The smell of leather...mmmmmmmm...delicious.
Working with raw vegetable tanned leather is a lot of fun. You take a piece of full grain, un-dyed leather that really isn't all that appealing by itself, and turn it in to a work of art. My favorite things to make out of leather are briefcases. There is just something so timeless about a rugged leather briefcase that is hard to describe.
On with the show...
Step 1: Tools & Material
You can spend a lot of money on leather tools as is true with any hobby (or profession). I have quite a few leather tools that I've procured (mostly from Tandy Leather Factory) over the years. You can also look on eBay for used tools. The tools shown aren't all that I have but are the ones I use the most. You can "get by" in the beginning with just some basic tools such as a utility knife, straight edge, makeshift awl, stitching needles. But as you expand in your leather working you'll definitely want to get more tools. This will greatly improve the fun and quality of your work. You'll also need sponges and rags for dyeing. A cutting surface is essential. I have 4 plastic kitchen cutting boards screwed to my worktop for cutting. And most definitely a solid work surface.
Get a couple of books to look through too. The ones shown are my favorites ( available here ) The first one Leathercraft Tools how to use them, how to sharpen them is the most useful for beginners. You can get these as E-pubs or get a hard copy. I first bought E-pubs then a year later bought the real book.
You'll need a nice piece of veg-tanned leather about 7-9 oz. (that's the thickness) I used about 8 sq. ft. with the waste
Lining leather (about) 8 sq. ft.
Make sure you get good quality hardware. I like buckleguy.com. If you buy more than 10 of any item you get a discount.
4 - 1" Dee rings (for handle and straps)
2 - trigger snaps (to attach the shoulder strap)
1 Tuck catches
a bunch of rivets (20)
Step 2: Dye Leather
I like to dye my leather first to make sure it takes evenly. I've had problems before with the dye being uneven because of imperfections in the leather. This way I can dye it first to see where to lay my patterns that will be the most aesthetically pleasing. I do kind of an antiquing process where I use 3 different colors (brown, red, & black) to come up with the finished color. I put them on in layers and use a rag to wipe some off. It's a lot of work doing it this way but I really like the finished look.
Step 3: Lay Out Patterns
I make my patterns out of heavy paper util I get them all worked out. Then I transfer them to pressed card stock or illustration board. If you are going to make a ton of your product you can make your patterns out of sheet metal so they will last forever. You can cut directly around your patterns or use a scratch awl to mark it on to your leather.
Sorry no pdf's of the patterns. If you look close at the pics above you can see the overall dimensions of each pattern piece.
Step 4: Cut Leather
Use a steel straight edge for all your straight cuts. Press down firmly as you will need a decent amount of pressure to cut through the heavy leather. Freehand any curves. You may need two passes on the curves to cut all the way through. Make sure you have all your pieces.
I use a strap cutter for the shoulder strap. You'll need one piece (billet) 48" long and another 18" long.
Step 5: Punch Rivet Holes
Use a 1/8" or 3/16" hole punch for any rivet holes. I mark them all out with my patterns.
Step 6: Add Logo
I had my logo made into a brass stamp that has two ways of using it. It can be used as shown with a brass handle to stamp it in to wet vegetable tanned leather. It can also be screwed in to an electric iron similar to a soldering iron. That works well on chrome tanned leather as it won't hold a wet stamped mark as well.
Step 7: Skive Sides and Back
Here you need to take a v-gouge to cut a channel on the flesh side. Make your cut about a 1/3 of the thickness of the leather deep. After channel is cut you can skive the flesh side of the leather down a bit so your finished edge will not be so thick. I like to keep it a bit thick because these bags tend to get loaded up with a lot of weight.
Step 8: Wet Form Sides and Back
Get a dish of water and a sponge. Wet the entire edge and let it soak in. Repeat 2-3 times until it is saturated. Let set for a few minutes to loosen up the fibers.
Start to form the edge by bending it up with your fingers.
Use a cobblers hammer or a smooth faced trim hammer to tap the bend. This will help it hold it's form.
Then use a bone folder to crease the inside of the fold on the grain side of the leather.
Set aside to dry.
Step 9: Tool Your Design
There are a few different techniques that I have seen on youtube and have read in leather books. Most tend to do all the tooling before you dye your leather. Everybody seems to come up with their own technique that works for them. But being that I like to see how the dye takes on the whole piece of leather before I cut all my pieces, I tool or stamp it after I dye it.
Some call it tooling some say leather carving, it's all the same thing. It's the process of cutting and stamping wet vegetable tanned leather to make an embossed surface.
First- Completely saturate the area to be stamped. Some let it sit overnight in the water. I just let it sit until no more bubbles come out of the leather's surface.
Second- You can transfer a design on to the leather by placing a piece of paper on the area to be stamped and drawing over it with a dull pencil or a tool that has a blunt tip.
Third- Use a swivel knife to cut the design. Don't cut more than a third of the way through the leather.
