Belts- what’s there to say about them? They’ve been around since prehistory, they come in every shape, size, and color imaginable. They hold your pants up and sometimes help to carry tools. You can find them dirt cheap at Walmart or spend exorbitant amounts from certain trendy retailers.
For those not familiar with a particular craft, it’s difficult to judge the quality of a given product. I do leather work, including belts. In this article, I’ll walk you through my processes and compare them to others, in hopes of explaining what goes into each and enabling you to make a more informed decision. All images in this article are my own, and I’ve chosen not to include any competitor’s work due to potential copyright issues. It should be a simple matter to search for examples of the processes I describe that aren’t pictured.
At the end of this article, should you choose to place an order for a belt with me, I’ll describe options I can offer and include information on how best to measure yourself to help me ensure a proper fit for your item. Should you choose not to purchase from me, at the very least, you’ll be better able to distinguish low from high quality work in the future.
All my products are made by hand. I am a one-man operation and do not outsource any work. My belts begin by cutting a strap from heavy, full-grain, vegetable-tanned cowhide. Not “pleather” (a vinyl, leather-like material), not “bonded” leather (the leather equivalent of plywood- leather chunks or dust glued into a sheet), not “Genuine” leather (a weasel-word used by some manufacturers for the lowest grade material that can actually still be called “leather”), and not “split” leather (suede and others that remove the natural top layer for a homogenous but sometimes artificial look). My belts are cut from full-thickness hide in its original state.
Stitching grooves are cut into the strap. This is one of those minor details I feel adds to the look and durability of the belt. When later stitched, the thread will lay into this groove and keep it below the surface of the belt, preventing abrasion and breakage of the thread.
The leather is then “cased” (dampened) to help it receive a crisp impression, and stamping begins. This is a rather time-intensive process, as each shape is hammered individually into the leather. Some other makers who offer belts with this detail may use an embossing machine, with rollers that squeeze the strap through while pressing the image into the material. I may offer this option soon as well, since it would drastically reduce production time and allow me to offer some products at a lower price (I wouldn’t necessarily consider an embossed image as being lesser quality). As it is, individually stamping a belt takes several hours.
Once stamping is completed, a core is made from a separate strap of full-grain cowhide, a bit narrower than the belt. The edges of this core are given a shallow bevel, then cemented to the back of the main belt strap. Then a backing of thin pigskin is cemented over this core, and these three layers machine-stitched together.
I do offer (and thoroughly enjoy) hand-stitching as well. Though a hand stitched piece honestly is the most durable and in my opinion, best looking stitch, I don’t feel it’s particularly necessary for belts that most folks are looking for, and considerably increases the labor and price of an item. The below photo shows a cross section of a belt, with the three layers visible.
I can also offer a nylon core instead of cowhide. This gives the best overall weight support and would be great for tool and gun belts, but I feel sacrifices some of the aesthetics of a nicely rounded, full-looking belt and isn’t necessary for most folks.
I then move on to preliminary edge finishing. This is one of those details I always recommend to newcomers to the craft to vastly improve the quality of their work.
The lowest-quality edge is one completely unfinished- simply a cut edge with sharp corners and no other attention given. I feel this looks sloppy and can allow grit and grime to work into and degrade the leather over time. Most commercially available belts (and most factory-made leather products in general) will have a roughly rounded edge followed by edge paint. This is a thick, plastic-like substance applied to the leather edge; a shortcut to give the look of a well-burnished product. Unfortunately, edge paint can eventually chip or peel off, and expose the unfinished fibers underneath. I also think it just…kind of looks cheap.
My edge prep begins with an edge beveler tool, which removes the sharp corners and begins shaping, saving me a bit of time in the following step and providing a more consistent result.
I next move to a belt sander, working the leather from 400 to 1,000 grit, carefully smoothing and rounding. When sanding is completed, I apply dye with an airbrush per the customer’s desired color. Then, it’s on to burnishing.
There are about as many burnishing methods and compounds as there are leather workers, and after trying quite a few, this process is my current favorite. After sanding and dyeing, I apply Seiwa’s product “Tokonole”, and briskly rub the edge with an ebony burnisher to a glossy sheen. Finally, I rub beeswax on the edge and buff it to a beautiful finish with a canvas scrap. Edge finishing is just behind stamping in labor, and also takes a couple of hours of attention.
The belt is nearly done. I give it a generous dose of oil for longevity, and apply a finish to the front. These days, that’s usually resolene or a similar product to enhance the leather’s richness.
Finally, hardware is mounted to the belt. Again, there are several approaches to this task. The worst is to sew the hardware on across the width of the belt. This method, while quick, perforates the belt like a postage stamp and will be your likely first point of eventual failure of the belt.
Sewing along the length of the belt is a much more durable option, but I personally feel it looks a bit awkward and too simple. I prefer rivets, which are very strong, look great, and leave the bulk of the leather intact to do the job of supporting weight.
The very last step in creating a belt is to punch the adjustment holes, and here I need your help, should you choose to purchase my product. I want to be sure the item you receive fits you properly. Since I can’t measure you in person, I’ll need your guidance.
Get out your favorite current belt, and measure it from the tip of the buckle tongue (the rod that pokes through the belt) to the belt hole you most often set it in. The above photo illustrates this. I’ll create five holes in the belt, with the third at the length you give me. The other measurement I need is your preferred belt width; check your belt or the width of the belt loops on your pants.
The options I can offer on belts are limited only by your imagination and budget, and I can create many similar items with the same processes; dog collars, straps, etc. I’ll always ask your preferred belt color, thread color, stamp pattern, size, and hardware. If you’d like a nylon core instead of cowhide, hand stitching, inlaid exotic skins or stones, or whatever your heart desires, reach out to me. I’ve yet to receive a request I cannot accommodate.
The best way to reach me is on Facebook; I post publicly, and frequently, on my personal page as Jason Timmermans. Thank you for reading!