Introduction: Leather Briefcase
For my birthday I wanted to buy a nice leather briefcase for myself. After shopping around I realized that with two teenage daughters at home, I wasn't prepared to spend $700-$1,000 on a luxury item just for me. I had this crazy thought; "I've made a few wallets, leather belts and holsters in my day. I should be able to make my own briefcase for 1/3 of the price!... Really, how bad could it be?" Well..... after $320 in materials, 6 months of free time invested, 14,300 saddle stitches done by hand, and finger tips so toughened that they wouldn't activate the screen on my iPhone.... I finally finished my present to ME! The reward is worth EVERY second spent working. The finished product is a hefty 11lbs, 4oz.... empty...... but is built to last several lifetimes.... Hey, no one ever said that looking cool doesn't come without a little effort... The project is not for the feint of heart, BUT IT IS NOT OVERLY DIFFICULT! YOU can do it! You need a plan, you need patience, and you need to keep the end vision in mind. It's kind of a long road, but it is strangely therapeutic. The perpetual bonus is that you can't go a week without someone pointing out how cool your briefcase is. The feeling of saying, "Thanks, I did it myself." is a feeling like no other. Try as you will, you just can't stop grinning.......
Follow along with me and I'll show you just how I ate this elephant one bite at a time...
Step 1: Materials & Tools
Since I was making this myself and not to cheaply mass produce, I wanted to use the best materials that I could find. Below is a list, and the sources as I remember them. I had been exposed to Tandy Leather years ago when I was a chubby little kid in a too-tight Cub Scout uniform... They always had quality material and I was pleased to see that things had not changed decades later.
-(1) 5-6oz, 24sq ft side of Brown Kodiak Leather (Tandy 9075-72)
-(1) 2.5 - 3.5 oz, 16sg ft side of Carmel Minelli glove leather (Tandy 9202-53)
-(1) 25ft roll of 1" Nylon Belt Webbing, Black (Amazon)
-(1) 500 ft Roll of Ritza 25 Waxed Polyester "Tiger Thread" (color-Havana Cigar) (www.abbyengland.com)
-(10) Thick Wire, Welded, Stainless Steel D-Rings (www.shipshewanaharness.com)
-(4) Heavy Duty Stainless Steel Roller Buckles (www.shipshewanaharness.com)
-(2) Stainless Steel "Scissor Snap" lobster claw clips (www.shipshewanaharness.com)
-(30) Stainless Steel Chicago Screws (www.chicagoscrews.com)
-(1) 1/2" thick felt pad 12" x 12" (Home Depot)
-(1) 12" x 1" x 3/16" stainless steel bar (Home Depot)
-(1) Barge Cement 32oz can (Tandy 2510-03)
-(1) 32oz bottle of Neatsfoot Oil (Tandy 21998-00)
-(1) Bottle, Brown Edge Kote (Tandy 2226-01)
-(10) Stitching Needles (Tandy 1195-00)
It really doesn't take a lot of tools to tackle this project.
-(1) Stitching Groover/Creaser (Tandy 8072-00)
-(1) Stitch Spacer Wheel (Tandy 8091-00
-(1) Awl (Tandy 3318-01)
-(1) Steel Ruler (Tandy 3606-00)
-(1) Tape Measure
-(1) Heavy Duty Scissors (Tandy 3047-00)
-(1) Sharp knife 'Exacto" (Tandy 3031-00)
-(1) Swiss Army Knife (Because they're cool...)
-(A Bunch) "Borrowed" Office Binder Clips
-(1) Edging Tool (Tandy 8076-03)
-(1) Rotary Hole Punch (Tandy 3240-00)
-"The Art of Hand Sewing Leather" by Al Stohlman (Tandy 61944-00)
-"The Art of Making Leather Cases Vol 2" by Al Stohlman (Tandy 61941-02)
Step 2: Getting Started
OK, You've talked yourself into this odyssey now you need to do a few things before you dive into cutting and stitching:
USE YOUR BRAIN!
