Design

On The Design Process: Inspiration, Timeline, Testing

Both Tom and Nik are designing various new bags and smaller items—everything from new backpacks to new travel bags to new organizer pouches. And that, of course, prompts questions: When will they be released? Will all the designs turn into real bags that will debut someday?

There’s an easy answer: we don’t know. But why do we not know? And further, how can we be comfortable with—and actually admit to—not knowing?

First, we might identify the various impetuses behind the new designs, as the origin of their inspiration does impact the design process and timeline of development.

The inspiration for Tom and Nik’s new designs is influenced by:

  • Taking and using bags (current designs or prototypes of new designs) on trips.
  • Observing other people traveling, hiking, or commuting with bags.
  • Feedback from people who use our bags.
  • The intervention of inspiration from an unknown, unidentifiable source. (Sounds lofty, but we’ve all experienced that in our work, haven’t we?)
  • A design problem or challenge that would be exquisite to solve.
  • An aesthetic drive: to first start with building something that looks good.
  • Life events. Best friend having a baby? We’ll make a diaper bag!
  • Recalling an incomplete design that was put aside years ago, and applying newfound knowledge and skills to complete the design.

The development timeline of new designs is influenced by:

  • How busy we are running our small business. Internal projects can sidetrack design. For example: over the past few years, we’ve designed and programmed our own inventory and production management software, implemented our new inventory scanning/tracking system, rebuilt nearly our entire website on a new platform, and reviewed, documented, and improved all customer service and shipping-related procedures.
  • How inspiration waxes and wanes. It may be there for a week and gone the next three weeks—or three years. We don’t push it or force it; in our experience, design driven by inspiration is far superior to design forced to meet a timeline.
  • Research into and development of new materials that’ll make the new design truly sing.
  • Engineering the manufacturing of the design so that it is … manufacturable.
  • Configuring a new sewing machine set-up, folder*, or ordering dies* to make the design efficiently manufacturable.
  • Staff time to either make the bag or make the debut happen. We have decided we’re happy with the size of our company more-or-less—with 47 people, we’re big enough to do stuff like develop custom fabrics and small enough that we’re all still working here together under one roof in Seattle. Having a smaller company/crew means there’s less redundancy—if someone takes family leave because they’re having a baby or someone else has major surgery (these two things have happened recently/are happening right now FYI), we rally to cover their work or make do so they can take time without worrying about it. That can mean that new releases or debuts or other projects get delayed because we don’t have our full crew on deck. With the rare exception around the holiday season, our crew doesn’t work overtime. Tom, Nik, and I often work in excess of forty hours each week, but that’s because we want to.
  • The fact that many design ideas don’t make their way to fruition. This excerpt from Tom’s most recent newsletter update sums it up well: At the same time, we’re experimenting with and developing new fabrics (my Taber testing machine is getting a workout!), new webbing, and new zippers. And I realize (once again), that more often than not, these forays start off with high hopes but yield nothing new that we can actually use—they’re good ideas that turn out to be not-so-good realities. Indeed, life would be much different (though far less interesting, IMHO) if one knew in advance which was going to be a gold mine and which a rabbit hole. But the few fabrics that work well, and the few designs that rise above the others, make it all worthwhile.

Updates on Just a Few of the Designs We’re Working On Right Now

Last month, Tom sewed a prototype of a new backpack/briefcase design so he could use it on a weekend trip. In line at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, the guy standing behind Tom told him that it was a great looking bag and asked him who made it. Tom replied that he, in fact, had made it, and that while he appreciated the feedback, he’d already redesigned the bag over the course of that short trip, and it would end up looking a lot different. Tom made something like five design changes to the bag after using it on trips—that’s how his design process works. Even when that process results in a longer development timeline, we think it’s worth it. We’d rather take our time and meet our own standards of perfection.

