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Choosing Leather

Despite that your typical leather product is made with ultra-cheap leather, there are actually a ton of superb leathers out there.

Different kinds of leather can have very different characteristics.

Here are few key things to differentiate when choosing your next piece.

1. Tannage

Vegetable tanned leathers have a more natural look and feel. They will also patina—you’ll see colors become darker and textures become smoother over time.

Chrome tanned leathers are generally softer, allow colors that are more vibrant, and are more resistant to water and scratches.

It’s also possible to combine tanning methods. Many high-end French and German tanneries, among others, employ combination tanning.

If you’re not too familiar with high quality leather, I recommend getting something made with vegetable tanned leather, as your initial foray into the good stuff. The look feel, and smell are quite special.

2. Texture

Along with smooth leather, there are a variety of textures available. Most of them are artificial—that is they are embossed onto the leather. Most patterns are made to emulate natural grain, but there are quite a few abstract patterns, as well. Two of the best known being Epsom and Saffiano.

The process of milling (tumbling) also has the effect of giving rich texture to the leather. Milling makes the leather softer, while embossing makes the leather firmer.

While embossing is widely employed in the production of cheap leathers, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. Many high-end leathers are embossed. Just know that it won’t feel as natural, whereas milling the leather has the opposite effect.

3. Finish

Finishes range from none at all to heavy finishes that make the leather almost plastic-like. Tanneries that start with high quality hides have the luxury of using lighter finishes, and therefore producing a more natural and luxurious product. Lesser quality hides are dyed with the aid of pigments to cover up blemishes. Waxes are also widely employed to give the leather certain properties.

Aniline finishes, which preserve the natural beauty of the skin are among the most desirable. Pull-up leather is another popular finish, but with a more rugged aesthetic.

4. Animal

While cowhide is arguably the most important and versatile leather, there are many more options out there. Cowhide, pigskin, sheepskin, and goatskin are the most common. Of those, cowhide and goatskin have characteristics that make them far superior to the other two for most leather goods. And you don’t have to look any further if splurging for an exotic isn’t on the menu.

Products made from cowhide or goatskin can be remarkably resilient and last for many years. That said, there are many wonderful exotics that are both durable and beautiful to consider if you don’t mind paying the premium. Some of the most sought after leathers include: shell cordovan (equine rear-end), alligator, and ostrich.

5. Origin

The highest regarded leather is produced in just a handful of countries. Italy and France top the list with rich tanning traditions, and many tanneries outputting great leather. Japan, Germany, the UK, and the US, also have several tanneries producing excellent quality products.

Wrap-up

Making the right leather choice depends on not only the item you’re purchasing, but the nature of its usage and what look and feel you’re after.

Looking for a luxurious and refined option? Opt for an aniline leather from France or Italy. Prefer a more rugged look? American or Italian pull-up leathers might fit the bill. Those living in rainy climates might consider English bridle or an embossed leather. Looking for maximum patina? Hard to beat traditional Japanese pit-tanned veg tans or Italian vacchetta. Want the most natural feel available? Choose a milled leather.

Whatever your choice, you’re in for a treat opting for a product made of quality leather and will likely have something to treasure for years to come.

How to buy a leather wallet that lasts

Getting a good quality leather wallet isn’t as simple as spending more.

Most mainstream options, regardless of price, use cheap materials and construction and degrade rapidly.

How do you distinguish the good from the bad? Here’s what to look for.

1. All leather construction.

If you peep down the pockets of just about any random leather wallet, you’ll see the number one reason why they don’t last–nylon cloth. Most “leather” wallets in actuality are synthetic wallets covered with cheap leather.

2. Excellent quality leather

This can be quite difficult to determine, but luckily there are some clues to light the way.

Makers that use the good stuff won’t hide it. Both the tannery and the particular leather used should typically be explicit. Absence of this information generally indicates poor or middling quality.

Full grain leather is, for the most part, preferable, but it is no guarantee of quality. There are many cheap full grain leathers that will age poorly.

