Introduction: Leather Field Bag
I have always wanted a leather field bag, and I've been ferreting away pieces of leather for this project for a number of years. Because I had this stock of various materials, I made the bag from several different types of leather. If I was starting from scratch, I think I would have made the whole bag from a single grade of lighter weight leather. Here’s a rundown on the kinds of leather used for each part of this project.
The front, and back inside pocket pieces are stiff, veg tanned leather (3-4 ounce). The single piece forming the back and the fold-over flap is made from heavier, milled, veg-tanned leather (5-6 ounce). I think they start with regular veg tanned leather and "mill" the leather to give it a soft feel. The wrap-around piece that makes up the bottom and sides, also the strap, are the same material. I used some thin, milled, veg-tanned leather to line the front piece, and the back side of the flap piece (3-4 ounce). I also had a piece of “Brazilian Mission (brown) pig leather. This pig leather is very thin (like half a millimeter), but it's tough as nails. I used it to line the back pocket where I carry my map board. That pocket will get a lot of wear, and the coated pig leather should make it easier to slide the board in and out.
Leather pieces, large paper, cutting mat, sharp utility knife, assorted leather punching tools, skiving tool, awl, needles, thread, and beeswax, marking tool (for marking stitch lines, emery board, contact cement, gum tragacanth, leather dressing.
Step 1: Tools and Materials
I have a good selection of leather working tools, but you can get by with a sharp utility knife and a few other tools.
You'll need a set of hole punches (and a sharp awl) for making the stitching holes. I used 4-mm, diamond punches (they make diamond-shaped holes). A mallet and plastic board are also pretty important, though you could get by with a hammer and a wood board. I bought an oval punch for the lacing holes (9.5 x 3.8 mm). A skiving tool is helpful for thinning the leather at bulky seams, but a sharp knife and a steady had could also work. You will also need a straight edge ruler. I have a tool for marking the stitching lines (see stitching step) that you heat over a flame to press in a groove for stitching, but you could just mark stitching lines line with a pencil (I like to use a white gel-pen that I stole from my daughter's art supplies).
Leather pieces, large paper (for making the pattern), cutting mat, needles, thread, and beeswax, emery board (for smoothing the edges), gum tragacanth (to smear on the rough edges), leather dressing, and lastly contact cement (for gluing the seams).
Step 2: Making the Pattern
I had a pretty clear idea of what I wanted to carry in this bag, and the pattern was based almost entirely on fitting my clip board. I use this “drawing board” daily, and I wanted to have a file pocket in the back, to hold this and a small solar panel for phone charging. I also added two small pockets on the inside (for my note book, phone, glasses and flashlight), and I included a loop on one side to keep a water bottle upright. The outer flap is large enough to fit a gallon zip lock bag (for important documents) between the flap and the lining.
The design includes pairs of “tabs” at points along the sides and bottom of the bag. These tabs provide a place to attach strings for tying a rolled-up poncho or jacket around the outside of the bag. I do not care for buckles, so instead I will use "strings" (3/8-inch wide leather strips) cut from the same piece of leather that I used for the strap.
The overall bag is 12-inches tall, about 14-inches wide, and four-inches thick at the opening, and six-inches thick at the bottom.
Step 3: Cutting Out the Parts
Laying out the pattern was pretty straight forward, I marked each piece of the pattern with the number of pieces of that type I need. I traced these patterns onto the leather (pay attention to which side of the leather you want on the outside), and cut them out with a utility knife.
It was very tricky lining up the tabs on the front and back pieces with the tabs on the wrap-around side/bottom piece. I ended up making the tabs on the side/bottom piece extra-long, to make it easier to meet up with the other tabs. It’s easy to trim away extra leather.
I cut one piece for the back/flap, and side/bottom pieces; two front pieces (one used as the outer face of the inside back pocket); and two short, back pocket pieces (one made of veg-tanned leather and one made of pig leather. two side pocket pieces, and one bottle loop. Also, parts were cut for the handles (free-hand) and the strap parts.
A quick word here about the inside pockets. To make it easier to stitch the pockets in place, I "pressed" the folds for the shape of the pockets. To press the folds, first dampen the leather a bit, then tap the folds with a hammer and let the parts dry before proceeding.
Step 4: Skiving the Edges
With the linings, pockets and other parts, the side seams can be up to six layers thick. Too thick to punch stitching holes. To get around this, you need to “skived the edges of the leather, thinning them down to make the combined pieces easier to punch through. In some places, I ended up having to pierce each stitch hole with an awl to get all the way through the leather.
