Weekend DIY Project: How to Make a Leather Wallet

by Bryan Schatz on February 24, 2011 · 50 comments

in Manly Skills, Projects

“What ordinary people once made, they buy; and what they once fixed for themselves, they replace entirely or hire an expert to repair, whose expert fix often involves installing a pre-made replacement part…so perhaps the time is ripe for reconsideration of an ideal that has fallen out of favor: manual competence.”

-Mathew B. Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work

If there is another scent more inherently satisfying than that of well-worn leather, it is unknown to me. And what better a material to craft with? For what else can you throw against a concrete wall, spill beer on, and drag through the dirt for years on end and the only ill effects will be that it looks even more impressive, more rugged. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that leather’s durable nature and aesthetic qualities are the embodiment of masculinity itself. Perhaps they are right.

Leather is magic: capable of being molded, embossed, cut, stitched, and dyed. It is a material that will facilitate the creation of a fine product, a product that endures. And that is the goal with this post–crafting a superior leather wallet that will fit your needs so that hopefully, you won’t ever have to buy one again.

While making a leather wallet may not require manual competence as Mathew B. Crawford hopes of us all, it does provide–in the traditional DIY spirit–the opportunity to create rather than consume. It is the opportunity to construct with your own hands, rather than settling for whatever is cheap at the store.

Why Make a Wallet?

As the sole item responsible for transporting and safeguarding your most important of documents–your cash, credit cards and identification–making your own wallet becomes a wholly practical, and entirely necessary project, one that requires only a few basic tools and the application of patience. It’s a project that’s simple, yet satisfying. The wallet you make will last far longer than many store-bought ones, and every time you take it out of your pocket, you’ll enjoy the satisfaction of knowing you crafted it yourself.

Choose Your Material

This project allows for complete personal choice in terms of design and materials. Leather, of course, comes in many varieties. There is cowhide, deer hide, bison, moose, embossed cowhide, leather that is dyed or metallic; the list can go on nearly forever. Each type will have different qualities. Some leathers are dense and stiff, others soft and flexible, and they all come in various levels of thickness. My advice would be to visit a local leather shop, scope out your options while thinking about the way you like your wallets, and then choose accordingly.

For the wallet we’re making today, we’ll use the following:

  • Moose skin for the main body of the wallet: Moose skin is an excellent leather to use for wallets. It is relatively soft yet dense, has a great texture, and is particularly flexible, which is a nice quality for a wallet to have, allowing it to accommodate the cards, cash and receipts that eventually make residence within it.
  • Embossed cowhide for the card and change pockets: Using thin embossed cowhide for the card slots will keep the wallet relatively thin when closed. It also looks like snake or alligator skin, which is awesome.
  • Waxed string to stitch the pockets onto the body of the wallet.
  • Sinew to act as the main stitching for the wallet’s perimeter.
  • Button snaps to be able to close the wallet securely (this is completely optional and more aesthetic than anything).

Required Tools/Materials

In order from left to right as seen in the photo, the tools you need are:

  • Metal ruler
  • Knife/Razor blade
  • Glovers needle
  • Dot setter and Bout press (for fixing snaps)
  • Rotary punch
  • Thick and dense piece of leather (to use in conjunction with the rotary punch)
  • Waxed string and sinew
  • Mallet
  • Cutting board
  • Leather

The Process

Begin by sketching a design and size for your wallet. Remember to account for simple things like the size of bills and credit cards. This seems basic, but it is disastrous when overlooked. Also note that if your wallet is too large, you’ll have a hard time fitting it into your back pocket. Decide whether or not you want a change pocket or prefer card pockets on both sides within the wallet.

Note: The dimensions and aesthetic choices herein are suggestions and personal opinion only; however, they can provide you with a functional outline for your own project.

Step One

Mark out your preferred dimensions for your wallet on a cut of leather. Make your cuts with a sharp knife and glide along the ruler’s edge to keep the cut straight. If you will be adding an overlapping tab with a snap button, add no less than two inches to the end of the wallet length to account for it. This wallet is cut to 10¾-inches long, including the extended snap tab, and 7½-inches wide before being folded over.

In the photo above, you can see that I make one large cut twice the width of what the wallet will be in order to fold it over itself for the main (cash) pocket. You can do this or cut it into two pieces to be stitched together later. Either way works fine.

