Unblinking Eye

Notes on Making Holsters

by Ed Buffaloe


Flap Holster for NAA Derringer


Seecamp Pancake Holster

Belt holster for Ruger Bearcat.

IWB Holster for 1903 Colt

Holster by Ed Buffaloe

Cowboy Holster for SAA

Among the first articles I wrote for my Gun Pages was one on Tools for Making Holsters and another on How to Make a Simple Belt Holster.  The two articles are still useful and should form a background for reading this one, but I've learned quite a bit about leatherwork and holsters since writing them.  I don’t have a central theme here--I simply want to share a few notes I have made, since there is so little available either in print or online about making holsters for concealed carry.  A good leather holster is expensive to buy, but relatively cheap and easy to make yourself.  A holster for concealed carry only needs to be practical, not beautiful, since ideally no one will ever see it.

1.  You can make perfectly useable holsters with virtually no tools.  At a bare minimum, you can get by with a knife and an awl--a lot of Swiss Army knives come with both.  The main criterion for the knife is that it be sharp, but the blade should also be thin.  A standard utility knife works pretty well, though a curved blade is better for some purposes.

2.  You don't necessarily have to sew the seams on a holster.  You can also lace them, rivet them, glue them, or some combination of the three.  That said, I still think sewing is the best option--all you really need is two needles and some waxed thread, both of which are cheap and can be ordered online if you don’t have a resource in your area.  Lacing is an easy option--all you need is a hole punch and some lace.  Riveting requires a hole punch and a rivet tool.

3.  A very handy item to have is cobbler’s glue.  Even if you plan on sewing, lacing, or riveting, you should also glue the seam.  Cobbler's glue is great for gluing linings and straps before they are sewn or otherwise attached.  At Tandy Leather they call their product “contact cement” but it seems to be pretty much the same as cobbler’s glue.  They both contain toluene, which is a known carcinogen and should be used with plenty of ventilation.  If you don’t use adequate ventilation, the stuff will give you a headache and God knows how many years it may take off your life every time you use it.

4.  If you have a Tandy Leather shop nearby, they almost always have a bin of leather scraps they sell by the pound.  It's great stuff for experimentation, and some of my nicest looking holsters have been made from cheap scraps.

5.  Pigskin is cheap, readily available, and can be used for lining holsters.  Pigskin and calfskin are softer than cowhide and are at least somewhat easier on the blued finish of a gun.

6.  Originally I would dye my holsters, and then wet form them, but eventually I figured out that the leather forms much more easily if it is not dyed (particularly if you use an alcohol-base dye).  From the DIY Holstermaker link below I learned to place the completed holster in hot water for a few minutes and let it soak in thoroughly before wet forming.  He recommends waiting for an hour.  You don’t have to wait that long, but leather does take on some interesting plastic qualities the longer you wait.  Sometimes, I really need to do some dying before I wet form, but the leather is not nearly as supple after it has been dyed, so the wet forming takes more effort.  I usually wrap the gun in Saran Wrap before I use it for wet forming a holster.  Some people assert that the plastic interferes with a good fit, but I find that not to be the case with Saran Wrap.  One time I left a well-oiled gun in a damp holster, forgetting to take it out before I went to bed.  The exposed portion of the barrel had rust spots on it the next morning and I spent a half-hour polishing it out.

7.  Tandy carries three kinds of leather dye--one is water-based (Eco-Flo) and the other two seem to be  alcohol-based penetrating dyes--Fiebing's regular and Fiebing’s oil dye.  All are useful.  The water-based dye is great when you want the leather to remain supple.  It dries slowly--you want to give it sufficient time to dry before you move on to the next step.  I find the black water-based dye to be inferior to the alcohol-based dyes, but the other colors seem to work well.  The regular Fiebing's dries quickly but leaves the leather somewhat stiff--sometimes this is a good thing, particularly if you have a wet-formed piece that needs to retain its shape.  Dye can be applied with daubers or cloth.  I have found that a piece of sheepskin with the wool on it works best.  For an even application, I start by diluting the alcohol-based dyes at least  1:2 with water.  I start with a light finish, then darken it slowly by using more concentrated dye.  Generally I prefer the regular Fiebing’s dyes to the oil dyes.  I like the result from the brown oil-base dye, though it can be difficult to get the color even and the brown oil dye dries the leather badly.  If I use it I always apply some Leather Saver afterward.

