2016 October 6 Tech Various
Photographers typically use camera bags, not just for the camera and lenses, but also for other stuff... earplugs, batteries, keys, Swiss Army knife, lunch, whatever.
For a long time I've had this nice green camera bag. It's a design that might even be considered "retro" nowadays, but I've always been very happy with it. There is, however, one major design flaw. They attached the hardware with cheesy fake leather that would eventually disintegrate.
Recently, that's what started to happen.
It seemed a waste to throw away the whole camera bag. First I tried hot-gluing the broken straps, but that didn't work so well. I then decided that if I was going to fix it properly, I'd have to learn leather stitching.
Yep, that's right... I was going to take up yet another craft, just to fix one thing. I can't even sew, really, but I figured it was worth a try. Join me in this article as I try to figure out leather stitching by hand.
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In This Article
Gearing Up: Leather Tools
Gearing Up: The Awl
Choosing The Leather
Using The Awl
Gearing Up: Leather Tools
Starting out, I wasn't quite sure what I would need. After quite a bit of bumbling around, here's what I found was necessary:
1. Carpenter's Square. I bet you never thought you'd need one of those for leatherworking! Get an 8"x12" all-metal square. Use it for general woodworking, too.
2. Leather knife. You could use a utility knife, but from what I gather, one of these is much better for leather working. Another one that's very useful to have in a leatherworking kit is a hawk bill knife.
3. Leather stitching needles. These are not as sharp as regular sewing needles. So far in my beginner attempts, these needles from Tandy worked well for me, even though I have no idea if they're what you're "supposed to" use.
4. Waxed linen thread. I didn't have this; instead I used a roll of waxed "fake sinew" that a friend gave me. It looks OK on some things, but for a camera bag the result was kind of crude-looking. Just get you some proper linen thread, such as Sajou Fil au Chinois in size 432. The real stuff is about thirty-some dollars a roll, but a roll contains hundreds of feet. There are cheaper solutions, too; I'll try to update this section when I figure this out.
5. Awl. We'll talk about this separately, because there's actually a lot to know about it.
6. Stitching groover. I did not have one of these, either. I had to use a pair of dividers instead. Get a proper stitch groover here, and don't waste your time messing around with dividers, bent fork tines, etc.
7. Wooden cutting board. Use this along with your carpenter's square and sharp blade. Cut nice, straight, parallel-edged pieces of cowhide with ease. It helps if the cutting board is at least 10"x14". Avoid the ones that have a groove or channel around the outside. This cutting board would be a good choice.
8. Stitching Wheel, a.k.a. "Overstitch Wheel" or "Overstitcher". This is the little jaggy wheel that lets you roll out neatly-spaced indentations along the leather. Then, you can punch them through with an awl and make professional-looking stitches. I used 8 stitches per inch ("8 spi") because (A.) that's what I had, and (B.) it just happened to match the spacing that was already on the camera bag. Tandy #8079-08 is one example. It would probably also be good to have a size 7 overstitcher, which is 7 spi, and a size 6 overstitcher.
9. Scrap of 2x4 or 2x6 lumber. Some people have stitch ponies or stitching horses or whatever they're called, but I don't have one of those. Instead I use a piece of 2x4 as a backing board for awl and punch work. Otherwise, the nice flat cutting board will have hundreds of awl & punch holes it. (That's what happened before I used the 2x4. Yeah, I know... duh.)
Gearing Up: The Awl
The common round awl is not meant for leather stitching, as I found. A small drill bit is no good, either (tried that, too.) The proper tool for making the stitch holes is a "diamond awl", which means the awl blade actually has a diamond-shaped cross section.
The cheaper awls tend to be the wrong shape, wrong size, wrong profile, too soft, too brittle, etc. One exception might be Vergez Blanchard, which I haven't tried yet, but a lot of people seem to be happy with them. Individually, they usually run $25 or so; they're available (usually) through this link. Sometimes you can get a set of five different sizes at a discount through this link.
The C.S. Osborne diamond awl is said to be passable, as long as you sharpen and hone it before using it. They can be had for about $10 here; I'll update this article when I try one.
Another idea, if you're into metalworking, is to make a diamond awl from a worn-out file. I would use a triangular file, slim taper, round file, or something else slender as the starting material. The heat treating is really important; you don't want the awl to be too hard (it would snap off), but it has to be able to maintain a point.
