Long time readers of this blog will know that I’ve been fascinated by the oak bark pit-tanned leathers made at Baker’s tannery since Terry Dear introduced this magical material to me in 2010. I had even worked on a couple collaboration belts during that time – during the heydays of online menswear forums and before crowd funding platforms were the norm – the Quercus belt with Terry himself and later on the Military belt with Charlie at Equus Leather.
So yeah, I’m a pretty big sucker for oak bark leather. Which is why I’m very excited to show you my latest oak bark acquisition – the ‘Thor‘ belt, made by Chris at Rå Leather out of dark stained oak bark leather!
Rå Leather is a relatively new workshop, created by Chris just last year in 2016. Inspired by Scandinavian minimalism, Rå Leather aims to create high-quality leather crafts that will stand the test of time.
Let’s take a look at Chris’ version of the oak bark work belt.
You’d think that by 2017 I’d be sick of writing about Baker’s oak bark leather, but I’m not!
Oak bark leather is my favourite leather of all time!
The version featured here is the dark stained, bridle version of the oak bark leather. The cattle hide goes through the age old pit tanning process which takes at least one year and one day, the resulting leather is then hand stained and hand-curried with fats and waxes for an English bridle finish.
When new, there is significant bloom on the grain of this leather – evidence of the currying process, which does not occur on the natural version of oak bark leather. A similar process is involved as part of the finishing of shell cordovan.
However, Baker’s bridle is very different from other English bridle leathers, such as those made by Sedgwick’s or Clayton Tannery. Even though the flexible temper and the high fat content are common themes, Baker’s oak bark bridle has a much more significant grain growth, a result of longer and more gentle tannage; the other bridle leathers are usually not pit tanned, and are made in a much more expedient manner.
Further, the monstrous density and thickness is unparalleled as far as bridle leathers go. Other bridle leathers, whether British or American, rely on various processes to compress the leather in order to increase the density of the leather and produce a certain finish.
However, Baker’s version does not need to be compressed, as the gentle and gradual pit tanning process produces a leather which is incredibly dense without further processing!
Therefore, not only is Baker’s oak bark bridle thicker than other bridles, it also has a much more natural appearance and shows off the leather’s inherent beauty. Other British bridles have a shiny, artificial beauty, much like shell cordovan. American bridles are not as pretty, but are rugged workhorses which have great resistances and longevity.
Being a very natural product, Baker’s bridle is less consistent than other bridle leathers in terms of surface finish and thickness. That is part of the charm, so I cannot fault it for this. The thickness of the belt is pretty incredible, varying between 5.9 mm to 6.5 mm, as measured by my caliper. So, an average of 15.5 oz!
Fear not, as the bridle version of the oak bark leather has an even more flexible temper than the natural version. This means that the belt is easy and comfortable to wear from the get go despite the considerable thickness of the strap.
There is much to be said about the level of grain growth that Baker’s oak bark leather possess, which is unrivaled by any other cattle leather I’ve seen thus far. Shonan’s natural saddle leather comes in at a distant second place when it comes to the grain, whereas most other vegetable tanned leathers – even the fancy Italian ones – are nothing to write home about in terms of growth.
Not everyone’s cup of tea, of course, and I’m guessing the average person probably wants their leathers to be smooth & shiny, and not smelling like bark. For a leather hobbyist though, this leather is a must try at some point; certainly, pit tanned leathers are a milestone acquisition for serious leather nerds.
Did I mention the astringent smell?
Oak bark leather has a very distinct smell, at first permeating through the room as you wear this belt for the first time. There are not many leathers I can claim to be able to identify by smell alone, but oak bark tannage has an unique aroma.
The flesh side of this leather is very nicely finished. It may be rugged, but it ain’t rough!
Styling, Hardware, Details & Construct
The Thor belt is certainly a work belt, if not by virtue of its rugged and minimalist design, then it is evident even to the layman in the incredible thickness. In the photos of this review, I’ve paired the Thor belt with Tanuki’s Red Cast denim jeans and Samurai Jeans’ Heavy Chino pants – the belt fits in beautifully with rugged, artisan-made work garments.
Despite using a British leather and being made in England, this belt does not have the aesthetics of a traditional British saddle-style belt. There’s no edge creasing here, and the thread colour is not the traditional yellow – indeed, the overall look is entirely different, being much more minimalist and sleek, true to the Nordic inspiration behind Chris’ crafts.
The strap itself features straight lines softened by curved edges and rounded holes. It is 38 mm wide.
The emphasis is entirely on the leather, whereas the threading and buckle provide contrast but in themselves do not steal away attention.