The finest leather generally comes from Italy, France, the UK, the US, Germany, and Japan. Buying leather produced in one of these countries increase the odds that you’re getting top tier quality.*

3. Burnished or painted edges

Burnished or painted edges are not only essential to protect the edges from fraying and premature wear, but elevate the looks of the product considerably.

Most products are finished poorly, if at all, as a proper edge takes careful planning, skill, and a lot of time to execute properly.

Quality features tend to go together. It doesn’t make sense to skimp on leather if you’re going to construct a wallet well, and in turn, excellent leather doesn’t really belong in a poorly made product. 

Where to buy

There are many very talented makers out there producing fantastic wallets with top of the line materials and construction. They have taken the time to develop skill and offer a quality and value than just cannot be matched by bigger companies. Buy from one of them, and you’ll have a wallet that not only will last, but look great, for years. I’d suggest finding a maker through social media that jibes well with you.

*Here’s a list of some well-known tanneries that make some of the highest regarded leather in the world. Buying a product made with leather from one of these tanneries means the leather, at least, is going to be something to treasure for years to come.

  1. Conceria Walpier (makers of Buttero)
  2. Horween (makers of Chromexcel and shell cordovan)
  3. Badalassi Carlo (makers of Pueblo and Minerva Box)
  4. Wickett & Craig
  5. Herman Oak
  6. Alran (makers of “Sully” Chevre)
  7. Relma (makers of Chevre Crispe)
  8. Shinki-Hikaku (Japanese cordovan)
  9. Tanneries Masure (makers of Rugato)
  10. Tanneries Haas
  11. Perlinger
  12. Weinheimer (makers or Waprolux (Epsom))
  13. Tempesti
  14. La Perla Azzurra (makers of Dakota)
  15. J&FJ Baker, J.E. Sedgwick, and Clayton all make English bridle
  16. Tochigi and Shonan are both traditional producers of veg tan in Japan.

The Making of a Minimalist Wallet

Here’s how I make our minimalist wallet.

Here are the hand tools I’ll be using to make the wallet.

First, I cut out all the pieces.

I’m using two of my favorite leathers, Pueblo from Badalassi Carlo and Buttero from Conceria Walpier. They’re two of the most famous leathers in the leathercraft world. A lot of the world’s best leather comes from a cluster of tanneries in Tuscany, these two included.

I’m using the ‘nazionale’ color for Pueblo and orange for Buttero. Blue and orange is quite easy on the eyes.

I use a die for the 2 ‘T-slots’ to save some time. The other pieces are hand cut. Quality-wise it doesn’t matter much how the pieces are cut initially.

Next I remove some material from the slots, which reduces a little unneeded bulk and helps so that the slots’ shape don’t show through.

Next, I crease and burnish the card pockets. Creasing is is decorative, and burnishing is a process of using friction to create a smooth, glassy edge that protects it from fraying. Only vegetable tanned leather will burnish properly.

Next, the smaller T-slot is glued to the top of the of body.

Few card holders utilize the design I’m employing. It does takes more work to glue and sew the extra material at the top, but it offers several advantages. 1. The middle pocket will be lined with leather 2. The top of the wallet is stronger 3. The edges are all one thickness, making it very sleek and streamlined.

The next T-slot can be immediately glued on.

Next, this pocket is prepared for stitching.

The pocket is sewn on and the stitching is flatten with flat-faced pliers.

The next card pocket is then glued on.

The top of the body is trimmed flush. Most handmade goods skip trimming which lead to poor finishing (if done at all) and crooked stitching lines.

Everything needs to be perfectly even for proper edge finishing and straight lines of stitching to take place.

Next, the stitching holes are made.

The tops are saddle stitched and the top is creased and burnished.

The two halves are now ready to be glued together. First I rough up the interior edges for better adhesion. Then the halves are carefully aligned.

As you can see, the top is lined up just right, but the other edges aren’t even. The wallet is made oversize for this reason. I now will take about 2 mm off the side and bottom and take the whole wallet to its final size.

