Over the past couple years I’ve made a few attempts at making leather bottles. I am calling these “stuffed” because they were made by pouring a stuffing agent into the bottle to give it its shape.
My first two attempts had some setbacks that caused me to think I had ruined them with mold growth, and they sat in a drawer until a friend of mine asked me for help making one of her own to give as a gift to her husband. She had found an entirely different set of instructions online — and while I had some reservations about some of those instructions, there was enough good information to fill in the gaps of my knowledge from my previous attempts and make the first two pieces salvageable.
What’s a leather bottle, you may be asking? What evidence do we have that these were created and used in the middle ages? Most extant bottles that have so far been discovered have been English, from the 16th-17th centuries — before glass bottles became more common for storing liquids. Leather may have been a prevalent bottle material before then, but there is less evidence. A few bottles were found on the sunken 16th-century Mary Rose ship, and the pattern I used for two out of three of these bottles was inspired by one of them. Other bottles were commonly made by shaping the leather on wooden molds rather than stuffing them, but until I get a wooden mold made, the stuffing method will have to do.
Many thanks to HL Tadhg madAedain uiChonchobhair who taught a class at Gulf Wars last spring, from whose handout and pattern I made two of these bottles. Thanks also to HL Earic Orvander, who took some time with me a couple years ago at Pennsic to explain the process and draw a rough diagram of a bottle shape. I took copious notes and made my first bottle based on his recommendations.
For the sake of simplicity, and because a lot of the instructions for making this style of bottle overlap, I will point toward this Instructable for the basics and add my recommendations for altering the steps based on what I have learned from these three. The pattern by HL Tadhg is slightly different, but I don’t have a digitized version to share.
Altering the pattern: Make sure that the seam going down from the mouth of the bottle to the sides (not including the handle) is a smooth line. To stuff the bottle you will need to shove a dowel or tool handle into the bottle to push sand (or another stuffing agent) into the edges along the seams. Having an angle means that it will be impossible to shove the sand into some of the edges because the dowel won’t be able to reach around a corner. (See the “holey water” bottle: my first attempt, made from my own pattern, had similar corners and the bottle is wrinkled rather than inflated in those spots because I couldn’t reach them.)
I also recommend altering the handle holes to be more like triangles or rectangles rather than perfect circles, as that is closer to the original styles. I have seen several patterns that call for creating these holes by using round punches — which is okay if that’s easier for you, but if you have difficulty punching through two pieces of thick leather (as I was taught the method), some quick work with a craft knife is the easier (and more period-appropriate) way to go.
Finally, make sure that the mouth of the bottle has right angles going downward before sloping outward. The second bottle I made (the one with the flat bottom) angles outward from the lip, and it doesn’t seem to hold a cork as well.
Choosing a thickness of leather: Unless you are so strong that you cannot use thinner pieces of leather without having to worry about breaking through the leather when you stuff it (“HULK TEAR!!!”), a thinner weight of leather will be easier to use and creates a more lightweight finished product. This last bit could be important if you are carrying a water bottle around all day along with other items. The flat-bottomed bottle was made with 12-ounce leather and was VERY difficult for me to work with. The round-bottomed one was made with 6-8-ounce leather and the “holey water” was made with 3-4-ounce. Again, unless you are a big galoot with more strength than finesse, you shouldn’t need such a heavy weight. (Not that there’s anything wrong with big galoots — if you know you are, own it! If you’re nice, I may let you carry my tool box.)
Marking a cork area: I don’t really understand the necessity of this step. What I did learn from these bottles was that it’s better to leave the cork in the bottle when it’s drying with the stuffing inside, so that the leather will form to fit the cork. A bit of dowel rod in a width that fits the opening should suffice. Dipping it in wax when you cover the bottle will also help to ensure a secure seal.
Glue: I would NOT recommend adding glue to something that you want to be food-safe.
Stitching: I would also NOT recommend using a drill to bore the seam holes, as that would remove leather rather than just cut it. An awl will create holes that will close themselves back up as the leather relaxes — it is just pushing the grains apart from each other. Drilling or punching removes pieces of leather that will not close themselves back up because the removed leather is permanently gone. Why would you want this in something designed to hold liquids?
