DIY Custom Tool Belt
Assemble these pockets and pouches and mount them on your favorite belt to hold your most-used tools.
In previous issues, I wrote about how to turn deerskins into leather (October/November 2016) and how to craft moccasins out of that tanned animal skin (February/March 2017). Now, I’ll describe how to make further use of your home-tanned leather by turning it into a set of tool-belt pouches.
The tool belts you can buy at hardware stores are unwieldy, because they need to account for every potential tool and task. They have loops, pockets, and pouches that add weight and bulk. When I’m working at the top of a ladder or on the roof, I don’t want to carry any extra weight, and I’d hate for an unused loop on my tool belt to get caught on something.
After you learn how to make custom pouches, you can construct them to hold tools for all sorts of projects around your home or homestead. So, to get started, select a belt that fits you well and plan which pockets you’ll attach. With the ability to craft individual pouches that slide onto a belt, you can pick and choose the ones you need for a particular job, or make a belt that’s perfectly suited to the tools you use most.
This project uses both cow and deer leather. The heavier cow leather is perfect for the backing, and the deer leather is good for the pockets, pouches, and holders. To make it easier for you to distinguish between the cow and deer leather in the photos, I used contrasting black cow leather and tan deer leather.
The equipment required for completing this project.
The supplies and tools you’ll need for this custom tool belt include cow leather (a bag of leather scraps from a craft store will do); half a deer skin; artificial sinew; two medium-sized leather sewing needles; binder clips; a utility knife; a pen or marker; a ruler; a hammer; an awl or leather punch; and beeswax. Optional equipment includes a stitching pony; a stitch spacer; heavy-duty thread; a lighter or matches; super glue; and a multiple-hole leather punch (see photo below).
A multiple-hole punch makes the job go faster.
This project requires a saddle stitch. Because this stitch runs along the seam and not over the seam, it’s protected from nicks and cuts that would unravel a whipstitch or blanket stitch. Be sure to practice the stitch on scrap material before using your valuable home-tanned leather. Although you can hold the pieces in place for saddle stitching with binder clips and your hands, a stitching pony makes the job much easier. Constructing one is also a fun DIY project. My son and I made our stitching pony from scrap 1-by-6-inch boards, some wood screws, wood glue, leather, long bolts, washers, and wing nuts. The arms and base are each 16 inches long. That’s the right height if you want to clamp it to a table or workbench and stand while stitching. The longer base also allows me to anchor it under my legs if I want to stitch while sitting in a chair or on the ground. A couple of pieces of scrap leather glued between the arms will cushion your project while you sew. When you’re ready to sew, just clamp the pieces into the pony and stitch away, without the extra work of holding the pieces in place.
Gather your supplies and let’s get stitching!
Basic Leather Sewing Steps
1. Mark the seams. Your seams will be about 1⁄8 inch from the edge of the leather, with holes about 1⁄4 inch apart. If you plan to use an awl or a single-hole punch, use a ruler and mark the holes along the edge. If you have a stitch spacer, use it to mark the holes along the seams.
2. Punch the holes. Bring the pieces of leather together and clip them in place. Use an awl or a hole punch to make holes through all the layers of leather.
3. Prepare the needles. Measure the seam and multiply that measurement by 4. Unspool that amount of sinew or thread, and place a needle on each end of the sinew or thread. Wax the sinew or thread by pulling it over the cake of beeswax.
Pull the sinew through the first hole until you have equal lengths on each side. Pass the left needle through the second hole. Complete the stitch by passing the right needle through the second hole and pulling both sides snug.
4. Stitch. A good saddle stitch requires consistency. Both of the needles must pass through the same hole from opposite directions. I always push the left needle through the hole first, and then I push the right needle through the hole. To make even stitches, always pull the first piece of sinew to the front of the hole while passing the second needle to the back of the hole. This technique will also help you avoid snagging the first piece of sinew or thread as you pass the second needle through the hole. As you practice, you’ll develop a rhythm, and in no time you’ll be making beautiful stitches.
Begin stitching by passing one needle through the first hole, and then pulling the sinew through until equal lengths are on each side of the leather. Next, push the left needle through the second hole, and pull the sinew a few inches through the hole. Then, push the right needle through the back half of the second hole. Finally, pull both sides tight to snug the stitch against the leather. Move to the third hole and repeat these motions. First left, then right, then tight. Continue stitching along the seam.
