Intro: Wet Formed Leather Phone Case
In this instructable I'll be showing you how to use a process called "wet forming" to create a simple, stylish, and rugged leather case for your cell phone. This is an amazing technique that yields beautiful leather items and is so simple that even someone who has never done leather working before can do it with superb results! This project takes only an weekend to finish and requires standard wood working tools and a few easy to find leather-working tools. Throughout this instructable I'll walk you through the step by step process of creating a leather phone case of your own while also providing tips and resources to help you do the best possible work. Enjoy!
This Instructable was inspired by one of the first Instructables I ever read, "Leather iPod Touch Case using Water!" by gmjhowe. The instructable is a wealth of knowledge and is really well written with great pictures and all sorts of tips for leather working. When designing my Leather Cell Phone Case and this Instructable I referenced gmjhowe's project, but I opted to use the technique of wet forming the leather using a mold as I thought it might yield more consistent results, plus it allows you to make multiple cases very quickly. Make sure to reference his work as you read through this instructable as I think his ideas and techniques compliment what I have written very well.
If you enjoy this instructable please consider voting for it in the "Phone" and "Remix 2.0" Contests!
Step 1: Here's What You'll Need
You're not going to need a lot of materials for this project, but you will need a few tools, specifically some standard wood working tools like a router and saw. You'll also need a few leather working tools like bevelers and slickers but if you don't have those at your disposal fear not, I've included links below to a few Instructables where you can learn how to make them for yourself, (I've also included links to Amazon if you'd prefer to buy them.)
Leather - I use 6 ounce vegetable tanned leather for this project which is my go to leather for just about every project I do. Finding sources for leather can be tricky, retailers like Tandy Leather can be a great resource for small projects like this one, but also check around your area for saddle shops or custom leather shops as you can sometimes get scraps or seconds for next to nothing.
E6000 Glue- There are dedicated glues for working with leather but I have found that E6000 does a pretty fantastic job of bonding leather together and the nice thing is that you can purchase it at many craft stores and home improvement stores for half the cost of commercial leather glues. E6000 is a flexible adhesive which means that it will bend and flex with the leather helping your phone case to last longer.
Leather Finish - Although I've dabbled in leather working for a while now I still consider myself to be a bit of a beginner when it comes to things like leather finishes. for this project I use olive oil to seal and protect the leather, if you research using oil to seal and finish leather you'll find that some people swear by it and other people think it's the worst idea since the 1 watt light bulb. personally I like oil finishes on leather, I think they are easy to apply, look nice, and are easy to keep up as all you have to do is wipe on some more oil if your finish starts to wear thin.
*Update: After some great posts in the comments I have learned that oils like Neatsfoot Oil are a much better option when finishing leather as they don't run the risk of going rancid like olive or vegetable oils do.
Gum Tragacanth - This substance is used to slick and seal the edges of leather. some people say you can use water or even saliva in place of this but you'll not get the same pro level results. a bottle of this stuff will run you about 10 dollars and will last for years, if you plan to do any leather working at all I'd advise that you bit the bullet and but a bottle.
Phone - you'll need what ever phone that you're making the case for so that you can trace it to make a wooden analog that will be used to wet form the leather over. For this project I used my Samsung Galaxy S5.
Table Saw - Building this project requires a bit of wood working as you'll have to make a wooden replica of your phone and a wooden frame to press and hold the leather over the replica. You'll need some way to cut wood, a table saw is my tool of choice but a band saw, jig saw, circular saw, or even a hand saw could do the job with acceptable results.
Drill & Bits
Kreg Pocket Hole Jig - This is an awesome little tool! I used it to assemble the frame used for stretching the leather over the wooden phone replica. The kreg screws screws pull the wood tightly together and allow you to adjust the frame to the exact size you need.
Edge Beveler and Edge Slicker - These are two tools designed to finish the edges of leather, (think about leather items you own, have you ever noticed the shiny polished edges? These are the tools that do that.) The beveler rounds the straight edges left from cutting the leather and the slicker works down the cut fibers of the leather's edge polishing them together into a smooth surface. Note that the slicker is used in conjunction with Gum Tragacanth which helps the leather fibers to bond together allowing that polished surface to form more easily.
Step 2: Making the Phone Analog (Wooden Replica)
The first thing you want to do for this project is to make an analog (replica) of your phone in wood. The reason for this should be fairly apparent, you're going to be doing a lot of drilling, sawing, clamping, cutting and a whole host of other fairly destructive tasks and having something that you can use to represent the dimensions of your phone will potentially save you a lot of money in the event of a phone catastrophe.
