Brief tutorial on recognising a well-made holster

This is a discussion on Brief tutorial on recognising a well-made holster within the Defensive Carry Holsters & Carry Options forums, part of the Defensive Carry Discussions category; Here's an example of a well-made holster: delfatti.jpg And an example of the other end of the spectrum: proxy.jpg Being on travel, I'll have to ...

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    Senior Member Array rednichols's Avatar
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    Brief tutorial on recognising a well-made holster

    Here's an example of a well-made holster:

    delfatti.jpg

    And an example of the other end of the spectrum:

    proxy.jpg

    Being on travel, I'll have to add the explanation of each keyline later.

    One does not have to spend more to get a well-made holster; what's required is (1) that a maker knows what's needed, and (2) that you know how to recognise the key indicators that he/she's got it right.

    This post is strictly about key indicators of construction, not design or materials or ergonomics or features; which perhaps I'll cover in future posts.
    Red (Richard) Nichols

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    I got a pretty good idea what most of your key points are, but definitely looking forward to you pointing out your specifics.

    Nice comparison Red.

    Some of the things I look for are consistent depth and spacing of the stitching as well as being able to follow a straight line. I prefer to see the thread lie below the surface of the leather to minimize abrasion of the thread when the holster rubs against hard surfaces. That often means a channel needs to be cut into the leather along the stitch line, which I know is not an easy task. Double stitching at the stress points. Also the use of a quality thread of sufficient size and diameter in relationship to the thickness of the leather.

    Nice sharp boning molded to the shape of the gun for retention. Nice burnish and finish to the edges of the leather. Also a nice even color to the dying of the leather to give it rich and luxurious appearance. The detail work around the trigger guard is also important. There has to be enough open and unobstructed room to get a good combat purchase on the grip of the gun for the draw stroke, yet still cover the and protect the trigger. I know a lot of designs get that wrong.

    If I can find those points on a holster, I usually know I'll be pretty happy with it.
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    -Bark'n
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    Senior Member Array rednichols's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by rednichols View Post
    Here's an example of a well-made holster:

    delfatti.jpg

    And an example of the other end of the spectrum:

    proxy.jpg

    This post is strictly about key indicators of construction, not design or materials or ergonomics or features; which perhaps I'll cover in future posts.
    The first thing I'll point out about the well-made holster is at 8, showing a smooth grain (the original pic shows the leather pores) that is reminiscent of polished walnut. We know this holster has been pressed first, by noting the heavy impressions of the gun casting in the flesh side of the leather at 3. But the moulder knows his business, and the rubber in the press is faced with a soft non-porous material to absolutely avoid what you see in the black holster. The blunt moulding at the muzzle tells me that this unlined holster has been made from a 9 oz leather, and press-moulded with only a modest amount of water in the leather.

    Now look at the black holster's comparable surface, at D. There isn't any leather grain; instead there is a surface reminiscent of a moonscape. Why? Because it's also been pressed, but with a bare rubber pad and too much pressure. The rubber's surface spreads and stretches as the press builds pressure, pulling the surface of the leather with it, and crushes it into the surface you see here.

    As you can see from the brown holster, this is absolutely preventable, when you know how. Even without touching the black holster I can tell you from experience, that the black holster will feel more like thin Kydex than real leather: very hard and textured. The stiffness doesn't last, though; instead the outer surface will stay hard, but the leather will soften anyway, because experience says that the leather is too thin to start with, and even thinner now that it's been crushed. Likely it was made from about 7 ounce leather; and the moonscape suggests that the leather was taken from a leather cut called a 'bend' (on the rear of the animal either side of its spine), rather than from the shoulder area.

    Some small makers will solve the problem seen in the black holster by simply not using a press - because they can't afford one, or don't know they need one; and instead substitute hand-boning. Not good enough unless too-thin, or too-wet, leather is used; as I'll explain next.
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    Red (Richard) Nichols

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    Senior Member Array rednichols's Avatar
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    Of course, as to "fitting" (moulding of the holster to the pistol), obviously one is boned (also called hand boned) and the other is not. More about that later.

    Let's look at the stitching. So-called "lock" stitching hasn't always been used in holsters, and in fact only became the standard in the 70s. Neither is it really a "lock" in each hole. Instead, as the thread comes down with the needle that made the hole, the shuttle beneath carrying the bobbin has passed through the loop, then the looped threads are pulled tight by the machine. So it might be more correct to call the stitching 'woven'. So who cares? Well, for one thing controlling where the "knot" is in the hole -- whether or not it is centred in the layers -- takes a good machine, and an operator who's paying attention. Thin leathers are also problematic, because the knot of heavy threads is quite bulky, and won't 'hide' in the hole.

