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July 29, 2016

How I Make Leather Luggage Tags

(that look nice)

Working with leather started with wanting to make something handmade for my girlfriend (now fiancé) who loves to travel. So for her birthday a few years ago, I wanted to make something unique, handmade, and travel related. Leather luggage tags seemed like an appropriate, easy-to-make item, so I started with the basic tools and materials. Over time, it turned into a hobby as I was really drawn to the craft and to the idea of making something with my hands. This turned out to be the first item I ever sold on Etsy with no prior knowledge of how to sell, market, manufacture anything on Etsy before.

I am by no means an expert at this, I'm just going to go over what has worked for me. I find that there is always something that can be done better, so if there are things that I can improve upon, please let me know! I'd love to hear some feedback through my personal email hideandvalor@gmail.com

This post will outline exactly how I make the leather luggage tags that I sell on Etsy. The intended audience is the complete novice with no working knowledge of leather. In this post, I'll cover:

  • Sourcing
  • Cutting
  • Tooling
  • Finishing
  • Securing

First off, here's a manifest of all the supplies I've used in this particular post. Keep in mind that I've collected these tools over the span of a year and a half. I've tried different tools and techniques and ultimately found this set to fit my needs.

EQUIPMENT MANIFEST

Hermann Oak Leather

Springfield Strap Cutter

Craft Sha 1.0mm Beveler #2

GoodsJapan Craft Sha Beveler #2

Heavy Duty Scissors

Granite Slabs 

Home Depot Granite Slabs

Soft Mallet

Leather Hole Punch Set

5/16 Metal Stamp Set

5/32 Metal Stamp Set

Tandy Hi-Lite Saddle Tan

Fiebings Saddle Tan Dye

Cocobolo Slicker

Quik Slik

Fiebings Carnauba Cream

Grommet machine w/ brass grommets

1/4'' Nickel grommets & eyelets

SOURCING

I use 8/9oz Hermann Oak Vegetable Tan leather that's already pre-cut into 24'' x 24'' sheets. Vegetable tan leather is more stiff than oil tanned leather and is best used for tooling (stamping impressions). After experimenting with different weights, I find that 8/9 oz is a comfortable size that allows for good tooling impressions. I also like that it doesn't feel too flimsy and it doesn't fold over as easy as lighter weights. The good thing about a pre-cut sheet of leather is that it's already a square and there's already a straight edge. This helps to reduce the amount of material waste.

On Amazon, a single sheet runs about $83 after shipping/tax. Out of a single sheet, I can cut out about 70 tags. That works out to be about $1000 in gross sales assuming no mistakes, no loss in leather when cutting, etc. A nice return if you ask me! Of course, the amount of time that I put into making the tags can be substantial depending on order size. As a hobby-on-the-side project, it's incredibly rewarding to be doing something that I like and be compensated for it.

CUTTING

I use a strap cutter to cut out the rectangular 2'' x 4'' pieces from the main sheet of leather. I did find that there is a huge difference between using the CraftTool strap cutter and the "Original Strap Cutter" made by Springfield Leather Company. I purchased and used the CraftTool strap cutter first and while it did the job, I noticed that it snagged a few times when cutting the leather. Also, the blade isn't interchangeable so you're locked into using the blade that they give you which is restrictive.

The "Original Strap Cutter" by Springfield Leather Company allows you to change blades so that you may sharpen them as you see fit. I also found that when cutting leather, it doesn't snag >as much< as the CraftTool strap cutter. It does still a little but it's much more bearable when the CraftTool one.

You definitely have to be careful when feeding the leather through the "Original Strap Cutter" since part of the blade is exposed on the top and bottom of the wooden arm.
Since the cutting arm of the tool already has measurements for you, just line up the blade to the 2'' and cut the main leather piece at that mark. Once you've cut up all of the main leather and made smaller straps, adjust the strap cutter at the 4'' mark and cut each strap at the 4'' mark.

** Note **
It helps to have a second person pull the leather from the other side of the strap cutter as you simultaneously push it through the cutter. This makes it so that the cut is uniform across the length of the leather and not fragmented/jagged.

Once all the pieces have been cut into rectangular shapes, it's time to cut the top corners off. I normally cut off 3/4'' x 3/4'' off of each corner and use an existing luggage tag as a template while I cut the corners off with heavy duty scissors. This may take a while so give yourself some time and spare your cutting hand some pain. I do this for all the rectangular pieces of leather I've just cut before moving on.

Now that I have all the leather luggage tag pieces cut the way I want, I need to "bevel" the edges so that they look more finished. Beveling an edge just means shaving an edge down just a bit; 1.0mm in this case. This is where I use my trusty Japanese Craft Sha 1.0mm beveler from GoodsJapan.com. This allows for any edge paint/dye to be applied easier as well as provide a better looking product. It's tedious to do all the leather pieces but the end result is much better than if the edges weren't bevelled.

beveling the leather luggage tag edges

beveling the leather luggage tags

TOOLING

tooling leather luggage tags

my method for tooling leather luggage tags

Tooling the leather means using stamps (in this case, alphanumeric as well as punctuation marks) to leave engraved impressions on the leather. This is where the unique-ness of each tag comes in as well as much of a tags perceived value. I've never come across two different orders that had similar engravings desired so they truly are unique to each other.

