I've been making holsters for myself for a while, now. I started doing this because I was having a hard time finding a holster that worked well for me for a particular revolver I had. I had some tools, and I had a Tandy Leather store not far from me, so I decided to go ahead and try my hand at making something myself. My first few attempts are almost comical when you look at them. However, with each new holster I make, I find myself doing something a little different that ends up being an improvement over the last holster... usually.
Whenever I post a picture of a holster I've made on a gun board somewhere, invariably, someone will ask for construction details, step-by-step, and so forth. Well, I had a pattern drawn up that I wanted to try out, so here's a write-up for you guys.
Just a disclaimer before we get started: I make no claims that my way is the only way or the best way to make a holster. It's just what I've picked up along the way, and this is simply the way I do it. You may find better methods, or you may want more tools or maybe less tools. You can keep it as simple as you want, or you might decide to go all out and use every trick in the book. That's fine, and that's a great thing about leatherworking - there are many routes you can take to get to your ultimate destination.
This pattern is for a slide design holster that will work for carrying two similar guns, but each with different barrel lengths. It's a pretty common concept, and just about every holster maker has a slide-type design in their line-up. I've got a Smith & Wesson M&P 9 as well as an M&P 45 which are pretty much identical in measurements with the exception of barrel length, grip thickness, and a very slight difference in thickness near the muzzle. This holster ought to work out just fine for this.
Tools & Equipment used on this project:
- Premium 8/9oz double shoulder leather
- Speedy Stitcher stitching awl (I now hand stitch without the awl)
- Waxed nylon thread
- Awl or stitching fid
- Adjustable stitching groover
- Freehand stitching groover
- Edge beveler
- Overstitch wheel
- Utility knife
- X-Acto knives
- Contact cement
- Fiebing's tan leather dye
- Fiebing's Resolene
- Gum Tragacanth
- Wool daubers
- Preval sprayer power unit and jar
- Sharpie marker (I use the shaft for molding/boning)
- Burnishing wheel (Optional, you can improvise here)
- Short, polished deer antler tine (can be used for burnishing and boning)
- Shoe-shine brush
- Ratty old dye-stained wash cloth
- Ratty old dye-stained cotton T-shirt
- Dremel or other roto tool
- Regular and small sized sanding drums for the Dremel
- Dremel drill bits
- Sanding sponge
- Paper towels
- Short pencil or dowel rod and some tape
Not everything on that list is mandatory, although there are a few tools you'll need to get the job done. Many of the specialized tools can be found online or in the retail stores of the Tandy Leather Factory. Other tools such as molding or burnishing tools can be improvised. You might be surprised what sorts of contraptions you'll find on a holstermaker's work bench.
This is a pretty simple holster with single stitching, but I experimented a little bit on this one with some stuff I hadn't tried before. I'd never made a holster with a slide guard (or sweat shield, if you prefer), I'd never made a holster using this particular color, I'd never used Gum Tragacanth for finishing the edges, and I'd never used the Resolene final finish before. In the end, everything worked great except for the Resolene which I'll touch on later.
By the way, have you ever wondered just how ugly a holster could be? Then be sure to check out my gallery of projects.
A Word on Leather Selection
There are are a few suppliers of high quality leather in the US. Two that immediately come to mind are Wickett & Craig and Hermann Oak Leather. In the holster business, their leather seems to be the standard by which all others are judged.
As a hobbiest, I'm fine with selecting my leather from my local Tandy store. They don't always carry the best selection of leather, but they generally carry enough stuff that'll do the job. If you know what you're looking for, and if you're lucky, you'll find a really nice hide that'll allow for a few nice holsters. It might take a couple of trips to the store over time, but I can eventually find a suitable hide to use.
For most holsters, I like Tandy's premium grade vegetable tanned tooling hides. I prefer an 8/9oz weight for most belt holsters, but lighter weights (4/5oz, 5/6oz) will work better for smaller holsters, pocket holsters, and smaller knife/multitool/flashlight sheaths.
