Shell Cordovan Leather Briefcase




Introduction: Shell Cordovan Leather Briefcase

About: I have too much free time and I like to make expensive-looking things out of leather. I have been at it for 1.5 years.

I've been doing leatherworking as a hobby for about a year and a half, and I wanted to do a copiously detailed write-up of my latest project: a green shell cordovan bag partly inspired by Napoleon's briefcases. It is lined with Italian Buttero leather in pimp purple. Vive l'empereur!

This Instructable is a hefty, 38 step tome with around 200 pictures, aimed at the intermediate leatherworker with some familiarity with sewing and pattern making. If you want to view a shorter, abridged version with the most interesting build photos (around 40), go here:

For those of you unfamiliar with cordovan, it is leather made from the arse cheek of a horse, prized for its natural luster and durability. It is one of the finest leathers in the world and is used primarily in smaller items such as footwear due to its low yield and great cost.

I started this project after I saw a green briefcase believed to have been carried by Napoleon and his archivist, the Baron Fain. I especially liked the ornate locks and the curved flap shapes. There is another example in red which was left in Germany after the emperor's failed Russian campaign, made in a similar style. My design is very loosely based on the briefcases pictured.

I spent around 80 hours making this over the course of two months, and this was the fifth bag I made. This bag is held together by 2,313 stitches, all done by hand. Yes, my hands hurt after finishing this.

Please excuse my rather poor photography skills!

Still reading? Let's get started!

Step 1: Materials, Tools and Suppliers

These are the materials that went into the final product, where I purchased them from, and relevant commentary:

  • Shell Cordovan Exterior (six shells, 3 sq. ft. each) (3 - 4oz)
    I bought six large green shells from Rocado SRL, an Italian tannery. I am most familiar with and wanted to procure Horween shell, however, their lead time is 12 weeks and will only sell black and #8 to me. I will say that the Rocado shell is a very comparable product and much easier to purchase.
  • Buttero Veg Tan Lining (double shoulder, 16 sq. ft.) (3 - 4oz)
    I purchased a double shoulder of this on eBay, as it pops up from time to time. "Buttero" is a colored Italian veg-tan leather from the Conceria Walpier tannery. It has a slight pullup and lacquered smooth flesh side.
  • Moontex Bag Stiffener
    This is a paper-based product that goes in between the exterior and lining and adds and structure to leather goods. It is roughly 2-3oz in thickness, and can be skived if you extremely careful. From Tandy.
  • Solid Brass Briefcase Lock
    The lock used is from Abbey England, which makes them to order in six weeks. However, I purchased mine from Cox the Saddler UK, as they sometimes have them in stock for immediate shipping. Other sources of briefcase locks and hardware include Ohio Travel Bag and Buckleguy.
  • Lin Cable 532
    A high quality French linen thread, used by the likes of Hermès. I have purchased this from RM Leather Supply, Fine Leatherworking, Etsy and eBay.
  • Two 3/4 Inch D-Rings, Three 1/2 Inch D-Rings, Five 5/8 Inch Chicago Screws
    Solid brass, from Buckleguy.
  • 3/32 Inch Thick Aluminum Bar
    McMaster-Carr is a good source for general hardware, screws and metal stock.

There are of course many different ways to accomplish each process in leatherworking, and everyone has their own methods. So, the following list of tools is not a comprehensive or absolute list, but the specific products that worked for me in my experience:

  • Stitching Chisels
    I use the Seiwa chisels from GoodsJapan. These are also sold under the brand names Craft Sha and Kyoshin Elle on eBay and Etsy. I use the 3mm Seiwa spacing, which translates to roughly 8.5 stitches per inch. They have lasted me a good year and a half without sharpening, and it's useful to have the 6-prong for long lines and 2-prong for curves. If you are an awl person, I hear the Bob Douglas blade with the Barry King handle is the best you can buy.
  • Needles
    John James Size 2 match well with the 532 Lin Cable I use, as well as Tiger Thread 0.8mm.
  • Wing Divider
    The top of the line in wing dividers is from Starrett. However, pretty much any set of wing dividers will work for marking your stitching lines. Stitching groovers are another way to mark your lines by gouging a groove into your leather, as used in the American Western style of leatherworking.
  • Skiver
    I use the CS Osbourne 925 Skife, and hundreds of disposable blades. I have probably tried every skiver on the market and like this one the most. Try to find the original silver version instead of the black version, as it is meant to be better.
  • Cutting
    For straight lines, I use an Olfa Rotary Cutter leaned against a ruler. For curves, I am fond of the Excel hooked carving blades paired with any of their handles. For sharp corners and short lines, I like the Olfa BTC-1, which is somewhat hard to find in the US. Note that the BTC-1 is not great for skiving as it's not long enough to get a good angle.
  • Glue
    Barge cement in its original formulation, from the red cans. The new formula that comes in blue tubes is not nearly as effective.
  • Rulers
    The Omnigrid quilting ruler is extremely useful because one side is nonslip, which prevents accidents. Also available in a smaller version.

Step 2: Pattern

I've included the full pattern to this step in PDF, PNG and SVG format. I'll reference this pattern throughout the tutorial. I usually copy the larger pieces to a piece of cardboard so I can plan out where to cut from my hide to avoid defects. I like to print out the smaller intricate pieces, tape them over my leather, trace with a pen and then use the indentation to cut them out.

Before I start each bag, I usually do a series of mockups in Inkscape to get the proportions and general look right, as well as try out different hardware. This is what I ended up with as my final design:

Step 3: Technique: Stitching on a Pony

Before I dive in, I'm going to cover a few basic techniques: stitching on a pony, stitching over a table edge and edge painting. Of course, there are a myriad of different ways to do all of these processes, and I'll just write about my preferred methods.

This step is how to stitch on a wooden stitching pony or clamps, when your piece can fit into it. Using a pony will drastically improve your stitching speed. Look through the pictures and annotations in order.

