If you ride a horse, or a bike, or you just want to look like the Marlboro Man the next time you walk into your local saloon you can make these little beauties. Saddle bags come in all shapes and sizes and can be decorated in any style and fashion (if style and fashion are important to the kind of person that wants to carry saddlebags). The most important step is knowing what they will be used for in the first place. Purpose drives design (another life lesson. You are welcome) and if you don't spend enough time designing the project around the purpose then you can waste time ("and money....and to a man like me time is money." That's your token Gone in 60 Seconds quote for the day). The basic components of the bags are two back panels (including flap), two front panels, two gusset panels (these ultimately set the depth of the bags) and the back strap.
Step 1: Putting Together the Panels
Consider the back panel the main body of the bag. The back panel is stitched to the back strap that lays across the back of whatever you're riding on (horse/bike/unfortunate younger brother). Back panels can be any shape and size to meet the specific needs of the rider, but any adjustment made to the back panel must be made to the gusset and front panel as well or things will not line up well when you go to put them together. There are templates you can buy from Tandy leather factory (and other places I am sure) that make it very easy to lay them out when you first get started. After you get a couple sets under your belt then you start tweaking the designs on your own and that's when things get really interesting. Start by using a template or a stencil. Use a good thick leather like a 8 oz - 12 oz veg tanned cow hide leather if you want to tool some designs on it. You can literally make saddle bags out of any material, but you use veg tanned when you want to carve into it. For the purpose of this Instructable I am talking about tooling. For thick leather like this is really helps to have a good sharp blade. It doesn't have to be anything fancy. A good utility knife from Lowes is the tool of choice in my kit. As long as you can swap the blades out when they dull (and they will dull...quickly) then you will be in good shape.
Transfer the template onto the smooth/grain side of the leather so you can make sure your surface is good and you are avoiding as many defects as possible. Once the templates are transferred then start cutting then out. If you are shaky then do a rough cut all the way around and separate the two back panels from the hide leaving yourself a 1 inch border around each. Once you're done with the rough cut then go back and do a final cut right on the line. hold the knife at a good 45 degree angle. Press one hand down on the leather to keep it from moving around on you, press the knife blade all the way through the leather until you feel a little pop, and start pulling the knife down the line . If you have trouble seeing the line of your template position a good light source behind you so that the panel is well illuminated. It really does help to see where you're going. Cut your way around the panel until it is trimmed completely and then repeat the same step for the other panel. Remember, aside from the back strap, everything you do is in duplicate for these bags.
Step 2: Tooling the Panels
Once the panel is cut then you can start tooling. Proportion is important so make sure you choose a design that fits the area you want to carve and that it looks right where it is going. Print out the image you want and place it on the leather to get the real idea. Keep in mind that there will be straps running down each bag, which is why I chose the size and centered location for this rams head logo. Once you have the size and location worked out then wet the area of the leather with a sponge or spray bottle until it is dark and then wait until it regains most of its original color back. You want the pores of the skin to relax and open up to accept the moisture, which in turn makes the surface softer and more accepting of the carving. Once the leather regains it's color lay your image down and trace it lightly onto the panel. It only takes a light touch on the initial scratch, so be gentle. If you make a mistake and move the paper during the transfer it is a lot easier to cover up a light scratch than it is to cover up a groove or impression. Do all of your tooling this way. wet the areas of the leather and scratch your images where they go. Once you have all of your images scratched in then you're ready to cut in.
Step 3: Cutting in Your Design
If you are a new or experienced leather worker then you probably already have at least one swivel knife in your collection. If you don't know what a swivel knife is don't worry. I included a picture of it for you up above. They are great little tools with a bunch of different blades that give a lot of different effects when you cut with them. The barrel of the knife swivels as you cut (hence the name) which makes it easier to cut around curves. I have been doing leather for 5 or 6 years now and I just started using a swivel knife last week. You can cut in just fine with an Exacto knife if you are comfortable with that, but swivel knives are a good thing to learn how to use. Just make sure you don't practice or take your maiden voyage by cutting on a project panel. Use a piece of scrap and save yourself a whole lot of pain.
So basically, cut into the design you scratched onto the panel. you don't have to cut all the way through the leather and, unless you're doing an inlay of some sort, I would encourage you not to cut all the way through. Bags are supposed to keep water out, not invite it in.
