Introduction: Cowboy / Western Style Leather Holster
Wyatt Earp. Zorro. Roy Rodgers. Malcom Reynolds. Anne Oakley. Roland Deschain. Teddy Roosevelt. The Lone Ranger. Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid. The mythos of the American West and the stories it inspired remain some of the most popular tales of our culture. From Spain to outer space, the culture and styling we identify as "Western" has permeated and persisted. Here I will do my best to carry that tradition on with one of the more iconic items carried - a gunfighter's holster. The techniques we will be using cover the majority of basic leather working skills. Holsters can be simple, and they can be complex. The one I am making is on the more complex side, but I will make note of ways to make it easier.
Other than the shape, there in nothing terribly unique to a gun holster versus any other hard sided, form fitted holder of things. These same techniques can be applied to tool belts, flashlights, lighter cases, almost anything.
This particular piece is dual purpose. It is a costume piece for a Zorro/Lone Ranger/Mad Max mashup I will be wearing to Wasteland Weekend this fall. In this role it will be holstering a prop gun made from an airsoft revolver. It's other role is a range holster for my four inch Ruger Security Six. Because properly holding a real firearm safely is more important than holding a prop, I will be forming the holster to my Security Six. As with whenever you handle any firearm, maintaining good safety practices is paramount.
Step 1: Stuff You Are Going to Need
Leather - 6-7 ounce vegetable tanned leather (there is 1/16th of an inch of thickness to an ounce of leather). It can be formed, shaped, and tooled, unlike other tanned leathers. I am also using chrome tanned garment leather to line it, pigskin is a more traditional lining. Rawhide is sometimes used to stiffen holsters as well, especially on "quick draw/zero retention" holsters, where retention is not key, but consistent shape is.
Tools to manipulate the leather - Knives to cut the leather to shape and carve it. Leather stamping tools to decorate it. Sewing awls, needles, and punches to stitch the leather.
Contact Cement - works great for sticking down your lining.
Cardboard and Cardstock - Cardstock is great for patterns, and corrugated cardboard is fantastic for prototyping.
Dyes and Finishes - Dyes to color the leather, and oil (neatsfoot, mink) to seal and protect it.
The blamed thing you intend to holster! - My Ruger forged from Valyrian steel and Bald Eagle tears in the 200th year of American freedom is today's subject. It presents one problem for my endeavor, it's a 4 inch barrel wheres most patterns are for 5-6 inch Colt Single Action Army type guns. This just means I need to pay more attention to forming the leather for good retention.
I also needed a few good hours of browsing the googles for inspiration, as I am making my own pattern. There are certainly patterns out there and available, from such sources as Tandy Leather Factory
Here are the pages I found the inspiration images in this step:
Step 2: Pattern Formation
A good pattern is essential to a good fit. What better way to ensure a good pattern than to make your own? I did this using cardstock. I drew a centerline which I laid the center of my pistol along vertically, and then rolled it to flat. This gives some compensation for the thickness of the revolver. Giving myself about half an inch to work with I traced an edge of the holster, along the outside of the holster.
Now is time for some design decisions. The first holsters where of a "Slim Jim" design. This uses the least amount of leather and time, which historically is a good thing. Lets fast forward a few years, to when holsters where both functional and decorative. There is a bit of an evolution to holsters that have a large, extended belt loop that provides not only more room to tool, but more consistent draws as well. This is the design we see in most westerns, and is used by a lot of reenactors and enthusiast groups. I simply folded the cardstock over and traced out how much belt strap back panel I wanted. I also added on two straps, for holding the gun gripping portions to the belt strap back panel. I wound up dumping the two strap, "Mexican Style" for a single strap when I decided I wanted maximum tooling space on the gun retention areas. The strap will pass through a slot on the back panel, we will add a buckle later to strap it down. A trickier design is where the back panel is slotted and the holster/gun simply tucks into the back panel. I like the rusticness of this design, I may do it next time.