The key to consistent stitching is to keep a few variables the same every time you make a stitch. These are the stitching variables to pay attention to:

The side I punched on faces right. The direction of stitching is towards myself. The first needle goes into the hole from the back side, which is on the left. Pull the first needle through. The second needle goes under the first needle, forming a cross. Turn the cross anticlockwise 90 degrees. The second needle goes back into the hole below the first thread. Pull the second needle through. The right needle should be pulled tight up, right and away from you at an angle. The left needle should be pulled tight down, left and towards you at an angle.

Everyone will have their own preferences on how to stitch and their own muscle memory for the bolded items. The most important thing is to be consistent.

With this stitch, you can generally get a good angled back side, if your leather has a combined thickness of 6oz and above. If your leather is thinner than that, your back side will end up a bit straight. (This is why some of the edges in my project are not skived, since my leathers add up to barely 6oz thick.)

Step 4: Technique: Stitching Over a Table Edge

In some situations, it's easier to stitch over a table edge, especially when your pieces cannot fit into a pony. This will be the case when sewing together a large panel and gusset together. Make sure you protect your leather from scratches and don't put them on a rough surface!

See the pictures and annotations in order.

This produces the exact same stitch as in the last step in the pony and has the exact same qualities, but the stitching variables are rotated:

The side you punched on faces up. The direction of stitching is towards the left. The first needle goes into the hole from the back side, which is on the bottom. Pull the first needle through. The second needle goes to the right of the first needle, forming a cross. Turn the cross anticlockwise 90 degrees. The second needle goes back into the hole to the left of the first thread. Pull the second needle through. The top needle should be pulled tight up, right and away from you at an angle. The bottom needle should be pulled tight down, left and towards you at an angle.

Now remember to do all of these things exactly the same each time for each stitch!

Step 5: Technique: Painting Edges

Last technique I'll show is edge painting. There are a million ways to do this but this is the method I use. I never really got the hang of using a fileteuse so my method involves sanding and painting only.

I chose to demonstrate painting the handle because has many layers and a very thick edge, making it the hardest part to edge paint. My brand of choice is the Fenice paint that Buckleguy sells, along with a big bottle of Fenice clear primer. Another option is Giardini, which I used in a previous tutorial but it found it hard to apply, about twice as much work and started it peeling off with very light usage.

Check out the pictures and notes in order to see what I'm talking about below.

With many layers comes the potential of many pits, gouges and seams that will show up in your paint layer, which means more work. My strategy is to use the clear primer to build up thick layers and fill in defects before applying any colored paint. The clear primer is more watery and sticky and dries hard. This means it will flatten itself out, fill in gouges and form a good foundation, which saves you time.

These are the steps:

  1. Sand down the edge as straight as possible. You can use a dremel or coarse 200 grit sandpaper.
  2. Lay down a thick layer of clear primer, almost like a rain drop. If you get any over the edge, wipe off quickly with a paper towel.
  3. Let dry for one hour. Keep the edge upright so the watery primer doesn't run or drip.
  4. Lightly scuff the primer with 400 grit sandpaper. You don't have to sand out any imperfections yet.
  5. Apply two more thick layers of clear primer, putting more primer over areas with seams and gaps. Allow one hour of drying time between each layer. You want to end up with a smooth, bubbled surface.
  6. Then, pull out your colored paint and apply a thinner layer to the top. Allow to dry for an hour.
  7. Now you should start sanding with the goal of removing all imperfections and gaps. I start with 400 grit sandpaper and finish with 800 grit paper. Gaps and pits that haven't been sanded yet will be glossy. Aim for a completely matte sanded surface before continuing.
  8. Let dry for an hour.
  9. Repeat steps 6-8 until you are happy. As you approach your final layers, use thinner and thinner coats. This handle took three layers of primer and three layers of paint, which is not too bad.
  10. Finally, rub a layer of protective beeswax onto your finished edge and rub vigorously with denim or a microfiber cloth, buffing to a shine.

Remember all this as you will be finishing many edges!

Step 6: Prep and Cutting: Front Panel Lining

Now let's get started on the bag. I usually cut out the lining and make interior pockets as my first step.

The front bag panel is 14" x 10", and has two rounded corners with a radius of 1.5". Later, the lining will be glued to the exterior. To get a better fit and edges, I usually cut one piece oversized then trim the excess when both pieces are bonded together. Usually, I cut the piece that is stretchier or requires skiving 1/4" oversized on all sides. Therefore, the final dimensions of the front panel liner are 14.5" x 10.5". To aid in sizing and positioning the cut, I place a black cardboard pattern over the leather.

A good way to make a nice rounded corner (3rd picture) is to use a metal washer or coin of your desired radius, place it on the leather, and make a series of small parallel linear cuts with a utility knife. This series of linear cuts will magically become a rounded curve. See the photo.

I am using veg tan Buttero leather for my lining, which must be sealed, or else it will absorb any errant oils or moistures permanently. My sealer of choice is Acrylic Resolene mixed with distilled water in a 1:1 ratio. This will give the leather a bit of a sheen, so do test this on your own material first to see if you like the effect. I apply this by applying it to a damp sponge, wiping it on the surface and rubbing until the bubbles disappear. I do three coats with 20 minutes drying time in between. Remember to do this to all lining pieces.

Next, I want to reduce the bulk at the edges. All side edges of this bag will involve two layers of exterior leather and two layers of lining, adding up to 12 - 16oz. Therefore, I want to reduce where I can to make for easier edge painting and better aesthetics. I decided to skive the lining at the sides and bottom. Remember the lining is 1/4" oversize, so I gave it a 3/4" skive, resulting in a 1/2" skive when trimmed. I probably didn't do the best skiving job on this piece in terms of straightness and you'll notice I nicked too much off on the corner, so it is good I cut this oversize. I later went back and fixed the jagged skive with a bit of sandpaper.

