Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Latest leather project: a belt

My brother in-law Back East commissioned a belt from me a few weeks back. Talk about a teachable moment! I'd never tried a belt before -- well, I'd recycled a thrift store leather belt for my three-year old son, Ruben's, kilt, but I hadn't tried any tooling.

In talking over what he wanted, he expressed an interest in some kind of Nicaragua-themed pattern on a simple leather 1 1/4" belt with no fancy buckle
I skipped down to my local Tandy Leather, picked up a vegetable tanned belt blank (my leather wasn't long enough for a belt, or I would have tried cutting a strip). Their craftsman blanks are plenty thick and good quality.  I also bought a solid brass buckle, an adjustable groover, and some tracing paper.

Then, per my process, I seized up with fear and anxiety for a few days as I considered some pattern.  Unfortunately, when I look at a blank piece of veg-tanned leather, I don't see any possibility other than the very likely one that I will screw up a valuable piece of leather with a hideously ugly pattern and a few slips of the hand with a knife.

I flipped through the Google for good images from Nicaragua. My brother in-law's style is understated.  Without getting too far down into a stereotype, he is a professor at a prestigious East Coast liberal arts school: Katherine Hepburn's alma mater, as a matter of fact. He is also, as a geologist and paleontologist, a man who gets out in the field, so something rugged and natural would be important. Earth tones.

Also trying to avoid stereotypes, it seems safe to say that, "understated" is not a cornerstone characteristic of Nicaraguan visual art. "Vibrant" may be more appropriate. There is a strong leather craft culture, and I would love to go visit and learn from some of their masters, and there is an eon of human history and art remnants, as well as rain forests, lakes, the ocean, and volcanoes for inspiration.

I knew I'd use images from stone carvings, Granada tile, pottery, and also some images from nature. I looked through the list of national symbols and picked the flower and tree, and also a jaguar and a snail, the latter recommended by his good friend.

Finally satisfied (mostly), I settled in to the actual work.
Alright, here's a quick tutorial, in case you'd like to make and tool your own belt:

First, after a few days of trying out different pattern ideas, finally commit, dammit!  This is the pattern I drafted: Steps and swirls, some native flora and fauna.

Thanks to Mr. Fashion House for the snail tip -- they look cool!
Next, bevel the edges of the belt to round them out (don't forget to wet your leather and let it dry just for a minute or so), and then groove the edge to frame your pattern. You can also cut grooves with that grooving tool, if you want to deepen the background of your belt to make your tooling marks really stand out, but, since I was going for "understated", I kept the grooves shallower.

My newest tool: a groovy adjustable groover with interchangeable tips. 
Now, it's time to trace your pattern.  I finally bit the bullet and bought honest-to-goodness tracing paper, simply because I couldn't see the pattern through regular white paper well enough to keep it in line.  Belts are long, and (especially with skinnier ones like this one) if you veer off course on your pattern, it's visible.

With wet or "cased" leather, all you need is light pressure with the stylus.
Now, it's carving time!  Again, make sure the leather is cased. Keep your knife sharp (the Tandy instructions say to consider your strop a part of your knife, and it's good advice).  If your knife starts to drag or catch, stop and strop.

Carving sets the stage for the tooling.  Note strop in the upper right.

Tooling is next.  For this project, all I did was use a beveling tool to make the cuts stand out.  I could have also use a pear shader on a couple of spots if I'd chosen.

Tall end of the beveler goes into the cut on the outside of the image. Hammer lightly.

 After carving and stamping, it's time to dye... I learned a lot from this belt, dyeing being one of them.  My dye didn't go on as evenly as I'd have liked, although it gave an impression of age that the owner really appreciates (whew!).

For more even dye applications, make sure to thoroughly clean the oils that have accumulated from your hands onto the leather -- I believe you are supposed to use some sort of denatured alcohol or oxalic acid, and I think Tandy Leather sells a "deglazer" that does the trick.  I'm looking into it.

Almost finished.  What's left?  Edge dyeing and slicking, hole punching, adding the belt keeper, and shipping off.

And here are a couple of pictures of the final product:

Solid brass buckle so it won't rub off to steel, a darker brown edge dye, and Fiebings Aussie leather conditioner applied.

The part I'm happiest with -- the belt end keeper.  The dye went on beautifully, and the stamping was just a simple and very traditional leather veiner tool.
Lesson learned:

--Belts are long and narrow, which creates some issues with design (patterns are easier to carve if they flow in a shallow diagonal), casing (keep wetting it!), and the build-up of oils and dust (keep your workspace clean -- even the floor).  

In all, it was a great experience, and now I can add belts, straps and slings to custom projects at my other website.


Unknown said...

Absolutely impressive! Well done.

Josh said...

Thanks, David!

Hippo said...

Blimey, you are getting good at this!

There was a type of belt I always wore the design of which had equestrian roots, something to do with the way tack was buckled together. The brass buckle was only as wide as the main belt and was attached by narrower straps stitched to the belt. I just can't find them anymore. I shall have to send you a design so you can make one up for me!

Josh said...

Thanks, Hippo! I think the type of belt you are thinking about is the ranger style. I'd love to try my hand at one some time.

Josh said...

Hippo, if you are interested, send me an email and we can work out the details.

Hippo said...

I just looked up ranger belt and that is indeed the style I mean! The cowboy ones are a bit fancy, all I want is conservative. Now that I know they are called ranger belts, I'll find a picture of one I like and send it to you so we can discuss you making one for me.

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