There are no patterns for this briefcase. I used the design elements of several different briefcases that I saw and liked on the internet. It's not rocket science; if you know the overall dimensions that you want everything kind of falls into place. For example; I wanted my briefcase to be 17" wide X 13" tall X 9" deep. Right away you know the front and center panels need to be 17" X 13", and I made the back panel/flap 17" X 24" to cover the back, and wrap around to the front. YOU are the creator, so you can size this to ANY dimension your heart desires!
It would not hurt to make patterns specific to what you want (a step I should have done...) to help you lay out your cuts to get the most out of your side of leather. Remember you have to cut a few long strips for the wrap around straps, as well as the shoulder strap. Would stink to not plan ahead and wind up having to get ANOTHER side just to make your straps! Cut your straps first, then work your way down your list from the largest pieces to the smallest.
You're going to need some space to keep your "stuff" for this project so you don't have to keep moving it around... and you will likely occupy it until you're done....... so choose wisely.
Novice Tip: If you are limited on space and plan on occupying a corner of your dining room, it will save you heartache and thousands on counseling if you pre-emptively negotiate with your spouse BEFORE you get settled in and comfy...... just saying....
KEEP THE FAITH!!
It's a big project. If you get a little discouraged, hop on the web and look at other briefcases to inspire you and give you ideas.
Step 3: Belts & Shoulder Strap
There is a method to this madness. By starting with the straps you accomplish THREE important feats.
1.) This insures the straps are cut first from the Kodiak side, so you will have all one piece lengths.
2.) My briefcase took 14,300 stiches by hand. You need to get good at it. About HALF of the stitches in this project live in the straps/pad/handle...... so what better place to start honing your stitching skills!
3.) If you get ticked off, lose interest and bail, at least you'll have a few belts to give away at Christmas!
Novice Tip: I used an old wooden jaw clamp to hold my straps while stitching because I was too cheap to buy a stitching pony.....and it made me feel smart. (See Photo)
Belts & Shoulder Strap:
I started with the two belts to wrap around the briefcase. My size was 1-1/2 wide by 45" long. You need two 45" long pieces of the Kodiak leather, and a 44" piece of nylon webbing. (The webbing is important as it adds stiffness to the strap, and does not allow the leather to stretch. The added bonus is that it gives the belt a padded look.)
-Spread a layer of the Barge cement on the flesh (fuzzy) side of one strap, and on one side of the cut nylon webbing. When they're tacky, stick them together.
-Now put the cement on the fuzzy side of the other piece, and on the other side of the nylon strap.
-When tacky, stick those together so you have two leather strips with the pretty side out and the nylon webbing sandwiched secretly in-between them.
-If you are in proximity to the kitchen, "borrow" a rolling pin and roll the strap out to make sure everything is sandwiched without air pockets.
-Set your stitching groover to 1/4" and run a groove around the outside of the whole strap. Then use your stitching wheel to mark your holes all the way around. THEN get your awl out and start stabbing away.
Novice Tip: Not necessary, but a HUGE help. I bought a $29 arbor press from harbor freight and installed a small "chuck" so I could put my awl needle in it. This was the best investment made and invaluable in punching the thousands of holes straight and even. I use this ALL of the time on projects. (See Photo)
-Start stitching! To get the basics on Saddle Stitching, refer to: "The Art of Hand Sewing - Al Stohlman
-When done, cut a slot for the buckle tongue, punch holes, and install the buckle securing the leather with Chicago Screws.
The Shoulder Strap is done the same way!!!!
Step 4: Shoulder Pad & Handle
-I made a wood form the size of the pad that I wanted, then rounded the corners and edges with a sander.
-I wet a piece of the Kodiak leather and formed it over the wood, then let it dry. Then cut a piece of the 1/2" felt to the same dimensions of the wood form. Carefully round the edges with a razor blade.
-Cement the felt into the formed leather, then sew the backing piece on. (Don't forget the cut the slits so you can feed the strap through!)
The handle was done by EXACTLY following the instructions in Al Stohlman's - "The Art of Making Leather Cases Vol 2". If you follow the instructions, the handles come out perfect every time.