Step 7: Making Interior Pen Pocket

The first pocket I'm going to make is a very basic flat pocket with a bit of depth.

First, I cut out the trapezoidal pocket shape from my lining leather, and mark my stitching lines 1/8" from the edges. The key thing with the shape is that the top edge is 1/2" wider than the bottom edge, and the sides are cut at an angle, so that the center of the pocket balloons out and gives you more room. My particular pocket is 2.75" wide at the base and 3.25" wide at the top.

  1. Cut out the trapezoid shown on the first picture
  2. Using a heated creaser or a wing divider, mark a decorative crease 1/16" from the edges
  3. Sand the back of the pocket edges for better adhesion when gluing
  4. Paint the four edges green, using the process outlined before
  5. Punch holes in the bottom edge

My personal setup is to throw a chisel into a modified arbor press. This allows me to guarantee a 90 degree angle every time, and allows me to punch holes extremely quickly. I'm going to sew on the bottom edge first in the next step.

Step 8: Attaching Interior Pen Pocket

Next, I mark where I want the pocket to go on the front panel lining and sand where it will be glued.

I want to add a little bit of reinforcement to the back of the seams where the pocket will attach. Since many lining leathers will be thin and in the 2 - 4 oz range, there is a possibility that the pocket will tear out from the lining. So, I cut strips of Tyvek 105gm and glue them to the back of the lining where the seams will be.

  1. Sand the lining where the pocket will attach
  2. Glue the bottom edge of the pocket
  3. Using an awl, poke through the first and last holes of the bottom seam
  4. Cut out a 1/2" wide strip of Tyvek.
  5. Using the poked holes as a guide, glue the Tyvek to the back of the lining
  6. With a chisel, punch the bottom seam again, through the lining and through the Tyvek
  7. Stitch up the bottom seam
  8. Repeat the steps above with the side seams.

Step 9: Interior Gusseted Pocket

My second pocket that will have a gusset and hold two Altoids tins. For whatever you want to hold, it is best to make a prototype around the actual object with cardboard, and adjust your dimensions accordingly.

  1. Cut out the T-shaped pattern shown in the first picture
  2. Mark stitching lines on the sides and bottom
  3. Do decorative creasing lines if desired
  4. Sand the lining where the pocket will attach
  5. Sew the bottom seam from the inside, using a Tyvek strip to reinforce the seam
  6. Fold the pocket up and glue the sides
  7. Sew the side seams, again using Tyvek as a reinforcement
  8. (Optional) Mash the pocket inwards so it can fold flat when not used

Step 10: Key Fob

Next up I make a key fob with a D-ring in a shield shape. To cut these curved, symmetrical pieces, I like to draw up the piece in Inkscape to scale and print them out. I want to give the key fob a bit of thickness, so I create a smaller filler piece that goes on the inside. Another advantage is that the part which holds the D-ring is now doubled up for strength.

  1. Print out the key fob pattern you're using
  2. Tape it to your leather
  3. Using a pen, trace over the pattern with a bit of pressure, so an indentation is left on your leather, then remove the paper
  4. Using a sharp utility or hook knife, cut out the pattern from the leather
  5. Cut out a second identical piece of leather
  6. Using a wing divider set to 1/4", mark the inside of the second piece
  7. Cut the wing divider marks so you end up with a smaller filler piece for your key fob
  8. Skive the filler piece
  9. Glue the two pieces together and fold
  10. Mark and make stitching holes
  11. Crease as desired
  12. Edge finish the fob
  13. Glue the fob to the lining and stitch, backing with Tyvek again

When glued together, the filler gives the shield a subtle bump which enhances its appearance greatly in my opinion.

Finally, I punch a 3/16" hole at the top of the shield, for a Chicago screw. Since I sometimes put a retractable lanyard on the D-ring for my keys, the key fob will experience a great amount of stress and I want to secure it with both stitching and a screw. This can be done with a special 3/16" chisel punch or you can simply mark and do this with a cordless drill. Note that the screw will go through the key fob and the front bag panel, so you want to be strategic about where you put it, as it will be visible on the other side. In my case the other end of the screw will be inside the front large pocket.

Step 11: External Front Pocket - Gluing Layers

For this briefcase I wanted an external front pocket. A design consideration you need to be aware of is that this will make the bag front heavy, so you want the base of your main compartment to be wide, solid and heavy.

In this step I create and glue the front panel of the external front pocket first.

The dimensions of the main compartment are 14" x 10". I subtract an inch from each side to make the dimensions of the external front pocket 12" x 8", but with the same 1.5" radius rounded corners. The pocket will be comprised of three layers - the external shell cordovan piece, a lining, and a layer of Moontex bag stiffener sandwiched in between.

  1. Cut a 12" x 8" piece of shell cordovan
  2. Round the bottom corners with a 1.5" radius washer, making tiny linear cuts to form a curve
  3. Cut a lining piece 12" x 8", plus 1/4" extra on each edge
  4. Skive the lining piece with a 3/4" skive
  5. Cut a Moontex stiffener piece 12" x 8", 3/8" smaller on each side
  6. Glue all three layers together and trim excess lining. It helps to apply cement to both layers, put wax paper between the layers, then slowly pull away the wax paper inch by inch so you can take your time when gluing large areas together.

The shell cordovan piece is cut oversize. The lining piece is cut to 12" x 8" size and skived with a 1/2" skive on the back. The Moontex piece is 3/8" smaller on each side, which, when glued together, means that the Moontex ends up being glued inside the skive. This way, the Moontex does not end abruptly where the skive begins, which would create a sharp drop in thickness and an unpleasant finished effect.