You want vegetable tanned leather so that it doesn't react with the finish on your gun/knife/whatever. Chrome tanned leather is tanned using various chemicals that can interract quite negatively with gun finishes. The good thing is, however, that most chrome tanned stuff is garment type leather, and you'll generally be able to tell right off the bat that it's not fit for a decent holster.
I like my hides like I like my steaks - with very little fat. A lot of fat and fatty stretch marks in a hide can make for a soft, mushy end product, and fat deposits may be resistant to dyes.
Shoulders are one of the most common hides used for holster making. Saddle skirting will generally be too thick, but then again, tanneries can usually split 'em to whatever thickness you need. For the sake of shopping at Tandy, though, you'll be best served by their tooling shoulders.
Ideally, you'll want a hide that has a sanded back. It's not a must, but it makes it a little easier in the long run. That said, my best hide so far didn't have a fully sanded back, so dealing with some loose fibers on the back side may just be worth the hassle.
So with all of that said, let's move on to the nuts & bolts of holstermaking.
Starting the Holster
Here we have the makings of a new holster. At this point, I've created a pattern, transferred it to leather, cut the leather, glued it together, and have done some basic smoothing and evening of the edges.
When drawing a pattern, you need to ensure you are allowing for the thickness of the gun when considering where you will be placing your stitch lines around the gun. A thin 1911 will need less space than a thicker gun like a Glock, Sig, or a revolver. I personally guestimate how much space I need, but smarter, less lazy folks will mock up a holster out of paper or manilla folder material. Regardless of how you do it, it's probably better to allow more room around the gun than not enough. With more room, you can at least still mold around the gun and come out with a usable holster. With too little, you won't be able to get the gun in the holster when it's time to mold. Ask me how I know this...
Take this time to lay out any other design features or belt slots you intend to put on the final holster to get an idea of where everything will be. I basically draw the entire holster, stitch lines and all, on my patterns to give me an idea of what I'm going for. Some people use cardboard or manilla folder material for making patterns. It's more durable and will be easier to trace around when transferring the pattern to leather.
See the little dots on the leather in this pic? That's simply where I just punched through the pattern with the pencil while the pattern was on the leather. The dots tell me where my lines need to be on the leather.
After you've transferred the pattern to leather, use a utility knife or other appropriately sharp knife to cut just outside the lines of the holster. You'll be doing the final shaping on the edges later.
Once your leather is cut, take into consideration what material you'll be trimming and what you want to keep, then glue the two halves together keeping those considerations in mind. Be sure to keep any cement away from where the gun will rest when holstered since you obviously don't want that area glued together. Put something heavy on top of the glued holster, or sandwich between scrap pieces of leather and clamp it, and let the glue set up for a couple of hours. I use contact cement or rubber cement. There are other leather-specific products for this, as well, such as Tanner's Bond.
Once the cement has dried, even up and smooth the edges using a sanding sponge or a roto tool or drill press with a sanding drum. Knock off the corners with an edge beveling tool. The edge beveling tool uses a small forked prong with a sharpened edge between two slides that ride along the edge of the leather. Yeah, hard to describe. Anyway, this knocks down any rough edges. I find that a sanding sponge does a pretty good job of getting most of it if you've cut pretty close to your final desired dimensions.
Cutting the Stitch Grooves
Here's a close-up of the adjustable stitching groover. There's a screw at the tip that allows you to adjust the L-shaped bar (which is the cutter) in and out based on how far away from the edge you want your stitch line. You just run the groover along the edge, letting the stepped-down tip run along the outside edge. The tip of the L has a small hole in it - that's the cutter. You can see the remnants of leather that are left after cutting your groove. Just make a couple of smooth and steady passes, being careful not to slip. You're making a groove for the stitches to lay in, keeping them below the surface of the holster where they could get snagged or worn out. The freehand stitching groover is useful for cutting grooves where the adjustable groover won't reach. Here, I've drawn my lines (connecting the dots I punched through the pattern) and used a straight edge for any straight grooves that need to be cut. Go smooth and steady for a couple of passes. This other groove takes a little more patience. One little jerk, and you've got a groove running where you don't want it. Slow and steady is the name of the game on this one.
