(Photos in this post by Scott Willis)
In the past year I became very interested in learning about the specifics of leather – particularly, the differences between the various tannages of cattlehide.
After learning of one of the oldest vegetable tanning methods still in practice today (and dare I say the highest quality commercial tanning method), I became infatuated with the idea of an extra-heavy duty English oak bark tanned belt.
Terry Dear (master belt maker) of Hertfordshire, UK was kind enough to do a project with me in conjunction with Baker’s Tannery, and thus the Quercus belts were made.
A few months ago, I became very curious about how the Japanese artisan brands process their high-end leathers, and why it is so different from the stuff that everybody else uses even when the leathers come from the same tanneries.
I thus began a conversation with Scott (a.k.a. Unlucky) of Don’t Mourne, Organize! about the possibility of making a North American belt that will rival the likes of Red Moon, The Flat Head, Kawatako, etc in terms of the leather, the hardware, the stitching and all the little details in constructing a belt.
We eventually learned that although the Japanese oftentimes purchsed high quality saddle/skirting leather from the top US tanneries (or even ‘wet’ hides) much like many of our respected belt makers, one important difference lies in how the Japanese workshops process this very raw leather into something very “bridle”-like with a magnificent hand and good weight.
The differences in hardware (the higher-end Japanese makes utilize hand-forged buckles, etc) and attention to detail (stitch material, buckle-fold design, edge burnish, etc) were somewhat more apparent at times.
With that in mind, we began a project to create a top quality North American work-belt for leather-freaks…
Firstly, the leather.
We debated on the merits of different types of leather – would it be best to use a skirting leather (where maximum grain & patina development is possible, but the leather is lighter and more dry to begin with), a harness leather (strong and full of oils, but doesn’t come in natural), or a bridle leather (smooth and oily, but North American bridle usually lack character)?
Much brainstorming ensued and Scott bought in several sample hides, including interesting pieces from Wickett & Craig, Moser and Thoroughbred.
In the end, we took a page from the Japanese craftsmen’s book and decided to use a custom 15~17 oz Moser natural skirting leather which had been expertly hand-stuffed by Mr. Moser…a truly beautiful leather with a solid body, good weight and an amazing texture!
Secondly, the hardware.
I had noticed that brands like Samurai, Dolce Vita, etc tended to use buckles that were much, well, bigger than Western makes. I asked Scott whether it would be possible to also give the old buckle a nice upgrade…
Again, much brainstorming followed – we went through some US hardware suppliers’ catalogs, inquired at a few different foundries, consulted with Jeff Decker (master buckle maker), and thought about different materials to use.
Scott eventually found a husband & wife team of Damascus steel makers (Alabama Damascus), and it was decided that Scott will hand-make some clip buckles for the project from Damascus billets of various patterns!
Everything from the slight curve created by Scott’s own 4 tonne arbor press to the hand-cut edges show the love and care Scott has put into these buckles (big thanks goes to Mr. Decker as well).
The steel was then finished so that it will age beautifully with the leather.
An early prototype:
Thirdly, the stitching.
For this belt, it was suggested that an upgrade from the usual poly or linen threads were due.
Scott has hand-made some sinew threads from the tendons of wild Montana mule deers.
This stuff is amazing, gram for gram stronger than most steel.
And to complement the stitching at the buckle fold, hand-hammered copper rivets have been added to for central reinforcement.
And if you’re wondering what Scott’s workshop looks like, here are some pics 🙂