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leather shapes leather shapes




It is not a complicated procedure to make belts, particularly the usual hide kind. The finished product does however bear testimony to the care and attention you put in when making them. That means finishing the edges properly, especially on a hide belt, and with softer leathers, either lacing or turning them.

Hide belts should be made from firm vegetable-tanned hide 2·5 – 4mm thick, depending on their function. As it dyes, stamps and carves particularly well. It may seem rather inflexible at first but that soon changes with wear.


belt with buckle attached
belt with buckle attached



belt with buckle attached
belt with buckle attached


Backs, sides or butts are best to work with but shoulders are suitable as long as they are firm. Any fine suede or supple grain leather is suitable for making soft belts, whilst the more expensive skins like lizard or snake etc are best used as a covering for a hide base.

Softer belts usually need to have a lining on the back so any fine leather or even a suitable fabric will be satisfactory.

Shown above are belts of widths from 1"–2" in various designs, made using top-grained cowhide. The complementary buckles are made from solid brass. The decorative hand-stamping of the leather is only restricted by the bounds of the imagination, in other words, the choice is endless.

Are you going to wear a regular bar buckle or an elongated trophy buckle with your belt? If you have a "trophy" buckle you plan to wear, the belt will need to be sized differently than from a regular standard buckle. There is a 2" difference in the sizing of the two buckles. A typical belt size is 2 inches larger than your trouser waist size, except if you plan to wear a trophy buckle, then the belt size is the same as your trouser size (the trophy buckle will add the 2" necessary, making the belt the right size).

Buckles too, are varied in shape, size and material, ranging from the less expensive baser metals to the costlier, though quite affordable, silver and gold. The ornamental metal shapes that can be applied, as shown below, for example, is enormous. The finished product, whatever ones taste or inclination, as always, depends on the skill of the individual craftsman, or craftswoman.

Making a plain belt
Use a dress-weight, 7½ - 8 oz, English bridle leather. It is a traditional and authentic English leather. Bridle leather lasts forever, and adapts to the contours of the wearer; it has memory. Hand-cut the belt length individually from double-shoulder cuts of leather. There is a "wrinkle" in the leather running between the shoulders, so always try to work the belt around that. This maximizes the inclusion of character from wrinkles and range-scars.

belt sizing

Add a top quality leather conditioner. Since the conditioner is sealed into the leather, it won’t need it again. Conditioning the leather is a very important part of the process, as it ensures that the leather will never become brittle and hard. The conditioner is allowed to soak in for a couple of hours. It is also a way to soften the leather and allow it to be worked more easily. An occasional surface polish may be applied to maintain shine.

cutting out belt conditioning belt  cutting tip rounding belt edges

Cutting the tip
The tip is shaped by placing belt on a 2” thick marble slab with a Protecto Board on top (an absorbent rubber surface) and cutting it using a tip-punch and a rawhide mallet. A variety of tip-punches are available for varying strap-widths. The head-end is shaped to match the buckle, with a sharp knife, by hand.

While the leather is still slightly wet, all four edges, that is front and back, are rounded with a tool called an edger. When the edger is pushed along the edge of the leather, it cuts a thin strip off the edge, rounding it. Surfaces that will be attached flat against another surface are not edged. This step looks so simple, yet requires great control. If the edger is not held firmly enough against the edge of the leather, it will ruin the edge instead. Always work from head to tip when edging or burnishing, so that the leather fibres are consistently flattened in only one direction.

staining belt surface staining belt edges burnishing belt edges burnishing face of belt with felt pad

Stain absorbs into the leather, and becomes part of it, it will also absorb into your skin so wear protective latex gloves. Except for black, all the almost endless variations in shades of tan, red, mahogany and so on, depend on timing, stain combinations, viscosity, and leather porosity. The belt length is placed on the bench on top of a length of glass, and the stain is applied with a sponge. Depending on how long the leather is allowed to soak up the stain, the shade will be lighter or darker. Timing is critical, with humidity also playing a part in this process. In dry weather the stain dries out more quickly, so one tends to add more stain, and the colour gets darker. After the right amount of time has passed, excess stain is wiped off with a clean rag. Some colours are achieved by adding a second stain, and the timing of both becomes crucial for the right combination. The second stain is often watered down, and will absorb faster into some parts of the leather. Wrinkles are more porous than other parts of the leather. The edges are stained separately in order to make them slightly darker, using a small brush to apply just the right amount of stain. The leather keeper (which you will cut-out and stain at the same time) is measured and marked for a close fit around the two ends of the main strap. It is closed with a metal clip, and placed over a tapered piece of hardwood that is protected with electrical tape. It is stretched and shaped for a perfect fit, by tapping it with a hammer.

