Saddleback Leather. Nice.

Saddleback Leather's hand-made bags are like the relics you might throw in after looting a tomb: heavy, durable, and attractive in a way not everyone will appreciate. It's not for those among us after sleeve-like innovations cut perfectly for the gear we want to lug. And while certain items in the lineup display an awareness of trends--iPad case!-- the sensibility remains at odds with today's prevalent vibe of lightweight designer gadget cosies. I like it because I dig the Edwardian adventurer look and because I'm tired of rebuying the same stuff over and over again.
You know, I haven't ever reviewed a bag. How to cover a bag? I guess you could play it straight and write a formal review, running through volume, durability, type of fastener, etc. But no: you can read all that at their website and watch the crocodile video. But a story about the challenges and triumphs the creators have experienced? Folks already did that, too. So I'll just tell you that I like the bags. Cut from extremely heavy-duty leather, stitched rather than riveted (if you like rivets, check out Palmer and Sons of Vancouver), and they're offered in brown, brown, brown or brown. Saddlebag's items start at wallets and pouches, then increase in size and compexity, through messenger bags and backpacks, until you hit luggage. The pro is also the con. They're built to last and ready for action on whatever jaunts you might plan--but once out of pocketable territory, they're also much heavier than everyday fare. Compare these two bags. On the left is my own everyday messenger manpurse thing, custom-made by an old man in Manhattan. It has a lifetime warranty: anything breaks, I mail it back to his shop and they fix it. On the right is the rough equivalent from Saddleback. Look how thick that hide is. It's overengineered, crafted for a vanishingly small minority of buyers' needs. I like how it's ostentatiously leathery, but simple and straightforward enough to haul TPS reports around with. They're not unreasonably expensive, either, and sometimes surprisingly cheap. For example, the aforementioned iPad pouch was $40 on special ($55 currently), about the same price as the neoprene junk at the Apple store. But whereas those squidgy affairs seem doomed to fall apart, Saddleback's is a single folded sheet of leather. It's one of the few iPad cases that will not only last longer than your iPad, but provide nourishment after the zombie holocaust. I bought a wallet from Saddleback not long ago: tired of my old one being an overflowing, bursting roll of fabric, I decided to switch to a non-folding card holder. The one I got at Target, however, soon unstitched itself: the nature of these things is that they're under more stress than normal wallets, because everything fits in them extremely snugly: even a couple of folded-up bills in the middle makes them bulge. But Saddleback's, though more expensive ($30 instead of $15), turned out to be of radically higher build quality -- as you can tell as soon as you see it. Even the small satchel pictured at the top of this post, however, has its own weight to carry; as gorgeous and nigh-indestructable as it seems, it takes a committment to make it part of your life. So, I repeat, you'd best skip it if you're just looking for something lightweight to carry a netbook and study/work basics around in. But if you have any kind of game plan -- "I need a manbag," declared with the stern, bug-eyed intensity of Oglaf royalty -- it's a very safe bet. Especially considering how the qualities it embodies -- durability, utility, functionality -- are often absent from the superficially similar items you'll find at Amazon or elswhere. Verdict: Splendid adventurer-grade dead cow, but too heavy for the MacBook Air set.

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  1. This is probably the closest you can come to shooting the cow and and stitching yourself a bag right then and there… like men once did.

    But damn they’re pricey. I suppose you’ll make up for it in the long run if they’re as durable as their website claims (which I don’t doubt), but this is a hefty percentage of your paycheck.

  2. Man, I love their luggage, but I’d be afraid of checking it on an airplane for fear of losing it.

  3. I’m a convert to the leather bag (although nothing as overengineered, or as pricey, as these.)

    The one I have is based on an old west version of a courier bag. It functions as a normal satchel, but because of clever strap arrangement can quickly convert to a backpack. I’m not sure what it’s called, and my google fu has failed me. If you’re carrying a laptop it needs a sleeve, but apart from that it is near-perfect.

    1. Hey Church, your current bag sounds pretty great. If you do happen to overcome your google-block, for sure let us know more details.

