Valise Rebuild




Introduction: Valise Rebuild

I inherited this old valise that was used by my father during World War II. It's made from some sort of rubberized fabric, which is too degraded to be usable. The leather parts were also dried out and brittle. I'm going to salvage the opening frame, the handles, and the latch, and use the other parts to make patterns.

I have some very heavy cotton canvas that I thought would work well for luggage. I'm going to wax the fabric and use leather for the bottom and other fittings. I'm covering the frame with pig leather, and using the same leather to make piping for accenting the side seams.

The original bag was lined with mattress ticking, but I'm using some green taffeta that I have left over from another project to make a new lining.


Canvas - 1 square yard (21-ounce)

Taffeta - 1 yard for the lining

Leather - 12-inch by 24-inch 4-5 ounce

Pig leather - two strips three-inches wide by 26-inches; four strips 1 1/2-inch by 13-inches.

Other 4-5 ounce leather - for mounting buckles, straps, etc.

Cord - 1/8-inch for the piping core.

Rubber feet - (this item has four feet, I had to scrounge the fifth foot. (Also nuts and bolts to mount the feet).

Brass buckles

Reused handles

Strong thread


Contact Cement

Bamboo staves (Probably, any wood would do.)

Tools and Equipment:

Sewing machine, stapler, various leather-working tools, scissors, utility knife, awls, needle-nose pliers, heat gun, clamps, binder clips,

Step 1: Dismantle and Make Patterns

I used a utility knife to cut the stitching so I could use the individual pieces to make patterns. Once it was in pieces, you could see that the body of the valise was actually made of paper, with a thin layer of fabric glued or painted to the outside. The bottom and a couple of end-support pieces were just cardboard. Even the leather parts were made up of thin pieces of leather glued to thick paper backing.

The mattress ticking liner turned out to be a replacement for the original plaid cotton lining. This was far from a top-shelf bag to begin with, but the design looks functional, and the bag has a lot of sentimental value, so I'm saving what parts I can.

I dampened the stiff paper to get it to lie flat, and I just traced around the edges onto a piece of cardboard for a pattern. The seams are less than a quarter-inch from the edges, so I'm going to add a half-inch all the way around, and make 3/4-inch seams.

I also made little patterns for the leather corner pieces and the strap attachments.

Step 2: Assemble Materials and Cut Out the Parts

Body of the Bag:

I like the shape of this bag. The front and back pieces are narrower at the top than at the bottom, and the side pieces are wider at the top, so the bag has pretty constant dimensions from bottom to top.

I'm going to re-make this valise using mostly materials that I have on hand. I inherited a bolt of heavy canvas, and I'm always looking for projects where I can use some. This stuff is pretty stout; I was curious, so I weighed a square yard of it, and it weighed 21.3 ounces on my kitchen scale. This yard of canvas was about the perfect amount for this bag. The finished bag's dimensions are 9 1/2-inches wide by 19 1/2-inches long, and 14-inches tall (when open).

I laid out the patterns so the top edges of the bag are along the finished edges of the fabric. That way I won't have to deal with a raw cut edge unraveling while I'm working on the bag.

For lining material, I found this green fabric in my bag of material that I never thought I'd get around to using. I think it's nylon taffeta, but I'm not really sure what it is.

Leather Parts:

I bought a 12-inch by 24-inch piece of leather online, which was enough for the bottom piece, the corner parts, and two three-inch wide end-support pieces. I was able to make the straps and most of the little mounting parts from scraps of similar leather that I had on hand. They probably add up less than a square foot of leather.There are four half-circle corner pieces, four spade-shaped mounts for the buckles and straps, and four rectangular pieces for the handle mounts. I also made new straps, and lined them with some paper-thin pig leather left over from another project. This thin leather is glued to the back-side of the straps with contact cement, and stitched around the edges (mostly for decoration).

I have some thin, brown pig-leather that I'm using to cover the opening frame parts, and I'm using the same leather to make piping to accent the seams, just like in the original had.

Step 3: Assemble the Body of the Bag

I made the four pieces of piping by just folding the thin pig leather over a 1/8-inch cord, and stitching close to the cord. The piping is sandwiched between a side piece and an end piece, with right sides together and all the raw edges facing outward. This stuff is too thick to pin, so I used a stapler to tack the seam in a few places to hold it together. I removed the staples once the seam was sewn, to avoid getting rust stains later.