Fourth- Use a bevel stamp to emboss the deeper areas of your design. This will give a 3D effect.
Fifth- Add details and fill background. You can use modeling tools to depress areas of your design. I also used an awl to add some stippling.
Step 10: Dye Tooled Area
If you dyed the leather ahead of time you may have to dye some of the cuts or any areas exposed by the tooling. Then you can use a darker dye to highlight any shadows or just to antique it.
Step 11: Add Some Dees
Burnish any exposed edges on your dee strap. I like to rivet the inside and then sew the outside. It gives it a nice finished look. Use contact cement to attach until sewn. Scuff up the leather wherever it is to be glued to give it "tooth", that is, something to grab on to.
Step 12: Make Handle
The handle is made out of two pieces of leather. One measures 1'"x16 1/2". The other 4 3/4"x4 3/4". The strip will two folds in it where the dees are located. Cement and rivet together after burnishing the edges where the dees are. Wet the other piece of leather and form around the handle. Let it sit overnight to dry. Cement together, stitch, cut edge and finish edge. I like to give the handle a nice bend. If your leather is tough you can wet the whole thing again to do this.
Step 13: Make Handle Keeper
Cut a strip of leather about 1 3/8" wide. Notch with a large hole punch where the dees for the handle will be attached to the body of the bag. Cut sewing channel with a groover. Bevel edges, dye and burnish all edges. Glue, rivet and stitch the middle section to the back/front flap of the bag.
Step 14: Attach Handle
Slip the dees over the handle keepers edge. Cement, glue, rivet and stitch
Step 15: Attach Tuck Catch
You can figure out where your tuck catch needs to go by clipping the whole bag together kind of as a mock up. I do this when I'm designing a new bag and I need to see where the handle or any buckles will be placed. I already had my patterns made here so I just marked them and attached.
Step 16: Add Stiffeners
You can use pressed gray board to stiffen up the sides and bottom. Use contact cement to adhere.
Step 17: Inside Pocket
I use a thin leather to line my bags. It is a soft leather that is used for lining fine dress shoes. The pocket has an accordion side to make it more roomy for documents. I also add a pen holder and a smaller pocket for a phone. You need to sew the pocket and attach it to the piece of lining leather before you cement the liner in.
Step 18: Punch Holes
Use a stitching fork to punch the stitching holes through the front and back piece with the liner.
Step 19: Attach Liner
It's not totally necessary to line your bag but this allows you to add stiffeners,pockets, and hide the backside of any hardware. Using a leather contact cement paint both surfaces to be adhered. Follow the manufacturers recommendations on how to use. But generally you allow it to dry a little bit (loose it's shine) before pressing the two sides together. You can use a small roller to firmly adhere the two sides together. Trim off excess taking care not to back cut it or cut it shorter than the hide. I use shish kabob skewers to keep "premature adhesion" from happening (Hey, it's a serious medical condition). Then you can pull them out one by one as you lightly press the lining on to the back and sides.
Step 20: Cement Bag Together
Carefully paint on contact cement about 3/8" in from the edge on the lining of your front piece where the bottom and sides will be stitched together. You can use a piece of paper (wax paper is the best) as a stencil. Take your time lining your pieces up as you adhere them. If they aren't perfectly lined up your bag won't sit flat. Don't cement the back on yet. You need access to the bottom to stitch it to the side in the next step.
Step 21: Stitch Bottom to Sides
Use a stitching awl to finish the holes through the bottom piece of leather and stitch.
Step 22: Attach Back
Adhere back piece to the rest of the case.
Step 23: Stitch and Finish Edges
First I punch a hole for a rivet at the top edge of each side, front and back. Then Saddle stitch around the perimeter of the front (not the top edge) and back. Once all stitched you need to even out the edges. You can use sandpaper, a Dremel with a sanding drum, or (as I like to) use a piece of glass. Briskly rub the sharp edge of glass along the edge using your forefinger as a fence or guide on the leather. Bevel edges. Touch up with sandpaper. Dye the edge. Rub beeswax on and finally burnish. I sometimes use a cocobolo edge slicker with my Dremel but I always finish it off with a piece of canvas.
Step 24: Rivet
Rivet the back to the sies.
Step 25: Make Strap
The strap is made of two 1" strips: 1 @ 48" & 1 @ 18".
Finish all edges.
The long one has a lever snap attached on one end with two rivets the other end is the billet side. Come in about 3" from the end and punch a hole every 1". Put in as many as you'll need to adjust it correctly for your size.
On the 18" piece attach a buckle on one side and a lever snap on the other.
Step 26: Add Finish
At this point you are pretty much done. I like to touch up the dye job and add some low lights or antiquing. Then I use a good conditioning paste let it soak in for a day and finally paste wax. This Step really makes the leather look great and the wax will protect it for a while from water. You'll need to reapply every 6 months or so to keep it looking great. Don't worry if you get some scratches on it, they just give it personality. I prefer a used look than a pristine piece.