Here’s a notch to add to your belt: Learn basic leatherworking skills to make a sturdy, functional band.
By Jim Sowers
Whether you need a place to hang the rodeo buckle you won, or you just want to hold up your pants, a good leather belt is a handy thing to have. Fortunately, a good-looking, long-lasting leather belt is an easy project, even for those with little leatherworking experience.
For beginners, I recommend using vegetable-tanned leather for your belt project, because it’s easy to work with. You can also stamp designs on it or otherwise personalize it, unlike chrome-tanned leather. For this project, I used leather I had on hand, which was already dyed brown. It should be noted that plain vegetable-tanned leather would be a lighter tan.
Leather thickness is measured in ounces, with each ounce being 1/64-inch thick. For this heavy-duty belt project, I used 11- to 12-ounce leather, making it about 3/16-inch thick. For lighter-weight belts, I generally use 7- to 8-ounce leather, about 1/8-inch thick.
For a heavy-duty belt like this one, I start with a 1-1/2-inch-wide strap. You can purchase belt blanks from a leather supplier, such as Tandy Leather (www.TandyLeather.com), but if you want a different look or type of leather than the available blanks, you can get a larger piece of hide and cut your own straps. If you do decide to purchase a hide or partial hide, know that the best leather for belts comes from the center of the cow’s back, and is sometimes sold as a “veg-tan side” or “bend.” This is strong leather that won’t twist or stretch oddly like a scrap of belly leather might.
If you bought a hide or partial hide, you’ll need to trim one edge straight with a long metal straightedge and a utility knife. Always protect the surfaces under your punches and blades — I cut over a protective cutting mat, such as you’d use for sewing. Even more than knives, leather punches can cut amazingly deep.
For your leatherwork to look professional, it’s important that you keep your blade straight up and down when slicing through the leather. An angled cut won’t finish out easily or look nice.
If you’re working with a hide, after you trim one edge straight, you can also cut the second edge of your belt with the straightedge, but if you plan to make multiple belts, I recommend getting a strap cutter.
If you’re using a belt blank, you’ll only need to cut a piece of leather about 3/4 inch wide by 6 to 8 inches long to make the keeper loop, and a scrap 1-1/2 inches wide by 6 to 8 inches long to use as a form for the loop later. (You’ll need these if you’re cutting your own blank, too, but save them for after you’ve cut your belt.)
My favorite strap cutting tool is actually one of the least expensive types; you can often find one for less than $20.
To use the strap cutter, loosen the wingnut on the tip of the handle, and slide the ruler portion that holds the razor out to your chosen width — 1-1/2 inches for this project.
Once you have the cutter set to the width you need, put it against the straight edge you just made, starting at the far end of the piece, and pull it toward you. Keep the leather butted up against the side of the cutter to make a clean, evenly cut strap. If you have trouble getting the strap cutter started, you can use your utility knife to make a small starter cut.
You should end up with a long, perfectly parallel strap of leather for your belt.
This is the toughest step in making a belt. Everyone who makes belts has done it wrong at least once, so be sure to take your time and double-check your measurements before you cut.
The object of this step is to find the length from the end of the buckle to what will be the center hole of the set of holes in the belt tongue. The easiest way to find the length you need is to measure a belt you already have that fits well; measure from the end of the buckle to the hole in the tongue you use most frequently.
If you don’t have a belt to measure from, use a flexible measuring tape to take the measurement on yourself where you’ll wear your belt. Don’t pull the tape tight, just snug enough to not fall down. This measurement won’t be the same as your pants waistband. I wear 33-inch pants from the store, but I measure 39 inches around my hips, where my belt sits.
Your belt blank only needs to be 8 to 10 inches longer than your measured waist size, but if it’s longer than that, don’t cut anything off now. Save the cutting for later.
The belt strap will need to be folded to hold the buckle, about 4 inches from the end of the strap. If you’re using a hook buckle, you can make the bend at the same point — just skip punching a slot for the tongue on the bar buckle.
Mark a dot 4 inches from one end of your belt blank, centered, with a pencil. This will be the center of the tongue slot for a bar buckle.
Next, if you have access to a slot punch, center and punch a slot running lengthwise on that mark. If you don’t have a slot punch, you can make a slot with a single punch or a rotary punch and a utility knife. Punch holes at each end of the slot, then carefully connect the holes with a new sharp blade in your knife. Be careful not to overrun the holes as you cut.