      1. Hugh, I can’t figure out the magic google incantation.

        The idea is simple enough. It’s a satchel but the strap attaches at the bottom of the back instead of the sides, and passes through two rings at the top of the back. When you want to make it into a backpack you just pull the strap out between each of the two sets of attachments/rings and put your arms through there.

        I got it at a local arts festival, which shows up again this month, so I’ll see if I can’t get more details from the guy who made it.

        1. Thanks Church. 2 points:

          – local festival crafts may indeed be google-proof

          – wow, I think you just explained to me why my WWII army satchel is designed the way it is; it never occured to me I could turn it into a backpack.

  4. Wow. I wish I was as rich as you bloggerfolx. Diet Dew spewed out my nose when I saw the prices on their website.

    I do some leatherwork myself so I know that’s legitimate for what they’re offering if the quality is as high as stated. But, yeowch. I could get my own walking foot sewing machine for a little more than they charge for a large bag and get to making my own.

    Defintely good luggage porn, tho.

    1. The problem with that warranty is that it only means anything if a) the product breaks within the warranty, b) in a way that is covered by warranty, c) without you doing something that breaks the warranty and d) you’re able to do something about getting it honoured. In my case I’d need to ship it overseas and that’s pretty tricky.

  5. Am I the only one who saw the title of this post and hoped that it would involve the Saddleback Church and bondage?

    1. I thought this too! Having grown up down the street from Saddleback Church, this will always be my association with the word Saddleback.

  6. I too have a Saddleback Leather satchel.

    (Largest size, in the tasty brown.)

    I bought it a few months ago, after my last manpurse (canvas + leather from target) ripped apart right before another trip to a comic convention.

    I was so pissed that I finally looked for, and found, my ultimate satchel; Something that a steampunk adventurer might carry.

    It’s kickass tough and should offer some body protection during riots.

    Anyway, I’ve been very happy with the purchase. It’s not cheap, but it ought to last longer than the 10 months that everything else seems to last.

    If I manage to not lose it or allow it to be stolen, it might even save me money.

  7. There’s a LOT to be said about buy DURABLE goods that don’t get thrown out after a few years of use. There’s a green revolution for ya! The upfront cost may be higher, but you only have to buy it once. Done.

    I’ve got Filson laptop bag that’s a canvas and leather affair that will handily outlive me.

  8. People can get a bag anywhere, ok? They buy from Saddleback for the atmosphere and the attitude. That’s what the leather’s about. It’s about fun.

  9. Buy quality and you only cry once.

    My problem with Saddleback isn’t the price, it’s the selection. I can’t make up my mind. Especially since some of the bags convert to backpacks. And since any bag of theirs will probably outlive most of the gear I’d put in it. Who knows what I’ll want to carry in 20 years.

  10. Gorgeous.

    Given that I’ve spent in the dozens of dollars on luggage my entire life, it’s not ever going to save me money, but I still can’t help drooling at that stuff.

    This is how everything that uses leather should be made. Made to last or not made at all. Nothing disposable or semi-disposable should be made of leather. (Or granite, like some obviously temporary-while-the-trend-lasts kitchen counters, or marble like some torn-out-after-10-years floors, or …)

  11. Am I the only one that wants to know more about the old man in Manhattan that made the other bag. Anyway you could post his info. As I live in NYC, I’d rather buy local.

    m.

  12. I got one of Saddleback’s backpacks (and a card wallet too) for the holidays last year. My old leather backpack finally gave up after 15 years of constant abuse, and I wasn’t happy wearing out cheap nylon bags. I decided to replace it with something that would last even longer. This thing is built like a tank. It is not lightweight, so if you are weight conscious, this may not be for you. If you want something you can beat the crap out of daily for decades, this looks like it will do the trick. The prices are high (I had to supplement my fiancee’s gift budget), but having it here and using it everyday for months now, I’m already convinced it is worth every penny. I also have to say its very well designed, and the leather divider even doubles as a laptop mousepad. It fits a 15.6″ laptop nicely.

  13. I’m curious, how would I get something “custom-made by an old man in Manhattan”?

    Contact info?