Or, take the Luminary backpack: we were 100% sure its design update was done when several different people testing the bag told us an additional interior pocket against its front face would be useful. And, upon first consideration, Tom thought that could be a good idea too. But by that time, he had shifted his focus to working on other new designs, such as the aforementioned briefcase/backpack, which are now nearly done. His plan is to complete those designs and then work on samples of the Luminary with the new pocket so we can see if it’s a good idea in reality.

The same process can apply to materials—and it’s not uncommon that we have to wait on the development of a new material that’s necessary to make a new bag design. Tom’s currently developing a new fabric and a sample of it arrived from our mill. It looked exactly as we had envisioned it, but it didn’t Taber test as well as we had hoped. We expect to spend weeks investigating those Taber results in an effort to identify and solve the problem.

To Sum it All Up…

As usual ’round here, there’s a lot in the works. And when a design is really, really done—and its debut it scheduled—we’ll let you know about it.

Until then, we remain grateful for your feedback, support, and interest in our little company and what we make. The more work we put into what we do, the more we get out of it, and the more you share with us (whether a review of your bag, photos from a trip, or constructive feedback), the more we’re inspired to take on new projects and make things even better than they are. Thanks!

*Dies and die cutting
A die is, most simply put, a sharpened steel edge bent into a specific shape: think of an industrial strength cookie-cutter. We use dies to cut small fabric parts like pouches, as well as foam and plastic parts. Dies allow you cut out parts with a very high degree of accuracy and speed. We use a 20 ton press (called a “clicker”) to push the dies through whatever material we’re cutting. All of our dies are custom fabricated to our specifications.

*Folder/binder
A folder (also sometimes called a binder) is an attachment to a sewing machine, typically made of stainless steel or chrome-plated steel, which sits in front of the needle and feed-dogs (mechanisms that pull the fabric through the machine). The folder/binder effectively mimics the hands and fingers of a sewing machine operator, locating or placing various parts in very specific and consistent orientations relative to one another. Folders allow many of our sewing operations to take place with near-perfect consistency, and at high speeds. We have folders that keep the edge of zipper tape in the same relative placement to the sewing operation, at the same time folding the cut edge of the fabric and holding that folded edge consistent to the seam and zipper as well. We use several folders that fold the various narrow widths and types of fabric tape (effectively light weight webbing) that we use to cover the cut edges of fabric inside our bags, preventing those cut edges from fraying apart. Many of our padded handles are created by using folders. All of our folders are custom fabricated to our specifications.

The Aeronaut Travel Bag: Frequently Asked Questions

Below is a list of questions (and answers) that we’re asked — or anticipate we will be asked — about the Aeronaut 30 and Aeronaut 45 travel bags. If you have a question that wasn’t answered here, feel free to emailus@tombihn.com

  1. How did Tom come up with the design of the Aeronaut?
  2. What does Tom consider to be some of the more unique features and aspects of the Aeronaut design?
  3. Does the Aeronaut meet with all airline carry-on standards?
  4. Will the Aeronaut fit under the seat in front of me on the airplane?
  5. Is the Aeronaut a good bag for road trips or train trips too?
  6. Can I use the Aeronaut as a hiking backpack once I reach my destination?
  7. What if I’m traveling to a conference and I want to “one bag” it—will it work to carry my Aeronaut as my Everyday Carry (EDC) bag?
  8. How much of a difference do the optional Aeronaut Internal Frame and Padded Hip Belt make? Do I need them?
  9. Can I use just the Internal Frame or just the Padded Hip Belt, or are both necessary?
  10. Why not just include the Internal Frame and sew in the Padded Hip Belt?
  11. I’m trying to choose between between the Aeronaut and the Synapse 25. Help me out here: what are the advantages of each?
  12. Is a shoulder strap included with the Aeronaut?
  13. How can I pack my Aeronaut so as to maximize comfort for sustained carrying?
  14. Are Packing Cubes necessary for packing the Aeronaut efficiently?
  15. What are the benefits of using Packing Cubes?
  16. How do people use the o-rings in the Aeronaut?
  17. What’s the maximum weight that the Aeronaut can hold?
  18. I use wheeled roll-aboard luggage now. Will the Aeronaut work better than that for me?
  19. Does the Aeronaut have a compartment for my laptop?
  20. Have you considered adding a laptop compartment to the Aeronaut?
  21. What causes the zippers on the Aeronaut to be a little stiff?
  22. Can I lock the zippers of my Aeronaut?
  23. I’m 5’2″ and not so big. Which size of Aeronaut is right for me?
  24. I’m 6’2” and pretty big. Is the Aeronaut for me?