The wallet has been trimmed and the stitching holes made. The dimensions have been carefully thought out so all the stitches are the same size and the card slots are not pierced.

Wallet is saddle stitched. Almost done here. Saddle stitching takes a lot of time, but other forms of sewing cannot compare in aesthetic or strength.

Sewing has been finished. Next the edges will be rounded, creased, and burnished.

Done

The Making of a Minimalist Bifold

Here’s how we make our minimalist bifold.

We use traditional techniques with leather from some of the highest regarded tanneries in the world to produce an item that is built to last for many years and age beautifully.

Below, I’m using Pueblo from the Badalassi Carlo tannery in Italy. It’s a vegetable tanned leather that has a slightly roughed up surface that gives it its distinctive, vintage look. These fibers will compact over time, giving it a great looking sheen.

These are the hand tools I’ll be using in making the wallet.


Leather is selected and pieces are cut. The exterior is the ortensia color, a stunning blue-green, and the interior is the cognac color.

The “T-slot” is thinned down with a French edger to reduce bulk.

Pockets are creased.

Edges are beveled and burnished.

Bevelling removes a thin strip of leather, rounding the edge.

Burnishing is a process of using friction to compact the fibers. It’s only possible to burnish vegetable tanned leather. Pueblo burnishes beautifully, becoming quite glassy.

I use water, CMC, and mill wax in the edge finishing. Varying grits of sandpaper are also essential in achieving a super smooth edge.

Pockets are glued to panels.

T-slot is sewn to panel.

Pocket is glued beneath T-slot, and left side is trimmed. Trimming provides a perfectly smooth edge, which will greatly aid in edge finishing.

Pocket is sewn on. The edge is then creased, beveled, and burnished as before.

Lining is glued to body.

Panels are glued on to body, and the wallet is trimmed to size.

Stitching holes are made.

Wallet is saddle stitched. Saddle stitching is a method of using two needles to achieve a very strong stitch that won’t unravel if a thread is cut.

Outer edges are creased, beveled, and burnished.

The wallet is finished.

Thanks for taking a look at our build process!

Leather Showcase

Below are some of our products showcasing the various leathers we use. All are full grain, vegetable tanned cowhide from Italy. These are among the most renowned leathers in the world.

Badalassi Carlo

1. Pueblo

Pueblo’s beautiful vintage look is in part given by the slight roughing up of the surface. As it ages, the fibers compact giving it a beautiful sheen. Pueblo is one of the most popular leathers in the world for making high-end bespoke goods.

Tobacco Pueblo with white thread

Cognac Pueblo with ochre thread

Denim Pueblo exterior with off-white thread

Olive Pueblo with olive thread

 

Ortensia Pueblo with dark brown thread

Gray Pueblo with gray thread

Navy Pueblo with off-white thread

Yellow Pueblo with golden yellow thread

Black Pueblo with black thread

2. Wax

Wax is an otherwise traditional Italian leather, that is covered with wax, giving it a beautiful web of color variation. It is a pull-up leather that changes color as pressure is applied. 

Cognac wax with dark brown thread

Conceria Walpier

Buttero

Buttero is a quintessential Italian leather. It is hugely popular among the very best craftsmen in the world. It is a firm veg tan that looks, feels, and smells wonderful.

Dark brown Buttero with off-white thread

Whiskey Buttero with beige thread

Burgundy Buttero with off-white thread

Orange Buttero with orange thread (exterior is denim Pueblo)

Natural Buttero with beige thread (exterior is dark red Art Deco)

Conceria La Bretagna

1. Art Deco

Art Deco is a milled leather making it soft, and the grain prominent. This leather has a beautiful luxurious feel, with a slightly glossy finish.

Dark Red Art Deco with dark brown thread

field-notes-cover-bretagna-dark-red

Conceria Capital

1. Art

Art is a medium firm leather with a slightly waxy feel. Its waxiness repels water well. It develops a beautiful sheen after some use.

Yellow Art with off-white thread

field-notes-cover-art-yellow-closed

Navy Art with navy thread

slim-bifold-5-pocket-interior-art-navy

 

How to Make a Minimalist Wallet

Here’s how we make our minimalist wallet.

