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Decorating Vintage Tooled Leather Handbags

Updated on June 30, 2021
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Mishael is a lifelong animal lover. She also loves researching and writing about things that will improve other people's lives.

As Seen on the Martha Stewart Show

I wish I could take credit for this idea, but I can't. I am not really a Martha Stewart-type person at all, but I was home one morning during my pregnancy, and this happened to come on the channel I was only half watching. As soon as I saw the segment, though, I was hooked by this idea.

Imagine how great the above plain vintage tooled leather handbag would look if you just put a little color to it. Now imagine what a little sparkle could do, like maybe adding a glass beaded strap in place of the boring leather strap or a border of little rhinestone buttons around the edge of the design. That is the whole idea behind this fascinating craft introduced on the show by designers Melissa Neufeld and Chris Janze. I love beads, I love handbags, and I love color, so of course I immediately fell in love with this craft. Plus, I'm not what I would consider a particualrly skilled artist, but this craft is easy enough that even I can do it.

Where Do I Find Vintage Tooled Leather Handbags?

When Martha asked the in-studio audience how many of them actually had items like this in their closets somewhere, several women raised their hands. So, she concluded, "See, people have these." I am not one of those people, and you may not be either. Still Neufeld and Janze point out that it's easy enough to find these bags online at eBay for very little money. The search I conducted for "vintage tooled leather handbags" turned up several items, mostly in the $5 to $25 range.

Now, admittedly, $25 is a little steep for me, personally, but $5 is next to nothing, even when you add in a few dollars extra for shipping. And Neufeld and Janze mentioned that they actually bought one bag on eBay for a little over a dollar. I have not been so fortunate as that, but maybe if I keep looking, I will find that one great steal of a deal.

The important thing to remember is that, no matter what the price, you have to love the pattern and overall shape of the bag you are buying. If you don't love it, your artistic efforts will not be nearly as successful because you won't invest as much time and energy into the project as you would if you were really passionate about it. So, it's better to buy one $25 bag that you absolutely love than it is to buy five $5 bags that you can't really stand the sight of. The best thing about tooled leather, I think though, is that all of the designs are beautiful in their own way, so you shouldn't have any trouble finding the perfect bag to decorate.

Now What Should I Do With My Decorated Vintage Handbag?

The answer, of course, is anything you want!

Keep it for yourself and make your friends jealous that you have such a unique creation when they don't. Or, if you're in the mood to share, these bags make great personalized gifts for friends and family.

And, if you're the entrepreneurial type, you can try to sell your masterpieces on eBay (I saw some decorated vintage handbags for $30 and up) or etsy.

Whatever you decide to do with your handbag, have fun and gain satisfaction knowing that you took something plain and old and made it beautiful and new!

OK. I've Got the Bag. Now What?

The first thing you need to do is make sure that the surface of the leather is clean and dry. This will be especially important if you do end up digging out a tooled leather handbag from the back of your closet or picking one up for cheap at an estate sale.

Next, plan how you want your bag to look by picking out the colors you want your bag to have. Take your favorite scarf or blouse, or even a favorite painting, and use these as the inspiration for your artistic masterpiece. Just make sure you love the colors and how they look together before you start painting so you won't waste a lot of time redoing your work.

Once you decide on the colors you're going to use, you'll need to find the right kind of paint. Neufeld and Janze recommend Lumiere by Jacquard paints because they are water-based, are fast-drying (within 15 minutes), and come in about 100 different shades. Be aware, though, that some of the shades (especially the greens) will require multiple coats (about 3) before the colors really cover up the leather underneath.

Now just start painting! Think of this as one of those paint-by-number kits that you had as a child. Paint the background first, then fill in the details. Stay inside the lines if you can, but don't worry too much. Rest assured, if you do mess up your design, all you have to do is let your paint dry and then just paint over your mistake. Easy!

When the paint is dry, seal the entire bag with two coats of water-based varnish.

After the varnish sets the seal, you can start getting creative with the beads and whatever other embellishments you want to use. Do you have vintage costume jewelry you don't wear but don't want to part with? Use it to decorate your vintage leather handbag! You will probably want to use 60-second epoxy for really large decorations and E-6000 glue for the smaller beads and things.

Remember not to try to use your bag for at least a full day so everything can dry and set completely.


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