To finish, backstitch and push the sinew between the two pieces of leather.
5. Finish the seams. You can use one of two methods to finish the seams. If the piece will undergo a lot of wear and tear, use the first method: Upon reaching the last hole of the seam, reverse direction and stitch back along the seam. At the fourth hole, push the left needle through the left hole, and, rather than passing it through the right hole, angle it up and push it out of the seam from between the pieces of leather. Push the right needle through the right hole, angle it up between the pieces of leather, and pull it out between the pieces of leather. Pull each strand of sinew tight, remove the needles, tie a square knot, clip the ends, and push the knot into the seam between the pieces of leather. For extra security, carefully singe the knot or apply a drop of super glue to it before pushing it into the seam.
The second method for finishing the seam is to backstitch three holes with one needle and four holes with the other. Make sure both needles have been pulled through to the left, or back side, of the piece. Being careful not to cut any stitches, snip the sinew close to the hole. Singe or apply a drop of super glue to each strand of sinew, and gently push each back into the hole it emerges from.
Finally, lay the piece on a flat surface and gently tap up and down the seam with a hammer a couple of times to set the stitches.
At some point, you’re going to snag a stitch. When that happens, don’t pull through the snag. Pull out the needle, back out the snagged sinew, apply a little wax to the snagged area, and make that stitch again. If the snag cuts the sinew, start the stitching again from the beginning.
How to Make the Tool Holders for Your DIY Tool Belt
Rather than sewing or riveting tool holders to the belt, I like to make individual detachable holders. This way, I can choose the holders I need for each job, and can use them on different belts.
A tool loop, ready for a hammer or paint brush.
The first holder in this project is a loop for a hammer, paint brush, or other tool with a wider head than handle. Begin with the cow-leather backing. First, measure the height of your belt. Double that measurement and add 3⁄8 of an inch. This will give you the height needed for the belt loop. Next, add 3 inches to that measurement; this will be the total height of the cow-leather backing. The backing should be 4 inches wide. Cut out the backing. Then, with the grain (that is, finished) side facing down, fold over the amount of backing needed for your belt loop, binder clip the sides, mark the seam, punch the holes, and saddle stitch the seam. The deer-leather tool loop should be 11⁄2 inches tall by 6 inches wide. To put the pieces together, lay the backing grain side up, and then lay the tool loop grain side up on the backing. Mark and punch two rows of holes on each end, with one row 1⁄2 inch from the edge and the second row 1⁄4 inch from the edge. Stitch the strip into place.
A small pocket for holding fasteners or a tape measure.
The second holder is a pocket for nails or screws. With the addition of a reinforcing strip, it can also hold a tape measure. To calculate the height of the cow-leather backing, add 5 inches to the amount you calculated for your belt loop. The backing should be 7 inches wide. Cut out the backing and trim the corners to form a trapezoidal bottom edge. Fold over the amount of backing needed for your belt loop, and stitch the seam. Cut the pocket to 4 inches tall by 8 inches wide. Lay the pocket on the backing, and trim its corners to match. To form the reinforcing strip, fold a 11⁄2-by-2-inch strip of cow leather over the upper edge of the pocket and sew it in place. Finally, sew the pocket to the backing.
The third holder is an expandable pocket with a pencil holder. To calculate the height of the cow-leather backing, add 8 inches to the amount you calculated for your belt loop. The backing should be 61⁄2 inches wide. Cut out the backing. Fold over the amount of backing needed for your belt loop, and stitch the seam. Cut the pocket to 6 inches tall by 61⁄4 inches wide, and the gusset to 11⁄4 inches tall by 21 inches long. The cow-leather pencil holder should be 4 inches tall by 13⁄4 inches wide. Next, stitch the gusset and pencil holder to the pocket, grain side out, easing in the gusset’s fullness around the bottom corners of the pocket. Finally, stitch the gusset to the backing.
After you make a few of these holders, you’ll be ready to tuck your favorite tools into a handcrafted pocket or pouch on your custom tool belt.
Dennis Biswell works for MOTHER EARTH NEWS and its sister publications as assistant director of information technology. He and his son, Richard, often work on projects together. For this project, Rich did the sewing and took the step-by-step photos.