Improving on the Ultimate Belt

HebTroCo started as an idea in the pub to make trousers. We didn’t only have one idea in the pub though.

In the beginning we wanted to make lots of things. The following items were discussed at length and even taken to the sample stage: shoes, hats, underpants, women’s trousers, wallets, beer, nineteenth century railway worker’s jackets and even trousers made out of denim! Luckily we didn’t move any of that straight into production. It would have finished us off before we even got going.

To start a clothing company you need good ideas and the ability to move fast and adapt. You need to be bold and not be averse to taking risks. Sounds exiting doesn’t it? Well it is. It’s a lot of fun. To balance this though you also need to be patient. You must remember your main product and keep telling people how good it is. You must remember yourself how good it is and not just rush off to become excited by something new. There is also boring money stuff to remember. You have to keep putting your money back into stock and not just rush out and buy an Aston Martin on credit.

If we had launched all our exciting ideas at the start, the distraction from the important work of slowly building our core product and making it better would have marked the beginning of the end. It’s also important to remember that we are still only in our third year and so all the above still applies. It takes time and patience to get a product right and it takes money to buy the materials, manufacture and build up stock.

We had to have one new thing though, so we made a belt. After all a good pair of trousers is not great until paired with a fine belt.

Ed already had a belt, hand made in its entirety by Mr Tommy Greenwood AKA Honest Thomas. It would have been Ed’s one belt for life. With heavy copper buckle and thick, full grain strap it went perfectly with the first sample grey 177 moleskin trousers as seen in the photo above. We had already enlisted Tommy to make the leather patches that adorned our Founder and subsequent run of 177s. He agreed to make us a limited run of belts, based on this same template but with various detail changes to make the HebTroCo belt different to what he was offering as his own product. Such was the quality, weight and longevity that we named it the Ultimate Belt. Demand was higher than we anticipated. We weren’t sure that we could sell a belt for £95, but we couldn’t buy the materials, pay the maker and the VAT and make a living by charging anything less. The original run of 10 soon turned into more. Tommy finally called time on the Ultimate Belt, as he wanted to make us something that would be distinctly different to his other, Honest Thomas branded belts.

The Ultimate Belt buckle was made from a length of copper bar that was annealed with a blow torch, then flattened and shaped on the anvil. With time copper oxidises and darkens in colour. Unlike rust on iron, this does not flake off and weaken the metal, but rather forms a protective coat. The bits of the buckle that rub on clothes become polished and shine in contrast to the darker areas. The word ‘patina’, that describes an attractive surface appearance that develops with use and age, derives from this process of oxidisation on copper and brass. Those people, all 39 of them including brant and Ed, who are lucky enough to own an Ultimate Belt, will by now have a quite different looking belt to the one in the photo above. Along with a darker buckle, the natural (not dyed) leather strap will have also aged beautifully and darkened in colour. They will continue to look better as time passes.

The photo below shows the evolution of the HebTroCo belt. Top is the Honest Thomas belt that subsequently had HebTroCo stamped into it as a sample test. This belt is now 5 years old. Next down is an Ultimate Belt which is nearly 2 years old. A dark tan and a black Garrison Belt are next. The dark tan buckle has double branding because Tommy must have been thinking about chasing rabbits and he stamped the wrong side. This is one of only two mistakes that he has ever made working on our products. Makes it kind of special in itself. The belt at the bottom is 2 weeks old. It has the branding hidden and is our new double prong option.

How can you follow the Ultimate Belt? We were going to call it the Even More Ultimate Belt, but luckily we didn’t.

The Garrison Belt is not something that one man in a small workshop could realistically produce on his own. Tommy said, “I need to make you something that I couldn’t make myself, otherwise I’ll want it to be my belt”. He also likes a bit of variety and doesn’t want to spend all his time making the same thing. If you happen to know him, you’ll be aware that he doesn’t do anything unless he wants to and that his work is meticulously engineered to function as well as being beautiful. He can be an awkward bugger sometimes, but we don’t sack him off because his belts are brilliant and we actually like him.

It’s bizarre that after worrying about trying to sell a belt for £95 we are now happy to sell one for £200. We’re making a profit on these belts otherwise clearly we wouldn’t be in business. However it’s not a massive profit and we actually have less margin in belts than we do in other products. The fact is that if you pay a skilled professional craftsman properly then you are not paying them £5 an hour. A full grain, bridle butt hide costs over £300 and VAT is 20%. All this adds up and if you want one then the price is the price. We think it’s worth it and are happy to back our belts up with a lifetime guarantee.

Only oak bark tanned British hides are used for making our belts. After 12 months of tanning in baths of oak bark chips and water the hides are treated with waxes and oils to preserve and add suppleness. The leather comes from Bakers in Devon who are considered to be the best in the field. It’s nice to know that a tannery, with its origins in Roman times, is still producing in Britain and that in our own small way we are supporting that history going forward.

Tommy cuts the hides into straps. He has made his own heavy duty strap cutter because the commercially available tools are not up to the job. The HebTroCo logo is heated up and pressed / branded into the back of the strap. The Honest Thomas crest is also pressed into the surface leather that folds back to fix the buckle in place.

Edges are skived and then burnished, heat is applied and the leather is polished to soften and remove the surface wax. A slot is punched out for buckle fitting and the strap is cut to length as specified to fit the individual customer with three holes, the middle of which is the one that is used.

It would be easy to buy in a mass produced buckle but easy doesn’t interest us. We buy thick copper plate and have it water jet cut into buckle blanks at an engineering works in Batley, West Yorkshire. Square edges are ground down and rounded off which is probably the most time consuming part of the whole process. Next the buckle goes into a small forge and is fired with a blow torch. This is the process of annealing which makes the copper softer and less brittle. Being more malleable it can now be shaped and hammered without risk of breaking. After the heat comes the hammer. This process dresses the surface and the tiny marks on the surface of the old anvil give a pleasing, textured finish.

Now there are choices. The customer decides whether to have the HebTroCo name stamped onto the visible front or hidden rear of the buckle for a clean or branded finish. “HT” initials for Honest Thomas and the production number are stamped on to the back. The prong is bent and cut to shape from copper rod and fitted to the buckle. The buckle then goes into a tumbler overnightis polished and either one or two notches are filed depending on whether the customer wants a single or double pronged belt.

The finished buckle now goes from the mucky environment of the main workshop into the clean leather room. Leather strap is fitted and rivetted and the Garrison Belt is complete.

We’re really proud of this belt, the origin of the materials and the way that it’s made. It’s a unique product, made only for us that will get better with age. We can honestly claim that it is British Made to Last. You can see the belt here – https://hebtro.co/product/garrison-belt/

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