Thrifting My New Waxed Canvas Bag

Every sartorialist worth their salt has put some thought into their daily carry bag. As a professor, I have a particular need for a bag that sets me apart from almost everyone else on campus (i.e. the students). When I’m on campus I tend to wear a blazer or sportcoat, so I mostly avoid wearing a backpack because they just don’t look right with those kinds of jackets. Because of this I tend to use a messenger bag – I like the way they look with my typical on-campus outfit and I find them to be a better look for a grown up adult professional who is often surrounded by college students dressed like they just rolled out of bed or are on their way to exercise (so much athleisure omg).

A couple of years ago I purchased a cheap messenger bag online from some discount department store probably Nordstrom Rack or Saks Off Fifth. I didn’t pay much attention to the details of the bag (the material it was made out of, how much it could hold, etc.) just whether it would fit my laptop or not. I saw that the bag was branded by Robert Graham, a designer I was familiar with because I had purchased many of their shirts over the years. Their shirts typically have a fun, often loud, print with lots of color and flip cuffs with a different design (think the kind of shirts worn by Cam on Modern Family). I was really into those shirts at the time so I probably thought “oh, Robert Graham, I like their shirts so I’ll probably like this bag.”

I couldn’t have been more wrong about that.

First of all the bag was made almost entirely of plastic. From the faux leather to the fasteners to the actual “Robert Graham” branding of the front of the bag, the whole thing was made of cheap-looking plastic that was probably not going to stand the test of time. Second of all it was too small for my stuff. I could fit my laptop and maybe a few smaller slim items in the bag, but that was about it. I could not fit many books (I carry a lot of books), my lunch, the charging cable for the laptop, or even the case for my sunglasses – a must carry for me. Third, there were the fasteners. They were all made out of those magnetic snaps that never seemed to line up right and actually fasten together especially when I had stuff in the bag. The bag often ended up looking bulky and overstuffed and I had to carry my lunch in a separate bag. Not only was it a bit ugly, it was almost useless.

After discovering that it didn’t hold enough of my stuff I put the bag away and didn’t use it much. I started using a backpack again. I have a small Osprey Daylite Plus pack that I use when I travel. Sure enough it carried all of my stuff, but I ran into the persistent problem of wearing a backpack with a blazer – it just doesn’t look right.

So I tried again this fall semester to get some use out of the messenger bag, forcing myself to carry it everyday. Once again I ran into the same problem – it didn’t hold enough of my stuff and I just didn’t like the look of it. It quickly became clear that it was time to find a new messenger bag.

I started researching messenger bags and found that there are basically two directions you can go. One direction I’ll call the more utlitarian way – these are messenger bags are a bit more true to the bag’s origin as the bag of choice for bike messengers. These messenger bags are typically made of nylon or some other more durable and water-resistant material to avoid exposing whatever the bike messenger was conveying to the elements. A good example is this bag from Timbuk2 or this Chrome Citizen bag or this Monty roll top bag. As far a style goes, these bags indicate that the person carrying it has an active urban lifestyle. Someone with this bag might ride a bike to work, or catch the subway somewhere and walk to the office. They are great bags for commuters and travelers or you know actual bike messengers, but maybe not the best fit for me.

The second direction I’ll call the more style conscious way. These are bags made out of leather often with brass fixtures. This mailbag from Satchel and Page and this Sitka Leather Messenger from Kodiak Leathers are both good examples. These bags are sharp, classy, and timeless. These are not bags that you would see slung over the shoulder of a bike messenger (or commuter on a bicycle), but they are often used by those who do not want to wear a backpack with their professional attire. In other words, for people like me.

So I decided to go the more style conscious direction and look for leather messenger bags. There are a lot of options out there and I found it hard to narrow them down. But then inspiration hit me and I found a way. That’s because around the time I was looking for a new messenger bag I became interested in the idea of waxed canvas. I was shopping around for waxed jackets (and I still haven’t found one yet but maybe someday – how many times can I look at Barbour jackets without getting one?). It seems like a good way to get weatherproof gear without having to resort to synthetic materials, especially plastic.

I started googling waxed and canvas bags and that’s when I found it – this waxed canvas messenger bag from Buffalo Jackson. Oh how beautiful it is! I became a man obsessed. I coveted that bag more than any healthy person really should.

