I'm guessing you exposed the cord directly to the flame for too long. Try diping the piece of the cord in and out of the flame, much like roasting a marshmellow! Haha
You should be able to just using longer pieces of wood. Dog collars are the longest items I make, so this was fine for my needs. For belts you'll just need longer pieces of wood. I would add on at minimum 6 inches to the longest belt you plan to make and use that length for the wood.
Looks nice! I use skulls on various different bracelets as well. Always a nice touch!
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