A very important note about paper-based stiffeners: they have a grain. If you bend it along one axis, it will be very stiff. If you turn it 90 degrees and bend it along the other axis, it will roll and curve easily. See the third image. You can use this to your advantage to strengthen areas you don't want to bend. We don't want the external pocket to bow inwards, therefore we cut the stiffener so that it is rigid horizontally.

Step 12: External Front Pocket - Making and Counting Holes

Next up, I punch stitching holes in the external front pocket. First, I sew up the top edge by marking 1/8" from the top with my wing divider, punching through and sewing. See the earlier step for my sewing method.

When I attach my gussets and panels, I use a method where I make my holes on my panel, make the same number of holes on my gusset, and then line them up and stitch. This method of counting holes and lining up is tedious, but it is a safe way to get nice stitching on both ends. Traditionally, you just glue them together and awl through or chisel through both pieces.

Therefore, for the side and bottom edges of this front pocket panel, the positioning and number of holes is extremely important, because I will count and punch the exact same number of holes on the front pocket gusset, and then use the same number of holes to attach to the front of the bag.

  1. Sew up the top edge of the panel.
  2. Mark the exact bottom middle of the panel using a ruler
  3. From the bottom middle, punch holes outwards until you reach the curved corner. (2nd picture)
  4. Mark every 10th hole with a pen, on the side, where it won't be seen
  5. Count the holes on the bottom linear edge. In my case I have 75
  6. Punch the sides, starting from the top corners, until you reach the curved corners
  7. Count the holes on the sides. In my case I have 50 on each side
  8. Mark the remaining holes in the left curved corner with a 2-prong chisel and count them (4th photo). In my case I have 17
  9. Try and mark 17 on the right curved corner (5th photo). It is likely they will not exactly match up. In this case, use an awl and fudge the hole positions slightly so it will end up being 17.
  10. Punch through all of the holes with an awl

The result is, starting from the center bottom stitching hole, there are 36+17+50 = 103 holes to the left of it, and 36+17+50 = 103 holes to the right of it, making a total of 103 + 103 + 1 = 207 holes in total on the panel. Remember and write down the number that you got.

Step 13: External Front Pocket - Transferring Holes

There are 207 holes on the front pocket panel. There will be 207 holes on each side of the front pocket gusset, and 207 holes on the front panel of the bag, where this all will attach.

Therefore, I want to "transfer" the 207 holes on the front pocket panel to the front panel of the bag. This hasn't been made yet, so I cut out a piece of 14" x 10" shell cordovan (2nd picture) and round the corners with the usual 1.5" radius.

  1. Cut out a piece of 14" x 10" shell cordovan
  2. Round the bottom two corners with a 1.5" radius washer
  3. Place the front pocket panel onto the new front bag panel like in the 3rd picture, using three pieces of rulers. (Yes, this is what happens when you sit on them by accident) Keep about an inch from the edge
  4. Tape it up like in the 4th picture. Be careful as some tapes will leave residue or permanently mark your leather. I used a weak painter's masking tape.

In the final picture, the result is that I've essentially punched the same number of holes in the same position in the middle of the front bag panel, so it all matches up.

Step 14: Front Bag Panel - Punching Holes

At this time I put the front pocket panel away and work a bit on the front bag panel. I find it is easier to work on pieces that are single ply and flat before assembly, so I do this first.

Basically, I do the same process to the front bag panel as I did to the pocket panel, in making holes on the bottom and sides. I punch the top row of holes. Then I start from the middle of the bottom edge, going left and right, so that I make 127 holes up the left, 127 holes up the right, and 255 holes on the bottom and side edges of the front bag panel. Again, every 10th hole is marked.

This method is tedious as all hell, but since I use an arbor press to make my holes, I can make a large amount of them in a short amount of time.

Finally, since the inner row of holes will hold the whole front panel, I glue on Tyvek as a reinforcement to the back of that seam and punch through.

Step 15: Front Pocket Gusset

Phew. After all that hole punching, I was glad to move on to something else.

Now I make the gusset for the front pocket. What is the required length of a one-piece gusset? The dimensions of the front pocket sides and bottom are: 8" + 12" + 8" = 28", minus a tiny bit because of the curve, plus a few inches to be safe. I want to be really safe so I aim for a 30" long gusset. A horse's ass cheek is only about 20" long. So, I need to seam two strips of shell cordovan together. The width of the gusset is personal preference depending on how deep you want the pocket to be, but I made mine 1.75" wide.

So, taking two strips of at least 15" x 1.75" shell cordovan, I seam them together using a cross stitch. I won't cover that here but it's relatively simple and cool-looking. Note that you need a way longer thread than you think you'd need normally.

  1. Seam together two pieces of 15" x 1.75" cordovan with a cross stitch
  2. Cut out a lining piece that's 30" x 2.25" (oversize)
  3. Skive the lining piece with a 3/4" skive
  4. Glue together
  5. Trim excess
  6. From before, we have 207 holes in the front pocket panel. So, make 207 holes on each side of the gusset, starting from the middle and working outwards.

Step 16: Stitching Front Pocket Gusset

It's time to stitch the front pocket panel and gusset together.

I usually stitch this over a table edge (see the stitching techniques step), and start two holes right from the center hole, then stitch right to left. Later, using another piece of thread, I'll go from the right top corner and head towards the center hole, overlapping four of the stitches for strength.

  1. Align the front pocket panel and the pocket gusset
  2. Start stitching two holes right from the bottom middle holes, towards the top left corner, going clockwise
  3. A few stitches before you finish, stop stitching and trim the tops of the gussets off (see 4th and 5th picture)
  4. Edge finish the tops of the gussets and stitch them together
  5. Edge finish the top of the middle panel
  6. Complete the stitch with a triple loop (6th picture)
  7. Do the same on the other side, stitching from the top right corner to the middle bottom, going clockwise

Step 17: Attaching External Front Pocket

After finishing the front edges of the front pocket, I am ready to attach the front pocket to the front bag panel cut out and hole punched from before.