Once the canvas pieces are stitched together you have an open ended box. I folded and stitched a hem (3/4-inch) around the bottom edge of the box to make it ready for hand stitching to the leather bottom piece.

Step 4: Preparing the Leather Parts

Before sewing the leather parts to the bag, I marked stitching lines with a leather tool that you heat over a flame and slide along the edge of the leather to press-in a stitching groove.

I wanted a wider stitch-spacing than the stitching-punches that I have, so I used a marking wheel tool to mark the stitches. This tool has a spiky wheel that is rolled along the previously scored lines, leaving dimples where the stitches will go. I punched holes in these dimples with an awl, pushing it at least a half-inch through the other side to make a large enough hole to find with the needle behind layers of canvas.

For the bottom piece, I just drew stitching lines 3/4-inch from the edges, all the way around the 9-inch by 19-inch piece, and marked and punched the holes along the pencil lines.

I remade all the leather parts (except the part holding the latch) and marked/pierced stitching lines around the perimeter of the mounting pieces. I kind of went overboard with punching holes, but these awl holes tend to become less noticeable over time.

One of the buckles was missing from the original, but I found two matching (more or less) brass buckles in my junk bin. To make the slot for the buckle prong to fit through, I punched holes with an oval punch, and connected them with the utility knife.

Step 5: Cover the Opening Frame With Leather

The old frame was covered with the paper/cloth composite stuff, but I wanted something more substantial, so I'm covering the composite material with brown pig leather. I did check to see if the two layers of leather would fit between the closed jaws of the frame before deciding to cover it with leather.

I'm using Barge contact cement to glue the leather to the frame. If you use this stuff, be sure to do it in a well ventilated area. When working with contact cement, it's much easier if you glue items in stages, rather than gooing things up and trying to attach the whole piece. In this case, I folded the leather strip in half, and glued the one half to the outside of the frame, and then glued the inside part. I left the last couple of inches by the hinge points unglued, till I trim the pieces to fit around the hinge.

The hinge areas are a little tricky, I just cut the ends so the leather covers as much of the hinge as possible without jamming. Fortunately, the hinges are loose enough that the extra leather between the two closing parts doesn't bind the hinges.

I used a roller on the leather to make sure the glue is stuck down tight at the bends. After I had both sides of the leather glued to the frame, I went back and glued any loose edges together so the frame will be easier to stitch to the bag.

I punched two lines of holes through the edge of pig leather, all the way around the frame. The lower set of holes is for sewing the liner to the inside of the frame, the upper set of holes is for sewing the bag to the outside of the frame [It turned out that the set of holes for stitching the bag to the frame was unnecessary. I had to redo all those holes to get straighter lines].

The original latch was attached to a wide leather strap. This part was better quality leather, and it included my dad's name and service number, so I re-stitched the edges of this strap, and treated it with leather dressing to make the leather more supple. I'm also re-using the leather handle pieces, though later I may re-stitch them with saddle stitching instead of the loop stitching that is pretty worn.

Step 6: Make the Lining and Stitch the Lining to the Opening Frame

I had a yard of this green nylon taffeta(?) material in my box of fabric. It's pretty thick material and should hold up well. The circumference of the bag is about 56-inches, and this material happened to be 58 inches wide, so I trimmed it to length and just made a single side seam to join the ends together, then hemmed and sewed the bottom seam. I made a simple "box" bottom by stitching across the corners to square the bottom at the same dimensions as the bottom of the bag. I double stitched the seams and cut off the excess material.

The original bag had a pocket on one side of the lining, but I added a second pocket on the other side. One of these is large enough to hold a file folder.

The liner ended up being a little loose because I made it too deep, thinking I was going to use up more material for the top and bottom seams. It's not a big problem, but next time I'd fit the liner better. I hand stitched the liner to the frame, and it's ready to attach the outer bag.

Step 7: Sew the Handles, Straps, and Buckles in Place.

Adding the handles, straps, and buckles was pretty easy. I marked the locations of the parts on the pattern, and just transferred the marks to the bag.

