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  1. #1
    Registered User
    Join Date
    Sep 2013

    Empire Builder -- first impressions (with photos)

    By way of some background, I have been on the hunt for the perfect business bag for years. I've tried unstructured messenger bags, I've tried traditional leather briefcases, I've tried a fashionable but ultimately impractical Mandarina Duck attaché case, and, most recently, a soft-sided Hedgren bag. None of them were quite right, because my work bag requirements are quite picky.

    I am a senior public servant in Australia. My work environment is conservative, which means I need a smart looking bag that I can happily take to meetings with Ministers and external stakeholders, and to Parliamentary committees. I also do quite a lot of work travel, although mostly without overnight stays, so I need enough internal organisation to carry a mobile office with me. And finally, the volume of paperwork and equipment I need to take with me on any given day ranges from just an iPad and notebook through to ring-binders full of briefing materials and my laptop.

    In short, the problems with the earlier bags I've tried have largely been that they don't scale (up or down), and that things end up rattling around loose in a huge bag. As Rands says in his great review of the Smart Alec, you never know when you're going to need to ‘go ninja’, which in my case might involve quickly responding to a request from a Minister at short notice, perhaps out of business hours or away from the office, or writing a quick piece of advice.

    Having been so impressed with both the build quality and thoughtful design of the Synapse 25, which has been my weekend/non-work bag for a few months now, I recently splashed out on a Black/Black/Wasabi Empire Builder.

    First thoughts

    While I had been researching the EB, I had found it hard to get a good handle on how big it would seem. There are dimensions on the website, of course, but they can't tell you how it's going to feel to use a bag day in, day out. There are several reviews out there that comment on how big the bag is, and others that say it's really only an average sized bag. The reality for me is that it is a hefty item, but it's in line with what you would expect for a briefcase -- it doesn't make me feel as if I'm taking an overnight bag to work, for example.

    It stands up beautifully by itself, even when empty, and the handles (which really do magically fall together for easy pickup) are super-comfortable. While it can hold a remarkable amount of stuff (more than I would want to carry!), it doesn't feel too big, or unwieldy. And, of course, it's beautifully made. It has the feeling of being a bag that I'll happily be using 10 years from now.

    How much does it fit?

    My standard EDC packing list is:

    • Leuchtturm notebook
    • iPad 3
    • Pens
    • Post-its
    • Phone book of key contacts
    • Office building pass
    • Parliamentary pass
    • Keys
    • Migraine medication
    • iPhone and iPad chargers, and headphones
    • Folders to manage workflow
    • Sunglasses

    And on a paper/travel-heavy day, it looks like the above plus:

    • Ring-binder folders full of paper
    • MacBook Air 11" (in TB Cache with Rails for my Synapse)
    • Laptop cables and adapters in TB Snake Charmer

    To give you a sense of how this can all fit into the Empire Builder, I've taken some photos of the full load, both spread out and in the bag. Apologies for the iPhone photos (and the dodgy lighting in my dining room!).

    Here's an example of the full list above:
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    And in the bag (open):
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    And closed (magic!):
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    To be clear, though -- most days, it's nowhere near this full, which is good news for me.

    Carrying the Empire Builder

    Most days, I'm in a suit at work, and so carrying a bag on my shoulder doesn't work. Even at its heaviest, the Empire Builder is comfortable to carry with the handles. They're thick enough to fill your hand so the weight of a full bag is spread out, but not so bulky as to be uncomfortable.

    On the days that I've carried the EB on my shoulder (using an expensive but third-party strap), I've really appreciated the one-hand access to the admin panel area -- one click to undo the clip, and then everything is reachable at just the right height. This is the sort of thoughtful design that sets Tom Bihn bags apart from their competitors -- someone has clearly thought through all these configurations and ensured that they work properly. I have a three week training course coming up where I won't be wearing suits, so I'll definitely use the shoulder strap those days.

    (I should note also that I bought a pack of Tom Bihn cord pulls with the bag. Even unpacking the bag, it was obvious that the jingling of the zippers would have really got on my nerves; with the cord pulls threaded through the zips, they're practically silent.)

    Freudian Slip

    Given how much organisation is built into the front pocket of the Empire Builder, I was in two minds about ordering the Freudian Slip. But given how expensive shipping to Australia is, I took the plunge and added it. I'm very glad I did -- apart from providing space for more pens and stationery, the two rear pouches on the Freudian Slip provide the perfect spot for my notebook and iPad. I don't think I'll be taking it in and out of the bag often, but even just having the extra space inside the bag is great.

