Introduction: Leather Bike Tool Chest

So this is a tutorial on making a tool chest to fit under a bicycle rack and above the rear wheel. I’ve had this bike for a number of years and I like to not waste space. I wanted to have all my tools handy, and yet leave the top of the rack free for either a trunk or other such space for storage. I spent several months mulling over the space above the back wheel and how it was all going to work out. This is what I came up with... Enjoy.

Firstly, I’ll mention that I will not be using measurements in this tutorial because this particular project is so customized that if I were to give measurements, they would be wrong for most other bikes. That and I am not very good at taking measurements.

Secondly this is NOT a light weight bag. So if your a weight weenie, create knowing your adding weight to the bike. Great for training rides, not so much in a race type of ride.


cereal cardboard or other card stock for pattern, scissors, sharp leather awl, leather knife or exacto knife, waxed heavy weight thread, metal eyelets or grommets, double shoulder of veg tanned leather (I used saddle weight 9-12 oz), leather liner in 2oz or less, snap closer of your choice (I used button snap concho and a slit-cut hole), leather lace, leather dyes in your choice of colors, natural haired paint brushes (do not use synthetic, they will melt in the chemicals used for the dye and cleaners), leather finishing product (super sheen or saddle shlack), good thick gloves designed to prevent chemical exposer and skin contact (ones for cleaning the toilet are the correct type, not latex or surgical gloves. The chemicals for leather dyeing and cleaning will go straight through those), paper towels and cardboard to protect the work surface or a desk you just don’t care what gets on it, leather tooling stamps and tooling mauls of your choice, tooling patterns of your choice, tooling swivel knife(s), leather needles, stitching pony/horse/table clamp to hold your work while stitching, leather sheers, hole punches, stitching punches, rubber cement, bicycle with rack and fender (fender will need two points of securing so the bag weight doesn’t compress the fender into the tyre). I’m sure I’ve missed at least a few tools...

Step 1: Create the Pattern

I usually start with creating a pattern, and on this project, I skipped that step because I wasn’t planning on making a second tool chest. So unfortunately there is no pattern to go from. Please don’t skip this step though. I have a lot of pattern making experience. If you skip this step, your project could be ruined from the start. So before beginning I suggest you collect some cereal boxes or other stiff card stock and use tape and scissors to make the shape of the bag before beginning. Make sure your edges line up and there’s no dimples in the tape or large areas not connected at the seam lines.

In leu of having pattern photos we will use some photos of the assembly process as you can see how the bag was designed to fit over the back wheel and fender.

Step 2: Cut Your Pattern From the Leather

Once you have your pattern, carefully separate all the pieces and trace out over the veg tanned shoulder. Cut out your patterns from the leather shoulder. Unfortunately I do not have photos of this step.

Step 3: Tooling Your Artwork Into the Leather Panels

For my design I used several different leather tooling patterns semi-willy-nilly. I tried to blend in many different images for a nice conglomerate that kind of matched throughout the panels.

I then used a swivel knife to cut the images into the leather trying not to go further than half the thickness of the leather.

Next I tooled the images, again being careful to not go further than half the thickness of the leather. The reason you don’t want to compress more than half the thickness is because the leather dye will not penetrate an area that has been too compressed. Instead the dye will get siphoned off from the compression spot to anywhere up to 2 inches from where you actually want your dye to lie. So be careful to ensure your not hammering your tooling stamps too hard. Practice practice practice before you work on your main panels. Use scraps to test your hammer pressure before your main work and always warm up your hammering before beginning to work on the panels.

Notes on tooling: Leather needs to be wet, not too wet, not too dry, but Goldilocks wet. A good practice is to soak the leather in water that is fairly warm (liken to a hot bath), until it no longer releases bubbles. Then the leather is placed in either a zip lock bag or seran wrap and placed in a cool place (fridge) to rest, for anywhere from 1 to 24 hours.

You know the leather is perfectly wetted when you stamp a tool into the leather and it leaves a darkish shiny imprint, doesn’t sploosh water, and the stamp is clear and remains clear. The leather should look dry but feel cool to the touch.

Also note that once leather is wet you have a limited time to work until the leather will no longer absorb water. This is about 2 weeks but depending on climate, leather type, and a number of other factors like how often you re-wet the leather this can vary widely.

When you are finished tooling for the day, re-wet the surface with a mist sprayer, and place the panel back into seran wrap or a zip lock bag and store flat in the fridge until the next day. Be mindful of stacking work on top of each other. Once marked leather won’t give up that mark easily and if a seam on a ziplock bag lays against another panel, your going to find that seam will forever mark that panel. Same with tooled panels laying on other tooled panels, the image can and will transfer to another panel without much effort. Great for trying to get a mirrored image, not so much when your just storing it until the next day.