The buckle itself is an English made solid brass buckle, with an antiqued finish. It is sturdy, well made and does not scratch the leather or edge finish.
The sewn in keeper and the fold itself is held together by two vertical rows of hand saddle-stitching, with thick waxed-polyester threads. Not my favourite style of buckle fold stitching – I prefer horizontal stitching due to being influenced by old school British saddlers during the early years of my hobby – but Chris’ hand-stitch here is very well done, appearing regular despite the thick threads being used.
The belt size is stamped onto the back of the fold. The edges are also rounded at the very end of the strap for a neat finish.
You’ll notice in the photo below that Chris has not skived the leather at the fold, but has instead sewn though the combined 31 oz thickness of leather…and yet, the stitching remains regular and well aligned.
Certainly, a very neat finish at the fold, despite the monstrous layers of leather. The buckle frame, the tongue and the keeper are all neatly positioned and do not move around at all. The construction here is precise.
The curved edges prevent the threads from biting too deep into the grain at the sides.
The keeper is nicely blocked, edge skived and burnished. The rounded edges are rather nice to look at.
Overall, the front end of the belt is streamlined, rugged but not rough. The details are simple but expertly crafted – very smooth and easy on the eye.
Like I mentioned earlier, the edges are nicely rounded. The wax burnish is done entirely by hand – no short cuts taken, with Chris taking the time to produce slick, curvy edges.
The burnish is as good as it gets when it comes to a beeswax finish.
You might find shinier, and even mirror polish type burnishes with some belts from Japan and China, but that type of burnishing (usually with various plant-based or artificial compounds) develops a different type of aging over time – I might cover this in a later post.
A really handsome looking edge for sure!
The holes are round in shape, made with a shorter pippin punch, with a straight line cut towards the buckle end to create an interesting rune-like appearance.
The holes punching was well executed – there’s no fluffiness or irregularity. Simple, but precise and neat.
The belt tip has a slanted, trapezoidal finish, featuring rounded edges.
This simply shaped finish brings in a bit of flair, and combines nicely with the buckle at the front end when the belt in worn. It also facilitates the buckling of the belt, making the usage easy despite the thickness of the strap.
Overall – minimalist but detailed, rugged but finely made.
Over the past years, I really enjoyed sharing with you well crafted work belts that are truly artisan made and heirloom quality. Initially, it was a difficult task, as not too many makers outside Japan were producing work-wear leather goods which were actually finely crafted. My aim back then was to introduce the concepts behind this hobby and to promote it as much as I can.
Today, there are simply too many workshops making leather goods, so many it is impossible to keep track. My aim now is to introduce up and coming makers that produce quality goods so that they are not drowned out by the aggressive marketing of supply line workshop brands – filtering the noise from the music, sieving the cream from the crop, figuratively speaking.
After examining and wearing this Thor belt, I feel like I can fully support Chris at Rå Leather. Discounting my love for Baker’s oak bark leather – you know it’s going to be good anyway – Chris’ crafting actually surprised me as I was assessing this belt for the review. I was not expecting such detailed and precise work from a newly founded workshop at all, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well the different design and construction elements came together as the belt is worn.
This belt is neither exaggerated or too busy. The buckle is smaller in thickness and frame size relative to the height and width of the strap, the centre point of visual attention being the oak bark leather itself. The overall appearance of the belt is smooth, minimalist, easy on the eye, and does not detract or distract from other elements of the outfit. The design of this Thor belt is well thought out, able to enhance and complement your work-wear garments.
Finally, British oak bark leather is a true relic from a previous age. As ‘natural’ as most vegetable tanned leathers are made out to be, the vast majority are produced on an industrial scale, with modern technologies which emphasize uniformity and efficiency. Mechanical drums and tannin powders turn hide into leather within as short a time span as two weeks. Baker’s oak bark tannage, however, is as old school as it gets: gentle, slow tannage using hand processed bark liquor in old ground pits, the entire process taking more than one year. Less than a handful of leathers in this world can compare.
The dark stain oak bark bridle leather should age very gracefully without too much care, given it is a slow-tanned bridle leather. The waxy bloom will subside with a good brushing or a handful of wears, and I do expect the leather will further darken.
At £80, the Thor belt is very well priced, especially considering this is a truly handmade belt made with solid brass hardware and one of the most expensive leathers in the world!
All in all, I’m very impressed by Rå Leather’s headlining Thor belt. Chris has done a great job here, a Nordic twist on the traditionally British oak bark belt, and I can heartily recommend the Thor belt to you.
This belt will also soon be available in a lighter shade of tan, as well as black.
If you’re a fan of artisan made belts or oak bark leather, definitely have a look at the Rå Leather website.