I only do my grooves on the front to begin with. Once I've pre-drilled my stitching holes, I go over them with the groovers on the backside.
Cutting Belt Slots
If you've got one, use a leather punch to knock out top and bottom holes for the belt slots. Draw a straight line from the edges of the top hole to the edges of the bottom and then use a flat-blade X-acto knife or a utility knife to cut out the material between the holes. If you don't have a suitable punch, no biggie. You can free hand it, but go slow and steady. The slots can be cleaned up and straigtened with a small dremel sanding drum. Notice in this pictue I've also pre-marked my stitches, which leads us to the next step.
An overstitch wheel works great for pre-marking your stitches. You just run it along your grooves, and it leaves little evenly-spaced divits behind. Once the little divits are in place, I find that it helps to further define them when I go over each one individually with an awl and a little pressure making them more visible and distinct. This makes the holes easier to see when you're drilling or punching your holes.
You'll want to make some stitch holes. Otherwise, you'll have a hard time hand stitching your holster. There are various methods that can be used for this. I personally use a small drill bit in a dremel to pre-drill all of the stitch holes. When I say small drill bit, I'm talking about a tiny drill bit. You don't want 1/4-inch holes, here. Just enough to let your needle through. Other methods include using specialized punches that are purpose-built for punching diamond-shaped holes for stitching. One does multiple holes (I think four at a time), and another does single holes. Yet another method is to chuck up a needle in a drill press and use that to punch your holes if you don't have the punches or a drill bit that's small enough. Of course, if you're the patient type, you could also use a nice, sharp awl to punch your holes individually.
Once you've pre-drilled or punched all of your stitch holes, cut your rear stitching grooves by simply connecting the dots on the backside, and clean up all of the holes with the awl. You're now ready for stitching.
When I started out doing this stuff, I used a Speedy Stitcher stitching awl (available from Tandy, Cabelas, maybe even WalMart) to do my stitching. It's an effective means of stitching thick materials with a relatively secure lock stitch. If you decide to go that route, simply follow the instructions included with the tool.
I have since found that hand stitching is simpler, faster, and more durable in the long run. By hand stitching, your holster is essentially held together with double the amount of stitching over a stitching awl. If one thread breaks or frays, it won't unravel like a lock stitch, and you've still got the other holding everything together.
Some folks may recommend spending money on various books on hand stitching, but the fact is that basic hand stitching is not difficult at all. All it takes is a length of thread (longer than you think you'll need - I use about 4x the length of the actual stitch lines) and two needles. I use the same thread that I used with the Speedy Stitcher - simple waxed nylon thread.
Thread a needle on either end of your thread. Don't worry about the dangling free ends. They're just along for the ride. You can lengthen or shorten the amount of free end you have to make things easier to manage.
Next, thread one needle through your starting point. Pull it through until you have an even amount of thread on either side of the piece you're working on.
Once you have that first thread in place, take the right needle, and put it through the next hole. Pull it taut, but try not to pull the rest of the thread with it at this point.
Next, take the left needle, and put it through that same #2 hole from the other side and pull taut.
Pretty simple. Repeat this pattern all the way around. Get in a rythym. It's repetition. Pay attention to your pattern. Try to manage your thread & needles. If you went left-over-right on one hole, do the same for the next (hope that makes sense). The key is to keep everything looking neat and even.
To finish everything off, either back stitch for a few stitches, or just continue for a few stitches over the first few stitches you made. No need for any fancy knots. When you get to a stopping point, arrange your two needles so they come out on the back side of your piece, one hole right after the other. Cut the thread flush with the leather. Using the nylon thread, I like to do a quick pass over any protruding ends with a lighter, just like melting the end of a piece of paracord.
Be sure to pick up a decent supply of needles. They're consumables that will eventually break.