For the straps, I glued and stitched light colored pig leather to the underside of the closing straps, and stitched the straps to the little rectangular wire "rings" that connect the straps to the mounting pieces. The buckles and straps have the same "spade" shaped mounting leather, but the parts for the handles are little rectangular tabs that have a hole for the mounting rivets.

The handles are secured with rivets. I added squares of canvas as "washers" where the rivets go through the canvas bag, and used a tapered awl to make holes wide enough for the rivets to poke through the canvas, so I wouldn't have to cut the canvas. The rivets go through the canvas washer, the body of the bag, the leather mounting piece, and then the steel handle mounts, before the copper washer is fitted to the rivet and driven in place with the rivet tool. The leather mounting piece folds over the the mounting rivet, giving a nice finished look

The three-inch tall leather support pieces are stitched across the ends, inside the bag, and are only stitched across the middle part of the bottom, between the leather corner pieces. These will help the bag hold its shape by keeping the bag from squashing down at the ends.

The original bag had a nice little latch with a button, and I'm keeping that, but the latch button mounts to the bag with four little metal tabs that extend through cuts in the bag, and into slots in a backing plate. To keep the canvas from unraveling at these quarter-inch long slots, I stitched "button holes" around each of the places where I need to cut the canvas. I also added a piece of leather between the latch and the canvas bag to give it some additional support.

Step 8: Boxing the Corners

The bag is about ready to be put together, but it would be impossible to stitch the bottom in place without forming the leather corner pieces into a box shape. First I cut out an inch of the piping and seam at each corner, behind the leather.

Forming the corners is a two-step process; first you wet the leather and fold a flat seam along the bottom edge; then unfold the seam and bend the corner to make a box shape, using clamps to hold the wet leather in place while it dries. It's hard to get the clamps to hold the pieces at the correct angle, so after an initial squeeze, I un-clamped the corner and used an awl to make holes for a few stitches across corner to hold the fold it in place while it's being clamped.

When I'm stitching the bottom part, I can cut these stitches if I need to adjust the angle. If it needs more fitting, it's easy to just re-wet the leather and change the shape. Note, I marked where the outside corner should be by poking an awl through the apex of the corner, leaving a tiny hole in the leather. This makes it easier to tell where to make the folds when you're forming the corner pieces.

Step 9: Sewing the Bottom

Sewing the heavy leather to the hemmed canvas was the most difficult step. I pre-punched holes all the way around the leather bottom piece, 3/4-inch in from the edge. You can't really punch holes in the canvas ahead of time, I had to use the awl to make a hole through the double layer of canvas for every stitch. It was slow going, and made more difficult because the inside seam is down deep in the bag. To keep the leather piece in place, I first "tacked" each corner of the leather bottom piece in place with a few wide stitches. This made it easier to keep the parts lined up while doing the stitching.

Joining leather to canvas requires a lot of patience and the right tools. I thought I'd use a sharp needle to pierce through the canvas, and that would probably work for a single-thickness of canvas, but it's really hard pushing a needle through two layers of this 21-ounce canvas. Also, pushing the needle back through, from the canvas side toward the leather side, it can be difficult to find the hole through the leather. It's even harder if you use a sharp needle.

The technique that worked best for me was to use dull, saddle stitching needles (one at each end of your thread). and starting on the leather side, poke an awl through the stitching hole, extending at least a half-inch through the canvas. Remove the awl, carefully so as not to move the fabric, and insert a needle half-way through the hole, and keeping the needle in the hole, poke the awl through the next hole in the leather. Put the second needle through this hole and pull both ends of the thread through the two holes evenly. Then, push the first needle back through the second needle-hole, in the opposite direction. Give the threads (now on opposite sides) a good tug to finish the stitch.

It was a fight to get nearly every stitch from the canvas side to go back through the needle-hole to the other side without getting hung up on the canvas. The way that worked best for me was to pull the thread from the forward-most stitch back along the line of stitching (so it's pulling the hole open), and holding the thread tight with one hand, while you aim the other needle to slide neatly (ha) down the taught thread, and back through the hole.

Please excuse the crooked stitching, getting through this step was slow and painful, but nobody said I had to do it sober.

