Refurbishing My Old Messenger Bag

This last weekend I reconnected with an old friend. I bought an L.L. Bean messenger bag about 14 years: ago and it served me well for several years. A few years ago I replaced it with a posh leather briefcase. But out of curiosity I recently looked at messenger bags again, and I learned that my old Bean compares quite well to the latest and greatest, and is actually better than most of the current messenger bags I looked at.

Delaminating polyurethane. It normally sheds off in small flakes but you can see a patch in the upper-right where it's completely come off.

Unfortunately, after sitting in my closest for a long time, some of the nylon on my bag had started to delaminate. The nylon or polyester that is used in most tents, backpacks, and bags is coated with polyurethane (PU) to improve the fabric's water resistance and flexibility. It's that rubbery layer on the backside of the fabric. Heat, humidity, mildew, and other factors will eventually cause the coating to delaminate from the fabric. When the PU coating starts to delaminate, it starts flaking off and what's left gets really sticky. It's unpleasant to touch and it gets dandruff-like detritus all over your bag and its contents. The fabric also loses its water resistance. It's commonly thought that once this happens, there's nothing you can do about it. But I couldn’t quite accept that in this case because I really like this bag and other than the delamination, it’s still in great shape. So I started doing some Google searching and discovered a technique for repairing it. And what do you know, it was actually effective!

The first step is to clean up the flakes and the fabric. I removed all the loose flakes that had fallen off, or were about to fall off, with a vacuum cleaner using a small brush attachment. If your bag is soiled you'll also need to clean the surface (hand wash in Woolite) and air dry it completely. But the nylon on my bag was very clean on the inside other than the PU flakes.

Iron on medium heat, with a couple sheet of printer paper between the iron and the fabric

After you have a clean, dry surface, the next step is to halt any further delamination. Place two sheets of unused white printer paper (regular weight) on top of the nylon's interior surface where the PU coating is. Using an iron set to its synthetic, nylon, polyester, or rayon setting (i.e. medium heat), iron the nylon, making sure the paper is always between the iron and the fabric. Don't touch the bare iron on the nylon, or it could melt onto the iron and you may not be able to get the residue off. If you're the OCD type that tends to overdo things, let me warn you that you don't need high heat! The PU coating softens with relatively low heat and if you totally liquify it, it could melt onto your paper. You just want to soften the PU so that with a little pressure from the iron, it will re-bond with the fabric. You may need to change out the paper as loose flakes adhere to the paper. Get everywhere the PU coating is starting to flake and go another 1/2 to 1 inch beyond that. Work the seams well. After you let it cool, you should find that the coating is no longer sticky, which is very satisfying.

Reseal with Nikwax Tent & Gear Solarproof

The last step is to reseal the fabric with water resistant treatment. I used Nikwax Tent & Gear SolarProof. Follow the directions, but it's really easy. You just spray it on the back side of the nylon right over the PU coating, wait 2 minutes, then wipe up any excess with a damp cloth. Easy peasy. This should seal any weak areas in the fabric's water resistance.

Looks similar, but it's no longer sticky and it's not shedding flakes anymore

Now, I can't vouch yet for how long this will last. But if I can get a few more years out of my bag with a treatment once or twice a year, it would be completely worth the effort. I know after this first treatment, that the delaminating nylon is no longer sticky and it's not flaking off anymore.

Pimped out handle with paracord wrap

Another thing I did was beef up the grab handle with a paracord wrapper. I never liked the handle on the Bean. It's made from nylon fabric (not webbing), it's flimsy, and it has no supporting structure. So it's not comfortable and feels really delicate, although it's never shown any signs of failure. I found an instructional video on YouTube (there are hundreds) that walks you through how to do a paracord wrap. I folded over the existing handle lengthwise and put a couple segments of paracord on the inside to give my finished handle a bit more volume, but otherwise followed the directions exactly. The wrap only takes 20 minutes or so and solved the only usability issue I've ever had with the Bean.

I'm glad to have my old bag back in service! I have a new appreciation for it, and I'm hoping to get at least a few more years out of it.