My recommendation — use a diamond-shaped awl to bore the holes. A completely round awl will create a round hole, but a diamond shape will accommodate the shape of a threaded needle eye. This means that it will be easier to sew, with less strain on your hands, the thread, and the needles. (In my experience, round awls increase my likelihood of breaking threads and needles, especially with thicker leather!)
The Holey Water bottle has two rows of seams. This may create a more watertight bottle, but so far the single-seam bottles seem to hold water just fine. Time may tell as the bottles get more wear.
Stuffing the wet bottle: I’ve found sand to be best so far. I tried using lentils on the holey bottle, but ran into a major problem — once the lentils were wet, they swelled up and became impossible to remove. And, because I had made that pattern with a smaller mouth, there was less room to remove the grains. In the end I was shaking them out over a few weeks and they started to mold. That was enough to put me off the project for about a year and a half until I made the second bottle in a class using sand. Based on my experiences I wouldn’t recommend using any type of dried food to stuff a bottle.
I filled up my bottle and kept shoving in more sand, then filled it with water and shoved in some more. Because it was then dripping wet and couldn’t stand on its own, I dried the round-bottomed bottle by suspending it inside a utility sink with a pair of long cooking chopsticks. The flat-ish-bottomed bottle was made at a camping event without those amenities, so I kept dropping it down on a picnic table to flatten the bottom. Because of the seam, it’s still not flat enough to stand on its own. For this design, if you are going to make a bottle with a seam on the bottom, you need to account that it will never stand on its own and prepare to suspend it to dry so that it will fill into a nicely rounded shape and thus fulfill its destiny.
Waxing: You can mix in paraffin with the beeswax to cut expenses, but beeswax gives it the best luster in the end product. You can also cut expenses by melting Crayola crayons to pour inside — apparently they are food-safe to protect all the kids who like to eat crayons, but only Crayola brand. And, inside the bottle, you don’t need it to be pretty.
The flat-bottomed bottle was first covered with crayon wax on the inside and a mix of paraffin and beeswax on the outside. This produced a mostly brown color on the outside but it had some whitish discoloration that made me worry that it had not been completely dried when it was waxed, and that water was mildewing. When the other two bottles were waxed (the Holey bottle sat unwaxed for a couple years until I could get around to waxing — this project forced me to finish up!) I went ahead and re-waxed the flat-bottomed bottle.
Putting the bottles into the oven after waxing seems to be a crucial step. Not only did it help the wax seep into the leather (as opposed to sitting on the surface) but it gave them all a beautiful chocolate sheen. Even the flat-bottomed bottle lost its whitish discoloration.
Using the oven, we put the bottles onto a board that had pegs to help them stand upside-down. This helped them melt the wax mostly evenly, but the bottles with the thickest amounts of wax finally had to be turned right-side-up to get the wax around the mouth melted — and because the wax was starting to melt out of the seams where we needed it most! When we tested our bottles with water they each needed a squidge more wax in a couple spots (sure, that’s a technical term…now) on the inside.
I’d argue, based on the bottle I made while camping, that heating with an oven is a crucial step in the waxing phase for ultimate hardening of the leather and absorption of the wax. To finish, take the hot bottle out of the oven and polish with a soft cloth. We used pantyhose — I’m not sure where this recommendation came from, but it seemed to work.
Final notes: Making these bottles gave me a better understanding of the process and how to recover the first two projects. Plus, it seemed to create a “bug” in my local group, as a couple more people have decided they want bottles, too.
I wasn’t feeling terribly inspired with the tooling on the final bottle, but if I create another one, I’d aim for something inspired by the character of Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare’s plays. He is someone I associate with an affinity for bottles, anyway. I’d also like to attempt a few stand-on-their-own molded bottles, but that will have to wait until I have better woodworking capabilities. In the meantime, I’m more tempted to create a leather mug. I think I’d get more use out of that than a canteen, anyway. These have been fun projects, but there are so many dozens of others on my to-do list. For now, I’ve finished up a couple of unfinished works, and perhaps gained another “dot” in leathercrafting.