I am trying to make my husband a Filson-style bag for Christmas. What type of leather should I use for the handles? Can I just buy a belt at Goodwill and use that?
Well, my ambitious friend, the leather they use is something called “Bridal Leather.” And if that doesn’t answer your question, hopefully this will. Bridal leather is basically the leather equivalent of waxed canvass – you take a wonderfully durable natural material, and finish it with waxes and oils. Bridal leather comes from the tannery colored, since the waxes and oils it is treated with would make it impractical to dye on your own. Bridal leather is typically about 3.5 to 4mm thick. This corresponds to about an 8-10oz weight, which is right in the range for what a belt would be made from.
So if you decide to use a belt, I highly recommend you look very carefully at those Goodwill belts before you waste your hard-earned dollar on them. You probably won’t find a bridal leather belt, but you might find a vegetable tanned leather one. A vintage tooled leather belt would work – just look for a belt that is made of a single piece of leather. If you can see that it’s several layers glued together, or if it has stitch lines around the edges, put it back on the rack.
When you get it home you can enjoy the patina that it has gathered over the years. I wouldn’t aggressively clean it, since you would strip off the oils. If anything, I would recommend just oiling it a little more – some Neatsfoot Oil is always a good choice.
If you want to make the handles yourself out of new leather, you can look for bridal leather at your local shop, or you can go for vegetable tanned leather and oil and dye it yourself. Going for a veg tanned leather gives you a broader range of colors to chose from, in case you want to opt for red handles instead of the standard black/brown. Veg tanned leather will be a little stiffer to start, but it will soften up nicely.
Good luck! And if you need more help, or you want someone to make the handles for you, I’m always here.