Step Two

Shape your snap tabs at one end of the wallet. When the wallet is folded, they will become one.

Step Three

Cut out the embossed cowhide to make your card and change pockets.

In this case we made three card pockets, each measuring 3¾-inches by 2-inches and one change pocket at 3¼-inches by 3¼-inches.

Lay the card pockets on top of each other evenly spaced out and use tape to secure them, and then tape them to the body of the wallet that will be on the inside.

Step Four

Use the rotary punch (with the thick piece of leather placed underneath the leather that is receiving the holes), to punch holes in the card pockets and in the body of the wallet. Using the thick hide below your wallet will both extend the life of your tool and also make it easier to punch holes.

Step Five

Stitch one side of the card pocket to the body of the wallet using the waxed string. Begin your stitching on the inside of the wallet to hide the knot.

Step Six

Remove the tape and finish stitching the card pockets. Double-back on your stitching for added strength and to be able to tie the end string with the original starting knot. Use a lighter to slightly burn the knot so that the wax melts together.

Step Seven

Repeat steps four through six for a change pocket on the opposing side, or for more card slots.

Step Eight

Determine the location for your snaps. Fold and close the wallet and then flip the snap tab over the closed wallet. Mark the snap placement with the Glovers needle.

Use the rotary tool to punch a hole for both sides of the snap button (the male portion of the snap will be inserted into the snap tab, while the female portion is placed in the rear body of the wallet where the tab makes contact when closed).

Note: Snaps are made up of four pieces: two for the male end and two for the female. To connect them to the leather, you essentially make a leather sandwich with two correlating portions on either side of the leather, and then you pound them together with the dot setter, bout press and a mallet. You can tell which side is which because the male portions have a cupped head, while the female portions are flat.

Step Nine

Insert the outer male end of the snap into the snap tab from the outside. Place the correlating end on the opposite side of the tab. Use the concave side of your bout press (to accommodate the round head of the snap) and, place the dot setter to where the two correlating pieces connect, and then mallet hammer the two pieces together. Repeat this step for the female portion of the snap on the rear body of the wallet.

Step Ten

Fold your leather so that it forms what will eventually be a completed wallet. Use your rotary tool to punch holes in the body of the wallet (both side together!) alongside your card pockets and near the edge.

Step Eleven

Using your Glovers needle and sinew, and making sure that you have enough sinew to stitch the entire perimeter of your wallet twice, which is about three times more than you would think, stitch the side of the wallet that you just punched holes for. Once that portion is stitched up, punch holes around the remaining perimeter of your wallet.

Remember

As you work your way around the wallet with your stitching, make sure you do not stitch the opening of your wallet closed. Stitch along one side and then the other as shown in the following picture:

Step Twelve

Double back on your stitching so that you end up with a cross-stitch pattern. When you have completed the stitching, tie the end to the initial knot and cut the tags.

To finish, simply trim any rough edges, throw your cards and two-dollar bills in and kabam! You’ve got yourself a leather wallet.

Now take a nice long whiff of that new, fresh leather smell, and don’t forget to break it in by throwing it in some mud. Leather likes that sort of treatment.

Do you have experience working with leather? Any tips of the trade or other tools that would help a project like this?

{ 50 comments… read them below or add one }

1 A1C Wilson February 24, 2011 at 11:02 pm

My father gave me a handmade leather wallet upon my graduation from Air Force Basic Training. I absolutely love it. The hide is a slick sheen of rich brown leather, the stitching is strong nylon and it has more than enough room for my ID, cards, cash and of course my Airman’s coin. The coin makes a nice impression on the outside of the wallet since I keep it next to my cash, so if another Airman does a coin check I know I’ve always got mine.

2 Tyler February 25, 2011 at 12:17 am

This looks awesome, but I did have a question about the card pockets. By only doing one rectangle of stitching around all three small sheets, you made it so the top and middle slots had no bottom to them. Does that cause a problem? Should each flap be stitched on individually (maybe punching the exterior holes all at once like you did, then punching the bottom part of each individual flap?), or it it a non-issue?

3 Matthew Del Rocco February 25, 2011 at 12:37 am

But, only do this after buying a Saddleback Leather Co. Wallet! Only half kidding… Cool article.