    Good design makes me smile

    In my view, a sign of good design (in any sort of product) is that it makes you smile when you recognise it. In the Empire Builder, there have been a few of these moments so far:

    • Finding O-rings everywhere they're needed -- A combination of key straps and organiser pouches has put paid to the 'junk drawer' section of my old bag, where pens, cables and post-its would rattle around
    • The bright wasabi inside (the only thing better would be solar)
    • One-handed, eyes-free acess to things under the front flap while driving (e.g. sunglasses, security pass)
    • The handles really do magically fall together so you can just pick them up and go
    • How clear it is that three years of R&D really have gone into this bag


    There are some things I'm yet to do with the Empire Builder -- particularly, air travel. But having spent a week with the bag now, I am confident in saying that this is a work bag I will happily be holding on to. It's built like a tank, well thought out, and gives me complete confidence that when I find myself in an unexpected and stressful situation, the bag will help me work quickly and efficiently, rather than distracting me by making me hunt around for things.

    If I didn't have days when I need to carry half my office with me, a slightly smaller bag (the Zephyr, for example?) would probably have suited me well. With the EB, though, I know that on those occasions when I really do have to carry everything, I can -- I'd much rather have a bag that scales down rather than one that's just a bit too small.

    I'll come back and update this review in a few months after I've had some more time with the bag. In the meantime, I hope this is helpful for people who might be considering the Empire Builder. I think I may just have found the perfect work bag.

  2. #2
    Registered User daisy's Avatar
    Join Date
    Mar 2011
    Another Empire builder in Australia!

    MrDaisy uses his black/black/wasabi EB as his mobile office - toting the stupidly heavy 17" laptop and rather too much paper for my liking.

    He has a cadet for light, ipad only, days.
    List under construction ....

  3. #3
    Forum Member
    Join Date
    Jul 2013
    Atlanta, GA
    Thanks for the great review I’ve been admiring the Zephyr for a little while and after seeing your review I’m wondering if I should consider the Empire Builder. If you have time could you post photos of the loaded bag in hand and/or over your shoulder?

  4. #4
    Registered User
    Join Date
    Sep 2013
    BarryLee - happy to. I'll take some tonight and post them for you.

  5. #5
    Registered User
    Join Date
    Sep 2013
    Daisy - I long for the day when I have a paperless office! Most days my EB is half-empty, but it feels manageably small that way. I like the idea of a Cadet for light loads, but to be honest, switching between the EB (weekdays) and the Synapse (weekends) is enough bag switching for me -- I like being able to pick up my bag in the morning and go, knowing that everything is where it should be.

  6. #6
    Registered User
    Join Date
    Sep 2013
    BarryLee -- the bag isn't quite as full tonight as it was in the earlier photos (fortunately!), but hopefully these are helpful to give you a sense of size, at least:

    Bag in hand:
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    Bag over shoulder (hand on the front flap buckle to show how easily it falls under your hand when the bag is on your shoulder):
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  7. #7
    Forum Member
    Join Date
    Jul 2013
    Atlanta, GA
    Hey, thanks for taking the time to post more photos it does help me visualize the size. I sort of wish the Empire Builder/Zephyr were offered in some color other than black. I really like the basic design of both bags, but man I’ve got too many black nylon bags already.

  8. #8
    TOM BIHN Crew (we work here) Darcy's Avatar
    Join Date
    May 2003
    The far west
    What an incredibly awesome thorough review. And great photos.
    Current Carry: Skookum Dog Citizen Canine prototype, Founder's Briefcase (every day carry), Small Cafe Bag (every day carry), Shop Bags (groceries, extra random stuff), Aeronaut 45 (travel), Synapse 19 (day hikes), Smart Alec (longer day hikes), Skookum Dog Road Duffel (Medium) (travel), Clear Organizer Wallet, Travel Stuff Sacks, Organizer Cubes

  9. #9
    Registered User
    Join Date
    Oct 2013
    Quote Originally Posted by BarryLee View Post
    Thanks for the great review I’ve been admiring the Zephyr for a little while and after seeing your review I’m wondering if I should consider the Empire Builder. If you have time could you post photos of the loaded bag in hand and/or over your shoulder?
    Be wary of the Empire builder for while it is possibly the best brief case I've ever owned I have found the bag can out do the man. I overloaded it one day with two enthusiast (equates to heavy as a dead sun) laptops. Fit like a charm but I misjudged the weight. Threw my back right out catastrophically (and that's not exactly easy to do, I'm in decent shape and fairly young) after about ten minutes. If I could do it all over again I would have gone for the Zephyr to help me self regulate what my poor spine can handle when loaded on one side.

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