Step 5: Pre-stitching Pockets
It’s easier to stitch the bottoms for the pockets to the main bag parts before stitching the main parts of the bag together. Follow all the same steps: thinning (and roughing up any coated pieces), gluing, marking stitch lines, and punching the holes, for the pocket bottom pocket seams. Once these pieces are stitched in place, you're ready to glue the main parts of the bag together.
Step 6: Gluing the Parts Together
Stitching is only the final step in joining the parts together. First the leather pieces need to be glued together (thinning where necessary), then the edges are trimmed, and stitching lines are marked, followed by punching holes for the stitches.
I did a test-fit before gluing by clamping the parts together with binder clips.
When you're satisfied that the final fit is adequate, coat each side of the seam, where the stitches will go with contact cement. Allow the glue to cure for a few minutes (until the glue is tacky), then carefully align the parts and press them together. I like to go over the seams with light taps of the mallet.
Step 7: Marking and Punching the Stitch Lines
After the main seams have been glued, take care to trim the edges as close as possible to the final edge lines. This will make it easier to mark the stitching lines. Mark the stitching lines a comfortable distance from the edge (between an eighth and a quarter-inch).
Step 8: Saddle Stitching
I’m not going to provide a lot of detail on saddle stitching, There are many excellent instructables on that subject. But there are a few tips that I found helpful.
Draw clear lines, either with a tool or pen, before punching the stitching holes.
Punch the lines for the stitching holes from the side of the leather that will show. Keep the punching tools vertical when punching the holes.
Start each stitch from the same side and finish each stitch the same way, pulling the threads in the same direction.
Do not pull the stitches too tight (particularly on the flap), as this will distort the edge and keep it from laying flat.
As I was stitching the seams, I decided to add a bit of reinforcing to the corners of the bag. These are just a thinned piece of leather that I stretched around the edge and punched with an awl for stitching.
When stitching around the string-holes, I first followed the line of holes around the perimeter of the tab, then worked my way around the tab and back along the same perimeter-holes so that there is a double set of stitches at the outer edge of the tabs.
Step 9: Punching String Holes
I wanted to have the option of tying things to the outside of the bag, so I added tabs to the pattern, and punched oval holes for the strings.
Step 10: Making the Handles
The handles look complicated, but they are actually simple to make. Cut a piece of leather the length you need for the handle, plus about an inch for making the handle stand up. I like a tapered point at the ends of the handles, but you can round this or make any shape that suits your need.
Apply glue to the center section of the handle, and fold the edges inward to form the grip.
Mark lines for the stitching holes. This is decorative stitching, and not really necessary, but I liked the way it looked. For the criss-cross stitching, make a set of diagonal stitches, and then come back the opposite direction, making the cross stitches.
I made an inner handle to attach to the edge of the pocket that divides the inside of the bag. Because this handle had to be folded over the pocket piece, I glued it in stages.
For the outside handle, I didn't like the size or the position of the first handle I attached, so I removed that handle and made a larger one.
Step 11: Adding the Strap and Ties
I didn't have a long enough piece of leather to make the shoulder strap, so I cut two pieces and spliced them together.
I made "diamond" shaped pads to beef up the spliced area and make it more comfortable to carry over the shoulder.
I made a plastic template for punching the holes for attaching the strap. The strap holes are made with the same oval punch that I used for punching the "string-holes." I used the template to punch four holes in each side of the bag, to match the holes in the strap.
The ties are just strips of leather cut from the same piece of leather that I cut the strap from. I tapered the ends, and cut longitudinal slits in a couple of places near the center of the string for "inter-weaving" the strings (see front photo).
Step 12: Finish the Edges
The edges are a bit funky, so I filed them with an emery board to smooth them up a bit. Later, I may add some gum tragacanth and burnish the edges, but this is a rough field bag, so I'll probably just add some leather dressing to the entire bag.
Step 13: Gew Gaw Pocket
I needed a place to put the odds and ends I didn't want to dig around for, so I added this long, narrow pocket to the inside divider.
The leather was dampened and stretched over the plywood form. When the leather was reasonably dry, I trimmed it along the sides for stitching, and pared off a little slice at the corners of the flap, so I could make a little boxed corner. It only took a couple of stitches at each front corner to hold the box shape.
The pocket is attached with a couple of ties through pairs of holes at the back corners.
In case anyone is curious, the brown leather thing on the front is for a compass. Also, the round stick thing in a leather case that is propping the pocket open is a hand level. Very handy for settling disputes about whose house is higher.