4 Steve February 25, 2011 at 12:56 am

I can tell Bryan put a lot of time into this tutorial – I’m a fan of anyone who encourages people to appreciate handcrafted work. I’m a professional leather artisan and have a suggestion on how to get a cleaner look to your lacing: don’t use a hole punch, use a lacing chisel. This will punch slits in the leather instead of holes, which will allow the lace to fit tighter and look neater.

5 Kyle F. February 25, 2011 at 3:57 am

Very cool! I love stuff like this. How expensive is that press? And are there really stores that just sell leather fabrics like that?

6 Robbo February 25, 2011 at 5:03 am

I see you made your knife in Barrytown, Very nice!

7 SSgt Bass February 25, 2011 at 5:31 am

A1C Wilson, I am an MTL for the construction engineering school. It is Airmen like you that make me proud to be an MTL! Not only are you aiming to be a good Airman, but you are developing yourself to be a good man as well. Keep it up!!
Integrity First, Service Before Self, and Excellence in All We Do!!!

8 Michael Jael February 25, 2011 at 6:14 am

What pragmatic purpose does this serve? You have access to cheaper, more durable, less time consuming and less wasteful wallets, do you not?

9 Tyler February 25, 2011 at 7:05 am

If anyone is stationed on the east side of the country and is within a couple hours of Amish country, PA, definitely go and check out their wallets. I have a wallet that has withstood the test of time made by the Amish in Lancaster, PA. You have the opportunity to make it yourself from their materials and their leather (awesome quality on both counts). I love it and you really feel like a man learning from people who make, farm, and provide for themselves and their community. It is like going back to the days without a TV or radio, and simply can take pride in the crafts that a man should be able to demonstrate.

10 Dustin February 25, 2011 at 7:51 am

While the style is different than mine, handmade wallets are always better IMO. Mine is a simple card holder that I’ve carried for about a year now.

@Michael Jael, The same could be said about any homemade good. McDonald’s makes a cheap hamburger, but nothing beats one made on the grill. It’s not always about cheapness or efficiency. Like flying from GA to CA vs driving across the desert. It’s not the destination, It’s the ride.

11 Michael Jael February 25, 2011 at 8:58 am

@dustin

So its about satisfying a primal urge rather than achieving a goal. Not my cup of tea then, mate

-Michael Jael from the Philippines

12 Brandon P. February 25, 2011 at 9:17 am

The true meaning of the process seems to be lost on our friend @Michael Jael. Primal urge? Give me a break. It’s about creating something for once and contributing to the history of the man made. It’s the difference between the man who is driven to produce the film of his dreams and the man who is content to sit on the couch eating Cheetos and watch it.

13 Dennis Smith February 25, 2011 at 10:26 am

Michael Jael. My friend it looks like you entirely miss the point of this site.

14 Dan M. February 25, 2011 at 10:32 am

Granted, this kind of wallet isn’t really my style, but that doesn’t mean we should discount all handmade wallets, or handmade goods in general. I liked messing around with leather too and eventually got good enough to sell the stuff and get some repeat customers. I make handmade leather books and card cases and sure, you could buy a moleskine because they are cheaper and more efficient, but there’s no soul to it. I mean compare this: http://tinyurl.com/46egfkp to this: http://tinyurl.com/4uh3hja

15 Doug S. February 25, 2011 at 11:45 am

Jael makes an excellent point.
Spend $20(or less) to buy a leather wallet. Spend the time and money saved from making your own wallet with your wife or family.
If you have neither wife nor family, use the money to buy brilcreme and fix your hair.

16 Michael Jael February 25, 2011 at 12:04 pm

What about making your own wallet do I not understand?

You have money, time and effort as resources. To make a wallet, one must use certain amounts of each of the previous traits. Buying a wallet only takes money and a small amount of time. The effort and time used up become exponentially smaller whilst the use in money goes up logarithmically, when you buy a wallet(expressions, not to be taken as fact). Unless you get something else as compensation for your actions(for example, a feeling of accomplishment) than it makes more sense to just buy the wallet and use the spare time and mental stamina on something else more productive to whatever your goal is.