To make the wooden replica start with wood that is as close as possible to the thickness of your phone. If you have access to a planer then this is very easy to do as you can plane down your stock wood to the exact thickness you need. If you don't have a planer just pick the closest dimension you can find, for my Samsung Galaxy 5 that meant 1/4" plywood. Next use your table saw to rip the wood down to the same height and width as your phone. Pro Tip: make sure you dial these dimensions in as close as possible, if you make your dimensions to big or small your case will not fit properly, (either it won't be tight enough to fit your phone snugly, or it will be so tight that your phone won't fit in.)
Step 3: Making the Wooden Mold Frame
With the phone analog finished, the next step is to make a wooden frame that will be used to force the leather over and around the analog forming it into the shape of the case. This frame will be slightly bigger in width and height to accommodate the thickness of the leather as it molds around the analog. The 6 ounce leather I used was approximately 2mm thick so I added 2mm to the top/bottom and side dimensions of my phone analog measurement to determine the inside dimensions of the frame.
Once I had the measurements down, actually making the frame was a two step process. First I used scrap lengths of pine and my Kreg Jig and Kreg pocket hole screws to create a primary version of the frame. Next I used that version as a template and cut the final frame using a router and flux trim bit.
Here is the process step by step:
- create the rough frame using scrap wood and pocket screws.
- trace the inside dimensions of the rough frame onto the wood the final frame will be cut from.
- use a drill to make a hole in each corner of the traced area.
- use a jig saw to cut from hole to hole which will remove most of the material from inside the traced area.
- re-position the rough frame so that it aligns with the traced area.
- clamp the rough frame to the unfinished final frame
- use a route equipped with a flush trim bit to clean up the edges of the final frame.
The reason for making the second frame as opposed to just using the screwed together first version is primarily the rounded corners that are left after routing the second frame. The rounded corners will yield a nicer end result when clamping the wet leather than the square corners of the original frame would.
Step 4: Cutting, Wetting, and Forming the Leather
With the Analog and the Frame ready to go, the next step is to start wet forming the leather. Cut a section of leather that is approx 1" larger on each side and the bottom than the analog. (PRO TIP: use multiple passes to cut through the leather. Trying to hack through it in one pass can cause your blade or slip ruining your cut or worse.) Place the cut piece of leather into a bath of warm water and allow it to set for about 10 minutes, this will ensure that the leather is saturated. While you're waiting for the leather, you can assemble your clamps, frame, analog, and an extra piece of board about the same size as the frame. PRO TIP: I wrapped my analog in plastic wrap to keep the wet leather from laminating the plywood it was made from, this will help my analog to last longer allowing me to make multiple cases. Once the leather was ready I removed it from the water, patted it dry, and then placed it carefully onto of the analog, making sure to align the top edge of the leather with the top of the analog, which will create the mouth of the case. Next I placed the frame on top of the leather and centred over the analog and pushed down gently. If your alignment is correct you should see the leather stretching slightly as the analog is forced into place inside the frame. When the alignment is correct, use the clamps to apply pressure to hold everything in place by clamping around the edges of the frame. Now allow time for the leather to dry, I left my case dry overnight with a fan on it, once the leather is dry it will hold it's the shape it's been molded into i.e. the shape of the phone case.
Step 5: Stamping Designs (Optional)
While the wet leather is clamped within the mold you can add embellishments with stamps to decorate the outside of your leather phone case. The way the mold is constructed allows for easy access to the front of the case so you can stamp or tool the leather in any way you like. PRO TIP: If you would like to stamp designs into the leather I suggest waiting for a few hours until some of the water in the leather has evaporated. If the leather is too wet the stamps won't leave crisp impressions.
PRO TIP: instead of using the traditional method of stamping with a tool and a hammer I opted to use clamping pressure to force a larger stamp down into the soft surface of the leather. This technique yields great results and allows you to add really intricate decoration to your leather work with a minimum of effort. Plus, if you have access to a 3D printer you can custom design your own stamps to really personalize your work. Check out my Instructable on creating Custom 3D Leather Stamps for more information of this process.
Step 6: Unclamping and Creating the Back of the Case
Once the leather case is dry you can un-clamp it from the mold. Take a moment to admire your results and then grab another piece of leather and get ready to cut out the back of the case.
Cutting the back of the case is pretty simple, I used the analog to get a rough idea of what size the back of the case would need to be, adding 1/2" to each side so that I'd have plenty of room for gluing and error.
Step 7: Gluing and Re-Clamping
To attach the front of the case to the back I used E6000 adhesive. There are dedicated adhesives for bonding leather but I've found the E6000 does a wonderful job of creating strong, flexible, lasting bonds between leather, (plus it's less expensive than commercial leather glues and has a much wider range of applications.) I applied the glue to the back side of the front of the case, tracing around the area where the leather was molded over the analog.
PRO TIP: E6000 can be hard to control in its original tube. To make it more manageable, squeeze the amount of glue you think you'll need for your project into the tip of a plastic bag and then seal the bag after removing as much air as possible. Next, use scissors to cut a wee bit of the tip of the bag off. This essentially creates a pastry bag for the glue allowing for you to easily and accurately apply the glue just where you need it.