Step 3: Mock It Up, Work It Out
Corrugated cardboard is great medium to create mockups. This allows you to work out a lot of issues before committing to cutting your expensive leather. I traced the cardstock design onto a piece of corrugated cardboard, marked grain side (the toolable side, we want the facing out), and the suede/flesh side (the side we want to the inside) and started folding it around the gun. we cant wet form cardboard, but it can certainly be smash formed. With some tape and cardboard I managed to make a fully functioning holster.
In the cardboard process, I decided to do a "stacked" edge - strips of leather glued, stacked, and stitched at the seam to increase width. This is done when the item you are trying to form to is too big and the leather doesn't stretch enough to fully cover it. This wound up being unnecessary on the final piece, but it is a useful tool so I will continue to talk about how to do it.
After some tape, I had a fully functional cardboard holster. If this was a simple cosplay, I'd slap some duct tape on it and call it good.
Step 4: Cut the Leather!
I took my cardboard holster and unfolded and flattened it out. I traced this onto my leather. I gave my self a little extra material on the flap that folds over the gun, facing outward (see notes on picture 2). This will allow for any variances that occur when I'm shaping the leather. This is a bit of a tense part, a sharp knife is your best friend. I use a carbon steel Mora Electrician's knife, a boxcutter works well.
Step 5: Tool and Shape the Leather
There are numerous good Instructables on how to tool leather, so I am not going to delve into that. I shaped the leather a tad before I tooled it to get an idea of where I wanted my designs, tooled it, then finished shaping. Shaping is pretty simple. Along any stitched edges, I do strongly recommend cutting and beveling a stitching groove if you don't have a stitching groove maker, which I don't.
I wet the leather and gave it a moment for the water to steep in. I wrapped my Ruger in plastic wrap, because in the 38 years it has been around it has gotten plenty beat up, and pulled the wet leather around it. Using my fingers I pressed the leather around the hard edges of the gun until the leather just began to retain the shape. At this point I tooled it. I let the leather dry from tooling, then re-wet and started shaping it again. This time I used my pear shading tool to help smooth and force the leather to shape even more, again focusing on edges see notes on images 4 and 5.
Once I was satisfied with the fit and the leather dried, I smoothed and matched up the seam edges with a Dremel tool using a sanding wheel. I also smoothed all other exposed edges and removed some material from the the skinny strap that goes around the holster and the fold in the holster at the tip, after the barrel (see image notes). Using a Dremel messy but fast, and saves me from buying a specific tool (and edge slickener). Proper leather crafstman would be ashamed of me for not finishing the edges correctly. You burnish the edges with an edge slickener and work some specific edge finish goop into it. Gives a cleaner edge, and on lighter dyed leathers it makes the edges darker.
I'm going for a very rustic look, thus I freehanded most of the tooling, and I'm not terribly concerned about perfect edges. Maybe next time.
Step 6: Dyeing and Finishing
Dyes make the leather look good, finishes protect it.
On my KentsOkay Signature Style Pear Shaded Holster (seriously), I went with KentsOkay Signature Style Acorn Brown. I finish most of my projects with Neatsfoot Oil to seal and protect it.
There are many methods to dyeing, but this is my method.
Put on a rubber glove or two. Glob some dye on the carved/tooled areas of your leather. Give these a moment to permeate, the longer the darker. Then coat the rest of the project. Let that coat sit, again the longer the darker. Buff the leather with a damp rag, this will remove the excess dye and it smooths out the brush strokes in the dye. Let dry, dye again if you want it darker. I didn't on this project, but one of my favorite tricks is dampening areas of the leather pre dye to make them lighter post dying - Dry leather soaks up dye like a sponge, dampening it slightly limits how much dye it will soak up.
Now it is oil time. The warmer the leather/oil the better the penetration (heyo!). I microwave the oil until it is luke warm, and I let the leather sit out in the sun. I usually coat both sides of the leather, but since I am lining this piece I only did the tooled, hide side. I kind of just glob it on there, give it some time to soak in and buff it off.
Step 7: Walking in the Line...ing
Now if you wanted to KISS, you could stitch it up and call it good. I'm going to go a step further and line it.