8.  John Bianchi says he likes to leave leather undyed and simply darken it by applying neatsfoot oil.  I've used this method of darkening leather, but my workmanship has to be nearly perfect because you can see every imperfection in oiled leather.  Dye goes a long way toward covering up most imperfections in workmanship, particularly if it is black or dark brown.  But if you want to leave leather natural looking, be sure to keep your work area and your hands clean while forming and sewing your holster.  Also, be careful not to press too deeply while forming the leather, because you can bruise or darken wet leather easily by pressing hard and such bruised areas will stand out clearly when the leather is oiled.

9.  A lot of firearms instructors advise their students to use an IWB holster that is reinforced to retain its shape so the gun can be reholstered one-handed.  I agree this is a very good feature.  It is usually accomplished by adding an additional strip of thick leather around the top of the holster, and more generally by making the holster rather thick and stiff.  But I'm a slim guy, and I usually want to make the slimmest possible holster:  1) so it's comfortable, and 2) so it doesn't bulge too much under my shirt.  So I simply strive for comfort.  Most of my IWB holsters still work pretty well for one-handed holstering.

10.  On the other hand, I’ve learned not to make holsters too thin.  I tried making a holster for a very small gun out of two pieces of thin leather glued back to back, but it proved impossible to draw the gun quickly because the holster tended to deform as I removed the gun.  The holster must be rigid enough to hold its shape as the gun is withdrawn.

11.  IWB holsters are sometimes easier to make than belt holsters because the design is usually simpler, especially for small guns, but you still have to carefully plan the order in which you do things.  At the bare minimum, a single piece of leather can be folded around the gun, stitched or riveted to its outline, and trimmed, then a strap can be attached using one or two snaps.  The base of the snaps can be passed through one side of the holster and one end of the strap to hold it onto the gun.  In most cases, though, I take the time to glue the strap to the holster and stitch it too before I attach the snaps.  The stitching for the strap should be done first, before you stitch the rest of the holster.  That way, if you line the holster the lining will cover the stitching on the inside.  The lining should also cover the back side of the snap base so it doesn’t scratch the gun.  If I want the lining to be a different color than the exterior, I dye it before I sew the holster closed.

12.  The straps on IWB holsters need to be closely fitted and should be appropriately sized for the width of belt they are used with--the gun should be held firmly in place and the holster should not pull up out of your pants when you draw the gun.  You don’t want to wear an IWB holster designed for a 1.5” belt with a 1” belt.






13.  I think of the standard rake as about 10 to 15 forward tilt of the gun.  I’ve experimented with 20, 25, and 30 rakes, but find that the greater the angle the less comfortable it is for me to draw.  However, sometimes a greater rake makes the gun ride more comfortably on the hip, and some people prefer it.  It also places the grip where it won’t dig into your side when you sit in a bucket seat in an automobile.  I once had a customer who wanted an IWB holster for a large K-frame Smith and Wesson--the guy put the gun in his waistband and said “this is where it’s comfortable.”  I measured the angle and it was 30.  I ended up making the holster at a 25 rake, and he was quite happy with it.  But it was for competition, not daily wear.  Holsters for women are sometimes tilted backward instead of forward because holsters for men are often not comfortable for a woman due to the curve if her hips, which causes the grip to dig into her side.  The whole issue of rake has become moot for some of my IWB holsters with swivel straps--with a swivel strap the wearer can adjust the holster to the angle most comfortable in any given situation.

14.  Belts are important as well.  Generally, for proper support of a concealed carry holster you want a belt that is wide, thick, and stiff.  I’ve settled on 1.5 inches wide, which is pretty much of a standard and will fit the belt loops on most pants.  Law enforcement belts are often 1-3/4 or even 2 inches.  Belts are very easy and cheap to make.  Adequate instructions can be found in Al Stohlman’s The Art of Hand Sewing Leather.  I like to place the buckle holes at half inch intervals so the belt can be adjusted incrementally.  Sometimes a half inch one way or another can make the difference between comfortable and uncomfortable.  However, the leather has to be thick enough to support holes that close together without deforming or tearing.

15.  I do find horsehide to be a great leather to work with, and I have come to appreciate its special qualities for holsters.  It seems to me to be lighter than cowhide in the same thickness, but nonetheless tougher.  It molds well and holds its form well, and is more resistant to sweat and salt water than cowhide.  It is harder to find than cowhide, and the only portion of the horse hide that is available vegetable tanned is is a thin strip from the butt--all the rest is chrome tanned for making coats and jackets.  The best source I’ve found for vegetable tanned horsehide butts is Horween of Chicago, though you have to call them to place an order.

Copyright 2008-2013 by Ed Buffaloe.  All rights reserved.

Leather Links

The DIY Holstermaker
Holsters:  Cowhide or Horsehide?
Horween Leather
Zack White Leather Company

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