an awl, saddler's needles, steel straight edge, ruler. Your finished product will be better with better tools.


steve2001 (author)2015-11-04

Simply stunning you have given me the inspiration for future works thank you.

Phiske (author)steve20012015-11-05

Thanks so much for taking a look!

warpath7a1 (author)2015-11-01

Not only amazing work, but a great instructible. You did a great job of showung how you did the entire process. Definately saving this one. Have to try it.

Phiske (author)warpath7a12015-11-02

Go for it! thanks!

headstack (author)2015-11-01

Beautiful work,

Thank you for sharing such a detailed photo essay.

Out of curiosity, I grew up on boats and still work on them and wondered if the hardware you have is hefty brass?

The trigger snaps I sometimes see are not as robust as marine hardware, and the real stuff (not Pacific Rim) is still well under $10.00 a snap at the high priced places, and more economical at the non boutique chandlers.

Once again, amazing work and the debossed appearance of the tree is just fantastic!

Phiske (author)headstack2015-11-01

Hi there!

The snaps I use are solid brass and I would say are pretty strong. Probably not as rugged as marine hardware. I get them at and have been using them for a few years now. They run about $2.50 a piece if you buy 10 or more at a time. I've never had an issue with any of their hardware.

Thanks again!

fenikkusu (author)2015-11-01

You are a talented artist!

how beautiful!

how singular!

Phiske (author)fenikkusu2015-11-01

Thanks for looking!

emilyvanleemput (author)2015-10-30

Absolutely stunning!

Phiske (author)emilyvanleemput2015-11-01

Thank you!

The Rambler (author)2015-10-28

There it is! I've been waiting for your entry since I saw the contest. Beautiful work as usual. Question for you: In the picture in step 18 it looks like you're punching holes using two layers of leather and a cutting board underneath. Is the leather to keep the hole punch from getting prematurely dull, or to keep from damaging the board? Or is it to deaden the sound maybe? These are all things I've thought about and when I saw that I wondered if it solved any or all of those problems.

Phiske (author)The Rambler2015-10-29

Ha! Yeah, I only post when I have a chance of winning something cool.

Anyways, the pic you commented on isn't where I normally punch stuff. There was better lighting there on my cutting boards. I usually lay a piece of leather on top of a 1/4" steel plate thats attached to one of my workbenches. The leather protects the tool but sometimes I hit it too hard and need two pieces. I've punched on to a cutting board but it would trash it pretty quick and I usually have a lot of scrap leather lying around. I also have a piece of dense rubber (for shoe soles) under the steel plate to absorb some of the sound. It seems to be the quietest if the surface is super solid.

Thanks for always commenting!

The Rambler (author)Phiske2015-10-30

Hahaha *conspiratorial whisper* me too.

That sounds like an awesome setup. I have almost completely destroyed one corner of my cutting board from punching holes. I'm going to have to put some of my scrap leather to use absorbing all of that damage.

Thanks for always posting such awesome projects!

KurtH3 (author)2015-10-29

super cool project and great presentation I voted!

Phiske (author)KurtH32015-10-30

Awesome! Thanks!

3366carlos (author)2015-10-29

heck of a job.

Phiske (author)3366carlos2015-10-30

Thank you!

deepsquid (author)2015-10-28

Fascinating... beautiful work!

Phiske (author)deepsquid2015-10-29


jesper.naslund.10 (author)2015-10-28

Beautiful work as always!

Phiske (author)jesper.naslund.102015-10-29


southerncharmholsters (author)2015-10-27

very very nice... I tried working with kydex for my holsters - but I just love working with leather so much more, but the thing I found out about kydex is that it makes wonderful long lasting templates for my holster patterns- I can use it on cased leather without the worry of it messing it up.

Good idea! I've been looking for something more durable. I usually rework my patterns after I make each bag. sometimes I'll add on to an existing pattern until I know it's perfect.

AAAHan (author)2015-10-27

Hi!!! amazing!

Phiske (author)AAAHan2015-10-29


TammyO7 (author)2015-10-27

Beautiful work!!

Phiske (author)TammyO72015-10-29

Thank you!

ClenseYourPallet (author)2015-10-27

That is quite an awesome talent you have there. I would love to start to work with leather. What do I need to get started? Like just beginner stuff

Phiske (author)ClenseYourPallet2015-10-29

Hey there! Super simple: cutting board, utility knife (snap off kind), sand paper, rotary hole punch, saddler's needles. Simple: all that + edge beveler, v-gouge, stitching fork, various punches. If you are serious about it check out ebay for used tool sets, or get a year membership at Tandyleather and you can get a discount. Works online or in store. I did that one year that I bought a ton of stuff and it saved some cash.


TammyO7 (author)ClenseYourPallet2015-10-27

You can find some starter stuff at Hobby Lobby. A great place to get leather and leather tools is a store called Tandy Leather. They are kinda few and far between, so you will have to see if they have one in your area, but they are a great place to find whatever you need. I make leather journals for my job, so I'm there a lot lol

SunnyMakesShoes (author)2015-10-27

Gorgeous - I was considering purchasing the Tandy kit to make as a gift for someone for Christmas, but I might just use this Instructable instead...

Phiske (author)SunnyMakesShoes2015-10-29

Go for it! This is a pretty simple bag as it's basically a box with a flap. You don't need the stiffeners unless your a going to have a bit of weight in it. Thanks for looking!

Andersenleather (author)2015-10-27

As usual the level of leather bags you make are really high. I really enjoyed reading your tutorial. It is always inspiring seeing how other skilled leather workers make stuff.

Phiske (author)Andersenleather2015-10-29

Thanks! I thought the same of your last post! I just haven't been able to comment cuz I'm usually browsing on my tablet and for some reason I can't log in on that. I finally sat down for a minute to comment back. I really loved the accordion gusset and have wanted to do one for a while. Your king including full patterns!

momoluv (author)2015-10-27

This is amazing!

Phiske (author)momoluv2015-10-29

Thanks for looking!

Jedi_zombie85 (author)2015-10-27

beautiful effect

Phiske (author)Jedi_zombie852015-10-29

Thank you!

TrevorH_828 (author)2015-10-26

this looks incredible, if you would be interested in making one to sell please contact me nonetheless awesome awesome work dude

Phiske (author)TrevorH_8282015-10-29

Sure thing. You can contact me through my website. The store isn't fully set up but you can email me direct through the contact page and I can give you info. Thanks for looking!

deepsquid (author)2015-10-28

Fascinating... beautiful work!

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