There so many options for BIFL bags. How do you choose? There are many good options and many terrible options that will waste that hard earned money. Here are a things to look at during the process.
Rich thick leather
At least 4-5 oz is a good thickness. Chrome tanned or veg tanned leather is fine but make sure the leather is thoroughly dyed. Otherwise the dye will rub off quickly and you will be left with the photo on the right. One of the best ways to know is to simply ask what tannery they use and look up that tanneries reputation.
Top grain leather can be good quality and last a long long time, however, full grain is better. Often the lighter bags have been skived down to top grain to save weight.
Heavy nylon or polyester thread
Definitely avoid cotton thread. Bonded nylon thread is strongest but continuous filament polyester thread is impervious to weakening from UV rays. Heavy linen is also a great choice that can last a long time. There is more coming on this topic soon.
Many quality makers use sewing machines specially designed for leather. These machine stitches can be very strong but their weakness is if the thread breaks then it is a matter of time before the seam unravels with stress.
The most robust and expensive stitching type is the saddle stitch which creates a chain of individual stitches using two strings of thread and therefor can’t unravel due to the friction. The downside to this method is it can only be done by hand is massively time consuming and therefor expensive.
Is the stitching done by hand or with sewing machines? This can dramatically alter the price.
Suede or pigskin lining if at all
While some good companies do use cloth or canvas, make sure they use heavy materials. Otherwise, in a year your lining is going to be ruined. Other great companies don’t even use linings and this is fine as well.
There should be rivets in the high stress points
Rivets are massively strong. Try ripping some good leather put together with rivets, it’s nearly impossible. Don’t hurt yourself.
Double reinforced stitching is always good.
While it is not present on every single good bag, it is always a good sign.
Brass or steel hardware?
Nickel plating is fine as long as it is plating brass or steel. Stay away from nickel plated crack pipes.
Burnishing on the edges of the leather?
This is often a sign of a well made product with thought given to aesthetic appeal. Burnished edges look better for longer. Some good makers don’t do much burnishing because of the time it takes and therefore cost, this is understandable.
Is it wide enough? Will it fit all your goodies?
Is the shoulder strap designed heavily enough to take a lifetime of heavy loads?
Are there two shoulder pads (one for your shoulder, one for your chest) or one? How thick is the strap? Shoulder straps typically take a lot of abuse and should be hefty. Tough hardware on the shoulder strap is key.
How comfortable is the carry handle?
Will it take all the weight of your bag for the rest of your life and feel good? Is it wimpy or hefty?
Do you see any weak points?
If there are parts where you feel you could rip the seam with your bare hands pretty easily then take a pass. Which parts are not correctly reinforced to take the load?
Is it heavy?
Compare the weight of similar products. Often the greater weight indicates heftier materials used. Of course, construction methods still matter greatly. There is a trade off between lightness and durability.
What kind of customer service can you expect?
How will the maker support his goods after you buy?