I’m using one of my favorite leathers, ‘Wax’ from the Badalassi Carlo Tannery in Italy. It is a full vegetable tanned leather with pull-up effect.

Pictured below are most of the tools you need. You’ll also need a stitching pony, a ruler, a cutting mat, a polyethylene board, a glue spreader, and a bone folder.

As far as consumables go, you’ll need some thin leather something around 0.8mm-1.1mm (2-3oz) will do the trick. Ours is 0.8mm (2oz) thick. Also needed is glue, thread, water, a finishing agent, and some finishing wax.

Step 1: Cut out the pieces

badalassi-carlo-wax

Step 2: Glue smaller T-slot onto back of small panel. The panel will face the inside of the wallet, making the wallet semi-lined. We use a water based contact adhesive.

Steps 3: Use a creaser to add a decorative line to the top of the T-slot, card pocket, and the back piece.

Step 4: Apply water to the top of the pockets, one by one. Use a canvas cloth to burnish. Use light pressure and be patient; it takes some time. Once your edge starts to look fairly shiny and smooth, you can then apply a finishing agent (we use Tokonole) and continue burnishing. Finally impregnate your canvas with some finishing wax (we use Columbus) and continue to burnish to a smooth, shiny finish.

Steps 5: Glue  finished T-slot under the 1st piece. Glue thinly on bottom of T-slot, too. Mark your stitching line with a wing divider.

Step 6: Punch stitching holes.

Step 7: Saddle stitch T-slot onto panel.

Step 8: Tap down stitches with a cobbler’s hammer.

Step 9: Glue as shown below. There’s a thick band of glue because we’ll be trimming it.

Step 10: Attach the two pieces and tap down with a cobbler’s hammer to promote adhesion.

Step 11: Trim the whole piece to size. Our wallet measures 10.5cmx7.8cm. We used a custom die to save some time, but using a knife accomplishes the same thing.

Step 12: Mark stitching line on top of wallet and punch.

Step 13: Saddle stitch top.

Step 14&15: Add decorative crease to the top of the wallet, and burnish as described before.

Step 16: Prepare front to be glued, by roughing up the edges with sandpaper as shown.

Step 17: Glue front and back. Did you make sure you finished the top edges? Line up the tops to be flush and leave room on the sides and bottom to trim.

Step 18: Trim around the correctly-sized front to make the whole piece flush. Keep your knife blade perpendicular to the surface, especially when cutting the corners.

Step 19: Mark or finish making your stitching line.

Step 20: Punch the holes. Start with where the card slots are and line up stitching chisels correctly so that you don’t pierce the edge of your card slots. Do this for both sides, and continue around the wallet until you’re done.

Step 21: Saddle stitch. Here’s ours halfway done.

Step 22: Bevel and crease the edges.

Step 23: Lightly sand the edges. Start out with something like 280, and work your way up to around 1200.

Step 24: Use burnishing method described in the earlier steps.

Step 25: Move a bone folder around the inside of the wallet to remove any glue from doing anything unwanted.

Step 26: Admire the awesome wallet you just made!

Front:

Back:

Top:

 

 

 

The Making of a Modern Bifold

Made a new product today, the modern bifold. 

I wanted to make a slim wallet with 6 card slots and room for bills.

I used floating card pockets of which bills can be placed in back of, keeping the wallet nice and trim.

Build

I’m using some really nice soft Italian veg tan from the Badalassi Carlo tannery.

