Unfailing Goods: Visiting the Filson Restoration Deparment

Bringing new life to storied products
Words by Chris Zimmerman
Photos by Jake Hanson

Many companies have great warranty and repair programs these days. You buy something, use it for awhile, it breaks and you send it back to get repaired or exchanged for something new. While warranties are great for consumers looking to buy from companies who stand behind their products, what happens to items beyond repair? Well, most of the time they end up in the landfill. But at Filson, anything the highly skilled Repair Department isn’t able to fix is sent to the Restoration Department.

Housed in a corner of the Seattle Flagship Store, ironically a floor above where many of the bags originally began their lives, the team running the Restoration Department dismantle, repair, restore and extend the lives of many once-warrantied bags, duffels and leather goods. Through new leather components, zippers and—sometimes extensive—darning of the fabric, unique, fully restored bags are ready to continue their adventures, albeit with a new owner in tow.

This restoration ability has as much to do with the skill of the craftsmen as it does with the fact Filson’s stuck by tried-and-true, timeless materials like Rugged Twill, Bridle Leather and Oil Cloth, allowing 30 year old bags to be fully restored with the same parts and fabrics.

We had a chance to visit the Restoration Department, meet the hardworking team behind it and learn some of the different methods and techniques that go into rebuilding Filson originals and creating one-of-a-kind pieces. After Jeremy Bennett, Manager of Product Development at Filson explained the thought and purpose behind the FRD, he introduced us to two of the three craftsmen who work their magic on a day-to-day basis, Jon Duce and Will Putnam. The result of the restoration process, which can take up to 8 hours, is a bag that’s good to go back into the hands of someone looking to extend its use and carry on the legendary heritage Filson’s been cultivating for over 100 years.

 

Can you explain what the Filson Restoration Department is and its purpose?

Jeremy Bennett (Manager of Product Development) – The Filson Restoration Department restores Filson bags that have been decommissioned, or deemed unrepairable, through the Filson return process. The restoration team will then completely disassemble the product, and reconstruct it using a multitude of techniques to bring it back as close to the original bag as possible. Within this process the craftsmen of the department will analyze the material condition and take liberty to replace materials such as rotted leathers or fabrics, broken or worn out hardware etc.

 

What originally sparked your interest to get into product restoration? Had you done other product manufacturing previously?

Jon Duce (FRD Assistant) – The idea of bringing new life to something full of character and patina is beautiful. The story of its previous life shown by the fading of the material, stains and broken-in leather is carried on while the integrity of the piece has been fully restored to its original form. As far as product manufacturing, I’ve always worked with my hands; woodwork, knife making and heavy canvas tarp repair. I’m always striving to learn new skills and push my creativity, so FRD was really a no-brainer.

Will Putnam (FRD Coordinator) – I like the challenges that come with restoration. Each item has something different that needs to be fixed. Sometimes you have to fix things you’ve never seen before. I started as a production sewer at a factory in Idaho back in 2007 and about four years ago I started working for Filson as a production supervisor, shortly after that a sample sewer. I would help with customer repairs a lot, too.

(Left to right: Anthony, Jeremy and Jon)

Why is the restoration department unique compared to many other brands? And why do you think this is important for Filson?

Jeremy – The Filson Restoration is unique in that it’s not just a “patch and go” repair process. FRD is something completely different, and much more visceral. The FRD craftsmen take a good amount of time, in some cases 6-8 hours, to completely deconstruct and reconstruct these decommissioned items. There is a lot of care and attention to detail when restoring these items, which creates a very sentimental relationship between the craftsman, product and end customer.

The Restoration Department allows our craftsmen a lot of creative freedom that can sometimes improve our main line products with different solutions for specific functions in our luggage, bag and accessories product category. Most importantly, a lot of the stuff we save and restore, would’ve been destined for the landfill.

 

What are some of the challenges with restoring items and what do you do to work around them?

Jon – It can be difficult working with bags that have been damaged to the point where the overall shape is very distorted and stretched. It takes a good amount of effort to darn and join the fabric, and you really have to manipulate the fabric to retain its original shape.