New Luminary Backpacks Are In The Works


Tom sews one of the new Luminary prototypes in his design studio.

Tom has made a couple of design updates to the original Luminary. Most notably, he’s made the right side pocket large enough to fit phablets such as the iPhone Plus and the HTC U Ultra; the left side pocket is a bit bigger too (wider actually) than the first iteration of the Luminary. The asymmetrical height of the pockets makes the main compartment zipper extend further down one side than the other, which we think looks kinda cool. Yet Tom was able to nudge things around so that the new Luminary’s main compartment zipper still opens just as wide as the older version – about 44 cm or 17.4”.

Concurrent with the redesign of the Luminary was the development of a new, larger Luminary—the Luminary 14. Its shoulder straps and over-all height are intended to better fit taller and/or broader folks, and its padded back compartment can fit up to a 13” laptop. The Luminary 14 can hold noticeably more than the original Luminary (henceforth to be known as the Luminary 10), yet is still quite a modest sized pack. (For those paying close attention: we re-measured the volume of the original Luminary when we were measuring this new size, and the original came in at a perfect 10 liters. Both were measured using our new volume measurement protocol, so we feel very confident abut these numbers — more on that some other time….).

Both the Luminary 10 and Luminary 14 are in the final stages of their creation: pattern adjustments are being made and Tom is working with Lisa, Fong, and Nik to ensure both bags are efficiently manufacturable. We expect the new Luminaries will be available for order sometime between July and September 2018. 

To sign up to be notified when the new Luminary 10 is available, visit the Luminary 10 page.

To be notified when the Luminary 14 is available for order, subscribe to our general mailing list or to our blog posts (that sign-up box is on the right). 


Various Luminary prototypes on Tom’s drafting table.

Some Thoughts for the Prospective Bag Designer

Tom Bihn in the Dave Meeks Bee Barn, Santa Cruz
In my garage, Santa Cruz, circa 1983.

The other day, someone stopped by the factory just as I was leaving – they are learning to design and make bags, and were hoping to look around. I was glad to give them a brief tour and answer some questions. Surprisingly, this request is not that uncommon: we’ve recently had more and more inquiries from people who’d like to start their own bag businesses or become bag designers, and are hoping I might give them some advice or wisdom to help them down their path. Of course, the thing about any map is that, while it can show you where someone else has been, it cannot show you where you’re going to go.

I’ve been very fortunate myself to have had some great mentors along the way, folks who were willing to share their time and their opinions – not so much about the specifics of design or running a bag business, but about business in general, and even more broadly, this bigger thing we call life. Dave Meeks was a big influence, as were many friends, family members and early customers (such as my math teachers Gary Rominger and Randy Smith!)

Tom Bihn Custom Down Jackets
The business card from my days as a student at Aptos Junior High, circa 1972.

Doing my best to be helpful, I first try to dissuade those who want to “follow in my footsteps”: there’s nothing easy about what we do here, and there’s got to be about ten million easier ways to earn a living than by making bags. All that said, if you’re still interested, what follows are a few words of advice, such as they are . . .

Ernest Hemingway said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” Similarly, the best way to find out how to make bags is to make bags.

I’ve been making outdoor equipment since about 1972. I was 11 or 12 years old and I just wanted to spend more time outdoors. I thought all that fancy gear coming out of Berkeley, Boulder, and Seattle was pretty neat, but I was just a kid and all that stuff was a bit expensive. Somewhere in there my parents suggested I try making my own gear. My mom taught me the basics of using a sewing machine, and after that I was just winging it. I started off more or less just copying traditional styles, over time adding my own touches until ultimately I was truly “designing” my own products. I never went to design school; engineering was a bit inherited from my dad and otherwise self-taught, and the aesthetics largely my own.

