Over the past few years I’ve done my fair share of belt purchases, no less than a couple dozen belts (1/3 of them customs) in a few different animal leathers.
I’ve also worn in quite a few natural vegetable tanned leathers, and played around with treatment & conditioning more so than the average denim-head – lol, I make my own conditioners!
So I thought I’d share a few experiences & tips from an end-user/consumer point of view; let’s call it an easy guide for first or second time buyers of ‘belts that look better with age’!
Note that this guide won’t be covering dress belts or belts made from more exotic (salt water croc, etc) leathers.
The first question that friends & family often ask is: Where did you get it from?
Unless you’re into leather crafting, there’s usually two ways of obtaining a belt that’d look better with age.
Through friends, local merchants, or forums, most people first learn of brands such as Red Moon, Kawatako, Studio D’Artisan, Samurai, etc.
Indeed, most of us denim & leather fanatics were introduced to craft belts though vintage-inspired Japanese companies – some specialised leather workshops, some denim brands which also sell old-style belts.
These belts have a few things in common (and through these aspects differentiate themselves from the stuff you’d buy at the local department store) – thick vegetable tanned leathers, solid buckles, well-burnished edges, sturdy stitch-work – rustic reminders of belts your grandfather or great grandfather could have worn.
Some Japanese leather workshops I can recommend include: Dolce Vita, Tenjin, Red Moon, Kawatako, KC’s, etc.
Also, look out for the various house-brands of famous denim stores, as well as belts produced by repro denim companies.
What about non-Japanese companies, you say?
Well, in East & SE Asia you can find guys like Ken (Taipei) & the good folks at Obbi Good Label (Singapore).
East Asian craft belts are usually impeccably made with good quality leather & hardware, slightly on the expensive side (if from Japan), and you’re almost assured a quality product!
The only downside I’ve found is the availability of selection & choice in hides/leathers.
I’ve also long favoured, out of the lot in Europe, the craft of the Poms!
Truly, there is not a finer belt than an expert hand-made British bridle or oak-bark leather belt – such is the finesse in details that I’d consider them dress belts almost.
It is usually from master English belt-makers that I’ve been able to acquire belts that are made with the most authentic, traditional features.
(Yeah yeah, I know, I get bored; I sometimes go around looking at belts from a long time ago.)
The price, too is fantastic – much better value than Japanese belts.
However, the difficulty lies in finding a craftsman who has the skills, and willingness in collaboration, to hand-make you a gorgeous one!
As for the non-English speaking parts of Europe, well, language barriers limits my knowledge & experience, so no comments from me.
Onto the American side of things…
High quality Western belts have never been in short-supply, whether it be expert carving or hand-stitching.
The challenge here is to find a craftsmen, again, who is familiar with the design & construct of ‘denim nerd belts’; someone who understands the importance of (or, say, fetish for) thick, one-layer designs and is able to source good quality natural vegetable tanned leathers.
For the moment I would avoid brand-name belts from North American – to me, many of them are not up to scratch (compared to brand name Japanese belts) and finely crafted pieces usually leave horrible big dents in our horsehide wallets.
Once again, given the great selection of private craftsmen who take belt orders over the internet, I’d think going custom is the smart option if you’re buying North American.
So then, we reach option two: getting your belt custom made.
Obviously, preferences is everything when it comes to custom made goods, thus I would not recommend going down this road until your second purchase.
Start with something good quality, yet affordable – such as a Sugar Cane garrison belt – and figure out your likes & dislikes, then think about contacting a craftsman.
What would I look for in a belt maker?
- Maturity of craft
- Willingness to share & collaborate
- Fairness & honest (both in terms of pricing & information)
- Selection of leathers & hardware
- Perfectionism, time spent finishing the belt
If the guy on the other end of the internet doesn’t give you a good vibe, then contact someone else!
There is no obligation to buy even after exchanging a couple of e-mails, and it is a good idea to contact a few folks to start with and figure out who can best handle your business.
Also, keep in mind that there are dudes who do it as a profession and others who do it as a hobby – I’ll leave it up to you to decide the pros & cons of each, just going to say I’ve had good & bad experiences with both professionals & amateurs.
