Finished! Well, almost. I just have to apply a leather finish to them.
The chaps are batwings, made from patterns from Bob Klenda Saddlery. Bob is a well-known saddle maker, who makes some beautiful custom saddles. As I recall, one of his saddles once sold at auction for $20,000. Yet, when you call his shop, he answers the telephone and is more than happy to help you get just what you want, and offer all the help and advice you need. I ended up asking all sorts of questions about leather, hardware, fitting, etc, and he never once made me feel like I was wasting his time. A very pleasant and helpful man. I hope I get a chance to meet him in person sometime.
The leather I chose is 5/6 oz chap leather with a pebble-grain finish, which I purchased online from The Leather Guy. The leather offered on that website is generally #2 leather, which has some blemish or other, so they are priced accordingly. They have a large selection and show very good pictures of the actual piece you are buying. Mine has a large brand on it, which I thought was sort of novel. I situated it to show up on the wing of the chaps. I am pleased with the quality of the leather. It is exactly as described on the site. I also purchased leather for two more pairs of chaps at the same time.
I bought the hardware for the chaps from Sheridan Leather. I looked all over the Internet to find a place that sold all the pieces I needed, so I wouldn’t have to pay shipping from several vendors. I couldn’t find anybody who had all the items, so I finally called Bob Klenda to see where he gets his stuff. He recommended Sheridan Leather. They had everything I needed to make Bob’s chaps, and a lot besides. These chaps required eight 5/8″ spring clips (also called chap clips), eight 5/8″ rings, eight 1-3/8″ leather rosettes, eight 1-5/8″ leather rosettes, and a 1-1/4″ cart buckle (sometimes called a chaps buckle). Sheridan only carries the 1-1/4″ buckle in brass. I ended up ordering several other leathercraft-related items as well. Their prices are good and they shipped quickly. There was an error on my first order, but it required only a phone call to straightened it out to my satisfaction. I appreciated their quick and courteous service.
The yokes and pocket flaps are made from 7/8 oz skirting leather, which is a little less expensive than tooling leather, but takes tooling just as well. I purchased it from an eBay seller named “leather_alternative”. The price was right, shipping was reasonable and quick, and the leather was quite good. I bought about 14 square feet of it, but only needed a little of it for the chaps. I plan to use the rest to re-cover an 1860′s McClellan-type saddle tree.
I figure the set of chaps cost me a little under $100 to make. Not bad, when I see equivalent chaps (maybe a little better than mine in the fine details) going for $275. For about $300 I bought enough leather for three sets of chaps with some left over. The hardware for all three sets of chaps I intend to make came to about $60.
After taking the appropriate measurements for my legs, I realized quite happily, that the chaps pattern was made for my size. That was by coincidence, though, and instructions are provided on the pattern for adjusting it to size.
My first step, in making the chaps caused the most anxiety: Deciding where to place the pattern on the leather for marking and cutting. The side I bought was wide enough to allow me to place the yoke of the pattern at the back and the batwings at the belly area for both legs, which gives you consistent thickness and stiffness for the entire length of both legs of the chaps. However, since I wanted the brand mark on the leather to end up in a particular position on the batwing, I reversed that and put the belt in the belly area and the batwing in the stiffer back area. The leather was sufficiently consistent throughout that it turned out fine. Some sides of leather won’t allow this, so you must turn the pattern long-wise on the side to fit both legs of the chaps within the side of leather. Try to choose the position of each leg, so that you get consistent stiffness and color for similar portions of the chaps. In other words, don’t cut one yoke from the stretchy belly area and the other yoke from the stiff neck area of the side. Try to make the left and right legs of the chaps consistent in stiffness and texture.
Once the position of the pattern was decided, I positioned the paper pattern on top of the side of leather and used an Osborne #5 overstitch wheel to trace the pattern. The points of the overstitch wheel marked the leather through the paper without cutting it, so I was able to retain the pattern and all it’s written instructions intact. After marking one leg, I cut it out, then used that one as the pattern for the other leg, marking the leather by following around it with the tip of an awl. Make sure you make a right and left leg! A mistake here can be very costly, since you won’t likely have enough of the side left to make a third leg!
I cut out all the leather pieces with a utility knife, because it takes less talent and experience to use than my roundknife. Make sure you have plenty of fresh blades, because you want to change them out often, or the knife edge will begin pushing and deforming the chap leather as it cuts. After cutting out all the parts, I edged and burnished the edges of all the parts made of the 7/8 oz skirting leather, using an Osborne #3 edger and a burnishing tool. I then prepared the decorative parts for tooling.
