Making the Celtic D&D Player's Tote

Colin's Workshop · 4 minute read

Tabletop roleplaying games, like Dungeons and Dragons, rely on a lot of books. There are core rulebooks, supplementals, campaign settings, and so forth. Then you've got the character sheets, notes, inventory, spells and abilities, and all sorts of other miscellany on top of the books. Often those sorts of things find their way into a three-ring binder. And then come the accessories. A set of dice and a dice bag are a must, and a few miniatures come next. By the time you're packing in nice-to-have's like dice towers and rolling trays, it's a struggle to find space in most bags.

This is the problem I wanted to solve, but I didn't want to just solve the space issue. I wanted to make a bag that'd be big enough to hold everything the average player needs, stylish enough to maintain a uniquely bold presence at the gaming table, and an heirloom-quality item that would last for decades or more.

Hand Tooling

I wanted to hand tool this bag. It's a big time investment, but the result is a sure-fire conversation starter. No low-quality, mass produced embossing allowed! Hand tooling adds a deep, precise, fundamentally human touch. The hand tools are tiny -- many of them mere millimeters across -- and they require persistence, practice and an almost obsessive attention to detail.

For the design, I toyed with a few different ideas, but in the end came back to one of my favorite styles: Celtic knots. They're a lot of work, but they always look amazing. In this case I doodled on paper for a bit and eventually settled on the design you see in the photos -- a stylized 20-sided die surrounded with layers of Celtic knots, expanding into a circle of knotwork. And since it's a D20, it had to show a 20 on the front and a 1 on the back.

After the tooling it was time to dye and paint. From the beginning, I knew the body of this bag wanted to be black. And because of that, the background behind the tooling would also be black. Contrast was called for, and after a bit of experimentation, silver became the dominant favorite. The design called for an intermediate layer between the silver and black, and here I chose to leave the leather in its natural tan state, but with some mahogany leather dye applied to create a gradient that darkens as it approaches the D20 in the center.

Leather dye must be applied carefully, lest it get sucked up into the "foreground" tooling.

Except for the mahogany gradient, all of the colors were applied by brush. You have to be really careful when brushing leather dye. It tends to want to bleed, making it difficult to "stay in the lines", and capillary action will also suck it up into your tooling if you use too much dye and get too close to the tooling.

The silver and gold paints were a different matter. As acrylics, they don't seep into the leather. Instead the pigment sits atop the leather, bonding to it but not penetrating. Although the carrier will wet, darken and soak into the leather, the actual pigment stays put. This makes it not too difficult to trace the contours of the knotwork, right up to the edges. Thanks to surface tension, one can get a lot of pigment into a small area without fear, for the most part, of it spilling over the side.

Acrylic leather paints can achieve a higher contrast that dyes, but tend to leave the image looking kind of "flat"

After painting, we are left with a nice, but bland-looking image. It just looks kind of flat and doesn't "pop". Additionally, acrylics can tend to hide all that wonderful fine detail created by tooling. To get a nice highlight that really helps bring out all the details and creates a nice contrast with in the image, I applied what's called an antique paste. It's about the consistency of shoe polish, and it's designed to get in between the cracks and crevasses of the tooling. It will also get into the natural pores in the leather even on a flat surface, so it has a tendency to darken everything. To get around that, I first apply a resist, which is essentially a clear acrylic layer designed to repel the antique paste.

Making The Bag

With hand tooling and coloring finished, I was finally ready to start on the bag itself. I eventually decided on a tote-style bag, as this is a simple, roomy design that should allow space for a lot of books, notebooks, and the like. I added a single side pocket, bulky enough to hold an average dice bag, plus maybe a few miniatures, pencils and pens, and so on, but not so bulky that it gets in the way of the books.

As with all of my work, the bag is entirely hand stitched. Hand stitching adds a lot of time but adds an enormous boost in quality. Given the artistic nature of this bag, I don't want it to ever fall apart. With a little occasional leather care, it could become an heirloom, passed along to future generations of D&D-ers. If you'd like to learn more about what makes hand stitching so much better than machine stitching, I have a detailed write-up for you here, complete with a demonstration of the technique.

Close-up of the hand stitching on the D20 bag's straps. The whole bag is hand stitched, because the quality of a properly hand stitched item cannot be matched.

The leather itself I ordered from Badalassi Carlo. This Italian tannery is well known for their traditional vegetable tanning processes going back hundreds of years, and the leather they produce is simply top-notch.

For the thread, I used waxed polyester, as usual. The wax helps protect it from the elements, the polyester won't break down over time, and the strands are braided for added durability. This stuff is tough -- when I was a less experienced leatherworker, I once made the mistake of trying to tear it apart. It put deep cuts into my hands long before it came close to breaking. Though that was a painful experience, it gave me confidence in the quality of the thread. It can take the weight of a few books -- even D&D books -- that's for sure.

The finished bag, ready to hold a roleplayer's stuff!

If you'd like to see more pictures and close-ups of the finished bag, you can find gratuitous images from all angles in the product listing in my store by clicking here.

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