If your leather is at all dry, or is heavy weight (like the leather in this project), it may not want to bend. To get it to fold neatly, you can shave a little of the leather from the back. This process is called “skiving.” A safety skiving knife is great for this.
For my belt, I skived the last 3 inches of the backside of the strap, until that section was one-third as thick at the tip as the body of the strap. I also skived a small section right where the belt will bend around the buckle bar, again leaving one-third of the thickness. If you remove more than that, the finished belt will be weaker where you’ve skived it.
If you attach the buckle using the Chicago screws, you can change the buckle later — you never know when you’ll win your next rodeo!
For the Chicago screws, you’ll need to punch a hole, centered in the belt width, 1 inch from the thinned end of the strap, then punch a second hole 3 inches from the same end; the holes will be on the inside of the finished belt. Next, fold the strap end with the buckle slot centered over the fold, and mark the locations of the two punched holes on the other side of the folded strap. Punch these holes through the front of the belt, too.
Note: The leather needs to be softened up a bit before you make this sharp bend. This is easily done by running only the section that will be folded under almost-hot tap water for just a few seconds, and then waiting a minute or two for the water to soak in.
Slide the buckle onto the strap, push the tongue out through the slot, fold the strap end over again, and put on the Chicago screw nearest the buckle. You won’t add the second screw until after you’ve made the keeper loop.
Cut the 1-1/2-inch-wide scrap you set aside earlier in half, and stack the pieces to make the form for the keeper loop.
If the 3/4-inch-wide strip won’t bend closely around the double-thick form, skive two-thirds of the thickness from the flesh (back) side. Run this piece under almost-hot tap water for up to a minute, until it’s completely saturated and pliable.
Bend the now-pliable keeper loop around the doubled scrap leather form. The extra thickness mimics the full belt with the tongue stacked on top.
If the piece you’re using for your keeper loop overlaps itself when you wrap it around the form, mark and cut it so the ends butt against each other, and arrange the loop so the cut ends are centered at the back of the form. After I cut it to size, I often like to set the keeper loop, still wrapped around the form, under something heavy and let it dry into shape a little.
After the keeper loop has set in shape, use an awl or a tiny drill bit to make two holes in each side of the keeper loop, and sew it together.
Some people prefer to staple the keeper loop together with a heavy stapler instead of stitching it. It doesn’t matter how you attach the ends, as long as they won’t come apart.
Next, slide the keeper loop up the belt, under the folded end anchoring the buckle, and put a Chicago screw into the holes you left empty earlier. This holds the keeper loop in place, and finishes the buckle end of the belt.
Mark the Holes
We already measured the distance from the buckle to the center hole of the belt, but before punching it, put the belt on and pull it as tight as you’d like to wear it.
Make one mark in the center of the belt at the point you’d like to wear it. Take the belt off and mark two more holes on each side of your center mark, spaced 3/4 inch apart.
For the finished belt to look nice, it’s important to make the tongue look good. Most of us don’t have the expensive strap-end punches a professional leatherworker would use to cut the tongue, but it’s still possible to get a clean cut with a utility knife by making several small cuts to shape the tongue, instead of trying to go all the way around in one long curve.
The tongue end should be about 4 inches past the last hole. If you aren’t sure of the length, always leave a little extra — you can take it off later, but you can’t put it back after it’s cut. An easy way to get the pattern for the end of the belt is to trace the tongue of an existing belt you like, or to print a photo of a tongue shape you like and use that as a template. I laid the end of an existing belt on top of my new belt and traced the tongue with a pencil.
After shaping the tongue, use 150 grit sandpaper to lightly sand around the curve and even up the edge.
The belt here is a heavy-duty, unadorned work belt, but you can add edge finishing, dyeing, or tooling to make your belt as fancy as you like. Making belts is a great way to learn leatherworking basics, and as an added bonus, you get something you can use and be proud of.
You can purchase belt blanks from a leather supplier, such as Tandy Leather, but if you want a different look or type of leather than the available blanks, you can get a larger piece of hide and cut your own straps.
Jim Sowers is a bladesmith, woodworker, and leatherworker who lives in northeast Kansas. He’s been making things with his hands since he was able to hold tools.