Read this book: Light Weight Camping Equipment and How to Make it by Gerry Cunningham

It now seems quaint and somewhat out of date, but it’s a great way to get some basic information about, as the title suggests, how to make your own gear. Gerry Cunningham was the “Gerry” behind the company of that same name, and he had figured out a bunch of stuff already.

Tom in Yosemite
Solo backpacking trip in the back country of Yosemite, 1977. I built the pack hiding behind me; it’s mounted on a classic Kelty external frame.

Learn To Sew
Take a class or just get a machine and start tinkering around. Nik (COO / Designer here at TOM BIHN) more or less taught himself to sew over the course of a few months, mentored a bit by Lisa, Fong and myself. It’ll make a world of difference in your designs if you can actually sew them yourself: the cycle of sketch/prototype/test, sketch/prototype/test is so much faster and easier than if you need someone else to make your ideas real. Plus, you might invent a whole new way of making a bag if you do it yourself.

What type of machine, you may ask? I made everything on a walking foot Consew 206RB for years. If you can get one with a servo motor instead of the old clutch drive, you’ll be ahead of the curve as you learn (it’s sort of the difference between an automatic and a stick shift in a car: especially in the learning phase, you’ve got enough other things to distract you).


My Consew 206RB is still in use in our Seattle factory.

Start Small. Don’t quit your day job. Not yet, anyway.
Times have changed and this advice may not be as relevant, but here goes: I attribute part of the success of this business to the fact that I had modest expectations and never planned to make a lot of money making bags. For years I held down other jobs and made bags on the side, renting a loft above my friend’s garage for almost a decade while I developed my designs and learned to run my own business.

Tom's letter of recommendation
A letter of recommendation from the Frick winery. I had over 30 jobs before I officially started my own business.

Listen to everyone’s advice, but take little of it.
Everyone will give you their opinion about what you make. It’s important to pay attention to this feedback: after all, the idea is not to just make bags for yourself. But it’s also good to develop a filter that helps you sort through all the opinions before they confuse and sidetrack your own vision.

Remember as well that your designs and skills will evolve: there’s always more to learn from yourself, your critics, your supporters, and often by just watching people use their bags.


I (most of the time) welcomed the feedback of friends and family who used my packs on their hikes and travels. Here, Brooke wears the Sack of Spuds backpack.

And Perhaps Most Importantly…
Though it might just remain an avocation rather than a full-time career, if you love making things, don’t give up. Had Etsy been around when I was starting off, you can bet I would have had an Etsy store. What cooler way to to see what people like and don’t like than to offer your ideas for sale to the whole world?

While living in a loft above a friend’s garage is perhaps a bit glamorous at age 20 or 30 (as opposed to age 50), there were plenty of times I thought about getting a “real job”. I’m glad I didn’t. And frankly, I’d rather still be living in that loft than doing something for work I didn’t really enjoy.

TOM BIHN Crew
Look at us now: we’re a company of 47 people all working together under one roof here in Seattle. We made it. And you might, too.

Farewell to the Field Journal Notebook

TOM BIHN | The Field Journal Notebook Returns

Back in 2015 we made the decision to retire a number of designs including the Field Journal Notebook. And then, in 2016, we announced its return. Now, in 2018, we are once again retiring the Field Journal Notebook. This decision was made partly because of two materials supply related reasons: first, the Field Journal Notebook’s three-ring binder mechanism is no longer available, and second, the cost of the specially-produced-just-for-us FJN paper inserts/refills have gone up by a substantial amount that we’d rather not pass on to you.

And so here we find ourselves once again: the Field Journal Notebook is retiring and this time it’s for good. The currently available Field Journal Notebooks, accessories, and paper refills are the last of their kind. No more final batches will be made. (Go here to see the Field Journal Notebook and its accoutrements all in one place.)

