Leather Water Bottle | Making a Leather Water Bottle

“I buy my hides and skins and I prepare them by my craft, and make them boots of varying kinds, ankle leathers, shoes, leather hose, bottles, bridle thongs, flasks and bougets, leather neck-pieces, spur leathers, halter bags and pouches, and nobody would wish to go through winter without my craft.”
– Archbishop Ælfric’s colloquy, 11th century

Leather Water Bottle

In this sunny land, we sometimes find ourselves seeking water in the summer months. Carrying water need not be a matter of hiding a plastic Evian bottle someplace out of sight. Water bottles (flackets) were made in period (see above), and here’s one easy way to make your own leather water bottle.

Step 1: Cut your leather

The best leather to use for leather bottles comes from the “belly of the beast”. This is because belly leather is very stretchy, and this quality will serve us well.  You can generally tell belly leather at the leather shop because it is generally a long narrow piece, with one straight side and one wavy side.

  • Four to six ounce leather is perfectly fine for a flacket.
Cut two pieces as shown, in a sort of teardrop shape, with of course a square end. The square end is where the mouth of the bottle will be, and without an opening you won’t be able to get the water out.

  • Now, what would be the point of that?
Make sure you add two “ears” to the sides of the mouth, so you have a way to suspend your bottle. These will be attached to some kind of strap.
Score a line about 1/4″ around the edge of the shape (except for the mouth). Also, score lines about an inch apart at about where you want the neck of the bottle. Thus, the neck and the ears will each have their own sets of stitching.

Step 2: Sew your leather

Use an awl to make sewing holes along this line. We used an awl that has a sort of diamond cross-section. When you make stitching holes in the leather, make sure that the points of the diamond made by the awl do not line up, otherwise the thread will have a tendency to pull through these weak points. Practice on some scrap first.
  • Do not make all of the holes at the same time – since leather has a tendency to stretch (especially belly hide), what was lined up originally may not be lined up when you get around to stitching. So, make stitching holes as you go.
  • Tie a pair of knots with the thread at upper corners of the ears; these will help keep the two leather pieces “registered” to each other as you proceed.
    • Actually, this is a good place to start sewing.
  • We’ll use a sewing technique known as saddle stitching. This requires two needles (and thread).
  1. Thread the two needles onto each end of about 6 feet of thread.
  2. Start them in the first hole so each side has the same amount of thread.
  3. Pass one needle into the very next hole, takes up the slack thread.
  4. While you pull the first thread back out of the way, pass the second needle through the same hole.
  5. Pull this tight.
    • Saddle stitching has the advantage of locking in place, if you do it correctly.
  • When you come to the end of the seam, or if you are running out of thread, stitch back a hole or two, and pass both needles out from between the two pieces of leather.
  • Tie these together tightly so the hole is hidden between the pieces of leather.
  • Use a large leather punch to take out some of the leather from between the lines of stitching on the ear. You can then cut away enough leather from the ear to make suspension holes.

Step 3: Soak your leather

That’s right, just chuck it in Jack’s swimming pool!
Actually, a good overnight stay in a bucket full of water is the best idea. We soaked ours for less than an hour, however, with good results.
The flacket is already starting to take shape, although it’s a little leaky. On close inspection, you’ll find that most of the water is coming out from the very pores of the leather. Relax, we have the cure for that. But first, it’s time to pound sand.

Step 4: Pound sand

  • After you’ve poured the water out of your flacket, pour some clean sand into it, as much as you can. Don’t worry, you’ll be adding even more than t.
  • Get a wooden dowel that about fits into the neck of the bottle, and use it to ram the sand into the bottle.
  • Start with the bottle in the air, otherwise you might wind up deforming the bottom of the bottle in ways that you might not like.
  • By poking the dowel around from different angles, you can control which part of the bottle is deformed, and in which direction.
  • When you’ve packed just about as much sand as you think you can possibly get into the bottle, use a hammer (this time on the ground) to drive more sand into the bottle.
  • At this point, you should be getting a feeling that you’re making sandstone. Relax, the leather is stretching – and that means more capacity – for you!
  • Leave the sand in the bottle for a week. If you go back to it and notice that you might be able to put even more sand into it, by all means have at it.
    • Note: You probably want to acquire more sand that you initially thought you might need.
Note: If you see that you need to re-soak the leather and pound more sand, it’s best to pour out all the sand before soaking the leather again, since wet sand can take a long time to dry, and may result in your leather rotting.

Step 2: Dump your sand out

Without squeezing or deforming the bottle, dump the sand out of the bottle. In order to get (most of) the last of the sand out, get a narrow stick and scrape out the sand, expecially along the stitching. Turn the flacket upside down and smack it with your hand, in the manner that you would use on a nearly empty catsup bottle.

Note: Any sand that remains will be sealed up by the pitch/beeswax mixture, but do you best at getting out all the sand you can.

Step 3: Pitching

We used a mixture of 50% beeswax to 50% pine pitch, available at this time from Jas Townsend and Son, Inc.
For water bottles, we are not using black tar pitch. The beeswax and the pitch seem to complement each other in resistance to cracking, etc., and should give your water bottle the ideal inner coating.
We simply warmed up a coffee can full of the mixture over a charcoal fire.

Pitch mix melts
Caution: The pitch will be hot as you pour it. Grip the leather bottle by the “ears” using a pair of long pliers. You will need to get the bottle about 1/3 – 1/2 full. Most of this will be poured back into the pot.
Try not to splash any pitch mixture on the outside of the bottle. We used an ordinary kitchen funnel to minimize any mess.
Some of the pitch mixture may start to drip through the seams. This is normal, and it should stop, as long as your seams are reasonably tight.
Pour pitch in
Slosh the pitch mixture around inside the bottle as you pour it out.
Try to get all the inner surfaces well coated. Watch it, the pitch may still be hot!
After you are sure that the pitch mixture is cool, pour water into the bottle. Try not to wet the outside of the bottle; this will help you to see if any areas of the leather did not get enough of the pitch mixture – water will start to seep out through the pores.
If you look carefully at this bottle you will see that water is starting to seep through a small patch of leather. In a case such as this, you need to dump out all the water and add a little more of the pitch mixture, taking care to coat that area. Seepage
Pour out all the water. Bring a source of heat (a candle or a judiciously applied propane torch) to the area of the bottle’s mouth. The idea is to cause the pitch mixture at the mouth to move deeply into the pores of the leather, so as to provide a nice uniform mouthpiece.
After this has cooled, you can go ahead and carve an appropriate wood or antler stopper, which should be tied to one of the bottle’s ears for safe-keeping.
Notes: In period, bottle makers may have made wooden molds to put the leather bottles into while they were pounding sand. This would result in more uniform shapes.
When your water bottle is empty, or any other time really, try not to squash the bottle. It’s not really resistant to these pressures. If the worst does happen, the bottle can be re-pitched.
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