Building an Heirloom—Gator Style
Building an Heirloom—Gator StyleJune 28, 2012
An American alligator belt is something I consider an heirloom piece—something to keep, cherish, and, eventually, hand down to the next generation. Not only is it an investment, but it’s also a unique personal accessory. If you've ever wondered what goes into making an alligator belt, my friend Martin Dingman shed some light on the process.
All of his belts are made by hand in the Martin Dingman workshop, located in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains in northwest Arkansas.
The first step in building the belt is to create the leather strap. The gator hides are cut across the belly, rather than from head to tail, for a better yield. By splicing these pieces together (by hand, of course), the final alligator strip will bear a more interesting variation in texture—large, rectangular grain from the belly, as well as smaller, oval grain from the sides.
There are two pieces to an alligator belt: the hand-combined strap and the leather lining. The latter is what separates a great alligator belt from the pack. Dingman’s belts' all natural, saddle-grade leather effectively does the work; the alligator is simply the decoration. Saddle leather is tanned the old-world way, which makes the final product extremely durable yet soft, with a patina that will develop even more character over time.
To give the saddle leather the necessary straight edge, Dingman uses a guillotine (a giant paper cutter–like blade, not unlike its medieval ancestor). The lining is then put through a strap cutter, which trims the width of each strap to the exact millimeter. A run through the splitting machine ensures that the thickness is exactly the same on each end of the strap.
Skiving the edges is the next step. This antique machine from Germany essentially shaves the edges of the lining strip to give the belt its dressy look. Next, the alligator upper and lining strips are coated with a water-based adhesive.
The alligator is then adhered (slowly) to the leather strap and pressed together by a profile roller. This is when it really starts to look like a belt.
Finishing the top and buckle end is very important. There are dies that are used to do the final cuts. Many years ago, Martin purchased a considerable amount of highly specialized leather equipment in Italy that is still in use today.
For the buckle end, eight holes are cut for sewing the buckle on by hand—a nice touch if you’d like to know that hand craftsmanship was the key to creating your heirloom piece.
The sides of the belt are lightly sanded to prepare them for the edge stain.
Every detail is covered. The holes are hand stained with a toothpick. Every single hole. Why a toothpick? It is the best applicator, as it doesn’t absorb too much stain and create a mess on the leather lining strip. And Martin includes an inspirational message snapped to each belt.
Each alligator belt that leaves the Martin Dingman workshop has been carefully built by hand by expert craftsmen. The end result is a personal leather accessory that will outlive the original owner. And isn’t that the point of an heirloom piece?
Jay Sjoholm is the author of the blog Red Clay Soul.