Step 10: Adding Bamboo Staves and Feet

The bag is essentially done and ready to put together. I've already stitched the lining to the frame, so it's ready to attach, but there are a couple of things I need to do before assembling the bag. I'm going to apply wax to the outside of the bag, and from my test it's clear that the wax bleeds through the canvas during the process, so I need to apply the wax before attaching the frame and liner.

There is also a problem with sag. The cardboard bottom of the original valise was more rigid than the leather I'm using. I wanted to give the bag some more support, so I cut some bamboo staves to insert along each side to stiffen it up. I lashed these staves in place with a few passes of thread near each end. I used the existing stitching lines on the corner pieces to hide these lashings.

The staves give the bag good end-to-end support, but the bottom still drags on the ground. To correct this, I added a middle foot to the underside. I found this single foot in my junk bins, and used one of those aluminum bolts for joining stacks of paper to hold it in place. I added leather washers to sandwich the bottom piece and give the foot a little more support

The original bag had little steel buttons at each corner, for feet, but I didn't want to use metal buttons. Instead, I found these rubber feet that I bought for another project but didn't use. These feet need to be held on with a bolt, so I used an awl to make a big-enough hole to screw the feet bolts into. I added leather washers under one side of the corner feet to keep them (fairly) level. On the inside, I put a patch of duct tape over the lock nuts, so the metal won't wear on the lining.

Step 11: Apply the Wax Coating

I looked at a number of instructables on applying wax to fabric, and I would like to credit the authors, but I honestly can't remember (or find) which particular instructables I looked at. I got ideas from many of them. Let me just thank the entire community for always being there to show me how.

I'm using beeswax, not because I think it's better than other peoples' recipes, but because I had it on hand and I'm not allowed to go to the store. I tested three types of beeswax that I had in my hoard. The first (left) is pure beeswax, the next two samples are "impure" beeswax with varying amounts of propolis (resin that bees collect from tree buds to glue the hive together). I'm going with the middle one. Curiously, the back side of the samples all look pretty much the same. Evidently, the canvas filters out most of the resin.

The waxing wasn't difficult, but it took quite a while with the heat gun. Pity the soul who tries doing this with a hairdryer. I used the entire chunk of wax that's shown in the middle of the picture, and another one about the same size.

I decided to add the wax treatment to the leather parts, even though I was pretty concerned about "cooking" the leather. I kept the heat to a minimum and it seems to have worked fine. Time will tell.

Step 12: Stitch the Bag to the Frame

The bag is finally taking shape, it's time to put it all together. The top edge of the waxed canvas needs to be folded under, about 3/4-inch for the top seam. The wax actually makes the stitching a little bit easier because the holes stay open. At each of the corners, I cut back the bulky canvas seam and removed about an inch of the core from the piping (pictured before applying the wax). This makes it possible to fold the leather piping over the edge. I stitched the folded piping in place at each corner before sewing the bag to the frame.

I started stitching the bag to the frame from near the middle of each side, and worked toward the ends. To match up the original leather latch piece with the matching latch part, I first stitched the other side of the bag to the frame, and then closed the latch and pinned the leather in place, between the bag and the frame. To get the stitching lines as straight as possible, I abandoned the holes I had made previously, and just punched new holes with an awl, from the side that shows. I just eye-balled the stitch length, figuring it's more important to have a straight seam than to have the stitches all the same length.

The lining ended up being a little baggy but I don't mind. I tied some strings to the leather at the inside corners of the bag, and fed the strings through the corners of the lining so I can pull the lining tight (at the bottom) by threading some buttons on the strings.

The finished bag looks pretty good, if a bit rustic. I think my dad would be both proud, and annoyed that I didn't just go out and buy a new valise.

Later, I'm planning to add D-rings so I can attach a shoulder strap.

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    2 years ago

    You did a really good job. I'm sure your father would be proud. A sewing awl probably would have made some of this a whole lot easier.


    Reply 2 years ago

    Thanks. Yes, a sewing awl would have been easier, particularly on the bottom. Even though I prefer the look of saddle stitching. The stitches on the bottom are pretty sloppy anyhow, and I think they would have been straighter and looked better if I'd used a speedy stitcher, with the loops on the inside.

    Penolopy Bulnick
    Penolopy Bulnick

    2 years ago

    Really nice job fixing up this valise :)

    You should consider entering this in the Leather Challenge!