  14. After reading a recent review about Saddleback Leather at wired.com about SL’s small gadget pouches (read: cell phone cases), I bought one. Descriptions & pictures still fall short of just how well made & how damn good looking their products are. This article totally has me wanting a matching wallet to go with my pouch. And if/when I ever decide to get a laptop, I’ll find the money to invest in one of SL’s laptop bags–I have no doubt that it would be worth the expense.

  15. Beautiful craftsmanship.
    This item has nothing to do with the “Marquis de Sade” perfume, does it?
    From this, I’m thinking maybe there’s a link:

    I mean, those are riding clothes, are they not?

  16. One question I have is just how waterproof they are. Accordion-sided open-flap bags are fine if you live in CA, where it seldom rains and people drive everywhere. But looking at the pictures on the website, I’m envisioning nightmare scenarios involving my laptop, a bulging bag with a corner peeking out from under the flap, and me waiting for the bus in a thunderstorm.

  17. I love all of the products from Saddleback and once you actually get your first piece you will be hooked and want the entire collection. The price is worth it!! Just ordered a gift for my husband today I know if it comes from Saddleback it will be a huge hit!!

  18. I am drooling for one of their satchels.

    Their pieces look like the small red handmade coin purse, just the size of my hand, that I bought from a crafter at Wheatland Music Festival, lo these many moons ago, and it’s my favorite piece. Heavy brass zipper, soft, but sturdy red leather with suede inside. I’ve carried it for about 25 years now and it’s fabulous.

  19. I found the Saddleback website a couple of weeks ago. I want one of those briefcases now just as much as I did when I first saw the website. I just can’t justify trading $519 for something I don’t legitimately need right now. But I’m keeping that website bookmarked, I’ll say that much.

    I don’t think their stuff is over-engineered, but I can see why Rob would say that. Not everybody needs 1/8″ thick chunks of leather sewn together with commercial-grade twine, just to hold an iPad or some paperwork. It’s just a matter of what you want out of your gear, I suppose.

    Ugh, it makes me sick that I can’t justify spending that much right now. But I will have one of those briefcases in the future. It’s just a matter of time.

  20. I have had the large briefcase for about 18 months, and I love it. Fair warning, though: They may be indestructable, but they are not impervious. If you know the difference, you know what I mean. Because they’re made of high-quality leather, they scratch and gouge like skin. If you scrape it against a building, those scrapes are going to be there for good. A good cleaning with saddle soap will buff some of them out, but the others will simply accumulate.

    Me? I like it. I think all of the superficial nicks and scratches build character. If you’re the type of person who hates to see a door ding on a new car, though, these bags might not be for you.

    @Matt McKeon: if you can tuck in the edges, they’re perfectly waterproof. I was driving a motorcycle in a rain storm for about 10 minutes and arrived to find my papers perfectly dry. If you have a corner poking open, though, that would be the end of it.

  21. While I’ve never touched one of these, I have touched a ridiculous amount of leather goods over the years (quality and crap). The leather quality looks like it falls slightly more towards the poor end of things. Frankly, I dislike name as well. The thought that this could be related to a saddle is laughable.

  22. The poor man buys boots for $10. The rich man buys boots for $100.

    The poor man must replace his boots every year. The rich man’s boots last a lifetime.

    Over a lifetime, the poor man spends way more.

    Save up. Buy quality.

    1. @Scixual – The rich man spends a lot less time in the mud than the poor man; puts less wear on his boots in the first place.

      Just one nitpicky comment on “how to review” bags – a picture of the entire bag (esp. on a person or with a size reference) would be nice. I realize, yes, I can click through the website and look around. But since you asked…

  23. The quality of these looks pretty underwhelming, even for the comparatively low amount of money they’re asking.

    The leather is wrong for the application, none of the edges are finished, the threads in the last photo are fraying — belying low-quality — and the ends are roughly melted with a lighter, not properly finished with a hot knife.

    I’m a leatherworker and the edges of the bag in the first photo make me cringe. Not only are they not properly burnished, they’re not even trimmed back to an even surface, which is just slack. This stuff may be on the cheaper end of handmade leather luggage, but it should at least be finished.

