Family Projects: Dad Teaches Me How To Make a Belt

“Dad, why did you make your insurance agent a belt?” I asked. Well, he explained, last time the insurance agent visited, he was wearing a poorly constructed belt.
Publish date:
August 10, 2011
parents, antiques, '52 Ford, belts, leatherwork

I just spent two weeks with my parents in Boise, Idaho. During that time, I freshly remembered the origins of many of my obsessions. The four of us -- Mom, Dad, me and my younger brother, Josh -- trawled antique stores, as we always do; Josh and I digging through record bins for vinyl, mostly amicably, without spats over who gets what; Dad and Josh looking for vintage Pendleton wool shirts; me looking for vintage dresses; all of us looking at furniture.

This time, my mother found a vintage Singer featherweight sewing machine, marked down particularly low because the case was a little dinged up, though the machine itself was so pristine, even the letters were in perfect condition.

Though she’d spent years looking for just such a machine, it was still expensive, and she spent a day agonizing over whether to put down a deposit.

“I could look for a new machine, too,” she said.

My dad’s response -- "Nooo!" -- was somewhere between a howl and a groan. It sounded like the idea of my mother buying a new machine -- with plastic parts! -- was causing him actual pain. In my parents’ world, old is better than new; handmade is often best; and materials -- wood, leather, metal, wool -- count most of all.

My dad is a geologist, and since he retired two years ago, he has spent most of his time tinkering in his workshop, where, among other things, he has made exquisitely layered lacquered boxes, bike baskets and leather handbags. (When friends of my mother suggested he make some for them, he said, “But if I did that, it would only be worth the time if I charged $250!” -- as if he could not conceive of charging anyone so much for a handbag).

Thus, I was not at all surprised to hear that the insurance agent was coming by to pick up a belt my father had made for him.

“Dad, why did you make your insurance agent a belt?” I asked. Well, he explained, last time the insurance agent visited, he was wearing a poorly constructed belt. “Why don’t you just make your own belt?” Dad asked. “All you have to do is get a blank, bevel the edge, dye the leather...”

In the end, the insurance agent asked if perhaps Dad might make him that belt. And Dad did.

Not wanting to be outdone by the insurance agent, I asked my father if he might pass on the family skills and teach me how to make a belt. He agreed. When we walked into Tandy leather, the woman greeted him. “Hi Alan,” she said. “Still no gray leather.”

Apparently, my father has decided that gray leather is the only suitable material with which to upholster the interior of Shark, the ‘52 Ford he bought in 1973 and has meticulously restored ever since.

Unfortunately, Tandy has not carried gray leather in several years. So while my brother and I looked at belt blanks, my father and the Tandy leather employee took turns hauling whole sides of colored leather outside in the 100 degree heat and tossing each over the side of Shark, looking for the elusive perfect match.

The second Tandy leather employee sat inside with my brother and I. “It’s not right for him,” she said, as the dozenth or so side was flopped over the back gate. “He’s been coming here for two years and the color is never quite right for him. If he had to choose between you kids and that truck, he’d take the truck, right?” Josh and I conceded that we had wondered as much ourselves.

Meanwhile we went on to demonstrate we were our father's children: Josh couldn’t decide if he wanted a belt with pyramid spikes or if he wanted to hand-tool the word “ROCKER” in old English script; I agonized over red, silver or cognac for my belt. Josh never did make a decision; I, under deadline pressure, did.

Back at home in my father’s workshop, I wrapped my belt blank -- an extra long strip of undyed leather, with raw edges -- around my waist and cut off the excess:

Then nailed it down to a board:

Next, we took a bevel, at a 45-degree angle and ran it the entire length of the belt’s edge, both top and bottom (pictured is the bevel and a piece of scrap leather):

Even though I was pretty sure that my father would consider red flashier than a classic cognac, it matched my new summer sandals, so I had chosen that color.

We applied the color with a “dauber,” a little ball of fluffy wool mounted on a stick. I thought my dad had made the word up, until I saw the package, which read “wool daubers.”

As expected, Dad didn’t quite approve of the color, which he said acted more like paint than dye. But I was running late to meet my high-school friends at the bar. “Sometimes I cheat,” he said and whipped out the hair dryer to hasten the drying process along:

It was time to apply the gum tragacanth:

This part takes a bit of explaining and is tricky to photograph. You can see the layout here:

First, we lined a vice with paper towels (to protect the belt from any gunk that might be in the vice). Then we used a Q-tip to apply the gum tragacanth. Finally, we took the buffer -- a wooden circle with a groove cut through the center -- and vigorously rubbed the edge of the belt. The entire process neatens the edge and turns it from the kind of rough, raw edge you get when you cut through leather into the smooth, rounded edge you see when you look at a finished belt.

Then my brother and I went to the bar I've been going to a wee bit longer than I have been legal to drink.

The next morning, two hours before my plane was scheduled to depart, we reconvened. I had bought a plain nickel belt buckle, but my father, of course, had dug up some antique buckles that had once belonged to his grandmother:

On his advice, I had bought the kind of belt in which the buckle simply snaps in. This way, I can swap out buckles as I please. We measured my waist, then punched in four holes in each direction, using this tool:

My father seemed completely flummoxed when I explained that women’s dresses hit at the natural waist, while many women’s jeans are still closer to the hips. To him, the difference in the two measurements would represent an unheard-of number of holes. “You will need two belts!” he said. I conceded and went ahead with the smaller measurement to wear with dresses.

Finally, we nipped off the excess length and inserted the keeper (the little loop that secures the extra belt):

Then shaped the edge:

We smoothed the newly exposed edge with sandpaper, daubed on a bit more red and I was ready to go to the airport:

I was not necessarily, however, prepared for the $90 excess baggage fee they tried to hit me with for all my foraging in thrift shops and my parents' basement. (I though overstuffing one bag would be less costly than bringing two; turns out the exact opposite is true).

Below, a few more selections of Dad's handiwork. Perhaps I'll learn another craft on the next trip!