The edges of the belts above shows the double grooved edge accent. Unlike many belts the grooves run around the tip instead of straight off the end of the belt. This accent can also be harness stitched in the inner groove.

No two belts will be identical, partly due to the fact that leather is a natural product and each length of leather has unique characteristics.

showing finished appearance of plain belt

While the stain is not yet dry, burnish all four edges. I do it with a folded piece of denim, rubbing firmly and quickly back and forth along the edge of the leather, heating it up and "burning" it, as the word "burnish" suggests. If the leather is over-burnished, it dries out and cracks. After burnishing the edge, put the belt on its side, and fold a small piece of leather over the edge and rub along it. This burnishes and rounds it further. Burnish the face of the belt with a large, heavy piece of felt.

The front and back are sealed, as well as both edges, with an acrylic sealer, to prevent the stain from bleeding. The sealer used for the edges is thicker and stronger, while the face-sealer is thinner, absorbing more into the belt. Get an even coating, too thin and it doesn't seal — too thick, and it goes milky.

After sealing lightly scuff the belt surface with an abrasive pad to give a better bond between the polish and the belt. Use a high quality boot polish made with carnauba wax (a yellowish wax from the Brazilian palm, see also) apply with a rag and wipe off with a clean one. Polish with a new, clean rag. Do not let the polish dry too much as it will leave a pattern on the leather. Ideally, the polish dries as it is removed. Give two to three coats.

Attaching Buckles
Buckles (as opposed to buckle sets, or ranger style belts) are attached by folding over the end of the belt length with the buckle sandwiched in between. The leather enclosing the buckle should be left at its full thickness, but the end should be reduced by half (skived). The traditional British sizes of buckles are typically 1", 1¼" and 1½" for general use, whereas American buckles increase by ⅛" up the scale.

The two sections are then stitched along the length of the shorter section and both the top and bottom edges are stitched, alternatively they can be riveted together. Wherever the leather is marked for stitches, the back is grooved along the stitch lines, so that when the thread is pulled tight, it will recess into the leather, and not be exposed to wear. Before stitching, beeswax is worked into the thread by pulling it across a chunk of wax, and then pulling it quickly through the palm of the hand several times. This creates friction and heat, and the wax melts into the thread. The hand stitching is done using a traditional stitching-pony.

If you have your own buckle, and are ordering a belt without a buckle, there are two things you will need to determine when you order. Do you want the "Tongue Slot" where the leather folds (the slot punched in the leather on the buckle end of the belt), and do you want the "Keeper Loop" (the leather loop next to the buckle).

You will also need to choose a "Finish" for the Chicago Screw fasteners, that will match your buckle. They fasten the buckle to the belt and come in brass and nickel. The "Chicago Screws" look like a rivet but with a bottom that has a screw driver slot and unscrews to exchange buckles. They are stronger and flatter than snaps.

showing the centre hole length without buckle

Handmade belts normally have 5 holes 1" apart, though you can have as few or as many as you want. The belt is normally made so that you wear it in the centre hole. You may want a longer distance before the first hole and you may want more holes than on a standard belt. The holes are normally made using what's known as a revolving punch such as the one illustrated further down the page.

showing the center hole length with buckle

If you are making a belt with a buckle
Use the lower diagram to determine your "centre hole length". Measure the length of the belt you are now using, from the prong to the hole in the belt that you normally use.

The "centre hole measurement" is the controlling dimension and remains the same no matter the number of holes or what their spacing is.