Unfortunately, I don't have any pics of the actual molding process, but the pic to the right is the freshly-molded holster. Molding is pretty straightforward, but it takes a little practice. There are many different theories and techniques for "casing" the leather, but what I so is, once the stitching is complete, wet the leather under running hot water just enough to get it all wet, and let it sit for an hour or so. I don't soak it, boil it, or add any dish soap. You don't want the leather sopping wet when molding, just damp and cool to the touch. Sopping wet leather won't hold it's shape very well when molding.
After an hour or so of dry time, take the gun, tape a pencil or dowel rod between the sights (so we can form a sight channel), and cram it into the holster until it is resting where you want it. This sometimes takes a little bit of effort, so don't be discouraged if you think it's not fitting at first - stretch, twist, and contort the leather a little bit if you have to. Try not to use saran wrap or baggies or anything to protect the gun. You want the holster to be molded to the gun, not a gun with saran wrap and baggies around it. Wipe down and oil your gun afterward if necessary.
Begin molding the holster to the gun by hand. It might feel tough at first, but work the leather in the best you can. Then move on to detail molding with the back end of a Sharpie marker or other appropriate tool.
When detail molding, or boning, your tool(s) and your technique helps a lot. Knowing the lines of your gun and how they interact with a holster helps a lot, too. For your boning tools, you want something that's hard, smooth, and non-porous. I personally like Sharpie markers, the ball-end molding tools available from Tandy, and even crochet needles for molding fine lines. You don't want any rough surfaces on the tool gathering contaminants or sharp burrs marring your leather. I even clean the black logo markings off of the Sharpie before using it, as I've found that they can rub off on the leather.
When using your boning tool of choice, be careful not to get too aggressive with it. Some slips and errors can be smoothed out while the leather is still damp, but if you abrade, tear, or puncture the leather, you're stuck with it. Use a straight edge if you're having a problem maintaining a straight line somewhere.
After molding, remove the gun from the holster and reshape anything that may need it after removing the gun from the still-damp holster. You can either set the holster aside to dry, now, or you can move on to dying. I generally let the holster dry for another couple of hours (or overnight, since I have a real job) then move on to dying the next chance I get.
Now that the molding is done, it's time to dye. There are several different dyes you can use. Tandy carries their house brand "Professional" line, their eco-friendly Eco-Flo line, as well as Fiebing's dyes in both spirit and oil based flavors. On this project, I used Fiebing's spirit based tan leather dye.
Various methods can be used for applying dye including wool daubers, sheep's wool patches/strips, air brushes, and, if you have enough dye, dunking the entire piece into it. I use wool daubers. Regardless of the method you use, ensure to dye inside and out, liberally drenching the interior of the holster to ensure it runs into all the nooks and crannies. Keep applying the dye wherever needed until you've got an even coat everywhere.
When using wool daubers or strips of sheep's wool to apply lighter colors, you will most likely end up with streaks in the initial couple of coats of dye. You can work these out by continuing to apply liberal amounts of dye and working it into the piece. Keep in mind, however, that the more dye you apply, the darker the end result will be. This is why this particular project is actually more of a dark brown rather than the lighter tan you'd expect from tan dye.
At this point, the holster is wet again. You can touch up any molding wherever it may be needed. Once the dye has dried, buff it thoroughly with a shoe-shine brush. Some dyes, especially Fiebing's spirit-based black dye, can oxidize, so to speak, as they dry and leave a chalky-textured surface. This is easily taken care of with a shoe-shine brush. If you notice any spots that need touching up with dye, apply a new coat of dye, let dry, and buff again. Keep doing this until you're happy with the coloring and the chalky texture is gone. When that's done, you can go to work waxing and burnishing the edges.
Burnishing the Edges
When burnishing the edges, the idea is to smooth out and mat down all of the little frizzies that tend to stick up off of cut leather. You are literally burning the leather through the use of friction when you do this. To aid this process, you can add a substance such as bee's wax or Gum Tragacanth on the edges before you start burnishing. Some holster makers will use a felt wheel to do this. I've had good results doing it by hand using a polished deer antler tine, sharpie marker, bone folder, burnishing wheel, or a combination of all of them depending on where I'm burnishing.
