#284 In which our hero recounts his quest for the perfect man bag (part 3)
First up: cut out the big pieces. This is always the most nerve-wracking part, for me, at least. Math is my enemy, so I end up checking and re-checking my measurements half a dozen times. And since I'm very much of the "eh, close enough" school, this sometimes bites me in the ass (as it did at a later point in this project).
There are four pieces that make up the bag, sewn together with two gussets (that's the two long strips in the foreground). I also cut out all the little fiddly bits of leather: straps for the front, straps to hold the buckles and the parts of the handle. I had a pre-cut length of leather for a belt, but I decided to use that as the shoulder strap.
When you're sewing thick leather, it's not like sewing cloth. You use a dull needle (actually, a pair of dull needles) called harness needles and push them through holes that have already been punched in the leather. There are a couple handy tools I have to help get the holes evenly placed from the edge and evenly spaced apart. But there's no shortcut in the actual punching of holes part.
I punched somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,300 holes. One at a time, with the awl shown. It's tedious, and probably the worst part of a project like this.
I dyed all the pieces before assembling them to keep it simple. It's easier to get an even coat of dye of a flat piece of leather compared to something already assembled. What you see above is after three or five applications of dye (Fiebling's Professional Oil Dye, Dark Brown, if you care). The leather really soaked it up, and it took six coats before it looked even and not splotchy. And it still wasn't the rich, dark brown I was hoping for. Different leather's take dye differently, so you really never know how it's going to look until it's in the leather. The back pocket is cut from a different hide, and turned out a little darker than the rest.
This caused me a little consternation at first. I really liked the color of the Filson satchel, and had hoped to match it as closely as possible. But the leather just wasn't getting there. So I moved on to the next step: finishing the edges.
I don't have any photos of this part of the process, maybe because it's fairly labor intense. And it is also one of the most important. Nicely finished edges really make a project look professional.
Here's the thing: if you've ever picked up a solid leather belt (not one of those crappy ones with two thin pieces of leather sewn together over a cardboard core) or a nicely-crafted bridle, you can run your hand along it and it feels great. What you're reacting to, if you were conscious of it or not, are the edges. When you cut heavier leathers you end up with a squared-off edge, which feels sharp and uncomfortable in your hand. If you round over this edge it feels much nicer.
My process of finishing an edge is to first use a tool called, fittingly enough, an edger. This takes off some of the sharpness of the edge. Next I use fine grit sandpaper to smooth off the remaining edges and give it a rounded profile. The sandpaper leaves it with an almost furry appearance at this point. To give it that nice, slick surface, I use a product called Gum Tragacanth. It's designed for this purpose and, apparently, it's used in confections, too. I had no idea. But you dab a little on the edge, rub it briskly with a piece of canvas, and it leaves a smooth, slick edge.
It also darkens the leather. I wasn't careful enough when I was finishing the edges of the straps and got some of it on the surface of the strap. This left an unattractive blotch of darker leather. To hide my carelessness, I just finished the entire surface of the straps with the gum trag, making them a uniform color.
Now, this darker color was closer to what I had hoped the body of the bag would become. I toyed with the idea of slathering gum trag over everything, hoping it would result in the color I wanted. But, two things stopped me: 1., gum trag also softens leather, and as I've talked about before, I didn't want a floppy bag; and 2., it's not a water repellent. So I only did the straps this way. This decision payed off big-time later.
After dying the leather and finishing the edges, I had to figure out how to finish the leather (that is, treat it to be water repellent). The obvious choice is a commercial sealer that would protect it 100% from water. But I've used these acrylic sealers before, and while they work great, they can leave the leather looking a little plastic-y. Then I considered beeswax, which is supposed to leave a really nice, deep luster. But I've never worked with beeswax as a sealer, and I didn't want this to be my first experiment with it. I also briefly considered shoe polish.
I ended up just oiling it with linseed oil. Linseed oil is also supposed to soften leather, but in my experience it doesnt have much affect on thicker leather like the kind I was using. It'll work itself out of the leather eventually, and I'll have to re-oil it every now and again, but that's fine. I'm hoping that the oil will also darken the leather over time.
With everything dyed, sealed and edged, all that was left was to actually put the thing together.
To be continued.