Making a Leather Bag by Hand
Updated: Nov 2
An Unexpected Delivery
As I was coming up from my basement, I saw a huge box sitting in my kitchen. Package deliveries at our house are no strange thing, especially since COVID, but this box was something unusual. It was a fairly large box, wrapped in brown paper, and I had no memory of ordering anything that would have fit its description. I ripped open the paper, only to see a Tandy Leather logo. I knew immediately what it was.
A couple months before, I’d received a flyer from Tandy Leather, advertising new products available on their website. One of their new products was a bag-making kit that I had drooled over, and thrust in my husband’s face with exclamations of glee.
“Just look at this bag! It’s so beautiful!”
Paul has a good memory, and, you guessed it, he surprised me by ordering a leather bag-making kit from Tandy Leather. With my four kiddos, I have gone through a few diaper bags, and had been needing a new one for a while. As a DIY addict, I’d always had the niggling feeling that I should try making my own leather diaper bag, but felt it was too much to take on a new craft.
This bag kit was the perfect solution. While it wasn’t the exact one I’d seen in the flyer as it had been out of stock, it was a darling leather “overnight bag” kit that came with the pre-cut panels of bison leather, thread, needles, rivets, and instructions. It was perfect, and the shape of the bag put me in mind of Anne Shirley’s carpet bag that she brings with her to Green Gables. Just my aesthetic!
The first step was finding the tools, and many of them I had never heard of!
Finding the Tools
On the front of the box was printed a list of the tools I would need to purchase that didn’t come with the kit. This included: a “V-gouge” tool, an edge burnishing tool, an edge bevelling tool, a mallet for setting the rivets, and something I’d never heard of called “side nippers”. That last one would later cause me some trouble. More on that soon.
I found most of the tools I needed from Tandy Leather, except for the mysterious “side nippers”. I had little idea of what these were and no idea of what they would be used for, but I found something I thought would work from Amazon. I also bought something listed as optional, and that was “edge paint”. Tools and supplies in hand, I embarked on my bag-making expedition!
Finishing the Edges
The first step of the bag making was to give a more polished and professional appearance to the edges of the leather panels. They had already been cut of course, but on most finished leather bags the edges have been rounded and smoothed as well.
The first step was to use my edge bevelling tool to shave off the corners of the cut leather along the length of the panels, giving the edges more of a rounded shape. Then, after dampening the edges with a wet cloth, I smoothed the edges with my burnishing tool, which slicked down any rough fibres of leather at the edges. Finally I used my dark brown “edge paint” to paint the edges of the leather, which were a lighter colour than the front of the panels.
Now it was time for what would turn out the be the most difficult part of making this bag.
Battle of the Rivet-Setting
This bag had many small straps that needed to be attached using copper rivets, along with the top flap of the bag. While I have always liked the look of rivets, I had never set rivets into anything before.
The kit came with all the rivets I would need, and a rivet setting tool which was a metal cylinder shape with a hole on one side and a domed indent on the other side, designed to fit into the rivets. As before mentioned, I had my rawhide mallet to hit this tool with.
I first needed to fit the rivet through the pre-punched holes of the two pieces I was connecting, and then fit the “burr” (much like a washer) down over the side of the rivet that was poking out the top. I then hit this down using my setting tool and mallet. Finally, the top of the rivet needed to be trimmed down and smoothed out using the dome side of the setting tool. This is where those mysterious “side nippers” come into play. Unfortunately, the side nippers I had bought was much too small for a job like this. It was extremely difficult to cut the first couple rivets I attempted, especially considering the sheer number of rivets there were.
On my third or fourth rivet, I pushed with all my might on the cutting tool to trim the rivet, and finally heard that satisfying “clunk” of snapping metal. Upon pulling my side nippers away from the job, I discovered it was actually the rivet that had “attacked” the side nippers, snapping off one of the cutting jaws!
Stitching the Bag Together
After some Googling and a helpful Reddit forum, I decided to order a set of 9’’cutting pliers from Amazon. The only problem was, they would take almost a week to arrive, and I had wanted to spend the next few days finishing my bag! After 10 minutes or so of despair, I had the epiphany that as the rivets were already partly set, I could go ahead with the rest of the bag construction and finish the rivets when my tool arrived.
It was time to do some stitching! The kit came with some heavy duty thread and a couple of needles, and instructed me to use a “double running stitch”. I would first sew through the pre-punched holes using a normal running stitch, with a gap between each stitch, and then turn back and sew over it again, covering those gaps. This created a professional-looking seam of continuous stitched. The pre-punched holes in this kit made it very convenient!
The first part of the bag to be sewn was the base, which was made of a thicker and sturdier leather, and then the body of the bag which was type of leather. The body of the bag was then attached to the base, and the flap attached to the body of the bag. Finished! The stitched took longer and was harder on my fingers than I’d expected, but it was a meditative process and rewarding. So, on to finishing those rivets!
Some Unexpected Errors
When my 9’’ cutting pliers arrived, they were indeed able to cut the rivets with ease. This was not the end of my trouble with those rivets, however. Either I was not being careful enough while cutting, or the tool I used was not ideally suited to the job, because some of the rivets ended up being cut too close to the burr (washer), meaning that even after setting the burr with the mallet, a couple of them fell off, not having much rivet to hold on to. After some use of this bag, some of the rivets need to be completely replaced because of this error, which I have yet to do.
Another error which thankfully turned out okay was that I fastened one of the small straps onto the bag the wrong way. This particular strap holds the buckle which the top flap fastens into. Upon realizing this, at first I thought I would either have to remove the rivets (practically impossible) or that the bag was ruined. In the end, I found that I could strap the top flap down with no problems even with the buckle facing the wrong way around.
How Do I Like the Bag?
I like this bag a lot. It is much bigger than I’d envisioned, but that makes sense as it is an overnight bag. It is designed to carry enough clothing and personal items for a weekend getaway, while being small enough to use as a carry-on bag for a flight. I use this bag as a diaper bag, and though it is large, I can get away with a “mega purse” with all my kiddos. I love the smell of this bag also! It brings back memories of going shoe-shopping in the mall (ah, those days when malls were open!).
Do you plan on making a bag like this? Leave any comments or questions below!
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