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How to refurbish vintage leather luggage

Updated February 21, 2017

The allure of toting a vintage leather suitcase around the world becomes insatiable when considering the sea of black nylon rolling bags at the airport. However, an ancient bag may not withstand rough handling. Before refurbishing a vintage valise, decide whether you want to restore its looks or utility. To keep a vintage bag in collectable condition, clean it thoroughly, but replace as few of the original parts as possible. Use a restored suitcase for light duty. It stylishly holds office or craft supplies on a visible shelf, lends globe-trotting flair to a library or safely stashes out-of-season clothing.

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  1. Fill clean pantyhose or knee-high stockings with baking soda or calcium carbonate crystals

  2. Fill the suitcase with crumpled newspapers and the baking-soda sachets. Close and latch the suitcase and leave it in a dry place for several days to a week. Newspapers and baking soda absorb musty smells.

  3. Wipe the outer surface with a soft, dry cloth. Do this outside to limit the spread of dust.

  4. Bring the suitcase indoors and wipe again with a slightly damp cloth. Do not saturate the cloth; pooling water may damage the leather. The water grabs surface dust and grime without adding residue.

  5. Replace major components, such as the handle, side brackets or locks, with parts from a donor suitcase in poorer shape. Some handles are attached with screws or bolts. If the inner lining is loose, lift it gently for access.

  6. Repair unstable wood beneath the leather. Clamp with a C-clamp and glue or nail shifting corners. Add stability to a case with many holes by slipping a thin piece of wood, such as veneer, up against the inside of the box. Alternatively, cut small pieces of wood to act as patches. If the lining wraps the corners of the case, look for loose fabric for an opening.

  7. Assess holes in the leather. Many collectors appreciate the patina of a well-worn bag. Leave tiny holes alone, especially if the wood behind them is stable. Consider covering a prominent hole with period-appropriate travel stickers. Reproduction stickers may also be available if looks, but not authenticity, is your goal.

  8. Glue or tack the edges of the lining after making structural repairs. If the lining merely covers a removable panel, purchase replacement fabric.

  9. Mix one part white vinegar and one part linseed oil. Dip a cloth in the solution and gently wipe the leather. The combination safely cleans dry leather without the artificial chemicals found in commercial leather cleaners. Buff the leather dry with a soft cloth.

  10. Tip

    If the handle is missing, fabricate a strap from a long rectangular strip of leather. Stitch the edges for stability. Wrap the edges around the handle brackets and stitch into place. If exterior holes are significant and render the suitcase ruined or unusable, the suitcase can be recovered by a professional. However, once recovered, the suitcase's collectable appeal may diminish.

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Things You'll Need

  • Pantyhose or knee-highs
  • Baking soda or calcium carbonate
  • Newspaper
  • C-clamp
  • Wood glue or small nails
  • Thin piece of wood or wood veneer
  • Donor suitcase
  • Vintage travel stickers
  • Replacement fabric
  • White distilled vinegar
  • Linseed oil

About the Author

Christina Riopelle
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