    Look at the black holster. The knot is actually showing in every hole. Fair enough, this is the backside of the holster, or what's called the "bobbin" side of the stitching. It's not the better-looking of the two sides, which is why a holster (or belt) is always stitched from the top side. It's also the side the operator isn't seeing, so nothing's known until the holster's done. And if the company is not quality-conscious, the stitch doesn't get replaced. "Who's going to see it"? You are.

    Again, though, who cares? Well, because each "knot" is not actually a knot, but a simple loop, and when the knot is very close to the surface of the leather, that thread can actually be pulled straight out of the holster, by grasping a loose end and pulling across the surface of the stitchline. Combine that with too-few stitches per inch -- say 4/inch -- and the stitch will now lay quite loosely across the leather surface, just asking to be worn away or pulled loose. But again, the knot 'hiding' inside every hole front and back, is a very ordinary indicator of quality, and the black holster doesn't have it.

    Stitches per inch. Much is made of this, and in my experience (a lot) the 'right' number is quite easy to accept. The only range you'll see in holsters and belts is 4-6 stitches per inch. The former (4) will be used intentionally only on belts, as Safariland's practice was/is on their police Sam Browne belts, because they had/have special harness machines that CAN go very fast. 4 stitches per inch is FAST, and belts are long. But it's an indicator of compromised quality. Holster machines, however, historically have tended to be very slow, and it's no fun to stitch a size 48 belt on one, using 5 stitches per inch!

    Ok, so if 5 is good, 6 is 'gooder', right? Not on the thick leathers that we use in holsters. At 6 stitches per inch, the risk of actually cutting the leather grain is quite real, both while the holster's being made and while you're using the holster. And as the maker moves from flatwork to welt work, the machine changes to fewer and more stitches per inch respectively. 5 per inch has neither problem (4 is loose, 6 can cut) and makes a very good choice. It's not a compromise. Do you need a ruler to tell? Not really. If the individual threads you can see are starting to look not too different from the holes in size, it's all too small and tight.

    The brown holster has got the stitching just right. The stitches are as small (short) as they can be without cutting either now or in the future. The machine is adjusted to pull the thread into the surface of the leather, so there'll be no opportunity for something to 'pick' at the stitches. The double stitching is mainly a style choice; the seam is glued and hammered to bond, and the thread is large, such as a 5 cord linen (not that anyone should be using linen any more) or a heavy nylon such as 346 or 415, which have been in use in holsters since the 70s when the steel-lined cowboy holsters started to blow out at the welt during fitting, in linen-stitched holsters. So the second 'reinforcing' stitchline really isn't necessary for performance or longevity. But it sure does look nice, and costs the maker more to do, and is a sign of a quality maker.
    Red (Richard) Nichols

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    Further to stitch patterns, the brown holster shows that the maker has engineered his product, by determining in advance how he will position the pistol correctly, every time, during construction. The maker of the brown holster shows this by his stitching pattern, which is close to the profile of the pistol everywhere, neither too close nor too far. It's a bit like the Three Bears: too close means the casting of the pistol won't go into the holster; a little too close means the stitching is under strain; and too far means the kind of useless gap that's shown in the black holster. Using these criteria, the brown holster has the stitching placed 'just right'. And this spacing is determined in advance -- it's the rare maker who will try to stitch the holster with the casting in place (not even worth bothering with) -- so great skill from the designer has been displayed by his 'just right' placement of stitching.

    But the black holster shows the designer/maker has gone to no trouble at all in deciding where the stitching will go; he has simply surrounded the suspension means with stitching, and let the fitter position the casting in the holster at pressing. The down side to you is substantial. With the black holster, in the first place the fitter has to use judgement -- not necessarily good judgement -- to position the casting in the wet holster to (1) clear the knuckle of your grasping hand (2) be inserted no further nor less than that and (3) make the casting's sighting plane parallel with the stitchline. Even doing that, though all might start well, as a bit of time passes the leather of the finished holster will soften, and the distant stitching will now allow your pistol to drift in angle and depth. You might even reholster briskly and be a bit careless with the trigger fingertip, and BANG.

