Clintonville Leather – Skull Belt #3 review

Readers of this blog might remember that a year ago I reviewed a very hefty and rugged harness work belt made by Bill of Clintonville Leather, Ohio, USA. That particular harness belt took Americana and work-wear styling for leathers to another level, with a rugged flavor that is truly American – wild and beefy in a way which Japanese reproductions can’t quite imitate.

Well, Bill is back with an one-off, “just for fun” belt that is truly unique. This Skull Belt #3 is more of a Western piece than work-wear, with high impact hand-stitching, tooling, carving and staining replacing the bejeweled configuration that you might see the usual Western belt.

Let’s take a look at the interesting features on this belt!

 

Leather

The leather utilized for this strap is the gold standard for tooling and carving work – Hermann Oak’s natural vegetable tanned sides, specially developed for intricate leather art.

Bill has used the heaviest side available, which I measure at 11 oz on average (4.4 mm) throughout the strap. The strap is rigid without being dry, and is comfortable to handle.

Hints of the leather’s original shade of natural tan can still be appreciated underneath the dye work.

This is a fine leather, allowing for detailed work and an even dye job. The grain is slippery and the pores somewhat glazed over, due to the water and dye processing as part of the creation of this belt, though I do think the grain will become much more prominent with time.

 

Hardware

I usually don’t consider the hardware of belts as a separate category, but for this hand-forged piece I will have to make an exception. Absolute unit!

The rectangular pewter frame of the buckle is 11 mm thick, and has been hand-textured and oxidized to create the folding pattern you can see here. It has a smooth, rippling texture to the hand.

Pewter, of course, is an alloy of tin and other metals. It’s hefty, no doubt, but not so heavy that it drags the entire belt forward when worn.

The internal and external edges have been smoothed, and this the buckle doesn’t scratch the strap during operation.

The tongue, similar to the previously reviewed harness work belt, is hand-forged out of copper. The differences in oxidation with wear between these two metals will surely be interesting.

Like with most of Bill’s belts, Skull #3 features extra heavy-duty copper rivets.

These are the most rugged copper rivets I’ve seen on a belt.

Overall, the hardware here is impressive. The hand-forged buckle, by itself, can be considered as a stand-alone product.

 

Styling, Detailing & Construct

Skull #3 is jam packed with details and crafting techniques. It’s a very interesting showcase of most of the techniques that a leather craftsman can apply to a strap.

The buckle fold is neatly made, and the fitting of the hardware is tighter compared with my previous belt from Bill, which is a solid improvement.

The back of the fold features Clintonville Leather’s workshop mark, as well as custom stamping of my initials.

A nice personal touch, certainly.

Turning back to the front end of the belt, the American flag is firmly stamped between the rivets: Made in America!

Zooming right out, and putting the finer details aside for the moment, you will notice that the strap itself has been dyed in a sunset style pattern where the decorative hand-stitching have been made.

The black dye work along the edges blends into a dark brown and eventually lightens into a natural tan.

The gradient of colours here is smooth and very interesting.

The entire strap is stitched along the edges – this is purely decorative, as the strap is one piece – with yellow thread. The decorative gunfighter stitch (a.k.a. fishtail stitch) is done in white.

These are traditional saddlery colours by the way.

The hand-saddle sewing is made at 6 SPI.

An interesting twist here is that the thread colours on the backside of the strap are reversed!

Bill’s snuck in some stealthy dual tone stitching…

In the middle portion of the belt, the gunfighter stitch and dye work are replaced by some memento mori style leather sculpturing!

Bill made the point that apart from Matsumura-san’s Ego wallet, I haven’t showcased much leather sculpturing – fair enough – and hence this Skull Belt #3.

Well, here’s the skull from which #3 derives its name.

Proper memento mori art, in part, should convey the dread of decay and the urgency of time running out – we’re talking about mortality, of course.

So, the skull cannot be exaggerated, and is not supposed to look ‘cool’ or covered in flames. Death is not fun or awesome, after all.

I think Bill’s artistic decision here to blend Western style floral patterning with the skull is a great idea. Early Vanitas style work often depicted skulls with dying flowers or thorny plants, but why not some cowboy plant art too?

With the help of some circular stamping, Bill’s managed to draw the skull into focus, which gives the artwork here a whole lot more impact than traditional floral designs where the plant matter is continuous and repeating.

Without using multiple leather layers, I think Bill has managed to give the designs great depth.

Looking carefully, this 3D appearance is helped along by the careful beveling work and edge dyeing that follows the carving and tooling.

The depth is not simply an optical illusion either.