Once the glue is in place put the analog back inside the case and then lay the back of the case in place. Next place the leather case assembly you just created back into the mold and re-clamp it just as you did when you initially molded the leather. Clamping the case in place will ensure that the glue thoroughly bonds the front and back of the case together.
Allow the glue about 2 hours to cure before un-clamping to ensure the best bond.
Wait, shouldn't you sew it too?
Good question! sewing leather is definitely a good way to ensure a strong bond between two pieces of leather. I actually designed and worked through this project with every intention of sewing the two sides together, but when I started experimenting with the E6000 glue and realized how strongly it bonded the leather together I decided to just let the glue do the work of holding the case together. If you still feel the need to sew your case you can certainly do that, just check out these fantastic instructable by Jessyratfink to learn how to sew leather like a pro!
Step 8: Unclamping and Triming the Edges
Off with the clamps yet again! This time when you un-clamp you will have a phone case with a front and back. At this point removing the analog from inside the phone case can be a bit of a challenge as there is no good way to grab hold of it. To remedy this, drive a screw part way into the top of the analog and then used it as a knob to pull the analog out of the case.
The next thing you need to contend with are the very unfinished edges of your phone case. The trick to trimming the edges is to do it evenly as uneven edges will make your end product look unrefined. To ensure the edges of my case were trimmed evenly I measured out from the edge created where the leather was molded over the analog, creating a 1/4 wide outline that defined the edge of my case. With the outline drawn I used a straight edge and a craft knife to cut away the excess leather.
PRO TIP: This will be the first time you've had to cut through two thicknesses of leather and the rule that I mentioned in step 5 still applies; Go slow and use multiple passes to cut through the leather. If you try to hack through it in one pass you'll likely slip or your blade will waiver and cut something that you didn't want to be cut like part of your project or your finger.
Step 9: Finishing the Edges - Beveling & Slicking
This is one of those steps that really makes or breaks the quality of your final project. Finishing the edges of leather projects makes the whole project better, even if it's not that great of a project, if you finish the edges nicely it really pulls the whole things together; (kind of like putting a really nice mat on a not so nice painting, all of a sudden the painting looks better just because it's properly matted.
Below is a quick step by step guide to finishing the edge of your leather phone case, but I highly suggest you also check out the awesome instructable created be Jessyratfink on finishing leather edges, "How to burnish leather edges". Everything she says is 100% on the money and she does a great job showing the step by step process:
Finishing Leather Edges
- If working with an edge that is made up of two joined pieces of leather, trim the edges so that they are even. (You already did this in the previous step.)
- Use an edge beveler to bevel the edges of the leather, making sure to bevel both sides.
- Lightly sand the edges using 220 grit sand paper to remove irregularities or facets creating during beveling.
- Apply Gum Tragacanth uniformly to the edges of the leather. Be conscious to not apply the Gum Tragacanth to the surface of the leather as it will act as a resist when applying finish.
- Allow the gum to begin to dry, it will become slightly tacky.
- Burnish the edges of your project rapidly with an edge slicker. This will work the Gum Tragacanth into the leather fibers and will help the fibers to bind together into a polished edge.
- Apply more Gum Tragacanth and continue burnishing/slicking until a polished edge appears.
Step 10: Applying Finish and Buffing
As I mentioned earlier, I'm still not as great of a leather finisher as I would like to be, so if you have a finish that you'd like to try I suggest you check it out and do some research/experiments as you might find something that works really well for you. If so, remember to share it here in the comments or create an instructable of your own!
For this project I chose a simple finish of olive oil. Olive oil will protect the leather and will also impart a nice dark brown color to the surface which really makes stamped designs pop! To apply the oil I used cotton balls, rubbing multiple coats of oil into the surface of the leather until I achieved an even finish. Be careful when applying an oil finish as it is possible to apply to much, which will make the leather soggy and ruin your project. After applying the finish I switched to a piece of clean cotton cloth and then rapidly rubbed the entire case to burnish the surface of the leather which imparted a nice matted sheen giving the case a high quality finished appearance.
Step 11: Done
Thanks for taking the time to check out my instructable on wet forming a phone case. I hope you enjoyed the information presented within and that it has maybe sparked an idea or two in your mind. This really is a great into to leather working project as the process is very simple yet the results really look very professional. Additionally this technique can be taken so much farther to create more complex forms or to create larger items like satchels, pouches, or even leather armour components if that's something you're into. If you have any questions or if you'd like to share some of your leather working wisdom, please feel free to post in the comments and I will get back to you asap.
If you enjoyed this instructable please consider throwing a vote my direction for the "Phone" and "Remix 2.0" Contests, Thanks!