    In contrast the brown holster will always place the pistol in exactly the same place on your belt, every time, so that it's quite literally at hand when you need it. And every lever and every button on the pistol that had clearance when you bought the holster, will still have it half a century later. And the pistol will always go in the same distance, and no further, no matter how much the leather softens (unlikely to be much on the brown holster, given the choice of leather thickness that shows in its moulding including the broad bend across the pistol's muzzle).

    On the subject of the holster's muzzle, the function of a covered muzzle does more than protect the finish of your pistol, or limit reflection when your shirt or jacket comes away. It keeps the muzzle of an autoloader from being pressed to the rear by a car armrest, or seatbelt buckle, or whatever. And it has one more, lesser-known function: to keep the powder residue off your clothes, with the expectation that the pistol's being fired and reholstered regularly.
    Red (Richard) Nichols

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    VIP Member Array chiefjason's Avatar
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    Good read. Looking forward to more. I was looking at a holster today and realized I have gotten a lot more critical since I have been tinkering with them myself. Funny what you notice after working on holsters that no one else does. Edges not burnished, barely beveled, not beveled in places, thread on top of the leather instead of set into it.

    But now that your telling me they are pressing those I'm not sure if it makes me feel better about mine or bummed out that I'll likely not get there by hand. Lots to learn still.
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    Quote Originally Posted by chiefjason View Post
    Good read. Looking forward to more. I was looking at a holster today and realized I have gotten a lot more critical since I have been tinkering with them myself. Funny what you notice after working on holsters that no one else does. Edges not burnished, barely beveled, not beveled in places, thread on top of the leather instead of set into it.

    But now that your telling me they are pressing those I'm not sure if it makes me feel better about mine or bummed out that I'll likely not get there by hand. Lots to learn still.
    Nothing wrong with hand boning. Provided the holster is tight enough, you're going to get more of an impression on the inside of the leather, so the outside is mostly decorative (obviously a press is going to make for a tighter fit, but I feel the difference is negligible). I've had people request holsters that weren't boned at all and they fit and function just the same as a boned holster.

    As far as stitching, a lock stitch is not good enough, IMO. Saddle stitching is the only way to go to. MUCH stronger than a lock stitch. Unfortunately, most holster makers don't want to do this because it is so time consuming and will, in turn, increase the price of the holster.

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    Member Array Cook74's Avatar
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    Great info that I had no idea about and now have more ammo to ask a holster maker. Thanks...

    and now for the $1,000,000 question... and its only fair to ask...

    What holster makers on Critical Defense or recommended by fellow members make this quality of holster?
    Doug;}
    RSO, WA. XDMc 9mm, S&W 642CT & 442 38 sp, 1947 Savage 99 300,
    1972 Marlin 336 RC .35, 1922 Walther Model 4, 1933 Walther DSM 34, High Standard 1954 22LR

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    Excellent Post !!!

    Looking forward to learning more from such a knowledgeable source, many thanks Sir.
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    Senior Member Array rednichols's Avatar
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    Perhaps I could have titled this thread, 'how to tell the best from the rest". What I'm writing isn't meant to tell you that nothing else is acceptable, if it isn't done exactly this way. It's meant to tell you what you're looking at; 'what lies beneath'.

    It's a coincidence that I had a tad more to say about boning, and then mean to talk about edges. Remember that holster's haven't always been boned, or even fitted. Before the New York makers of the Sixties, holsters weren't moulded at all. A bit of a search through someone's barrel of old holsters will turn up Bucheimers and Myers and the like that were 'block' fitted, not to mention the famous western holsters that Ojala and Anderson popularised for TV in the Fifties, which were originally formed using a Coke bottle.

    It would be correct to say that boning is for looks, assuming one uses a press first. Boning can be out of necessity, when not having a press at hand. But put them together, as John Bianchi did in the 70s, and you have form following function. It's worth noting on the brown holster that the maker has used more than one tool, a sign of a professional: larger tools around the frame, narrower ones along the slide. You can use aluminium tools, or timber (the handles of your edgers/creasers are too large), bone, and ideally antler; but don't use unplated steel unless you want the wet leather to turn blacker with each stroke.

    Fitting, whether by press or by bone, is not meant to improve retention. It can do that, but that's not its purpose. Fitting is meant to take the leather off the high spots of your pistol, especially on the revolvers that were the mainstay of the industry until the Eighties when the U.S. adopted the Beretta, and police forces followed suit. Nowadays finishes are more durable than the blued steel of Dirty Harry's .44 mag: your Glock doesn't eally care about boning over a flat steel slab (slide) on a plastic base (frame). Isn't it great we don't have to worry that we've left a fingerprint (gasp) on the delicate blue of Harry's revolver?