  1. Align the front pocket with the holes punched before on the front bag panel
  2. Stitch from the middle bottom to the top left corner, going clockwise
  3. Finish the stitch with a triple loop at the top
  4. Stitch from the top right corner to the middle bottom, going clockwise

Make sure you do not skip any stitches!

Step 18: Gluing External Front Pocket and Internal Front Lining

Now I mate the exterior of the front bag (with large pocket) with the purple interior lining of the front bag (with small pockets and key fob).

  1. Cut out a piece of Moontex stiffener, 3/8" smaller on all sides
  2. Glue the stiffener to the exterior front bag
  3. Glue the lining piece together (remember, it is oversize), using wax paper between the pieces so you can align them slowly
  4. Trim off the excess lining

Step 19: Making Bag Gusset

With the front of the bag complete, I then start fabricating the gusset.

The 1st and 2nd pictures shows the general breakdown of the gusset. It is comprised of three layers - a two piece cordovan exterior, a one piece lining and bag stiffener in between.

In my case, my bag panels are 14" x 10", therefore I want my gusset to be at least 10" + 14" + 10" = 34" long, with a few extra inches thrown in for safety. The width of the gusset is up to you depending on how deep of a bag you want - I chose to make mine 4".

You'll notice that the Moontex stiffener is in four pieces, and that the middle of the gusset is doubled up on stiffener. I want my bag bottom to be especially thick, stiff and heavy, so it does not bend outwards when I have heavy loads in the bag.

  1. Cut two long pieces of shell cordovan, adding up to at least 34" and 4" wide
  2. Seam together with cross stitch like on front pocket gusset
  3. Cut lining 34" by 4.5" wide (oversized)
  4. Give lining a 3/4" skive
  5. Glue stiffener to lining
  6. Glue shell exterior to stiffener and lining
  7. Put books on the gusset and stand on them so it flattens out
  8. Make holes in gusset. We have 255 holes on the front bag panel, so we need 255 holes on each side of the gusset. Punch these from the lining side so the hole slants match up

Step 20: Installing Bag Feet on Gusset

This step is optional, but since the cordovan I'm working with scratches easily, I want to put brass feet on the bottom so it never touches the floor. The feet also help with stability since I'm concerned the bag will tip over easily, seeing as how it's heavier on the front.

I got my brass feet from, and they're attached with posts like a rivet.

  1. Mark positions of brass feet on gusset with ruler
  2. Use power drill to make holes appropriate for feet posts
  3. Insert posts into holes
  4. Put feet over posts and hammer secure over a hard surface

Step 21: Stitching Bag Gusset to Bag Front

With the bag gusset and front completed, I can stitch them together. This is the same process that I did with the external front pocket:

  1. Tie pieces together every 20th hole, using the marks made earlier
  2. Stitch left half from bottom middle to top left corner
  3. Cut off gusset ends
  4. Finish gusset top edges and panel top edge
  5. Stitch gusset top edge together
  6. Stitch right half from top right corner to bottom middle
  7. Finish completed edges at the front. Since these edges are thick, I'd recommend using a dremel to sand it down or use a very sharp knife to trim the edges a bit.

The bag is half complete by now, and we set it aside and start working on the back panel and flap.

Step 22: Back Panel Exterior

Next, I cut out the back panel exterior and two decorative corner pieces to go on the bottom, as well as punch all holes.

  1. Cut out a 14" x 10" piece of shell cordovan, and round off the bottom two corners with a 1.5" radius
  2. Punch 255 holes to match the front panel and gusset on the sides and bottom of the panel
  3. Punch holes along the top
  4. Print out the decorative piece patterns, tape them and cut them out of shell.
  5. Mark stitching lines and crease the corner pieces
  6. Punch stitching holes on the outside curve and inside curve of one of the corner pieces
  7. Count the number of stitching holes on the outside curve of the punched corner piece, then try and make the same number of holes on the other piece
  8. Edge finish the inside of the corner pieces
  9. Apply glue to the corner pieces and the panel where they will attach
  10. Using needles, align the stitching holes on both pieces (5th picture)
  11. Punch through the inside curves of the corner pieces and stitch (6th picture)
  12. I have made a second row of stitching lines at the top, 3/4" from the top line, as seen in the 6th picture.

Step 23: Back Panel Interior and Tablet Pocket

Set the back panel exterior aside. Now, I create the back panel lining and an interior tablet pocket:

  1. Cut out a piece of the lining, which should be 14.5" x 10.5". These dimensions are a 1/4" oversize on all edges.
  2. Skive the back of the lining with a 3/4" skive
  3. Cut out a gusseted T-shaped pocket pattern as shown in the 4th and 5th pictures. Crease, mark and punch stitching holes, and edge finish all edges. The sides fold in where the scribed lines are.
  4. This is not pictured, but all seams should be reinforced with Tyvek as before
  5. Sew the bottom of the pocket to the lining wrong side up (6th picture). The pocket then folds up.
  6. Sand the lining where the sides will attach
  7. Glue sides, punch through and sew them up

You will end up with a pocket like in the last picture. You can slightly fudge the position of the sides to make the pocket balloon out for more depth, depending on your intended use.

I don't have any pictures of finalizing the back panel, but finish up the back panel by gluing the exterior piece and lining together, with a piece of stiffener in between:

  1. Cut a piece of stiffener 3/8" smaller on all edges than the 14" by 10" back panel
  2. Glue the stiffener to the lining
  3. Glue the external back panel to the stiffener and lining
  4. Trim the excess lining
  5. Punch through all holes again through to the lining

Step 24: Curved Flap Exterior

This is probably the most difficult step in the whole process. I wanted a nice curved flap, and I planned to try a few different methods to accomplish this. I did try printing out the flap pattern, taping it to my leather and cutting, but I didn't get the best results. What eventually worked for me was buying a set of plastic French curves, and using them as a guide for my flap shape.