For a man’s belt with a buckle, the "centre hole size" is usually 2" more than the waist size of the trousers you wear. Use this as a guide to determine that your measurement is correct. (Ladies... just decide where you want to wear it and measure that length)

The buckle is held on by looping the end of the belt around the centre or side bar where it will be secured with rivets or stitching. Determine the length needed for the loop and, ensuring their alignment, punch holes for the rivets. Between the two lots of rivet holes you need a slot for the buckle prong. This is always going to be longer than you think. Usually about 1˝" for the prong on a 2" buckle, but varying according to buckle size.

bag/oblong punch

revolving punch

the buckle end showing rivet holes and prong slot

showing how to cut prong slot

You can make the slot with an oblong/bag punch or alternatively by punching two holes with your revolving hole punch at either end of the length the slot is to be, and joining the two holes with parallel cuts using a sharp knife. Ensure the slot is equidistant between the rivet holes and central to the belt width.

Belt styles

*Straight – This belt style will be a uniform width throughout its entire length. The width of the belt will determine the range of buckle sets that can be utilized. The most common width is 1½ inches, but customers requests fall in the range of 1 inch to 1¾ inches.

*Tapered – The main body of this belt will be a uniform width, and will narrow at the buckle and tip ends. The most requested size will be 1½ inches in the main body, with the ends tapered to 1 inch. Also popular is 1¼ inches tapering to ¾ inch, but other combinations, within reason, are possible.

*Ranger – The main body of the belt is a uniform width along its length. For both the buckle and tip ends, an additional, narrower, piece of leather, called a billet, is stitched to the main body of the belt. In this arrangement, there are two layers of the main belt body that overlap and form a background behind the buckle, keeper and tip set. This style adds some thickness at the front because of the layers of leather in that area, but gives a nice look and remains popular.

*New Ranger – This design arose from a desire to offer a thinner belt in the buckle area than the older ranger style. In this style, the main body of the belt is a uniform width along its length, with the exception of the buckle end. The buckle end is tapered to the size of the buckle set, and when fastened, the buckle set is highlighted from the rear by the extension of the full width piece behind the tip end of the belt.
The design is thinner than the regular ranger style by two thicknesses of leather, yet offers the same highlight effect of the traditional ranger style. Most commonly done with a 1½" main body and 1" ends, but can be made to other dimensions.

*Western Exotic –In this style, the body of the belt is made of choice exotic leather, with a full lining. Its shape is that of the tapered style, with the exotic leather making up the centre portion of the belt. At the ends of the belt, billets, carved with something like a wild rose pattern, are incorporated to hold the buckle, keeper, and tip. The finished belt has a seamless lining on the inside and a dramatic look on the exterior with the contrasting textures of the exotic leather and carved saddle skirting belt ends.

*Filigree§ – This style of belt is achieved by carving a pattern into the saddle skirting outer layer, then carefully cutting out all the background of the pattern. Then the lizard inlay is placed behind the outer layer so it shows through the cut-outs in the background. Assembly is completed when the belt is then lined and finished.

§ Filigree Punches
Create fancy filigree designs with such as the punches shown below. They work best on garment leathers or lightweight (up to 4 oz.) vegetable-tanned leather.

Descriptions pertaining to buckles

*Brass – A yellowish alloy of copper and zinc, sometimes includes small amounts of other metals, but usually 67% copper and 33% zinc.

*Bronze – 85% copper and 15% zinc, has a dark gold-like look.

*Buckle Set – Normally three pieces: one the buckle, two the tip of the belt and three is a piece that holds the end of the belt. Almost always made in silver or gold, with lots of engraving.

*Cast – To form (liquid metal, for example) into a particular shape by pouring into a mould. Pewter, for example, is often made using a rubber mould process where tin, plus alloys, are poured into the mould and centrifugally spun.

*Comstock Silver – This is the manufacturer's name for a bi-metal or Sterling overlay. A sheet of Sterling silver bonded to a sheet of 18% nickel silver. This is not electroplating.

*Copper – A ductile, malleable, reddish-brown metallic element that is either pure or in alloys such as brass and bronze.

*Engrave – To carve, cut, or etch into a block or surface.

*Flopper – Instead of a post soldered onto the buckle back there is a moveable, usually half moon shaped, piece of metal that is hinged on both sides, fastened to a second keeper and has the post soldered onto it facing the back of the buckle. This is often found on older buckles made in the western United States.

*Friction Buckle The belt is pulled behind and through the back of the buckle where part of the buckle "sticks" into the belt and holds it in place. Most common use is in military buckles.