First, the pieces are cut.

bifold-pieces-cut

A decorative crease is added to the top of each pocket. Some water, a Japanese finishing agent, and wax are used to burnish the top of the pockets to a smooth glassy texture.

bifold-pockets-burnished

All 4 of the V-slots are glued on and sewn, creating the first 4 pockets of the wallet.

v-slot-pockets

The last pocket is glued on, the pocket assembly is trimmed to size, and the top and inside-facing portion of the pocket assembly is sewn.

pocket-assembly

 

A crease is added next to the stitching and those edges are burnished.

pocket-assembly-finishing

The main body pieces are glued together, trimmed, sewn on the top, and burnished.

bifold-body

Pockets are glued on, wallet is trimmed to size, and holes are made for sewing.

bifold-assembled

Wallet is sewn. Then an edge beveller is used to round the edges, followed by adding a crease all around the inside and outside of the wallet. Finally the outer edges of wallet are burnished. The wallet is complete!

modern-bifold

Here are some extra shots of the completed wallet:

 

 

Leather Buying Guide

Leather buying guide

Do you know the difference between vegetable tanned and chrome tanned leather? Top grain and full grain? Do you know what genuine leather really means? Read our guide before choosing your next leather product.

The takeaway:

Buy full grain leather, but know this is no guarantee of quality. Leather with branding marks, holes or excessive scarring or insect bites are signs of poor quality leather. If the flesh side looks “hairy”, that’s another sign of poor quality. Choosing vegetable tanned over chrome tanned leather increases the odds that you are getting the good stuff. As does buying leather produced in Italy, France, Japan, the UK, or the USA.

The details:

    1. If you thought “genuine leather” meant real leather, then you’d be right. There’s one big caveat, though. The threshold to be considered “genuine leather” is quite low, so most products marketed this way are using a very low-quality piece of leather known as a finished “split”. A more well known kind of split is suede, of which there are varying levels of quality. A finished split is essentially a very thin and low-quality piece of suede, finished so it looks like a grained leather. The “genuine leather” does not imply this, despite what you may have read, it’s just frequently true due to the prevalence of cheap goods. Excellent quality goods can also be marked as “genuine leather,” but they’ll probably elaborate on what kind of leather that is. 
    2. Top grain and corrected grain leathers are extremely common in mid-range to upper mid-range in things like bags and shoes. These kind of leathers start as hides that do not meet the tannery’s standard to be made into full grain leather. The top (grain) is sanded down is first sanded down. Corrected grain is then stamped with an artificial grain or other pattern. Although better than a finished split, the quality can’t compare to full grain leather from an equivalent tannery.
    3. All other things equal, full grain is the best (and most expensive) leather, although simply being full grain is no assurance of quality. Companies are aware of the fact that more and more people know what full grain means, and are taking advantage of the fact by simply adding cheap full grain leather to their products. It hardly costs them any more money and dupes plenty of people into buying what is still a cheap disposable product. Reputable tanneries will only select approximately 5% of hides to be made into full grain leather. There are a lot of tanneries out there that have much lower requirements. 
    4. I suggest full grain leather be your starting point in selecting a quality leather product, but not your ending point. There are many full grain products out there ready to disappoint.
    5. The next most important consideration is choosing a product made with leather from a reputable tannery. Easier said than done. There are thousands of tanneries. There are a few clues that will increase your odds of success. First, reputable tanneries choose only the very best hides to be made into full grain leather. You won’t see much in the way of branding marks, scars, insect bites or holes. You will, however, commonly see creases from the animal’s neck, as many top-shelf leathers use the shoulders of the animal. This is not considered a defect (unless the crease splits). Other than that, you should see a fairly uniform, although not flawless, surface. Qualifying leather by country of origin does increase your odds of getting good quality.
    6. Leather can be produced from either (or both) tanning method–chrome or vegetable. Chrome tanned accounts for well over 90% of all the leather produced worldwide. It is much faster and cheaper to produce than vegetable tanned leather, which uses organic material, instead of chromium salts.
    7. Veg tan is touted as better for the environment, and that’s probably true, but a reputable tannery should have responsible practices in respect to chrome tanning, too. Whatever you decide on, please don’t buy cheap chrome tanned leather–the conditions in which it is produced is truly terrible.
    8. Veg tan is generally firmer in temper and is required to make some leather goods. In most cases, though, either will do the job.
    9. For me, there’s no comparison, veg tan looks, feels, and smells like leather should. It has a luxuriousness chrome tanned leather just can’t match.