17 Trevor B February 25, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Michael, you are missing the satisfaction one gets at having created something instead of just consuming it, if thats not up your alley, no big deal. This is similar to doing your own car repairs.

18 Doug S. February 25, 2011 at 12:52 pm

This is in no way similar to doing your own car repairs. This more closely equates with knitting your own socks.

19 Jeremy February 25, 2011 at 1:04 pm

Yeah, knitting your own socks and making your own wallet are even better and manlier activities that doing your own car repairs, which only involves fixing as opposed to creating.

20 Smerf February 25, 2011 at 1:11 pm

Personally, I’m happy with my wallet right now. When it dies, maybe I’ll make one. However, I’ve been planning on making a leather sporran for my kilt for a while now.

21 Jeff J. February 25, 2011 at 1:24 pm

I love working with my hands. Yeah, I could go out and buy my own wallet for $20, but there’s something to be said for making something yourself. The act of creating is enjoyable. You naysayer should try it, instead of sitting around on computer all day or watching TV.

22 Dan P February 25, 2011 at 2:50 pm

This looks pretty cool… though leather isn’t really my medium of choice to work with. Now, if we were talking about brass/plastic/wood…

23 Spencer February 25, 2011 at 2:57 pm

I’m glad that you have posted this tutorial. I hope that it inspires some people to get into leatherworking. It is a tremendously rewarding hobby that one can spend a lifetime learning more about. I have been doing it for several years now and think I might be able to offer an insight for those who don’t seem to agree with spending time on this sort of project. I will grant that for something that looks like the wallet shown, meaning (please forgive me, I mean no disrespect) rather crude, it might not seem like it is worth the time and effort. However, one must start somewhere. Without initial projects like this, it is impossible to begin to elevate mere craft into art.

For instance, and I have no pretensions to being more than learning myself, with practice you can eventually produce things like this: http://leatherworker.net/forum/index.php?showtopic=30121 . This is not something that you can simply buy in a store for twenty dollars.

But, what is the purpose? Why spend six or seven hours making a mere wallet? Because we were created to create. Some people find their outlet in painting, photography, woodworking, writing, or any of a myriad of arts. But in the act of taking raw materials or ideas and forming them into something that is beautiful, or useful and beautiful in its usefulness, we are doing one of the most important things for which we ourselves were made.

Surely you all create something. Does everyone understand why that creating is meaningful to you? But more relevant, does it really matter that they don’t understand? That is one of the things that is so wonderful about art. Often it is simply enough to have finished the painting, poem, or whatever it is, we don’t need the applause of anyone but the one for whom we did the making.

Spencer

24 Michael Glykis February 25, 2011 at 4:00 pm

I’ve been a little obsessed looking at and finding the perfect leather notepad. I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll need to create my own, and this article will help with the fundamentals: tools, planning, templating, materials, and process. What I would love to find out is where to buy the leather? I live in NYC and can make it to a store or ordering online is fine with me. They type of leather I would need would be much more tougher/thicker then the ones used for this wallet.

25 Joe H February 25, 2011 at 4:20 pm

I love leather craft and have made wallets, etc. Very satisfying to see it shown so well and talking about the durability of leather. I do like the lacing chisels better than the hole punches. Now you also need a leather briefcase to complete the set.

26 Charles February 25, 2011 at 4:46 pm

I know what I’m doing this weekend! Building my self a wallet

27 Spencer February 25, 2011 at 5:37 pm

Michael Glykis, try https://www.siegelofca.com/view_cat_product.asp?id=76 or http://www.tandyleatherfactory.com/home/department/Leather/9003-305.aspx
Unfortunately, these companies only sell whole sides. If you don’t want to get that much, your best bet might be to find a saddle maker, or other leather shop, and see if they’ll cut you a piece.

Spencer

28 Mike February 25, 2011 at 6:14 pm

I’m all for creating; there are various items in my house that I have made myself. But making a leather wallet seems like something I would have done at Camp Ticonderoga over 20 years ago. Unless you are excellent at working with leather, it doesn’t seem like it would look like a quality wallet.

29 Steve February 25, 2011 at 9:36 pm

Michael Glykis, You can get a single shoulder from Springfield leather http://springfieldleather.com/store/product/9542/Shoulder%2CSingle-%232%2C8-9oz/

30 Chuck February 25, 2011 at 11:37 pm

I’m with Jael. Yes, it shows creativity. No, it’s not a good value for my time *to me*. But someone could easily say that of the Moravian stars that I make at the holidays. It’s all in the perspective.