Apply your wax or Gum to the edges liberally, then rub it in good with your burnishing tool. Use rapid back-and-forth strokes running along the edge of the holster. As you're doing this, you'll notice the edge becoming smoother. As your wax or Gum is rubbed into the leather, it should eventually get to a point where you'll feel a little bit of resistance against your burnishing tool. When you've hit that stage, you're almost there. Speed up your strokes, and apply firm pressure. You should start to notice the edges shining up in spots. Keep going until the entire edge has shined up.
It's hard to screw up this step. If it doesn't work the first time, keep trying until you're happy. You can always clean up the goop and start over again.
Take a look at the first image in this section, and note the difference between the outer edges of the holster and the inner edges of the belt slots. I had not yet burnished the belt slots at the time I took this pic.
Once everything is burnished, you can leave it as is or dress with a colored edge coating such as Edge Kote (clever name, huh?). Any stray leather flecks, fibers, etc can be cleaned up with a lighter. Now it's time for the final finish.
Thoughts and Tips
Professional holster makers generally dunk their holsters into an acrylic solution as their final finish. Some folks apply Fiebing's acrylic Resolene either by hand, by airbrush, or with a Preval sprayer unit with good results. I've historically had bad luck with Resolene simply because none of the techniques I've used have worked to my satisfaction. On this project, I decided to try out a Preval sprayer unit. It's basically a can of air which screws to the top of a jar with a pick-up straw dipping down into the jar. A poor man's air brush, I guess.
I poured some Resolene into the glass jar that's used with the unit and cut it with a little bit of water. I sprayed a generous amount into the interior of the holster, and I went over the exterior with about three or four light coats keeping the nozzle about 10 or 12 inches from the holster. I used a hair dryer to force dry the finish between coats, as per a tip from another DIY holster maker on the Pistolsmith.com forum.
So add to the list another project of mine Resolene did not work out too well on. The Preval sprayer apparently didn't put out a fine enough mist, or the process of pick-up and delivery cause it to bubble up. Either way, the finish came out very grainy with about a million little tiny bubbles.
Since originally writing this tutorial, I have learned that a simple damp sponge works well for applying Resolene. I used it with great results on this pancake design for my Ruger Super Blackhawk.
Leather Sheen from a rattle can works well, too, and it's dead simple to apply. Whatever you end up using, apply it in thin coats in order to avoid any runs or build-up.
I learned a few things in doing this project, and I think I've improved immensely since I originally did this writeup.
I decided to stick with the simplicity of the Leather Sheen in a rattle can for my final finishes until I could find a better way of applying Resolene. After all, it has worked well for me so far, it's easy, and hey, why fix what ain't broke? The Preval sprayer didn't work well with the Resolene. But as I mentioned above, a simple damp sponge worked great on another project I've done since originally writing this, and I'll be sure to incorporate that technique on future projects.
Be careful with your molding. The molding went well on this one. Almost too well. I initially overdid the molding in the ejection port area resulting in a gun that took some coaxing with a kitchen knife to get out. Be careful in this area. You want good retention, but you still want to be able to get the gun out! I ended up having to re-wet this area and soften up the molding a tad.
Pay attention to your stitch layout and stitch groove depth. On this holster, I probably should've allowed about an extra 1/4 inch around the gun. After stuffing the gun in this one when molding, the stitch grooves around the gun almost want to close up over the stitching due to how close to the gun I layed out the stitch lines and how deeply I cut the stitching grooves. So be sure you allow enough room for the gun. You can take up the slack from a little too much room by molding. There's not much you can do once you've laid everything out with too little room.
Overall, I think this project went well, and it's always fun doing another holster (although I wouldn't want to do it for a living!). I hope you DIY holstermakers out there enjoyed this write-up and found it helpful.
For more info on leatherworking tools, click here. Also be sure to check out the well done DIY holster step-by-step from the same website here. Thanks for these write-ups and for the folks at Pistolsmith.com for the excellent tips and insight into leatherworking.
To see a gallery of my projects, click here.