Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Belting it Out

Like any craft, leatherwork requires a lot of learning and practice to get good at it. And like the true dilettante that I am, I'm going to work really hard at it, and collect all the tools and supplies for it, until I'm pretty good (but not great) at it--just good enough to prove to myself that I can do it--and then move on to something else. After all, I always need more stuff to stuff into my craft room, right?

In any case, I had a great time doing the leather keychains, and they made good test pieces as well as great little holiday gifts. But once the holidays were over, it was time to move on, and I'm still avoiding working on my jeans circle quilt.

It was time for... the belt.

The Pattern


I've always liked Celtic knot and chain patterns, and I also wanted to do kind of a sampler to show off various basketweave patterns and designs. I found a chain design on the web, then copied a part of it and modified it on my computer using the drawing program in Sun's OpenOffice.org software. I'm pretty fond of that drawing program--it's great for repeating and resizing patterns and motifs--and best of all, it's free!

I put various sizes and shapes of the design on a single sheet and printed it out. I got a 1.5-inch-wide belt blank from Tandy to start with, then used the one design strip that fit best on my belt.


I wet the leather of the belt and used a creasing tool to press in straight lines a quarter inch in from each long edge of the belt. Then I traced the chain design into the leather using a ball-point stylus. I repeated the design as needed, then ended the design by making the big chain openings into loops. The idea was to have the design end on either side of the buckle and billet (the piece with the holes) sections.

Once I traced the design, I used the swivel knife to cut the entire design, then used a beveling tool to stamp down along the outer edge of the design. The following picture shows the belt after this first beveling.


From there, I used various stamping tools to fill in each of the large chain spaces with different patterns.


The dark spots on the right end of the picture above are the snaps that hold the buckle. The buckle tongue goes through the cut slot, and the end folds over to snap in the back of the belt. The plain part of the belt on the left end will be the billet, where I'll punch the holes.

I got to the point in the picture above, then tried on the belt to figure out exactly where to punch the holes. I had measured my old belt before starting the new one, but I found I had made a tactical error when I traced the pattern: the patterned section was too long, and the belt would be too big for me unless I put holes into the pattern! Ouch.

Well, my hubby won the leather lottery this time, since his waist is a bit bigger than mine. He wanted the belt to be dark brown (what? not purple??), so I coated the belt with the All-in-One and handed it over.


I had another belt blank handy, so I did the whole thing again, with one fewer chain link repeat this time! I did different patterns in some of the big loops too, and then dyed my belt blue. This time my belt fit. I spent about 8 hours on each belt--leatherworking requires a great deal of patience!


Learning Curve


I've been taking my work in to my local Tandy store for critiquing and advice. As I mentioned, there is a lot to learn. The two main helpful comments I've gotten have been to keep my swivel knife blades sharper and to keep my leather wetter as I work it.

The too-dull blades show up as (relatively) ragged-edged cuts, because they drag the leather along instead of slicing through it like, well, a knife! Rob at Tandy told me that while I was polishing the blade just fine with jeweler's rouge, the blades needed more drastic sharpening first. For this, I needed to drag the blades on a flat piece of 600-grit sandpaper (which I finally found in the automotive section of my local hardware store).

Keeping the leather at the right wetness, or casing the leather, affects how deep the stamping tool impressions go. If you want your pattern to appear in sharp relief (yes, you probably do), then you need the leather to be wet all the way through--but not too wet. If it's too dry, the leather is hard, and the tool only leaves its impression on the very surface. Too wet, and the leather just kind of moves around like soft clay or putty, and doesn't compress enough to hold the pattern well. Books suggest keeping your work damp in a plastic bag overnight, but you have to be careful to not let the work get mildewed! Yum.

I also learned that, while the All-in-One is really easy to use and gets great colors, it's really not the right choice for leather that will get a lot of bending and wear. Since it is both a dye and a finish, it doesn't penetrate very deeply, and it tends to crack a bit when the leather is bent or scraped (the billet section, for example, where it goes through the buckle).

Here you can see the finish cracking a bit on the back side of my blue belt (as well as how the snaps work with the buckle and the keeper, which is a separate loop of leather).


The All-in-One was great for the keychains, though, which don't get the same type of abuse as a belt. For my belt, the cracking is only visible when I'm looking at the back, so no big deal. I can always touch it up a little if I need to. For future belts I'll use separate dyes and finishes, though.

One more thing: half the fun of making belts is choosing the buckle. These are from Tandy.


His and Hers belts. Aaaw, too cute...


More to Come

And speaking of future belts, obviously I need to do at least one more so I can experiment with dyes! So I've already started the next one, but that's a topic for another blog.

1 comment:

tech said...

Three cheers for OpenOffice ;-)