Saddleback Leather’s Messenger Bag: Review

October 16, 2011

I have always been a big fan of cotton canvas bags. They are rugged, they are naturally waterproof, and heck, even the military uses them. Their appearance is also the perfect combination of stylish, minimalist, rugged, and — let’s face it — hip. So when I was trying to decide which bag to use on my next adventure, I looked at every cotton canvas messenger bag that I could find. I prefer messengers for their size, portability, and versatility.

And then I ran across Saddleback Leather’s bags at http://www.saddlebackleather.com. I had never really considered leather, because I had always believed that it was overkill. It was too thick and heavy, it required too much oiling and maintenance, and it looked too rich and western, and might offend the locals in some places. But after reading about Saddleback, I changed my mind.

Not only is their website one of the best I have ever seen, but the sheer amount of information that they openly give you about their company, their process, and their products, earns a large amount of trust from the consumer from the start. They even link you to the products of their competitors! And a simple glance at those competitors’ products immediately demonstrates that they cannot compare to Saddleback.

So what is so great about Saddleback Leathers bags, that it converted a cotton-canvas fan? Well, first, it is the appearance. These bags look like they came out of an Indiana Jones movie, but that they could also be taken out for a night on the town. They look rugged but beautiful, elegant in a word. The leather is gorgeous, and the four colors available (Carbon Black, Chestnut, Dark Coffee Brown, and Tobacco Brown) are very nice choices. The colors cover a range from serious and business-like, to adventurous and tough. My favorite is Dark Coffee Brown, because it seems to be dark enough to seem serious, but not so dark as to seem like it belongs on Wall Street instead of the Outback.

Probably one of the immediate things that the consumer notices is the prices on these bags. They are not cheap. The messenger bag itself costs $347, while a full piece of luggage can run close to $1,000. So it is reasonable for a customer to expect great things of such a bag. After all, a cotton-canvas bag costs around $200, and that is for one of top quality. But keep examining Saddleback’s bags, and you will eventually see that the price is worth it.

Not only are they beautiful, but the leather used, and the construction process, are of the highest quality. First, Saddleback uses only full-gain leather for all of its products. Full-grain leather is the best and strongest part of the cow, better even than top-grain. Full-grain includes the complex, vertical fibers in the cow’s skin, and these fibers make that part of the skin much stronger than any other part. So this is the most expensive, and the best, part of the cow that a company can use.

Next, Saddleback uses one of the best tanneries in the world to do its tanning work. Tanning is a process whereby the leather, intentionally depleted of its natural oils, is re-nourished with oils, preservatives, and other products. Before tanning, the leather is blue, but tanning adds the color that is desired for the final product. Many leather companies only partially tan their leather, so that it appears good on the outside, but the inside is still malnourished and blue. But Saddleback insists on a long, expensive tanning process that ensures that the oils and ingredients penetrate the entire piece of leather. You can even see that this is the case, because Saddleback leaves the side edges of its leather unfinished so you can verify that the color penetrates the entire piece.

Next, Saddleback uses some of the thickest pieces of leather used by any bag company. Saddleback’s leather is 4-5 oz. leather, while competitors often use less than 4 oz. leather. So this leather is full-grain, tanned as well as leather can be, and the thickest. You can see that we already have a product that stands out from the rest. But keep looking, and you will see that the manner in which Saddleback constructs its pieces is also superior.

At every seam (of which there are few, which makes the bags even stronger), the leather is glued, then sewn, then riveted. The thread used for sewing is thick, marine-grade, industrial, polyester thread. It is weatherproof and long-lasting. The rivets are metal, hollow-end rivets, which not only provide more strength than you will ever need, but also look nice on both ends. The glue, thread, and rivets are all very nicely worked, so that everything is flush and straight. Although the website says that the occasional flaw only proves that these bags are handmade and adds to their character, I did not find a single flaw on mine. Also, at every point where the leather might be prone to stretching over the years, there is a hidden, nylon reinforcing strap between the layers of leather.