  1. Cut a large piece of shell cordovan exterior, 14" wide and 20" long. This is way longer than I needed, but if I screwed up cutting the curves, I could simply lop off the whole thing and try again. I ended up doing the curve about four times until I was happy.
  2. Using the French curve as a guide, I cut off my desired flap shape (see pictures 3 and 4). Note that I'm using two different parts of the curve in the two pictures to form the curve that I need.
  3. At this point, I test fit the lock hasp that will go into the middle of the curve (5th picture). Everything should be correct before proceeding, otherwise, chop it off and do it again.
  4. While I'm happy with the curve, I remember I need to cut it out again twice, out of stiffener and lining. I trace the shell cordovan piece onto the Moontex stiffener with a pen. (5th picture).
  5. I cut the curve in the stiffener with a pair of scissors, which is way easier than using a knife
  6. Also remember that the stiffener is inset 3/8" from the edges, and this is no exception. Using a wing divider, I mark a 3/8" inset in the stiffener (7th picture) and cut it out.
  7. See the last picture for what you want to end up with
  8. Don't glue anything yet. The flap piece is still oversized, and it needs to be cut to length

Step 25: Cutting the Curved Flap to Size

The next step is to do a test fitting, so we know the exact length the flap should be.

  1. Take the completed back panel and tie it to the bag gusset. (1st picture) Use the 10th hole marks to make sure this aligns properly.
  2. In the second picture, it's starting to look like a bag.
  3. Drape the shell cordovan flap piece over the top, and position it to where you want it to end up on the front of the bag
  4. Mark the flap where the back panel begins (4th picture)
  5. Then, add 7/8" to where the mark is and cut off the flap at this point. The flap and back panel has 7/8" of overlap.
  6. In the last picture, since now we know how long the flap should be, I punch all the holes. I add an extra row of stitching holes at the top, to match what's on the back panel.

Step 26: Gluing Flap Layers

Each layer is made of a cordovan exterior, a stiffener and a lining, and the flap is no exception. However, because of how the flap folds over the top and bends, we must glue the layers in a bent shape to end up with what's in picture 5

  1. Start by gluing about two inches of the exterior cordovan and stiffener together and press flat, as shown in picture 1.
  2. Then glue the same two inches to a lining piece (picture 2)
  3. Using the French curves, trim off the excess lining
  4. Next, bend the layers into the flap curve and glue them with a bend (picture 4)
  5. Let the glue dry and punch holes on the boundaries of the flap
  6. Sew up the outer curve and sides of the flap
  7. I rounded off the sharp corners at the top of the flap. I cut the corner at an angle and used a dremel to round off the corner:

Step 27: Sewing Back Panel and Flap

With the flap and back panel completed, it's time to sew them up.

  1. I sew the flap to the back panel with the two parallel lines first (1st picture). Since they were punched separately it may be hard to get them to align. This is okay, the holes can be crooked and the final result will look fine, but you may have to angle the needles as they go in and out.
  2. Then, I sew the back panel to the gusset in the same manner as before: sewing the left half going from the bottom middle to the top left corner first, going clockwise.
  3. When you get to the flap, overlap a few stitches as shown in picture 3
  4. Then sew the right half going from the top right corner to the bottom middle, going clockwise
  5. Edge finish completed edges

At this point the main body is done and it's looking like a bag. The only steps remaining are to make the handles and attachments, and install the lock.

Step 28: Handle Filler

The handle is comprised of three layers of exterior leather, wrapped around a filler core. The dimensions given are sized for my hands, which are very large, so you may want to make yours smaller.

  1. Start with two strips of thick veg tan, about 8-9oz, 3/8" wide and 5" and 7" long
  2. Skive as much as you can starting 1 inch off each end, aiming for feather thickness
  3. Glue the 5" piece and 7" piece together
  4. Using a skiver, start rounding the handle filler. You want to break all the sharp edges and end up with a smooth, gradually sloping filler like in the last picture
  5. Using a dremel helps to sand everything down

Step 29: Handle

  1. Cut a strip of shell cordovan a few inches longer than the filler and about 2" wide
  2. Glue the filler on top of the strip, in the center. While gluing, mold it into a kind of curved shape.
  3. The areas directly next to the filler will fold under and hold 2 D-rings. I reinforce this area with filament tape as shown in the 3rd picture. This will prevent stretching. Since my D-rings are 3/4", I use 3/4" strips of tape.
  4. I cut another strip of shell cordovan that will go over the top and cover the filler
  5. Glue the second strip over the whole thing
  6. While the glue is drying, I use a bone folder to press the leather over the edges of the filler, so it takes the shape of the filler (4th picture)
  7. I punch stitching holes directly up against the filler on both sides (5th picture)

Step 30: Handle Construction

  1. Cut out four slots at the sides of the filler as shown in picture 1, to form two tabs. The final width of the piece in between should be the width of your D-rings (in this case, 3/4"), and the length should be enough to wrap around your D-ring.
  2. Before folding the tabs under and gluing, skive the ends as much as possible. I used a dremel to make the tabs thinner. Test fit your D-rings (picture 2)
  3. Glue the tabs to the underside of the handle
  4. Sand the whole underside, then make a third strip of cordovan that will cover the whole length. Skive the ends of the third strip as thin as possible
  5. Glue the strip on the underside and let it dry
  6. Punch the stitching holes all the way through and sew up the two handle seams
  7. Using a wing divider, scribe a line 1/8" away from the stitching line on the top of the handle (picture 6)
  8. Using a very sharp knife, cut the excess from the handle. Take note to have the handle taper off to 3/4" at the ends so it looks seamless

Step 31: Finishing Handle

This is covered in the earlier finishing edges technique step. Basically, you want to sand down the handle as much as you can, and build several very thick layers of clear primer on the handle. Then, apply coats of edge paint, sanding with 400 and 800 grit sandpaper until you are satisfied. Finally, apply a layer of beeswax and rub with denim or a microfiber cloth.