 

“The idea of bringing new life to something full of character and patina is beautiful.” – Jon Duce (FRD Assistant)

Do customers ever send in stories about their gear when they send it in to get repaired? Is there a memorable one you can share with us?

Jon – I once helped a customer who was in a real pinch. He was on tour with his band and his Medium Duffle had got caught up in machinery and absolutely destroyed the whole bottom panel. I gave it a complete once-over just in time before his band left town. He told me when he gives it to his son he’ll be able to tell him how Jon saved it.

 

Filson utilizes a lot of bridle leather and tin cloth in their products. What is the significance of these materials in terms of wear, durability and restoration ability?

Jeremy – Filson sources the strongest materials for our luggage, bags and accessories. Bridle leather has been around for hundreds of years and used for countless jobs, from industrial machine pulleys to horse tack, and has proven to be an incredibly durable material. Not only does the bridle leather last for years, it also ages beautifully if properly cared for. The aniline finish (non-pigmented leather that retains the hide’s real nature) of Filson’s bridle leather allows the user to inadvertently create their own custom patina through the ways they use the product. This same patina process holds true with our oil Tin Cloth and Rugged Twill materials. Both of these fabrics have a wax finish that reduces friction wear and increases the longevity/durability of the product. The unique characteristics of our Filson materials is what makes the Restoration products so interesting.

 

What have you learned about the heritage of Filson craftsmanship by dismantling bags prior to the restoration, and has that changed your thinking about putting them back together?

Jon – You really can appreciate something when you tear it apart, repair the damaged areas and reconstruct it to its exact original shape. You get into the nitty gritty details of the construction. I’ve learned it’s incredibly difficult to take off leather body tabs without damaging the material it’s attached to. I’ve never seen a body tab fail, so when I reattach a body tab I use the same tried and true methods that were originally used.

 

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Can you talk about one of the more memorable bags you were able to restore and why it was so memorable?

Jon – I always like to restore some of our oldest bags. It’s a lot of a fun to see the wear and tear, and imagine what that bag has seen. Maybe it was a duffle used on annual father son hunting trips to North Dakota (sometimes we find ammunition in bags) or a briefcase that was the travel companion for a businessman.

 

What’s it like to have the freedom to be able to restore a bag however you can, vs. having a set of rules like if it was a new bag?

Jon – While we do have some creative freedom when we restore each piece it’s also very important that we stay true to the bag’s heritage. I wouldn’t throw on blaze orange leather handles on a bag that originally didn’t have them. All three FRD craftsmen on the team have our own little flair or style of restoration that I guess is nuanced.

 

What are a few things someone can do to help preserve their Filson bag so they can get the maximum use from it?

Jeremy – The two most important things to remember to preserve your Filson bags are the following:
– Condition the leather like it’s your own skin. The more moisture you give it in the form of conditioners and oils, the longer it will last. This will help prevent cracking, waterlogging and dry rot.
– Wax, wax and re-wax your Filson bag. Same as the leather, the more you wax the Rugged Twill, or Oil Tin, the more impermeable it becomes to the elements. Waxing your bag also reduces friction wear, and will ensure a longer life for the fabric.

Jon – First off, it’s going to get dirty and weathered. When you get a scuff mark, indigo transfer from your jeans or some ink bleed from your pen, own it! It’s your bag and your story! I would never recommend washing your Filson bag. It will damage the leather, strip the cotton of the Paraffin, and leave wax lining inside your washer and dryer. Instead try your best at spot cleaning now and again. Use a medium stiff bristle brush, a little water and lightly scrub some of affected areas. Folks often ask about whether you can wax our twill canvas, which I always suggest. It will help maintain the water repellency, and reduce any fraying threads or snags.

It can sometimes feel overwhelming to drop in on a bag from a brand like Filson, but with the brand’s commitment to unfailing goods, a solid warranty and repair program, and now the Restoration Department, it’s comforting to know the bag will last a lifetime.

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