Step 4: Edging Your Design
After you cut in, you can give your design a little more dimension and relief by edging it. You can find modeling tools at Tandy and else where that have ball points, domes, spoons, etc that all give different edge effects. They cost about $10-ish but they are handy if you do a lot of tooling. Tooling leather is a whole profession and I don't really want to go into that on this one, but I will do a session just on tooling so you can see what the options are. Maybe I'll even do a video because frankly this is a lot of typing. Run the tool around the design to establish your edge and repeat for any other designs you want to stand out from the bag.
Step 5: Punching Your Holes
Your template will have the hole location and punch sizes included on them so take extreme care when you are transferring your design that you do not shift that paper around. You want everything to be exactly where it should be or it is going to look like a Salvador Dali painting when it is all done. The punch size relates to the thickness of the lace or thread you are using so refer to the materials list to make sure you have everything they tell you you need for that particular project. Because of the curvature of the bags most of the punching must be done one hole at a time, so settle in for a long trip. Turn on some good music, grab your punch and your trusty mallet and get whackin'.
Step 6: Add Some Color
After you have the tooling and punching done it is time to add color. A good stain goes a long way in protecting your bags but it also affects the type of color you can throw on top of it. Antique Gels give a great weathered look to the leather even if it is brand new. Antique Saddle Tan, Brown, or Black are great looks and they have the sealer mixed in so it is an all-in-one. The downside is that it is incredibly tricky to paint with acrylics on top of that because the gel is thick seals the pores completely which is why most people use the antiques in conjunction with resist techniques; where you paint the desired area with super sheen and let it dry. After it dries you apply your gel and the area painted with sheen keeps more of the color of the leather with the more coats you apply. If you want good color then start with a good oil or water-based stain as a base coat and spread evenly. When that dries you can paint it with acrylic paint however your little heart desires. Tandy and other places make acrylics just for leather that come in literally every color on the spectrum.
Step 7: Bringing It All Together
Once your panels are cut, tooled, punched, stained, and painted then it is time to bring it all together. The first thing you do is stitch the back panel to the back strap using whatever design or layout that you use. You can rivet or stitch them together. Personally I prefer hand stitching with braided waxed nylon thread in a figure eight because it is the strongest stitch in the world an no machine can reproduce it. rivets can rust, but aside from that they are sturdy if they are set properly. After that step then you stitch the gusset panel to the back panel. Remember to make sure your holes line up properly, but if you have a little extra at one end it won't hurt anything. If your gusset is not long enough then it will come up short and that's where things start looking a little screwy. Always make sure your gusset panels line up with both the front and back panels. I like to lace my gussets to the panels. You can buy leather lace stained a certain color or stain it whatever color you like. I went with red because of the theme the customer incorporated into their logo. I used a whip stitch lacing technique, but there are several styles of lacing you can achieve. I will do some instructables of those as well. If you want to set Dee rings in the back panel as a means of securing them to the frame of the bike now is the time to do it. Remembering as you accelerate to 80 on the highway as they go flying off the back of the bike and under an 18 wheeler is not going to do you any good. I was you and fairly naive about saddle bags at that time. never again. Don't wait to install them after you get the front panel laced up either. punching holes and setting rivets is not easy inside a laced up bag.
Step 8: Installing Strap Loops and Lacing Up the Front Panel
If you want to have straps to close your bag then you will need to punch holes in the back strap for the straps to go through and you will need to set strap loops in the face of the front panel. just cut a piece of leather big enough to wrap completely around the strap you are using and rivet that to the panel. after the loops are set then you can lace the front panel to the gusset.
Step 9: Heat Shield Optional
Some riders have seen their fair share of bags hanging against hot pipes and can appreciate a heat shield. It is a simple piece of leather folded inward from the edges to create a long loop for the straps to go through on the back of the bags. This adds a layer of protection and take the brunt of the heat from the pipes. I usually design my bags to ride above the pipes on the owners bike, but its better to have it and not need it ( yadda yadda yadda).
Step 10: Throw on Bike and Go
I have over 70 hours of work in these bags, so this is just an overview of everything that went into them. If you have questions you are always welcome to ask. If you want to try them you just have to decide you want to badly enough to dive into them. It is a little scary at first, and you will make mistakes, but you will be the only one who really notices them. Everyone else will just be amazed that you made your own bags. After you get a set under you (pun intended) then you will have more confidence going into the next set. If you plan properly, use templates starting out, and just do it then you will be happy you did. I will post more of these as I have time but feel free to look me up on facebook at Fantasia Custom Designs and keep an eye out here for more instructables. Thanks for reading this far and best of luck to you.