What about the belt itself?
The design of the belt is really a personal preference, bar the functional aspects.
With enough experience (or browsing of SuperFuture), you may also like to draw up your own designs & see how they turn out!
In general, consider these functional aspects:
- Buckle fold (How are the leathers secured together? Avoid tightly packed, vertical stitchings. Avoid snaps. Avoid cut channels or stitch lines that have been heavily grooved.)
- Tip (point) taper (How is the point finished)? Shape? Look for a tapered design which allows the tip to easily pass though the buckle.)
- Number & position of pin-holes (Aim to use the middle pin-hole.)
If the buckle fold is riveted, I usually prefer hand-hammered burr rivets. Chicago-screws are an option if you need to switch buckles. Avoid snap buttons!
If the buckle is stitched, I’d prefer horizontal saddle stitching (or variations thereof). If vertical stitched, avoid stitching that go from edge to edge.
Look for thick poly/tendon/waxed linen threads sewn in with just the right tension – the stitching needs to last as long as the leather does.
The buckle obviously needs consideration:
- Solid weight
- Avoid nickel (allergies~~~)
- Ensure correct size (not just for length, but also thickness!)
- Ensure it is scratch-proof on the leather
A 15oz heavy belt needs a matching buckle, i.e. no dweeby buckles please!
I would look for something that is hand-forged, and I usually favour solid brass for natural leather – just remember to avoid cheaply plated hardware!
It is quite fun to find vintage buckles (they don’t make ’em like they used to), or to try interesting steels (copper is awesome for a buckle).
Very importantly, we must consider the leather!
I personally love to have a wide variety of leathers on my belts – different beasts, different tannages, different properties, different reactivities…
For me, a belt is the medium through which I experience a certain leather – you don’t have to take it that far, but do pay attention to it’s potential for looking better with age!
Aspects to think about include:
- Thickness (1 oz = 0.4 mm)
- Tannage (Vegetable? What kind of vegetable (oak? mimosa? mixed?)? How long / what method [pit? drum?] was the tannage? Chrome? Oil? Brain? Re-tanned? , etc)
- Grain & surface markings (How much grain growth would you like? Do you like scars?)
- Colour (Natural? Dyed?)
I prefer belts between 12 to 17 oz in thickness, but such a heavy ‘weight’ would take a few days to get used to…well, some folks never like it 😛
The tannage is important, and I do think for a belt to look better with age it should be vegetable tanned.
Avoid things like latigo, non-English (moc) bridle, etc.
Also keep in mind that not all vegetable tanned leather are created equal.
In terms of cattlehide, the slow pure-bark tannage that are employed in a select few tanneries in Europe (AFAIK Britain & Germany) are the best.
Your average American strap will not compare to an English oak bark leather – it’s the difference between a 2 month, concentrated extract drum-tan & a 12 month (or more) gentle, step-wise pit tan using correctly aged bark from a single source.
Look out too, for many natural leathers available in North America comes from South America – only less than a handful of American tanneries still produce pure vegetable tanned leather.
But I must say, the leathers with the most character, in my experience, usually comes from the US!
Always, always know the origin & source of the leather!!!
For advanced enthusiasts, look for hand-curried leather (see my previous belt projects for more details.)
Finally, the finishing on the belt.
Ask for a perfect edge burnish, slightly thinner leather at the buckle fold, a consistent tone & thickness throughout, and the correct positioning of the various aspects of the belt.
Enquire about secondary sealing of the grain surface, something which is best avoided if you want the belt to evolve with wear.
A note about the burnish – either have it done to perfection, or don’t do it at all…and only on very thick belts (at least 12 oz) would I accept a lack of any burnishing.
Be wary of roughly done, cheaply kotted edges.
Haha, had enough?
Rant ends here, just about.
Please remember that this comes from a belt buyer’s point of view – some leather crafting folks would disagree with what I’m saying, but hey, I have no beef & no vested interest in this.
And, isn’t the customer always right? 😛
Good luck with your belt buying, and remember to ask for sizing instructions from the vendor or craftsman.
Otherwise, standard rule is to add 2 inches to your denim jeans size (e.g. size 32 in jeans would usually require a 34 in belts.)