The handle is my favorite part to make and shape, but it takes a long time to get the filler to where you want it as well as finish the edges.

Step 32: Handle and Strap Attachment

This is the piece that attaches to the handle, screws to the top of the flap, and holds D-rings for a strap attachment. My handle D-rings are 3/4" and strap D-rings are 1/2".

  1. Cut out two pieces of exterior leather in the "plus" shape as shown in the 1st and 2nd picture. One tab is 1/2" in width and the other is 3/4" to match my D-rings. It is helpful to print this out to know where to position the holes for the Chicago screws/rivets. Note that the pattern dimensions are longer than you'd need, so you need to cut this down as necessary.
  2. Strengthen the tabs and middle section by gluing a piece of lining leather under the "plus" shape as shown in the 3rd picture
  3. Finish all edges
  4. Fold both D-ring tabs under and glue them, making sure that you cover the screw/rivet holes.
  5. Fold the sides under and glue them (5th picture)
  6. Use a power drill to drill through the holes again

Step 33: Attaching Handle Holders to Flap

Now we'll glue the handle holders to the top of the flap. Be extremely careful with this step, as you don't want to attach the handle holders crookedly, or drill holes in the wrong place.

  1. Using a ruler, mark where you want your handle holders to go on the top of your flap. You want to try and be as perpendicular to the sides of the flap as possible. The method I used was counting a set number of stitches on both sides (in my case 17 stitches), driving a needles into those stitches, then butting up my ruler against it. (1st picture).
    Of course, a wiser man would have done this when the flap was flat and included it in his pattern. However, I wasn't 100% sure where this would be as the flap curves around the top.
  2. Glue the handle holders onto the flap. While the glue is drying, adjust the position if needed until it looks right.
  3. Drill through the screw/rivet holes, going through the flap. Be careful not to scratch the inside lining. I used a block of wood under my drill, topped with a very thin foam yoga mat, which will prevent scratches.

Step 34: Support Bar

The four Chicago screws/rivets that go through the handle holders attach themselves to a metal bar wrapped in leather under the flap. This has the benefit that all of the stress from holding or wearing the bag will fall on the larger surface area of the metal bar. The metal bar also makes the top of the flap rigid, which prevents the leather from buckling when the bag has a heavy load. The handle holders also hold the strap rings, so the whole assembly is structurally sound whether the handle or a strap is used.

I've used this setup in all of my briefcases, and they've never had problems carrying large loads.

  1. In my case, I used a 3/32" thick, 1" width, 13" length aluminum bar. (This is 1" shorter than the 14" width of the bag). You can order this from McMaster-Carr.
  2. Mark the middle of the bar with a Sharpie
  3. Hold the bar next to the screw holes on the bottom of the flap and mark the positions with your Sharpie (2nd picture)
  4. Drill the screw holes into the middle of the bar. My screw holes are usually 3/16", but I make my holes slightly larger in the aluminum bar, going up to a drill bit of 13/64". This will make for easier fitting. Trust me, you will regret it if you don't do this.
  5. Put your Chicago screws or rivets through the top of the handle holder, and test fit the aluminum bar. If they don't fit, make the holes in the aluminum slightly bigger again by going up another drill size.
  6. When you are happy with the fit, use glue to wrap the aluminum bar with a very thin piece of leather. I used a scrap of extremely thin (0.5mm) green goat skin I got from Siegel Leather.
  7. Fold the thin leather around the bar, let it dry. Put a big heavy book on it and stand on it to flatten it out.
  8. Drill the holes again through the thin leather
  9. Finish the naked edges of the sides of the bar. I recommend putting a lot of clear primer on it since we're painting over metal. This is perfectly fine and seems to hold up well.

Step 35: Installing Lock Hasp

I cheated a bit on this step. The proper, traditional way to install a lock hasp is to use an escutcheon pin and peen it carefully over the back. If you want to do this, check out this excellent tutorial from Andersen Leather. I tried that out, bought the dapping block and everything, and scratched my hasp up, so I had to repolish and relacquer it twice. If you're planning to do that, a 14 gauge pin will fit the Abbey England locks, and I recommend annealing the pin by putting it over your stove for 30 seconds until it changes color and quenching it in water. This makes it softer and easier to peen.

I gave up on all that and bought these tiny force-rivets with a 2mm post diameter. They're product A304 on the Ohio Travel Bag site and they're the smallest rivets I've ever found. Installing them was way easier for me:

  1. Fit the hasp over the flap and mark the holes with a pen
  2. Drill the holes using the smallest drill bit that will fit the rivets. I'm drilling into a block of wood covered with a thin yoga mat to prevent scratches
  3. Put the rivet in, then put the post over it
  4. Hammer the rivet in carefully. I just used a normal metal claw hammer.

Step 36: Installing Lock

I did this at the very end, but I really wish I did it when I was making the front pocket panel, as it would have been a lot easier. My reason for saving this for last was because I wasn't sure exactly where I wanted the lock to go or how long my flap would be. With a bit of planning you should probably do this at the beginning.

My lock installs with prongs, as do most bag locks. Some traditional locks require peening with an escutcheon pin.

  1. Take the washer that came with your pronged lock and put it on the front of your bag
  2. Use a ruler to center it, then mark the slit positions
  3. Cut the slits. They don't have to be perfect as they will be hidden, and I used an Exacto knife to do this.
  4. Push your lock through the slits
  5. If the lock looks crooked, take it out and reposition the slits or cut the slits again until you are satisfied.
  6. When you are satisfied, put the prongs through your washer and use needle nosed pliers to bend the prongs
  7. Optionally, you can wrap your washer in leather. I used the 0.5mm goatskin from before, glued it on the washer and cut the slits, then bent the prongs over it. Other options are to bend the prongs and glue or sew thin leather over it. I chose to do it my way because theoretically I could pull the lock off and replace it in the future without ungluing or ripping stitches.