Step 5: Front & Middle Panels
OK! If you've made it this far it's likely that the calluses on your fingers are hampering the screen performance on your Smart Phone...... but the upside is you can now cook chicken wings on the grill without using tongs.....
Time for some easy work.
-The front and middle panels are the same size. Cut them out of the Kodiak side to the length and height dimensions you want, then round the two bottom corners,
-Cut the Minelli glove leather to a size 1" larger all around.
-Apply your Barge Cement to the flesh side (fuzzy side) of each piece. When tacky CAREFULLY stick them together. Now is a good time to whip out that rolling pin you borrowed and flatten the heck out of it. NO BUBBLES!
-After you roll it, you can use your scissors and trim off the excess glove leather.
-Set your stitching groover to 1/2" and put a groove on the two sides and bottom (see photos.) You want to accent stitch the entire 1/2" groove.
-When you're done, set your groover to 1/4" and run a groove next to the one you just got done stitching. DON'T STITCH IT YET!
-I chose to add piping on the exposed ends that might come in contact with fingers. It is just a 1-1/8" strip folded over the edge and stitched. No extra work and gives it a good finished look.
Step 6: Center Divider Compartments
I chose to have a center divider to allow my briefcase have two compartments. On the front facing side of the divider I placed 4 compartments for cables, chargers and general briefcase treasures, On the back facing side of the divider I made a pocket for an iPad or Tablet.
Novice Tip: Depending on what you put on the divider take some time and THINK IT THROUGH! For mine, I had to sew everything at once because if I had sewn one side completely, I would have covered the area I needed to stitch for the other side. This resulted in stitching a little on the back...... then a little on the front..... then a little on the back..... Not difficult, but you have to think ahead!
Step 7: Center Assembly
Lets make a briefcase!
OK, Time to start putting everything together to make a briefcase!
-Start from the center panel and work your way out.
-My briefcase was 9" thick, so each side panel strip was cut at 5" width (4.5" for the depth and an extra 1/2" to leave room for stitching.
-I also wanted outside pouches for a water bottle, and mini umbrella, so those pouches need to be included when stitching the panels to the center divider. Remember that THINK AHEAD advice???
Now is also the time to add the D-Ring for the shoulder strap. Super thick, and anchored with Chicago Screws.
Novice Tip - When using Chicago Screws, make sure you have a good fit and they are where you want them. When you're ready to permanently install, apply a drop of either Lock Tite, or clear fingernail polish on the threads before you tighten the screw. This will keep the screw from backing out.
Step 8: Time to Mock-Up
There comes a time in every project where you can't take it anymore and you need to SEE what it's going to look like!!!! Go ahead! You are ALMOST done! Indulge yourself and put the pieces together! Short pieces of scrap cut-off thread and office supply binder clips are your FRIENDS! Put it together, then just sit back for awhile and admire.... take a few pics... cry...... CELEBRATE!
Use this time to visualize the order in which you need to sew things together..... Then celebrate some more.
Step 9: Front Flap Assembly, Final Fit
We are getting closer, and it's actually starting to look like something!!!
Now it's time to install the back panel/flap. This piece is made the same as the front and center sections, it's just a bigger piece.
-Before you attach the flap to the whole assembly, it's easier to install your handle first. I apologize there is not an assembly picture of this, but if you look at the handle panel on the top, you will see that there are 4 Chicago Screws installed. These screws are attached to a 12" x 1" x 3/16" stainless steel bar on the inside of the flap (I just drilled 4 holes for the screws.) This bar is to help distribute the load when using the carrying handle. For the inside, I just rounded the corners and edges of the bar and covered it with Kodiak leather.
Here's where it will all come together. If you've done your job and everything is the size you want you will be in a happy place. Line up all of your holes and clip the panels into place with the binder clips. Then go back to your first hole and pull a scrap string through it and lightly tie it off. Do the same think about every 20 holes. This will lightly "tack" your panel on and keep everything in order as you stitch. Pull the scrap pieces out a stitch or two before you get to it and all will work out fine.