Those of you who already own or plan to purchase a Field Journal Notebook may be wondering where you can find paper refills from here on out. The Field Journal Notebook accepts paper that is 5.5 x 8.5” which isn’t a terribly common size but not too rare. Here’s some paper refill options that can be obtained through Amazon:

Avery Mini Filler Paper, 5.5 x 8.5 Inches
Bright White 24lb Bond 5 1/2″ x 8 1/2″ Sheets
Ampad Graph-Ruled Refill Sheets

In addition, unpunched Half Letter or A5 (different but fairly similar sizes) paper can be acquired and an industrious person could make their own custom pages (or find one that works for them on sites like Etsy) and use a Mini 3-hole punch such as this one by Staples or an adjustable punch such as this one by Swingline to print and punch their own replacement pages.

Finally, there have been some helpful discussions about this on the forums, such as the Where to Buy FJN Insides, Field Journal Notebook Hole Spacing, and Field Journal Notebook threads, all of which are worth a look if you’re interested in more information about planners and hole punching for the Field Journal Notebook.

Many thanks goes out to our volunteer Forum Moderators moriond and Ilkyway for the links / information / tips referenced in this blog post.

And, as always… if you have questions about any of this, emailus@tombihn.com or give us a call at 1-800-729-9607 or 1+206-652-4123.

New: Guide’s Edition Synapse 25, Pop Tote, and Synapse Internal Frames

Meet our three latest designs…

The Guide’s Edition Synapse 25

The Pop Tote

Synapse 19 or Synapse 25 Internal Frame

Our Guide To Backpack Frames

Tom and Nik in the Seattle Factory

As with many things in life, deciding whether to use an internal frame—or if you even need one—is subjective: it’s based on how you plan to carry your backpack, what you plan to carry in it, and how carefully you’re willing to pack it. A lot of folks will find an internal frame useful, but not everyone will, and certainly not everyone needs one, especially those who carry smaller/lighter packs or less gear.

Our Hero’s Journey, Guide’s Pack, and Guide’s Edition Synapse 25 backpacks all come with internal frames included. Versions of the same internal frame are optional for our Synapse 19 and Synapse 25 backpacks. But just because we offer internal frames doesn’t mean they’re required; our goal with this guide is to give you the facts as we know them (experientially, theoretically, and historically) so you can make the decision as to what’s best for you and your carrying comfort.

Introducing The Travel Cubelet

Meet the Travel Cubelet—we humbly present it to you as the elusively perfect mini travel purse (maybe not so humbly after all…). ​It’s not too big…and not too small. It has ​lots of pockets—four, to be exact—but not so many pockets that they would confound in use.

In Production. Ships on Friday, October 27th at 8:00am Pacific Time. Sign up to be notified on the Travel Cubelet page.

The First Bag I Made

Tom Bihn's G.I. Joe External Backpack and Ice Axe

The very first bag I ever made was when I was about 10 years old: it was an external frame backpack for my G.I. Joe.

Which Size of Cafe Bag is Right for You?

Which Size of Cafe Bag Is Right For You? | TOM BIHN

We published this guide to the Cafe Bag back in 2015, and we’re re-posting it now to reflect some changes to the Cafe Bag line. The Cafe Bag is incredibly simple and versatile. Available in two sizes (Small and Medium) and an array of colors and fabrics, it’s great for hauling your everyday essentials. Classic…

News Briefs

The Pre-Order window for The Truck, Small + Large Zip-Top Shop Bags and Original Small Shop Bag has closed. Our factory will now begin making the pre-ordered bags. All but the Original Small Shop Bag (due to low numbers ordered) will be made available for pre-order once again in September.

We don’t have any current plans to make future production runs of The Hero’s Journey or Moveable Feast. You can sign up on their pages to be notified if/when we make more.

Three of our most popular briefcases are back in-stock: the Pilot, Cadet, and Daylight Briefcase.

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