That being said, in NYC, your best bet is to start with an upholstery shop. Don’t start with leather first thing. Prototype with denim or vinyl until you get your pattern and technique down. Then go for the gusto with cowhide.

31 Blayne February 26, 2011 at 3:28 am

@Chuck A denim wallet? That is a great idea. That would be absolutely awesome.

32 Dave Hvizdos February 26, 2011 at 4:44 pm

Excellent article! I had to build a few leather sheaths and bags a while ago, and I swear by a tool called a leather awl. It is essentially a needle on a wooden handle, it takes a lot of the manual labour and sore fingers out of any project. They are about $10 at a leather shop or craft store and I suggest buying one to anyone who is serious about doing any leatherwork. It also works really well on thick canvas.

33 Bruce Williamson February 26, 2011 at 4:58 pm

Made them at the Boys Club in Philly many years ago.

34 Pete February 26, 2011 at 8:06 pm

As the proud recipient of one of these fine wallets I’d like to make a couple of points. First, creating something, anything, with your hands or your mind is inherently satisfying. Something that a mere $20. cannot buy. As for my wallet, it’s bullet proof. As someone who can blow through a regular leather wallet in somewhere between a year and fifteen months this one is just barely getting broken in. Would I use it when I’m wearing a tux? You bet. The time taken to select the leather, assemble the tools, make the wallet and then given as a gift proves the love and makes that wallet a treasure. Just sayin.

35 Bryant Turnage February 27, 2011 at 1:38 am

While I understand the idea of making something for yourself, I have to agree that this doesn’t appeal to me much. The main problem for me is the aesthetic; I’m sure it appeals to some, but it does look like something you make at summer camp. I would be curious if it’s possible to make something more sleek and “uptown”, but i imagine that would require more expensive materials and vastly more advanced skills.

36 Smerf February 27, 2011 at 1:56 am

For those wanting something a little less summer-campish, try looking on youtube for tutorials on leatherworking. I found one a while back on stitching leather that ends up being a lot more professional looking that this. Sadly, I didn’t save the link.

37 Theo February 27, 2011 at 1:21 pm

Something that bothers me about the community of this site is that a lot of men seem to think that everyone is as advanced in manliness as they are. Like I remember a series Brett did awhile back about how to use basic tools like the hammer and screwdriver and some men were like, “Come on! This stuff is so basic. I can’t believe you’re writing an article about it.” But to me it was incredibly helpful. I grew up in the inner city. Never used tools, never went to summer camp. Even this wallet looks a little intimidating to me but I’m going to give it a try. Seems like a good starter project for a beginner. So I just wish that other men would have some humility and realize not everyone is in the same place in life as they are, you know?

38 Felix February 27, 2011 at 10:06 pm

Come on guys, lets stop putting this down.
Sure, maybe some of you sophisticated fellows can’t find the interest nor will in yourself to make something of your own and prefer to spend that money and save time. That is fine.

There are those who have the time and money to spend on an activity that is self-enriching, patience building (judging by the negative responses, this may be one trait you guys need to build too) and just plain fun.

So what if it looks bad? At least it’s not just one in a million made in China that year or one in thousands of a couture variety (even a “limited run”, $500 name brand wallet looks like a dime in a dozen compared to something built for yourself, by yourself).

For those of you guys looking to get started on DIY, this is the best and most practical project you can get started on. You will get addicted quickly and will soon find your eyes peeled for other things you may want to build yourself (even if it’s to set yourself apart as a builder from the many spineless buyers)!

39 Respondant February 27, 2011 at 11:22 pm

Mr. Jael, homemade things can make excellent gifts

40 Turtle February 28, 2011 at 9:02 am

@Felix: “So what if it looks bad?”? Why would you purposely set out to create something that you know won’t look good? There are plenty of easy DIY projects that can result in a nice-looking item.