    If you want to see what really high-end leather luggage looks like, have a look at Walden Bags (who I admire, but have no affiliation with) and compare the edge finish, and overall refinement of those.
    http://www.waldenbags.com/
    http://www.etsy.com/shop/waldenbags

    Yes, they’re substantially more expensive, but they’re well designed, beautifully finished and make no compromise on the materials. They probably weight substantially less for the same volume too.

  24. I have an XL briefcase (yeah a lot of money) It has gone to Thailand for 6 weeks with me, Singapore for a week, Japan, Taiwan, a few local trips, and used as my daily briefcase, all in the last 9 months. While trekking around Thailand, a storm hit (actually a hurricane from Philippines), it doubled as a decent sized umbrella. Ive even used it as a pillow a few times. The build quality is unreal! But yes it is heavy! I like the quality of it so much I splurged and paid $160 for their portfolio, love it, but its so heavy, its almost as heavy as my laptop.

  25. I have the large briefcase, and couldn’t love it more. It’s incredibly durable, wears amazingly, and is comfortable. I’ve had people shout “NICE BAG!” at me from their car windows while driving past. Hell, I can’t even count the number of compliments from random strangers I’ve gotten while wearing it. It fits perfectly under the seat in front of me when I fly, can hold my 17″ laptop, and has tons of room in general. Only downside is that it’s heavy. When planning how to pack it for the day, you definitely have to keep in mind that it’s empty weight is nothing to scoff at. Fortunately you can wear it on one shoulder or like a backpack, so there’s a lot of versatility in how you distribute the weight.

    I did some research on the bag before I got it, and apparently the company sells its lower-quality bags on ebay. They’re cheaper, but customers that bought them were the only ones that wrote anywhere near bad reviews. Just know that if you want to save money by going that route, you’re risking a dip in quality. Just bite the bullet and buy from the company itself – it’s worth it.

  26. I especially like the fact that inside some of their model bags they have some old man pipes. Excellent touch.

  27. Please please please do a classic bike messenger bag like this. Not that my current Ortlieb (truck tarp Deutschereffischienscishch – fugly but awesome) will ever die. But, y’know, I might kill it.

  28. A good quality leather piece will last a very long time. The leather bag I used in school is still in decent shape and functional, although it sees a lot less use these days, and school was a loooong ways back.

    I find some of their pieces reasonably priced, others a little pricey. Want? Definitely. Buy? Not sure yet.

  29. sometimes, they just get you at ‘hello’.
    Five minutes after finding the website and reading the story, I ordered a wallet. I expect it to outlast me.
    I don’t really like the name, either, but it’s the guy’s company. He should name it what he wants.

  30. I own a large brief case, messenger bag, bi-fold wallet, check book holder, small gadget holder, mouse pad. They were all worth every penny! I know they will outlast me – my son is a lucky boy. I still have a few items that I want but I’m trying to stay married =)
    These are great products second to none for the price.

  31. I’m going to have to give a negative comment on these items only based on my personal preferences after getting one of these items. If you get one of their billfold wallets, you’re going to start off with a 6 layers of thick cowhide stacked together (3 layers per side which folds). You end up with roughly equivalent of carrying a folded up New York steak bulging to break free from your back pocket.

    Durability aside, that is terrible form functionality. You’ll be sitting uncomfortably even with an empty wallet or your suit jacket will look like you’ve got one boob. The stuff is just too heavy and bulky to be user friendly.

  32. I ordered one of the medium sized bags, and I’m a small guy; long story short, not for me, easily turned around for a bit less than what I bought it for. Got the smallest size: perfect, but a big much to lug in the summer when the heat’s up and the humidity’s high enough that wearing anything heavier than a polo shirt’s too much. I have no regrets, and just got some of the above recommended conditioner for its second year around. The Vancouver company mentioned above looks good, as do the J Peterman bags. I doubt I’ll have have one of either, though. It’s a beast.

  33. I bought one of the large briefcases about two years ago and I love it. These bags excellently made, beautiful to look at, and great for everyday use, as long as you don’t have T-Rex arms. Whenever I’m using mine I get a ridiculous number of compliments and inquiries on it. The convertible backpack aspect of it is pretty fantastic, too.
    The company also sells the bags on eBay, where I was able to obtain mine for half the normal price.

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