*German Silver – A white nickel alloy (65% copper, 17% zinc, and 18% nickel). Silver is a colour description and doesn't imply content of the metal (in other words - there is no silver in German silver). Normally the surface looks darker than sterling silver.

*Gold A soft, yellow, corrosion-resistant element, the most malleable and ductile metal, occurring in veins and alluvial deposits and recovered by mining or by panning or sluicing. Gold is generally alloyed to increase strength although it has a wonderful appearance.

*Gold Electroplate A thin layer of gold is electroplated (electrically bonded to the surface) for a rich and lustrous finish.

*Gold Fill – The buckle maker uses a metal plate with gold 10–20% of the thickness on top, normally at least 10 carat gold, usually bronze underneath that. The gold layer must be at least 1/20th by weight of the total combined gold and metal to be classified as gold filled. A marking of 1/10th by weight is higher in gold content. Intricate deep carving requires the deeper depth, lots of times on older buckles the 10% fill wears off through use and you can see spots where the bronze or other material shows through.

*Gold Overlay See Gold Fill and Rolled Gold Plate.

*Gold Plate See Gold Fill and Rolled Gold Plate.

*Handcrafted A skilfully crafted buckle constructed by hand rather than by machine.

*Handmade A crafted buckle constructed entirely by hand, not by machine.

*Hinge Sometimes the loop is secured to the buckle by putting it in two curved half round wires that secure the belt buckle loop to the back of the belt buckle. This allows the loop to move making for a flatter fit for the buckle.

*Jewellers Bronze A copper-zinc alloy of good colour.

*Keeper On back of the buckle the part that is a metal "loop". You put the belt through this part and double the belt back, snapping it to hold the buckle in place. Normally buckles have the keeper on the side towards your left hand as you are wearing the buckle, but sometimes the keeper is on the right side - more of a tradition for women's belts.

*Loop The rectangular wire shaped piece secured to the back of the buckle which is used to anchor or secure one end of the belt.

*Nickel Silver Similar to German silver, contains no silver.

*Pewter Any of numerous silver-grey alloys of tin with various amounts of antimony, copper, and sometimes lead. At least 51% must be tin but good manufacturers often use up to 90% or more. It is valued because it won’t tarnish, rust or deteriorate in any way.

*Plaquette Buckle A flat surface trophy buckle. The term was first used by Ed Bohlin in the 50–60s to refer to his No.466 buckle style. Most folks are familiar with Bohlin silverwork, whether they realize it or not. Edward Bohlin was the "Saddle-maker to the Stars", and that applied to his silversmithing abilities, too. His work was present in most of our favourite western movies.

His pieces were worn by the Lone Ranger, Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, The Cisco Kid, Roy Rogers, and a host of others. Those items included gun belts, spur straps, belt buckles, and scarf -slides. Bohlin silver-mounted saddles and tack adorned their 4 legged co-stars.

Even today, long after the death of Ed Bohlin himself, the products of the company he founded are individually hand formed, hand built, and hand engraved. The products are die struck, not cast, and are among the very few with certain features, such as rounded, contoured backs on the buckles to lift the buckle slightly and keep it from wearing the surface of the belt.  Prices for a genuine Bohlin buckle range from about $400 - $3,000.

*Post – The small "finger" that sticks out from the back of the buckle that goes into a punched hole in the belt, resulting in a belt size that is appropriate for you.

*Ranger Set Normally three pieces: one a buckle, next the tip of the belt and the third is a piece that holds the end of the belt. Almost always made in silver or gold with a lot of engraving.

*Ribbon Rectangular shapes, generally across the top and bottom of buckles, which permit engraving of information such as event titles, awards titles, name of recipient, etc.

*Rolled Gold Plate – A layer of at least 10 carat gold, or finer, is bonded mechanically to one or more surfaces of a supporting metal. The bonded material is then drawn or rolled to a specific thickness. The carat gold layer may be less than 1/20th by weight and must be disclosed (1/30, 1/40). A proper marking for a rolled gold plate item is 1/30 14 Carat Rolled Gold Plate.

*Rope – Edging around the outside edge of the buckle that is twisted to look like a braided rope.

*Silver – Lustrous white, ductile, malleable, metallic element, occurring both un-combined and in ores such as argentite, (sulphide of silver) having the highest thermal and electrical conductivity of the metals. It is highly valued for jewellery.