For the yokes, pocket flaps, and belt parts, I wet the leather with a sponge, or quickly dipped it in water, and let it sit while I prepared my tools and work area. The leather is ready to tool when it begins to return to its original color. You really have to get the moisture content of the leather right in order to do the decorative tooling well. If it is too dry, the stamp will not imprint deeply enough, and will damage the grain of the leather. If it’s too wet, the leather gets sort of rubbery and the stamping will cause it to stretch and distort, and will cut too deep. I tooled the yokes, pocket flaps, and belt with a basket weave pattern I like. I used a good weighted mallet, and a worktop of 1-1/4″ granite, which helps get consistent hits on the tools, to make the stamps cut to a consistent depth. This is a talent that takes development (I’m not very good at it yet, but learning).
I laid out the pattern on the leather, starting with the border. I traced the border lightly on the damp leather with a divider, then cut it in with a Craftool swivel knife. The border needs to be wide enough to accommodate a stitching groove, where ever there will be stitching. Then I did the basket weave stamping, beveled the border around it, then added a border stamp to edge the basket weave pattern. The stamping tools I used are the basic Craftool swivel knife with a 1/2″ blade, and Craftool #B200 beveler, #534 Basket Weave stamp, a #511 Basket Weave stamp (a little smaller for the belt), and #431 Border stamp.
For the areas that would be stitched, I used a Craftool stitching groover to create a groove in the center of the border to receive the stitching. This keeps the stitches below the surface of the leather, decreasing wear from use on the stitches. It also makes the stitches easier to keep straight and even. I then used the overstitch wheel in the groove to mark where each stitch would go. The parts are then glued in place with contact cement (read the instructions on the cement), prior to stitching.
I used a diamond shaped blade in a stitching awl to punch the holes for stitching the pockets, however, I tried something different for the yokes, pocket flaps, and belts parts, which were made of 7/8 os skirting leather. I used a technique taught by Dusty Johnson, in his book, Saddle Making Construction and Repair Techniques. I pre-drilled all the holes with a Dremel tool and a 1/16″ drill bit. The bit automatically centers in the stitching groove and the divot left by the overstitch wheel. The resultant stitching looks very straight and even. The only cautions are that each hole must be drilled quickly, to avoid burning the leather with the hot drill bit, and the dremel tool must be held perfectly perpendicular to the leather, so that the stitching line on the backside is straight and in its groove. I used a scrap of wood as backing, so as not to drill into my worktable. The process goes very quickly and makes stitching go more quickly as well.
I hand-stitched everything together, using 5-strand linen pre-waxed thread and #517 harness needles. I clamped the parts to be stitched in a stitching clamp I am making, but haven’t yet completed. It is very difficult to hand stitch without a stitching clamp and have it turn out nicely. Once stitched, the yokes were trimmed even all around.
I made “cowboy buttons” for the pockets. They are strips of leather rolled tight, with the tapered tail passed through the middle of the roll. The tail is then attached to the pocket by weaving it through three holes. I like the looks of them and they are quite functional.
I made all the miscellaneous strings and straps from scraps of the chap leather with an Australian lace cutter. One string 1/4″ wide X 24″ long and eight 1/2″ wide by 12″ long were required.
I then assembled parts and gave the whole thing an application of 100% neatsfoot oil. I will likely give it two more applications, to make sure the finish is an even color, then finish the chaps with Feibing’s Tan Kote. If you decide to follow what I did for a finish, make sure to use 100% pure neatsfoot oil. Other leather products labeled as “neatsfoot oil compound” are combined with petroleum product additives that are harmful to leather and can accelerate deterioration. Also, avoid over-oiling the leather. I use a rag soaked in neatsfoot oil, wetting the leather until it is dark and wet, then wipe off the excess. I oil both the grain and flesh sides where possible. I let it sit until it appears dry, anywhere from one to several hours. If the color is not even, or not as desired, I apply additional coats until I am happy with it.
As this is my first pair of chaps, and since I haven’t worn chaps since I was a kid, I wasn’t sure how to fit them, so I made them a little large, figuring I could cut them down if necessary. I think they came out pretty close to the right size, although I probably could have tightened up a couple of the leg snaps a bit. I’m looking forward to trying them in the saddle to see how they feel. They are pretty heavy, but I wanted them for packing and other work use, not as show chaps. I selected the leather for weather and puncture resistance. I think I got that.
I made a few rookie mistakes on the tooling. It was a learning experience. You can see where the tooling pattern runs out at the top of the pocket flaps. I got it pretty close to right on the yokes, though. Laying out the initial lines is more than simply laying down a diagonal line and starting to stamp. Learning to strike the stamping tool with consistent pressure, to get consistent depth and definition on the leather, and getting the pattern straight and even, are part of the learning process, as well, and simply take practice and experience to master. I’m still a long way off the mark on that score, but I’m confident I’ll get there…eventually.
Up next, a pair of Arizona Shotgun chaps.
P.S.: The hat you see me wearing belonged to my great grandfather. It is an original Stetson, likely over 100 years old, which I had restored last year by Shorty’s Hattery, http://shortyshattery.com/ . They did a nice job on it.