Choosing The Leather
So far I know one thing for sure... don't use "Bonded Leather". This stuff is awful. It's not real leather, but instead particles of leather that have been pressed together. I guess they use some type of adhesive to make it all stay put. Eventually it crumbles.
"Genuine Bonded Leather" is something of an oxymoron. There's nothing genuine about it, except maybe that the particles were once leather.
Start with real leather. For the straps that hold the buckles onto this camera bag, I think it's what they call "7-ounce" leather, or maybe "6 to 7 ounce" leather. You can easily get leather that's called "8 to 9 ounce", but I think that would have been too thick for this particular use. For belts, heavy-duty tool pouches, and that sort of thing, 8 to 9 ounce leather would be great.
Leather is actually kind of expensive. A more economical way to buy it is to buy a whole shoulder of cowhide. This link should take you to 6-7 oz leather that would work for a strap repair. If you'll get even halfway serious about leatherworking, consider buying a shoulder of 8/9 oz leather, such as here; as I said, this seems to be a preferred weight for sheaths, belts, and other heavy duty items.
In this project I had to remove the old straps from the camera bag. I cut the old stitches carefully:
This is also a good time to measure the old straps and cut new ones out of leather. Here, it required pieces that were 1" wide by 4" long. The carpenter's square was highly useful for making the straight line cuts.
Buy the leather in big pieces and you can cut any size or shape you need, including leather belts. I think this way is more economical, but I could be wrong. Either way, a substantial piece of starting material gives you tremendous flexibility. The edge scraps can be used for little projects like this one.
Using The Awl
Marking out the holes in the leather is not that difficult if you have one of those little stitching rollers. These roll out a dotted line that represents so many stitches per inch.
The more difficult part is using an awl to punch every one of these markings.
My preliminary attempt was about three or four beginner mistakes rolled into one. I was using the wrong type of awl, and then I decided to compound the problem with a small drill bit in a pin vise. At the time, I did not know that it's a bad idea to remove material. If you actually remove material, the stitch holes will be oversized, the leather will be weaker, and it might look uneven. A proper awl simply punctures the leather and pushes material aside.
Assuming you have the right type of awl, one key to success is to keep it at the same angle each time. The awl itself is held at 90 degrees to the leather, but the diamond cross-section is rotated a certain angle. This essential book explains it.
Here's another thing I didn't think of: to sharpen and polish the awl. If you don't do this (as I didn't), it takes a lot of extra effort to make the stitch holes.
The actual stitching was even more tedious than making the stitch holes. Thanks to the crossed pattern in the center, I wasn't sure how to stitch that properly.
The first stitches were awful looking.
At one point I cut the threads and knotted them from the front. It looked very sloppy, so I routed the threads through to the back side and knotted them there, instead. The way I figure, as long as there are no visible knots from the front, it's a success! Real leatherworkers know how to avoid making any knots at all; right now I was happy enough to have it look OK from the other side of the room.
The stitching went sort of alright. It's crude, it's crooked, the stitch holes are a disaster, the leather is probably not that strong anymore... but I consider it a success. I learned a lot, and I hope you can apply this knowledge to your own leatherworking.
Better thread and a better awl would have made the stitches look nicer. That said, the material I had was free, and it's functional enough.
I went into this thinking it might have been a better idea to rivet the leather. I still think it may be. Thing is, the strips might not be wide enough to accommodate four large copper rivets apiece. At this point I can't very well rivet the other leather pieces, because it would look weird with just one of the pieces stitched on. So I guess I'm going to have to do the same process three more times. With a labor-intensive process like this, I think it will start to go faster as I learn better technique.
Stitching done right is actually very strong; it's just that I messed up the leather by making a host of beginner mistakes.
This project wasn't so much for appearance; I just wanted the camera bag to be functional again. This is a good type of project for learning to stitch leather, because you can refine your technique for the stuff where appearance is more important.
I still don't really know what I'm doing, but it's a little less so than before.
This was a look at repairing a vintage camera bag. Mainly, it's a page of notes so that I can try to improve technique for next time. Hopefully it will help you too, if you're a complete beginner like me.
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