When you start shopping around for a high-quality bag, your first inclination will probably be “buy a leather bag.” And that will certainly never disappoint, assuming you find a high-quality option. But recently waxed canvas bags have made a resurgence in the marketplace, often sold as a leather alternative from the same company. So, having both options, which is better? Let’s briefly go over Leather vs. Waxed Canvas and try to answer all your burning questions.
Let’s start with leather, a material you are probably somewhat familiar with. (This is the simplified explanation. For further reading, go here). Leather is made by tanning the hides of animals, and is really like an art form. Like anything, you can take your time and do it right, making high quality leather, or you can do it fast, sacrificing some quality to save time. Vegetable tanned leather is the former, being made from all-natural products and taking quite a long time to make—upward of six weeks. Chrome tanned leather is a quicker option, and unsurprisingly is what most of the market’s leather goods are made of. Vegetable tanned leather is the old-fashioned way of making leather, and really is still the best way. It’s tough and patinas very well, wearing in and coloring like a well-used baseball glove. Chrome tanned leather isn’t necessarily bad, per se. You can find good quality chrome tanned bags, but with vegetable tanned leather, you know they didn’t cut any corners.
Another thing to consider is the thickness of the leather. You may have heard terms like “full grain”, “top grain”, or even “genuine leather” and this just refers to how much of the original hide was used for your leather product. Full grain is by far the best, with the full thickness of the leather hide used. Top grain next, with part of the hide sanded off, usually to make the leather feel softer or even out the surface. Genuine leather typically has far less of the original hide intact, making it a cheap option. If you see “genuine leather” just know you could end up with something that “genuinely sucks”.
All that said, not all leather is created equally. But if you get the good stuff, then leather is a durable, natural material that looks and feels phenomenal, ages well, holds up to abuse, is water-resistant, and has great insulative properties.
Canvas is a durable cotton textile used in making sails, tents, and even marquees. Adding wax to it adds a layer of water-resistance to the cloth as well as adding a bit more wear-resistance. Waxing fabric started in England in the 19thcentury to make sails more efficient and clothing water repellant. It worked like a charm, and today you can still find companies that make waxed jackets for outdoor use. Naturally, having a bag made from waxed canvas is a great alternative to leather, because it’s still highly durable and water repellent, yet is lighter, and a bit less expensive.
Like leather, waxed canvas can vary greatly in its quality. With canvas, the “thickness” is denoted by its weight in ounces per square yard of fabric. You can easily find canvas weights of 6 or 7 ounces for products on the cheaper side, while better products could be 10 ounces or more. The type of weave the canvas has is also something to look for—specifically the twill weave, which is a more durable option, and can be identified by its diagonal lines. Typically, companies will choose a weaker weave instead of twill. The last hallmark of quality is the wax itself. You can find many waxed cloths—even some oil cloths. But arguably one of the best waxes is Martexin Original Wax, which has been around since 1838. It’s a proprietary blend that is tough, water-shedding, and even food grade.
Now that we have the specifics out of the way, which is better? That really depends on what you want or need. If you look at Jackson Wayne as an example, they have an all-leather Duffle Bag and a waxed canvas Weekender with leather components. They’re both the exact same size and dimensions, and they’re made with the highest quality materials: the Duffle has full-grain vegetable tanned leather, and the Weekender has an 18 ounce Martexin Original Waxed canvas twill. Both are excellent bags that are incredibly durable. The Duffle, being all-leather looks more luxurious and will patina nicely, insulate better, is stiffer, feels smooth, and is heavier. The Weekender sheds water better, is lighter, stows flatly, is less expensive, and will show scratches easier. In fact, a good waxed canvas will actually develop a sort of patina and age well.
If you want the look, feel, and smell of leather, the Duffle is your choice. But if you want something a little easier to carry and store, the Weekender’s waxed canvas is fantastic. I have one of the Weekender Bags and as I leather lover, I think the Weekender is one of my favorite travel bags.
If you buy the best, you want to take care of it. Thankfully, buying the best means that maintenance is easy and infrequent. You probably won’t need to do anything for quite a while. With leather, make sure you store your bag away from the elements, and if it gets wet, wipe it dry. I would also buy some of Jackson Wayne’s Leather Cream to recondition the leather every once in a while. With waxed canvas, store the same way, and if you use the bag a lot, you might want to add a little extra wax to your canvas every couple of years.
Either choice is great for what it is, and they are both high quality and very durable. As someone who has both, I appreciate both for their strengths, and I’m happy with each. I love the look and feel of leather, but I love the weight and storability of the waxed canvas. And when it’s all said and done, you really can’t go wrong with a Jackson Wayne bag, so you’ll love either, I’m sure.