    Edges: the objective of the maker -- and it started with saddles -- is to make the layers of leather look like one layer. This is done first by sanding, and that's why we use edging tools (edgers) because sanding has thrown up a flange of leather on each side. That edger is likely to be large, because the flange is large, and that leads to an edge that can look completely round. Round, that is, after the leather is wetted and the edge is run in a grooved wheel on a motor. Yes, you can smooth the leather with your boning tool, called slicking. But you'll not get that professional edge you'll come to love. Then the edge can be left that way: polished, with the layers showing and a grain that looks quite like end-grain timber. Some will use beeswax to protect the edge, and here in Oz I ran across a leather salesperson who maintained it was the only way to finish an edge. But then she was a harness maker, and we're holster makers, and our craft has evolved well past saddlery from whence we came.

    Back in the day holster makers used coloured wax instead of beeswax, to match the colour of the holster. Eventually it became obvious that there were going to be a lot warranty claims from there, given that folks were getting black or brown wax all over their chinos, so at least at Bianchi we went looking for a replacement. That didn't take long, you can use Fiebings edge-kote. But this isn't a tutorial on how to make a holster, and because there is not a single way to do all these steps, it's meant only to make you understand what you're looking at. Later I'll likely put up a thread on how to recognise good design; it's a complicated notion but easily condensed when one knows how.

    Likely that's about it for recognising a well-made holster. You'll know a nice finish when you see it -- like timber, you want to see the grain -- even if you won't know how durable it is, or if any maintenance will be required. Styling -- also a different thread; suffice to say that to paraphrase a Supreme Court ruling about porn, "I can't define it, but I know it when I see it". Likely I'll post up about that, too; to choose one maker's styling over another is to choose a Beetle over a Ferrari: both are appealing, but neither is always appropriate to the situation you are in.
    Red (Richard) Nichols

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    Senior Member Array rednichols's Avatar
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    Did think of a bit more.

    The makers who see this post will check their stitching and see that there is a standard for how far the stitchline is from the edges, depending on thickness.

    For flatwork (e.g., sewing a lining to the holster face) 5/32" from the edge; for seams (e.g., both panels of a pancake holster) 3/16" from the edge; for welts (when a welt or spacer is added to the seam) 1/4" from the edge. These distances are before sanding, but when a quality maker aligns the edges properly, the final result will stay about the same. That's harder with a welted seam which is why the spacing is so wide, and also depends on how well the stitching machine handles the load. "Blind" stitching (sewing a single thickness of leather) is rarely done in holsters as it's difficult to hide the knot, and the stitchline often doesn't pull down tight, unless in both cases the leather is very thick.

    We make these choices because, e.g. with flatwork, to go inboard of the edge too much is to invite the edges to split open with use. If the panels are glued and hammered that's going to take a while, but understanding that some finishes including neatsfoot oil do attack the glue. And not everyone will use the best glue (e.g., Barge) because they don't know to use it (and used correctly, disassembly requires a knife else the leather in the bond actually rips). A welted seam that splits open will also make the stitching do all the work and the stitching can fail; plus the holster pocket changes shape as any pressure on the holster fold doesn't get the support the holster was made with.

    Again, you won't need a ruler to measure your next choice. You'll even be able to tell from a pic: (1) the relationship of stitchline to edge will look balanced to you, and (2) if the polished edge leaves either no margin from the stitchline (hmmm, maybe he 'nicked' the edges of the stitchline with his sander?), or a big void, you'll just 'know' it isn't right. For example, the brown holster maker has done everything right. Everything. Choice of leather tannage and thickness, moulding method, finish, stitches per inch, distance of stitchline to the edge, distance of the second stitchline from the first, boning workmanship, edge finishing, bonding, even leaving out an unnecessary lining (suede linings don't actually give any benefit; they were simply marketing, and have some downsides) given that a choice of leather that has been 'pasted' will give all the smoothness you could ask for.
    Red (Richard) Nichols

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    This is a great thread, Red. I am learning a lot!
    -Bark'n
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    Very informative, thanks for posting.
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    Very cool thread!

    I just picked up this from Side Guard and am happy to note that it fits most of the specifications you've given.

    photo 2.JPGphoto 1 (1).JPG
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    Awesome thread!

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