Maintaining Your GunLeather

Proper care will extend the life and beauty of your gunleather for many years.  But there are different types of leather being used to make holsters and belts, and proper care of one type leather might damage another type of leather.

“Finished” vegetable-tanned leather products should usually not be be oiled, and never saddle soaped.  (All holsters and gunbelts I make (except for “money belts”) are hand made of vegetable-tanned leather, as was most gunleather in the 19th Century.)  Sometimes saddle and holster makers will use oil in the manufacturing process of products made of vegetable-tanned (also known as oak tanned) leather.  Then over time, as this oiled leather is exposed to light, it will darken to various shades of tan or brown.  The advantage of oil / light darkened leather on a saddle is obvious.  Leather darkened this way never transfers dye to the seat of your pants.  Even though quality holsters are sometimes made from leather darkened this way, subsequent applications of oil will soften the leather and it will lose it's shape.  And saddle soap over time will cause vegetable-tanned leather to crack.

On the other hand most harness leather is tanned differently, and is oily and flexible to begin with.  This leather makes a good work belt, but unless it is “sandwiched” around a steel core, oily & flexible leather will not hold its shape well enough to make the “rigid” holster most of us in this sport require.  This type leather might also be corrosive to your firearm and it should never be left in this type holster for extended time.  Never-the-less, some holsters are made of this kind of leather.  They oftentimes will stretch to accommodate a wide variety of revolvers.  If your holsters and belt are made from oily leather, you might need to keep them oiled and saddle soaped to keep them from hardening.

This difference in leather types results in the confusion over whether or not to oil gunleather. Just remember this:  Do not oil or saddle soap vegetable tanned leather.  Only when necessary, clean lightly with a soft damp cloth.  And if the leather is scuffed and you want to renew it, keep it looking new with paste wax, or boot crème of the appropriate color.  Most “Money belt” gunbelts, on the other hand, (the ones which I make, anyway) are made of oil/chrome tanned leather (not harness leather, and not an oily leather, in spite of the name), and need only wiping with a damp cloth - you never should apply any kind of finish.  

I make cartridge loops and shotshell loops by threading damp vegetable tanned leather through slits punched in the belt.  These are wet molded for a good tight fit.  They can be loosened if needed by dampening the inside of the loop just a little and spinning the cartridge around with you fingers.  They can be tightened by dampening and bending slightly out of round.

IF YOUR HOLSTER IS A LITTLE TIGHT get a can of STP spray silicone from your auto parts store.  Keep this on hand and spray on the inside of the holster from time to time as needed.  

Please remember: Leather is a natural product.  The cow, steer, or bull who wore that “skin” encountered brush, thorns, barbed wire, and other hazards throughout it’s, his or her life. Sometimes natural grain, tick bites and light scars show up on the finished surface, (especially on lighter color leather) sometimes not.  Most makers (including me) avoid using leather with tick bites, brands, scratches, and distracting scars which can be seen before the leather is finished.  But natural flaws and small scars sometimes show up anyway, and when they do they add to the beauty and character of the finished product.  

Concerning linings on holsters:

There are several reasons I do not line a holster, the least important of which (to me, at least) is that it will almost triple the base cost of the holster.

First of all I do not believe a lining improves the holster's appearance or utility, if the holster is built correctly, and is made of heavy enough leather to begin with.

I use approximately 11oz to 13oz leather "saddle skirting" (1 sq. foot weights 11 - 13  ounces.) for my holsters, which is the same thickness of leather many saddle  skirts are constructed of.  Since the flesh side is exposed inside the holster,  I finish the flesh side in such a way that it is almost as smooth as the grain side (outside). Therefore, the inside of the holster will not accumulate dirt and grime the way it might if left "natural" or if lined with a soft leather like pigskin or suede. The inside of the holster is then dyed to match the outside.

Another plus for the unlined holster is that with heavy use it will likely last longer than a lined holster. The lining is the first thing to wear out. The lining on any lined holster will eventually pull loose at the mouth of the holster as the revolver is repeatedly re-holstered. This friction also wears the stitching holding the lining in place. Even before it comes unstitched, the edge might pull loose, fray and look unsightly. If the lining is rolled over to the outside and sewn in order to prevent unsightly wearing at this point, as is done on some modern gunleather, it no longer looks like old west gunleather (not period correct).  So, instead of extending the life of a holster as some might suggest, a lining might actually shorten the life of a holster, both in appearance and utility.

Finally, if you look at antique holsters in museums, and particularly in Packing Iron, Gunleather of the Frontier West by Richard Rattenberry (the "bible" of western gunleather) you will find very few examples of antique gunleather with linings. The reason is twofold. First of all there were simply not many lined holsters built in the 19th Century (probably for the reasons stated above), and of those built, very few survived (probably for the reasons stated above).

“Fancy” or not?:

Something to consider when you are planning a new rig to go with your persona,  is that most of the surviving antiques from the “cattle drive era” were not “plain,” contrary to what Hollywood and TV might have taught us over the years. Therefore, “period correct” might usually include (but does not have to include) fancy and heavily border stamped gear. (But not floral carving, except for plain line cuts, such as in the Hickok or James carving shown elsewhere.)  

It might seem unreasonable to us, that a “cowboy - drover” in the 1870 to 1890 era, who only earned “$30 & found”  (and who often did not even own the horse he worked from), and who, if he owned a sidearm at all it was very likely a “blacksmith’s conversion” of a cap & ball revolver he picked up for $3 or $4... that this man would think nothing of spending two months wages on a pair of boots, a new shirt, and a fancy tooled holster and belt. 

Maybe that was unreasonable!  But consider the fact that his “modern counterpart” might happily spend two month’s wages for a set of fancy wheel covers and mud tires... neither of which he actually needs, for his pickup truck.  I know people who have spent more on those 2 items than their truck is worth.  At  the risk of offending some other cowboy, I don’t think much has changed in the past 150 years, when it comes to priorities.  I do know I greatly value MY “mud tires and wheel covers” - yes, and a safe full of firearms - none of which I really need. 

Neither did the folks in the last 30 years of the 1800’s wear the kind of gear that Roy, Gene, and Hop-along wore...  But, we are not necessarily committed to be either period correct, nor “B - Western” correct.  Ours is a hobby that allows our own fantasy.  So I encourage you to cultivate your imagination, and I will I happily build whatever you want FANCY OR PLAIN (if I am capable of it).

 Phone: 281-659-3998 

e-mail Don Barnett

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Maintaining Your GunLeather, and Misc. Info...