41 Marcus February 28, 2011 at 11:04 am

@Jael

If I may quote Oscar Wilde on this matter, “a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”.There comes a sense of pride from creating something with your own two hands, but what pride comes from being a bargain shopper and finding a the cheapest good possible? There used to be a point in time when Americans were makers and the world around us was made by us. This article is a great reminder of the “maker spirit”

42 Anna February 28, 2011 at 5:32 pm

One thing about every wallet or change purse I’ve ever owned is that it is never quite right (pocket size, etc.). I like the idea of making something to my own specifications.

43 Bryan Schatz February 28, 2011 at 6:25 pm

There have been some interesting comments here. To those who prefer the “up-town” look and still interested in something like this, keep in mind that there a few very simple things you can do to make a wallet look less crude like the one I did. As Steve and others recommended, lacing slits can make the stitching look cleaner, other types of leather (not necessarily more expensive) can also make for a different aesthetic. Simple things like using less contrasting colors can make a huge difference as well. Personally, I’ve always liked the “crude” look, just my thing, I guess. But a similar project can create wallets of vastly differing aesthetics. Cheers all.

44 Walko Ken OBrien February 28, 2011 at 8:53 pm

To all the people who want to spend twenty bucks on your wallet,

Theres a little thing few of us like to call creativeness,shorten that and you get creativity,shorten THAT and you get,ahem,CREATE.Like Spencer said,”we were created to create”.I like the idea of that,but I cannot make the awesome wallet right now.

45 Michael Moore February 28, 2011 at 9:18 pm

This wallet isn’t my style, but I definitely agree with making your own. I made my previous two wallets and will be making my next one too. My wife bought me one for Valentines day, so it seems I’m stuck with a store bought one for the next little bit.

I have been a front-pocket wallet guy forever, and I can’t find a nice leather wallet that fits nicely. Yeah the one my wife got was probably $20 and yeah I don’t really have the time to make a new one at the moment, but it’s uncomfortable. It’s a nice looking wallet, but the leather comes to hard points at the corners the leather isn’t soft at all. Plus there are two metal rivets that poke my leg, just to hold on a brand-name tag.

My homemade buckskin wallets were softer, just the right size and looked just as nice.

46 Michael Moore February 28, 2011 at 9:22 pm

Oops, I forgot to say that I do like how the wallet turned out and nice job. Folding wallets just aren’t for me.

47 Jason February 28, 2011 at 9:42 pm

You know I was really wondering how to make a leather cover for a phone. Any suggestions?

48 Cold Summer February 28, 2011 at 10:56 pm

I got a handmade lefty mid-length wallet from Hollows Leather and I absolutely love it. Guys like Hollows and Corter make terrific leather products that are made 100% by hand, by one guy, right here in the US. They’re a much better value than high-end Japanese stuff like Red Moon this is undoubtedly very nice, but way too expensive. And leagues better than cheap, off the shelf stuff.

49 Martin March 1, 2011 at 10:58 pm

In real life, men are known and respected as much for what they choose NOT to say as for what they do. Discretion and courtesy are valued, or at least should be. On the internet, everyone feels the need to state their opinion, regardless of how rude, crass or unimportant.

Don’t want to make your own wallet? Then don’t. Want to make one but don’t like the look of this one? Make yours different. I can’t understand the need for so many people to point out that they can do better, have done better, could do better if they tried.

In my opinion, learning how to do something is valuable in and of itself, regardless of how aesthetically pleasing your first efforts turn out be. Guaranteed that you will learn more in failing at trying something like this then just talking about it.

I enjoyed the article. Can’t say the same for much of the dialogue.

50 John David Whitfield Andrade March 5, 2011 at 9:10 pm

Excellent project. One of–if not “the”–greatest manly art is the ability to make or repair what you need. Of the countless invaluable gifts my step-father gave me from an early age was the confidence and tenacity to attempt and figure out how to perform my own repairs…work on the house, car, yard, whatever, we did it ourselves. Not only has this saved me tens of thousands of dollars, it gave me the confidence to create my own goods for myself. I craft leather goods, build wooden furniture, can sew my own clothes, repair my own shoes, remodel my home–you name it, I’ll try to do it myself. My wife lists this as one of the primary attractions she felt/feels toward me…nothing, she says, is hotter than a competent man. (I say nothing hotter than a woman who thinks I’m hot!) I’d say that rare is the gift more valuable than teaching our children to do for themselves.

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