*S/S – A symbol for sterling silver.

*Silver Plate – A coating or plating of silver.

*Sterling Silver – A silver alloy comprising 92·5% fine silver and 7·5% pure copper. Has a bright surface. By adding copper it causes the silver to become less pliable and stronger in its structure improving both strength and durability.

*Tongue – The small "tooth" projection that is soldered to the back of the buckle and utilized to fit into the holes in a leather belt, securing it to the buckle.

*Trophy Buckle – Buckles that were made for a specific event such as a rodeo or cutting or other horse/cow event. They usually have the event name and year, maybe the individual event title and/or the winner's name. The more detail the more valuable.

Trophy buckle with back view

belt with conchos

The plainer, un-embossed belt, can be enhanced by the use of a more elaborately styled buckle and keeper, as well as being decorated with conchos.

barbwire with steer head, gold star, silver cross and silver floral with rope edge pattern conchos

Native American belt buckles have been in existence since silver-smithing was introduced to the Navajo Indian, Atsidi Sani, who learned about blacksmithing at Fort Defiance, Arizona in the 1850’s. Atsidi Sani was an Artist, Medicine Man, Spritual Leader, Ceremonial Singer, and Navajo Chief, generally given credit for the introduction of silver-smithing among the Navajos (although there were probably other Navajos who were also silversmiths at that time).

Although the exact date for the first Navajo silver pieces is debatable, there is general agreement that Atsidi Sani fashioned his first silver pieces (conchas, bracelets, and various other jewellery items) in 1853. Hence, the Navajos took some knowledge of silver-smithing with them when they were taken to Fort Sumner. At Bosque Redondo, Atsidi Sani enhanced his knowledge through contacts with Mexican ironworkers. The Navajo Indians later introduced the art to the Zuni Indians approximately 125 years ago.

After returning to their lands in 1868 following their 4 year internment, the Navajos began to adapt and learn how to silversmith among themselves. In the 1880-1900 time-frame, they gradually obtained the tools and sources of silver from various traders and the Fred Harvey Company. From these crude beginnings, the art of making Indian jewellery slowly evolved to the highly polished silver pieces found in today’s market. Today Indian jewellery is recognised worldwide as a dynamic and exquisite art form indigenous to the culture and heritage of the Indian tribes in the South-western United States.

Conchas Bracelet Concha belt

Each of the distinctive, Hopi, Zuni and Navajo silversmiths have a style unique to themselves. The Hopi Indians produce an overlay style; they cut a design out of a flat piece of silver, joining that piece to another piece and then oxidizing the inside of the first piece in a bas relief pattern.

Traditional, or the more familiar Navajo Indian jewellery consists of various types of blue or green turquoise set in an intricate handcrafted silver piece of artwork; squash blossom necklaces, concha belts and beaded strand or stone fetish necklaces are popular examples of this traditional style handcrafted Indian jewellery. Good conchas represent much patient work with small, usually repeated, designs, struck one element at a time with a home-made die and a hand hammer. 

Transforming a piece of turquoise into a turtle

Originally these belts did not have a buckle, but were fastened with leather thongs.  Most old belts today are equipped with buckles.  Among the earliest buckles made by Navajo smiths are simple copies of harness buckles. On the other hand, traditional Zuni type of jewellery emphasises the use of stones and shell held together within the sterling silver design. Zuni artists are renowned for their channel inlay patterns of multi-coloured stones and shells meticulously crafted and united together in aesthetic colour patterns.

Concha belts are a uniquely South-western (USA) art form, dating back to the Bosque Redondo (as white settlers and prospectors pushed westward in the latter half of the 19th century, displacement of Native Americans from their ancestral homelands became commonplace. One of the most tragic episodes of exile was the Long Walk in 1864, when Kit Carson rounded up 8,000 Navajos and forced them to walk more than 300 miles from north-eastern Arizona and north-western New Mexico to Bosque Redondo, a desolate tract on the Pecos River in eastern New Mexico) period of Navajo history ( With their simple tools and forges, Navajo and Zuni silver-workers were able to create bold and intricate pieces that were always among their owner's most prized possessions. Though modern pieces are often shoddy and garish, the best antique belts have an understated yet distinctive look unlike anything else.

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leather shapes leather shapes