Step 4: Layered Dying

Once all the tooling has been completed and the leather has had time to fully dry next comes colors and painting.

I use two types of leather dyes. Water based and oil based. Water based MUST go on first before oil based as water and oil do not mix well. If you were to try and use a water based leather dye over an oil based you’ll find it just sloths off the oil and pools in big droplets. Kind of fun when your going for thrown paint like effect, but not so fun for classic painting like look. So if your using two types of dyes, read the labels or know what your working with before application.

Brushes used should be brushes specifically for oil painting. These will be your natural hair type of painting brushes and not a synthetic type of painting brushes like nylon. Nylon and synthetics hairs will melt into one big glop of hair and you will ruin the brush and your leather panel.

Work with one color at a time. Mix the color in a glass shot-glass, and put the lid back on the dye bottle or it will evaporate. Glass eye droppers work for transferring from the dye bottle to your shot glass. Never use the shot glass for drinking again. Use a dedicated shot glass that wont ever be stored in your kitchen. We don’t want anyone poisoned.

Always clean your brushes well before moving on to the next layer of color. Brushes and the chemicals used to dye leather like to hide up in the bristles and can leak into the next color of dye if your not through in your cleaning. I use acetone or turpentine to clean my brushes. Followed by another cleaning with hot water and dish soap. Please be mindful and do not get these chemicals on your skin as it will absorb through the skin and is a known cancer causing chemical. Use thick gloves designed for chemical work when working with acetone, turpentine, and any and all leather dyes.

Step 5: More Layering of Color.

This is the HARDEST part and no joke. You MUST give time for the dye to dry before moving on to the next layer of color. If you don’t the dye will blend and bleed into your prior layer and end up looking like mud. Give time between layers for drying. 24 hours is best practice, but minimum 4 hours between coats. It is extremely difficult to not keep playing with your dyes, but you have to put it down and walk away. This step is critical to creating a nice painting like effect on your panels.

Once you have all of the water based colors on your panels you can move on to oil based layers. Same methods as prior. Work with one color at a time, mix in your glass shot-glass. Clean your brushes between colors. Don’t get these chemicals on your skin. Wash your hands often.

Unfortunately I am unable to locate mid layer images.

Step 6: Finishing Top Coat

For the top coat I used a generous amount of super sheen. This has the consistency of milk and needs a good amount of time between coats. If memory serves me (and often doesn’t), I applied 5 coats of super sheen over the course of three days with plenty of time between coats. And another 48 - 72 hours of drying time for the final coat before touching the surface of the leather. The top coat of super sheen really gives the colors some visual power and brings everything up and out.

Step 7: Eyelets, Tie Downs, and Assembly

Install your eyelets in the lowest point of the tool chest for water drainage, just in case the bag ever gets a good dunking in water. You don’t want to have wet tools as they will rust fairly quickly.

Install your tie downs before assembly as it will be near impossible after everything is together. Don’t make my mistake! I honestly forgot all about tie downs until everything was assembled.

For this next step i placed the side panels image down and laid out all my tools I wanted stored in my tool chest. Then marked my inner lining for strap placement, snaps and the like. I did use some cheap and gnarly lining, and dyed it fluorescent yellow for ease of visually finding tools within the tool chest.

Reasons for this decision was because 1. Tools are usually dirty. 2. I had it on hand. And 3. I couldn’t use the lining for anything else as it was really horrible leather. Might as well use it for holding tools, as the tools can mark up the inside to their little hearts content and not bother me later about having marks on nice leather.

Once the lining was completed with strapping and snaps i used rubber cement to adhere the lining to the outer panels wrong side (inside).

Next comes a relatively difficult task of punching stitch holes that line up with stitch holes on adjacent paneling. And marrying the panels together with stitch work. To do this part correctly you must count the stitch holes and make sure the panels to be stitched together have the same number and placement. If you don’t have the correct number of holes between the pieces, your going to have a bad time of trying to line things up. Count your stitch holes.

Once your holes are punched and your happy with them, you can begin hand stitching each panel, starting with the base of the tool chest first as this will be the most difficult to stitch later. You can either do your stitching free hand or use a stitching pony/horse or a table top vise to hold your work as you stitch. I free handed most of the tool chest, but i did use a table top vise to start the work.

Step 8: Installation

Finally we can install the tool chest under the rack. You will have to remove the rack from the bike. Tie the bag to the inside of the rack, then reinstall the rack to the bike. This can be tricky with the fender also being attached to the rack, but its not impossible.

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