Even though I loved the look of the bag and just knew it was the missing piece that I needed, I hesitated. I had just shelled out for some brand new Red Wing 1907 moc toes and probably wasn’t in the market for a new $300 bag no matter how beautiful and perfect it is (watch my video on the selection process that went into getting my new Red Wings). I loved the fact that Buffalo Jackson is based in Charlotte making it a company that was semi-local to me, but I just couldn’t pull the trigger (hey Buffalo Jackson if you ever read this hit me up I want to talk to you about your company).

I closed the Buffalo Jackson tab on my browser (a sure sign that I was moving on) and tried to put the bag out of my mind. I resigned myself to continuing to use my less than ideal messenger bag for a bit longer.

That was until I discovered that you can actually wax canvas yourself and it’s not all that hard to do. Now I’m not the most handy guy in the world. When it comes to DIY around the house I’m mostly pretty lost, but I found recently that I like sartorial DIY projects. By this I mean things like cleaning up leather boots and applying balm to them, etc. Maybe just maybe I could find an unwaxed canvas bag and with a little elbow grease I could turn it into something approaching that Buffalo Jackson bag that I coveted so much.

I turned to my usual place when I’m looking to add quality pieces to my wardrobe without breaking the bank: Poshmark. There are lots of people selling messenger bags on Poshmark so it took some scrolling, and scrolling, and scrolling until I found one made by Fossil that approximated the look of the Buffalo Jackson bag. I offered 30 bucks for the bag and the seller agreed.

When the bag arrived I could tell that it was used and probably used pretty heavily. It had a few signs of wear but nothing major. The main thing was that it needed a good cleaning – both the canvas and the leather on the bottom and fixtures seemed like they had probably never been cleaned. I knew I wanted to do three things: clean the canvas, clean and condition the leather, and wax the canvas.

Here’s what I did (you can watch the video of this project here):

Cleaned the canvas – I used a cup of water and a teaspoon of mild detergent (in this case dish soap). I took a small toothbrush-like brush (which I normally use to clean the welts of boots) and scrubbed the canvas, cleaning the whole thing but also concentrating on any spots that I saw. The canvas was obviously pretty dirty. I didn’t get out all the spots but the canvas looked and smelled better after it dried the next day.

Cleaned the leather – I started with Leather Honey leather cleaner using a lint-free cloth. The leather was definitely cleaner and shinier when I was done but there were still a few spots I wanted to get out. I decided to give it a once over with Fiebing’s saddle soap (I used the white tin and I still have no idea what the difference between the white and yellow tin is). I used the same small brush I had used to clean the canvas the day before. After the Leather Honey and Fiebing’s treatment the leather was definitely looking much cleaner and softer.

Conditioned the leather – I used Smith’s All Natural Leather Balm working it into the leather with my fingers then brushing in a circular motion with a dauber brush to get it spread out evenly and to help it sink in. I could definitely tell a big difference the next day – the leather was softer and some of the scuffs were more difficult to see.

Waxed the canvas – I used Otter Wax Fabric Wax. Basically you rub the bar in a back and forth motion across the canvas and kind of spread it around with your fingers then warm it up with hair dry while continuing to spread the wax around with your fingers (but being careful not to burn yourself). I made sure to get the seams really good because that’s where water is more likely to seep into the bag on a rainy day. I gave it two coats to makes sure it was all even on the fabric and that everything was well-covered.

I was very pleased with the end result. The canvas is a bit darker but definitely looks better (the wax covered up some of the discoloration and spots that I couldn’t get out by cleaning it) and water beads up and rolls right off it. The leather looks and feels a lot better as well. All told the bag didn’t cost me much at all. I had a Poshmark credit so the bag itself didn’t cost me anything. The Leather Honey, saddle soap, and conditioner I already had laying around (and still have a bunch of it left for future projects). The fabric wax cost me about 12 bucks and I only used maybe half of it (I’m now trying to find other things to wax with it). No, it is not the Buffalo Jackson bag that I coveted, but it’s close enough for now and I can feel good that I both saved money and saved the bag from ending up in the landfill. There’s a lot of life left in this bag yet.

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