Leather Portfolio Case for Phone, Notebook and Pen
Part 1

Sometimes an idea is relatively simple but takes countless hours of practice and experimentation to make it into a finished object - this was definitely true of my Leatherman Squirt Belt Pouch. At other times, the idea takes a long time to crystallise but then making it seems to take no time at all - this was that sort of project.

At work, I carry four things with me wherever I am. My phone and ID card are fairly obvious, but as a devotee of Dave Allen's Getting Things Done system, I always try to have a notebook and pen within reach to capture ideas, reminders and tasks. I'm addicted to the simple but beautifully made Field Notes notebooks, in graph paper so I can rough out designs and sketches to scale.

(More on that sketch in a future post...)

However, I'm rather hypersensitive to having to carry inconvenient and awkward things around, I don't like stuff bulging out of my pockets, and I'm extremely prone to leaving things behind - the more things I carry, the more likely I will mislay at least one when I put them down.

I've tried numerous solutions to this issue, none of which were quite satisfying. I went through about half a dozen of Ohto's lovely Tasche mini fountain pens - they're compact and really satisfying to write with but I inevitable lose them, break them or just leave them sitting around somewhere until they dry up; and they're not great for sketching. I've guillotined my Field Notes notebooks into various compact configurations to tuck into pockets, and seriously considered giving up my smartphone just to have one that isn't the size of a brick.

Finally I concluded that if I could at least carry all these things together in a convenient package, I'd be happier lugging them around. And the natural solution, since I was ready for a new leatherwork project, was to make a case that would hold them all.

As usual I roughed out the design in Inkscape first - this allowed me to play around with the different elements and quickly establish where I wanted everything. I settled on a two-layer design, an outer sheath with two inner panels laid onto it. The panels would be glued and stitched at top and bottom only, leaving a pocket on the left and right to tuck a notebook and my ID card into respectively, and the phone would attach somehow to the right panel. The whole thing would fold in the middle, with a pen sitting on the "hinge", and a flap on the right hand end would secure it closed somehow.

The trickiest and most pivotal engineering challenge would be attaching the phone, so I decided to solve that before I worked on anything else. I didn't want to be holding the whole ridiculous thing to my ear on the rare occasions I would make or answer a call at work, so it would need to be easy to slip the phone out and put it back.

However, I drop everything I own, often several times a day, and I've accepted that my phone must live in a protective case or it will not survive.

My first idea, as with many things, was rare earth magnets. I found out a few months ago that the effect of magnets on electronic devices is actually greatly overrated (because modern electronic devices have very few moving parts) and you can actually have a magnet sitting right next to a phone or tablet with no ill effects unless it's strong enough to actually warp metal parts.

I bought a cheap silicone phone case, and used a rivet setter and hammer to set a row of rivets into the diagonal corners of the case (having first made sure they were ferrous, I've made that mistake before)....

...then I gently roughed up the surfaces of a couple of rare earth bar magnets to give them some "tooth" for the glue to catch, and superglued them to a sheet of cardboard (standing in for the case) to test the hold.

Sadly, while the magnets were plenty strong enough if you pulled directly away from the case, they had the usual magnet problem in that they could be slid off laterally with relative ease. This meant the case would have to be held flat to stop the phone sliding out if it was jolted or even lifted too quickly. Back to the drawing board.

I mulled the problem over for a month or two, considering leather corner brackets, elastic straps, or a complete or partial sheath with a cut out for the screen, but all of them seemed awkward to use day to day, or insufficiently durable.

Finally I just started cutting down the sides of the silicone case with a sharp blade until just the corners were left to grip and protect the phone, and found a sweet spot where the remaining corners (which have a slight overhanging lip) gripped the phone firmly enough that you could sling it around all day without it slipping out, but the phone could be levered out with a finger and thumb very easily.

A quick, rough cardboard-and-staple prototype with the case superglued to the card panel tested the premise...

...and it was on to a leather version. There were a couple of engineering problems still to solve, but I already had a rough idea how I'd resolve those and I felt like I needed to see thing in the flesh (or more accurately the skin) to move forward.

As usual I made a template in Inkscape. I decided to make a curving "bridge" between the two inner panels to hold the pen in place, so I just edited my layout to add an extra panel in between, about 1/3 wider than the actual gap would be, to allow it to curve over once the panels were fastened down.

The procedure was pretty much the same as for the Leatherman Squirt Belt Pouch - I cut out the leather shapes, then soaked them in lukewarm water until the tough leather softened.

Then I put a pen under the "bridge", and placed boards either side of it, weighted down to hold the shape.

24 hours to dry completely, and the leather holds its shape perfectly. The suede side of the piece of hide I used is pretty rough, with a number of dents and gouges, but all this would be hidden when the panels were put together (gluing and stitching would also fix the slight curl).

On which topic, time to glue, groove, drill and stitch...

...and the portfolio case is coming together nicely!

In part 2 I'll finish the case, solve (pretty much) the last couple of engineering problems and test it in use.

Leather Portfolio Case for Phone, Notebook and Pen: Part 2

If you'd like to follow my future posts, the RSS feed is here, or you can sign up for email updates here.

See you soon!

If you enjoyed this page, please share it!