Step 37: Key Clochette

This is purely optional but I like to have a key clochette on my bags. This is the bag lock key on a strap that wraps around the handle, with a decorative sheath cover over it.

  1. Start with two 1 inch strips of cordovan glued together. The length is dependent on your bag, but mine was about 13 inches of stitching. You want it long enough to reach your lock with your key.
  2. Stitch them up on one edge
  3. Trim it down so it becomes a thin strip
  4. Edge finish all the strips
  5. On one of the sides, cut a little slit as in the 5th picture. This side will wrap around the key. Be careful you don't cut too much and to leave enough on the end so the leather doesn't tear
  6. Then, cut a clochette pattern like in the 6th picture. I got this pattern by taking a picture of a clochette from a Hermes Birkin and tracing the image in Inkscape. See the PDF and SVG attached. The medium sized one was the one I ended up using.
  7. Crease and mark stitching holes in the clochette
  8. Stitch it up and edge finish
  9. Assemble like in the 8th picture. First put the strap through your key, then fold it and pull the strap through the small slit, like a baggage tag.
  10. On the other end, sew a loop big enough (9th picture) for the clochette sheath to fit through.
  11. You can attach this to your bag like a luggage tag.

Another option is to cut a large slit for your clochette sheath on the other end. Honestly, the Rocado shell cordovan doesn't have the greatest tensile strength so I felt this wasn't secure enough.

Step 38: Final Assembly

Finally, screw in your support bar, screw in your handle and attach your key clochette and you are done!

I'm still working on the strap and will update this when I can get to it. An earlier tutorial of mine covered how to make a nylon strap with leather attachments (scroll all the way to the bottom):

Thanks for reading through the whole thing and the best of luck with your projects!

If you have any questions or just want to chat about leathercraft, you can message me here or find scwleung on Reddit. To see some of my other earlier work, go here:

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    2 years ago

    Can you let me know where to get the pattern for the modern looking briefcase in one of the photos at the end of this project (the one directly behind the red datebook)?


    3 years ago

    Very impressed with your skill and ability to translate this so thoroughly. Excellent, thoughtful presentation. I will post pictures of my finished product inspired by your efforts (first one will be somewhat simplified). Thank you for your generosity!!!


    5 years ago

    A very exquisite piece of work....A master piece if you will...I think it is just exceptionally well done with a great eye for detail !!!

    Kudos to have been gifted with a great talent and it is just " wonderful " that you are not letting it go to waste ?

    Do you OR will you be selling your work???

    Again, my hats off to you for absolute beautiful work!!!

    Lynda ?


    Reply 5 years ago

    Thank you for the kind words!

    I can't bear to sell anything that I've made so far given all of the work and hours that went into it! At some point though I'd like to get into selling items.


    Reply 5 years ago

    if you ever do sell, keep me in mind! LOVE THIS GREEN BAG. you are indeed and artist!


    5 years ago

    Questions about the edge paint, how thick is the fenice that
    Buckleguy sells? I know the tandy's one is quite watery.

    Did you use Giardini MaxMatt? I found Giardini dries really
    quickly and is easier to shape with hot iron, however the finish is tad too
    rubbery for me and does not finish well with wax. Fenice (tandy's one) has a
    smoother and harder finish, it also finishes really well with wax.

    Does the fenice you
    bought has a smoother finish compare to Giardini?

    Lovely work by the
    way, take great skills and courage to comfortably work with shells, especially when the project is as big as a bag.


    Reply 5 years ago

    The Fenice from Buckleguy is thicker - the Tandy stuff is watered down.

    Giardini is not great - it creates large pits and defects every time you add a new layer. It peels off very easily. It looks rubbery. It forms bubbles.

    Fenice is simply a superior paint.


    Reply 5 years ago

    Thanks for the info! That helps a lot.

    Btw, I saw your post in imgur experimenting with the cricut. If you want to follow it down that line, I suggest upgrading your machine to a Silver Bullet. That machine can cut 8-9oz (3.2mm) vegtan leather with proper setup.


    5 years ago

    This is fabulous, I'm going to use your design and change it slightly for one myself. Thank you for sharing


    5 years ago

    What an incredibly beautiful work of art you have constructed !!!! This piece will last for several lifetimes, no doubt about it. Congratulations to you for your flawless eye for detail and design. The 'instructable' is also beautifully made, and with the attached pictures, was a pleasure to read. Stunning piece of work. 5 stars for you. Thank you so much for sharing all of this information.


    5 years ago

    outstanding instructable. Fabulous briefcase too. The green leather looks awesome. Very impressive. Brilliant


    5 years ago

    A very stylish and unique item you have crafted. You are a man of peerless taste!

    Beautifully documented.


    5 years ago

    This is an impressive instructable, and your work is beautiful! Thank you!


    5 years ago

    Wow just amazing.I can't say enough about this instructable.Great job!!!!!!


    5 years ago

    Wow. I am thoroughly impressed! Are you sure you have only been leatherworking for a year and a half???


    Reply 5 years ago

    By the way, what grit is the sandpaper on your dremel?


    Reply 5 years ago

    Yessir, this is my very first wallet from Feb 28, 2015, and the third one I did in April 2015:

    Can't remember the exact grit, but it's one of the coarser ones. I use the dremel for rounding off seriously jagged edges or reshaping so I want it more abrasive.


    5 years ago

    This is stunning. Thanks for documenting.


    5 years ago

    This is an awesome instructable! It makes me want to go out and purchase the leather and tools to make one too!! Great Work!


    5 years ago

    Haven't read it all yet but still some handy information regarding tools and materials used.