Pigskin is what is usually used to for lining, it is thin, strong, and soft. Well I didn't have pigskin so I used some chrome tanned garment leather I decided I wanted to line all suede sided portions of my holster, including the strap back panel. using the holster as a pattern I cut out a piece of leather to line. I kept inboard of the edges that need to be stitched, to make stitching easier and so the edges aren't an awkward sandwich. It was a bit tricky getting the lining dimensions right because the garment leather had some stretch. I wound up cutting it unstretched, and then stretching some areas of the lining during installation and just trimming the excess.
I took my project outside and liberally applied contact cement, I did the edges multiple times. Typically you would glue and stitch lining, but I hate stitching leather with a passion so I'm going to avoid doing so if I can. I may have also forgotten to tool in a stitching groove on the backstrap.
I put plastic wrap on areas I didn't want to glue just yet. I started at the mouth of the holster, making sure me edges matched up, stretching and pushing in the lining from there to conform to the outer shell that was conformed to the revolver earlier. For the backpanel, I hooked it over the back of a chair then stretched the lining over it. Applying the lining with the shell being as close to the final shape as possible helps keep the lining tidy, Leathercrafters hate me! No stretch marks or wrinkles here with that simple trick!
Again, if I where doing this properly, I'd put a stitch line around the entire thing. Ain't nobody got time for that, contact cement is good enough for me on this project.
Step 8: Stitching, Aka Worst Step Ever.
I highly recommend you get yourself a stitching awl. Or win one. Or better yet, vote for this Ible, tell all of your friends to vote for this Ible, and I can win a spare stitcher. It makes lock stitching the work of Satan instead of something Hercules would fail. If you dont know how to use one, here's how:
Pre punch your holes. If it's a lot of leather I will use my Dremel, because it just makes life easier. 3/64ths bit, a steady hand, and a good eye are all you need, but a 3/64ths bit, a press jig, and pre marked and measured holes make you look pro.
Push the awl and thread "tail" through the leather and into your finger. Curse vehemently and get a band aid. You want a working end of the thread on one side of the leather and the awl on the other.
Pull enough thread off of the awl bobbin to surpass the linear distance you plan to stitch, plus 25-30%.
Pull the awl back out, stab into next hole, missing your fingers this time.
Pull awl back just enough to create a loop, thread the "tail" through this loop.
Pull awl back out, while pulling on the tail to create a lock stitch. The bend in the thread should be hidden in the leather.
Push the awl into the next hole, repeat the pull, thread, pull, push process. Stab yourself several times, curse more.
Prepared to finish? Cut the thread off of the awl on the same side as the working end of the tail, knot them together.
Pre-modern times guys would put a dab of beeswax on the thread. I put a dab of cyanoacrylate, because modern science yo.
Push/rub down your stitches down with a smooth hard tool, see image notes.
Stitch together whatever needs stitched together (other than your hand) in my case the holster seam, and adding a buckle to the strap that holds the holster to the backpanel... see next step for details.
If you where doing a stacked edge, id contact cement them in place, drill stitch holes, stitch, then carve/dremel/sand into smoothness.
Step 9: YEEEEHAWWWW!!
How to secure the holster to the backpanel bugged me for a while. I could easily have tacked that skinny strap down to the face of the backpanel, but I wanted to be able to "open" the loop so I could use the holster on a frog, instead of just slipping it on a belt.
So here's what I did. I created a slot in the backpanel and slipped the strap through. I hadn't planned far enough in advance and the strap was too short to reach around to the front for a buckle, but this is ok. I extended the strap and corrected the angle so it would be parallel with the first "pass" of the strap. I also "flipped" the strap so hide side was out across the front of the holster, giving me more area to tool. The buckle I added in with a small scrap of leather I wetted, formed, and stitched on.
I will probably adorn it with a bottlecap concho or two, but there is no Ible for bottlecap conchos so I will have to sort that out first. At that time I will probably also add a pair of leather thongs at the bottom tip, to to tie it to my leg like a proper pistolero.
Instructions for the belt can be found here:
I will update with pictures of my Wasteland Weekend costume as it gets closer to completion, including a sword baldric!
Thanks for reading, if you enjoyed this project please drop me a vote!.
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