The hardware on the bag, referring to rings and attachments, is all nickel-plated metal. The bag comes with a great, double-thick shoulder strap with two very comfortable, neoprene shoulder pads. The shoulder strap can also make the bag into a backpack, simply by re-threading the strap through a large O-ring on the top-middle of the back of the bag. I tried converting it using the instructions, and it was fast and easy. There are eight extra D-rings — two on each corner of the bag — which can be used to attach any number of things. These metal rings also act as a buffer between the bag and the ground, making the bag that much more durable. There is also a handle on top of the bag, which makes it much more versatile, and easier to carry in some situations.

Finally, most of the inside of the bag is lined with pigskin, which, according to Saddleback, is the world’s second-strongest hide, second only to kangaroo hide. The pigskin is also nicely tanned and dyed. It is smooth and tough, and of a very high quality. The great leather, and its pigskin lining, virtually assure that the bag will last forever.

Speaking of lasting forever, Saddleback Leather offers a 100 year warranty. That’s right, 100 years! What that translates into, is that the bag is warranted for your entire life, unless you buy it at birth and live to 101. This is a great assurance for adventurers. It essentially means that, throughout your entire life, the company will repair the bag for free. So when you are deep in Africa, being chased by an angry village of Masai warriors, spears landing all around you, be assured that the bag will be alright. Or when you find yourself having been thrown by a squatter into a billabong surrounded by angry crocodiles, you can at least remain calm in the knowledge that the bag is covered.

So when my Dark Coffee Brown Messenger arrived, I was as giddy as a schoolboy. I looked at the box, and hesitated to open it. Would my joy ever be quite as great as this moment of anticipation? Is not the hunt greater than the capture? I carefully opened the box and saw it — the bag itself, carefully protected by some padding, and a plastic cover. I opened the plastic and took out the bag. Immediately the aroma of new leather wafted into my nostrils, and I was reminded of that moment when you buy a new car. I almost fainted from joy!

The messenger bag comes with two little gifts. First, you get a slide-in leather divider in case you want two separate compartments in the bag. Second, you get a key fob! The divider and key fob are made with the same top-quality leather as the bag, and both are glued, sewn, and riveted! I do not think I have ever been prouder of my keys.

Well, nothing in this life is perfect, so I would like to mention three things about the bag that I am not completely satisfied with. Understand that, overall, I love the bag, but I have to be honest. First, there is the price. Now obviously I was able to justify it, given the great construction and the lifetime warranty. But it is still a bit nauseating when you click that Submit button on the purchase! However, a large portion of the price of each bag is donated to a great project that helps impoverished Rwandans, so it is hard to complain in reality.

Second, the bag is heavy — really heavy. When I load up the bag with books and a computer, then it is really noticeably heavy. Granted it turns into a backpack, which is more comfortable, but weight is something to consider when you are out on an adventure. Of course, I am not sure how it could possibly be lighter given its materials and construction. So I am willing to live with this fact of physics.

Third, I was somewhat surprised that every part of the bag’s interior is lined with strong pigskin, except the sides and the bottom. I am fine with the sides, but the bottom of the bag is where the weight of the contents rest and push against, and it is just one piece of unlined leather. I doubt that I have to worry about the leather tearing or breaking open, but over the years it will stretch, and if I ever have anything sharp in the bag, I worry about it poking a hole through the bottom. Since Saddleback go out of their way to make an extremely high-quality, tough, strong product, why would they not just line the bags bottom? I do not understand this. I would like to find some solution, perhaps by finding some leather and making my own lining for the bottom. It seems like if any place inside the bag would need lining, this would be it. But, I digress.

Overall, this is really a wonderful bag. It is beautiful to look at, and as the leather is battered over the years, it should develop a great patina, and an adventurous look. The leather and construction are of the highest-quality, and I have yet to find any company that does better. It is solid and obviously rugged, and the warranty means that it is literally eternally rugged. The metal rings, buckles, and rivets give it a great, serious feel, and it can hold a good amount of things for its size. This is a bag that will be able to go around the world with you, anywhere, to the ends of the earth, and still stay in great shape. It will only look better as it gets beaten up. If I had to rate it out of 10, I would give it a 9.5. The only reason I would not give it a 10 is because of the lack of internal lining on the bottom, but that is only a trifle compared to the positive qualities. I highly recommend this bag for my fellow swashbuckling adventurers.

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