The letter/number stamp sets I've used have slowly grown over time as well. I find that going with a reputable company makes all the difference. I've ordered Chinese stamps before and they were garbage. Some of the letters were not aligned properly on the stamp and even had part of the letter missing! Do yourself a favor and use quality stamps. The ones I like to use are from Tekton.

I have a special setup that has evolved over time as well since I started. It now involves tooling on granite slabs with a hard mallet to reduce the noise of hammering in my small apartment work area. I picked up a set of 6 granite slabs from Home Depot for like $40 total. They are heavy at 30 pounds (total) so be careful when managing them.

With everything ready to go, I submerge the leather piece in some water to soften it up and let it dry for up to 5 minutes. This allows the leather to be soft enough to tool but not too soft so that the impressions are 'soft'. During this drying time, I punch a hole to secure the metal grommets & wire for later.

For straight stamp alignments, I use the wooden border off the cover of one of the stamp sets. I tape down the wooden border to the granite slab so that it won't move around and put the leather I'm about to tool underneath one of the edges of the wooden border. This gives me a straight edge to align my stamps when tooling and also allows me to view previous lines that I've made so that each line can be aligned vertically too. When tooling, I put the letter stamp set on top of the wooden border so that it adds weight to the setup to avoid having the leather slip around while I tool it.

FINISHING

applying olive oil to leather luggage tag face

applying olive oil to the face of the leather luggage tag

This is my favorite part because you can see how the piece transforms from just a regular piece of tan leather, into a unique and custom finished product. The steps involved in finishing a single piece of leather are:
1. staining the grain side of the leather (the smooth side)
2. dyeing the edges
3. burnishing the edges
4. applying a water-resistant coat

Before I stain the leather piece, I apply extra virgin olive oil to the top grain using a wool dauber then wipe off the excess. This allows the leather to slightly resist the dense stain as well as distribute the stain more evenly than if I were to just apply the stain directly without olive oil. I find that this extra step makes a >huge< difference, so I've incorporated this step into all projects involving veg tan leather and staining.

Using another wool dauber, I dip it into the Tandy EcoLite Saddle Tan stain and apply the stain to the top grain, ensuring that I cover all the tooled engravings thoroughly. There's nothing worse than finding out later that you missed a spot in part of the engraving. Using a regular napkin, I wipe off the excess and make sure that everything has been covered properly.

applying stain with wool dauber

applying stain with wool dauber


Now that I've stained the top grain, it's time to dye the edges. Using a Montana Refillable Ink Marker, I streak the edges twice with Fiebings Saddle Tan Professional Dye. I like that this refillable marker is easy to control and doesn't leave a mess than if I were to use an edge pen. The dye tends to bleed through the leather so applying too much in any one spot will be noticeable. The ink marker allows me to evenly distribute the ink so that there isn't a heavy spot anywhere.

[OLD] applying stain to edges of leather luggage tag

[UPDATE] I now use a Montana Refillable Marker to apply the stain

It's at this point where I allow the stained and dyed leather pieces to dry overnight so that the inks can sit properly.

Now that the tags are dry, it's time to burnish the edges. Burnishing an edge just means to smooth out the edge so that it is not rough. By applying heat to the edges, you bond the leather fibers together, thus making it smooth and glossy. Without this step, you have a noticeably incomplete leather piece with rough edges. While a lot of leather manufactures will skip this step, I find that it makes for a more desirable and complete piece.


burnishing the leather luggage tag

burnishing the edges with a cocobolo slicker


Using a liquid compound called Quik Slik, which is just saddle soap and water, I apply it evenly to the edge I'm about to burnish. Then with a wooden cocobolo slicker, I rub the edge until it is glossy smooth. I find that cocobolo is the best type of wood for burnishing because it has a very thin oily film that makes smoothing out edges a bit easier. Make sure to apply some pressure when burnishing. If you'd like to do this step faster, getting a dremel would help although in my experience a dremel (even a variable one) over burnishes the edges. As a result, I moved back to hand-burnishing and although it takes longer, I'm more happy with the results.

Now that the leather piece is burnished; phew! It's time to apply the water-resistant coating. I use Fiebings carnauba cream and add a small pinky nail sized amount to an old t-shirt that I don't use anymore. I then spread the cream over the top grain of the leather piece, making sure I apply it evenly and thoroughly, wiping off any excess.


*** Note ***
Carnauba cream is not totally water-proof. If you add water droplets and let it sit on the leather, it will get wet still. The cream just delays how long it will take for the leather to appear wet. I apply this cream since luggage tags tend to be outside in the elements and unprotected.

SECURING

It's at this point that the luggage tag is done with tooling and finishing compounds. Just have to secure it now! I purchased a huge bulk of nickel grommets and metal wires to use as a means to secure the luggage tags to the luggage itself. In order to attach the grommet to the leather piece, I use this metal tool called a grommet machine. Just place the grommet washer (eyelet) onto the dye (#0) and the grommet itself onto the hammer of the grommet machine. Place the leather piece in between the hammer and dye and pull the lever down to attach the washer (eyelet) and grommet together.

*** Note ***
Applying too much pressure on the lever will leave an impression from the hammer onto the leather piece. Avoid this by simply not applying too much pressure, the weight of the hammer does 60% of the work already, so just be wary!

Hooray! Now you have a complete leather luggage tag! A lot of work and attention to detail goes into making one of these. A single mistake anywhere and you'll have to start with a fresh piece of leather. I can't even count how many times that has happened... As infuriating as it was, over time, it got a lot easier to just chalk it up to clumsiness and move on.


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