Looking at the belt side-on, and tracing the pattern using fingers, its obvious that Bill’s lifted the leather nicely.

I count four general types of stamping being used here, not only adding detail to the design but giving the outline of the skull and leaves more prominence, enhancing the 3-D effect.

Overall, the pattern is not too busy, and the details are all there.

I quite like how Bill’s executed the floral pattern – look at the tiny folds and the subtle stamping details along the dyed edges.

The strap continues onto another segment of gunfighter stitching and sunset dyeing, the dye work extending onto the rest of the strap, including the prong holes and the tip.

The holes here are oval in shape, and nicely burnished throughout.

A plain, pointed tip finishes the strap.

Having reviewed Bill’s work previously, I knew that the edges of this belt would be well done…and it is.

The edges are beveled, dyed, burnished and burnished again.

Bill has been upgrading his burnish coating lately, aiming for a natural edge that has the organic appearance of a beeswax job, but more durable in finish.

The segmented dye work on the strap has produced interesting results along the edges, with alternating blacks and tans.

Not only is the edge work smooth and slick, Bill’s been careful with the dyeing, so that the backside of the strap stays clean.

All in all, lots of techniques showcased on #3 here. This is a belt that’s filled to the brim with details.

 

Thoughts

Clintonville Leather’s belts are differentiated from regular work-shop Americana leathers by the incredible amount of time and elbow grease Bill invests into each strap, as well as a heavy focus on hand-forged hardware.

With Skull Belt #3, the amount of hand-work is further increased. This belt would take so many hours to cut, stitch, tool, stamp, crave, stain & burnish… not to mention the heavy pewter buckle and copper prong are completely hand-made by Bill too. This is hours and hours of concentration and intricate hand-work.

I do love it when leather craftsman play around with different ideas and techniques – even if, by utilitarian work-wear standards, this belt may appear visually somewhat busy, Bill’s love for leather crafting really shines through, and this belt is a whole lot of fun anyway!

As someone who appreciates memento mori art, I find this belt to be very coherent in how the leather crafting details tie together some central themes of life & death. The combination of human skull, Western floral patterning and a heavily textured pewter buckle is spot on, and I do find the sunset dye pattern to be a fitting backdrop for the other visual components. Skull and bones, life and death, setting of the sun – memento mori, but oh so Western too.

The size and thickness of the hand-made pewter buckle here is no joke, and it’s much larger than anything that Japanese brands such as Samurai or Iron Heart have used. Of course, you can’t really compare handmade hardware with mass-produced pieces from a foundry – Bill’s buckles are each unique and really quite artful.

Due to this belt possessing a Western aesthetic and several visually striking elements, it would not necessarily match up with all types of workwear/denim inspired outfits. This is definitely not a belt for the beginner, and I’d say you would require a wardrobe to match in order to wear this belt well – some bandannas, Western shirts, early century knits, etc. Perhaps this belt might work with street gear, but I’m no expert in this aspect of menswear.

I do think Bill’s stitched and carved belts, such as this one, can be seen as upgraded alternatives to the usual 30’s or 50’s style, jeweled Western belts. Certainly, compared to, say, Ace Western Belts, Bill’s work is more detailed and is entirely handmade. When it comes to Western belts, there’s a huge difference between an embossed design and real leather tooling.

Heavily flavored elements such as the hefty pewter buckle or the skull motif could likely be modified by Bill to suit your wardrobe. Perhaps elements of the Western belt could be transferred onto a plain work-belt, and thus work in easily with casual denim gear whilst adding a little bit of zest?

Memento mori detailing may not be for everyone, but this is bespoke work after all. I’m sure that, with gentle persuasion, Bill can carve for you whatever you have on your mind, whether it be acorns or aliens.

A belt which is similar to this Skull Belt #3 will cost around $350 USD to commission. Alternatively, a $250 option with stock buckles can be ordered too. This is certainly much pricier compared with simple work belts, but actually very nicely priced for detailed Western belts. Consider that work-shop produced Western belts from Japan or USA would set you back anywhere from $200 to $500 anyway. For the same price, I’d think it’s much better to go with an entirely handmade piece, created specifically for you by one craftsman.

I can recommend Bill’s Western belts highly to people who might be interested in Western wear or memento mori art, or are at least intermediate level leather enthusiasts. If you are just getting into quality leather goods, you’d be better served by one of Bill’s more basic work belts instead.

Definitely, #3 here proves to be one of the most interesting and unique belts in my collection. Many thanks to Bill for the opportunity to check out this eclectic piece of leather art.

 

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