Novice Tip - When you are marking your stitching holes it is important to make sure your FIRST hole is where you want it on each piece. Because you are using a 6-Stitch per Inch wheel, ALL of your holes will line up (almost) perfectly. Keep in mind that in some places you may be going through SIX LAYERS of leather. With that said, if you use your friendly pliers you can stitch those panels into submission in no time.
Step 10: Don't Forget the D-Rings!!!
One of the things that gives this bag rugged looks are the big beefy Stainless Steel D-Rings on it. And there are a LOT on it. I count 12 total on my bag! The good news is that they are a piece of cake to put in. I used TWO different sizes. I used the 1-1/2" rings on the shoulder strap attachment points, and the center hang point by the handle, and 1-1/4" rings on everything else. You DO NOT need to install the rest on each corner if you don't like the look.
Simply cut a 4" strip of Kodiak leather, glue a 3-1/2" long piece of nylon webbing to the flesh side, put it through the ring, fold it in half and glue it together. As you are stitching on the front and back panels slide the leather flap on the d-ring to the position it looks best, mark the holes with your awl, pull the piece back out and make your final stitching holes. them line it up, and stitch it in. Once in, drill a hole between the stitch lines and install a Chicago Screw.
Step 11: The Little Details
Tablet Pocket Flap: I thought I needed a flap to cover my iPad, but it turns out this isn't really necessary. When the top is closed there is no way it will ever fall out. I would remove it, but since it's already stitched in I don't want the unsightly holes visible every time I open the briefcase. Lesson learned - Even though it looks cool, it may not be necessary......
Maker's Mark: I lucked out and had a friend with a 3D printer who made me a 1-1/2" maker's mark out of plastic. I highly recommend doing something like this for no other reason than it puts your name on it and more people will believe you when you say, "I made this myself..." Tandy does offer Makers Marks in their catalog but I haven't looked into that yet because my plastic one still seems to be imprinting clearly.
Bottom Keepers: On the briefcases that I researched , the ones that use the two belts that wrap around the briefcase all had the straps open on the bottom. I kept envisioning them as being perfect catches for the armrests on airplane seats when you are walking down the aisle. The last think I need is to be launched backward because I hooked an armrest..... to combat this feat, I added 4 strap keepers on the bottom of the briefcase to tuck everything in. It works well and also helps the briefcase stay rigid enough to stand up on it's own.
Buckle Keepers: A guy in my office has a briefcase with similar external buckles that are not often used. They have a tendency to flop forward and stick out. He is CONSTANTLY hitting elevators, door frames, and people with these loose buckles. I put a small hole in the leather behind the two buckles on mine, installed a brown eyelet, and ran loops of black paracord from the inside, out the front, and around the tongue of each buckle. I then added two slide locks stolen from my daughters winter coat (Shhhhhh......). You don't even notice it's there! This pulls the buckle up tight to the front and doesn't allow it to become a deadly weapon when you are walking behind people who are already seated.....
Oil is Good: You may notice that in some photos the leather looks a little lighter brown than in others. Over time and handling, the leather does lighten up. At the end of the project give all of the darker leather a nice heavy coat of Neatsfoot Oil. It will drink it up, so go ahead and do it again a few days later. I've recoat mine about every 2 or 3 months since I finished it and it looks new every time. If you're going for that "Indiana Jones" distressed look, then I'd only feed it Neatsfood once a year or so.
Step 12: Behold! the Project Is DONE!
You should now be enjoying the product of your labor. As I mentioned, this is NOT a difficult project. Just a big one. Stitching everything by hand is a long, yet strangely satisfying process, but YOU can do it.
Final bits of free advice:
- Always take the safe route and buy more material, screws, hardware, and glue than you think you need. Trust me.
- Unless you are addicted to punishment, be prepared with a polite "NO!" statement when friends, family members and co-workers see it and say, "Hey, can you make one quick for me..."
-Get in the habit of adding extra time to your travels because people WILL stop you to admire and want to talk about your bag. YOU WILL BE LATE! Plan for this!!!
- Also, outside of home, don't ever let it out of your sight!!!
-Enjoy your bag, and start thinking about who you want to leave it to because it will last for SEVERAL lifetimes!