WWL Hardware: The BDSM Crafter's Supply
This section of Working With Leather isn't intended to be a comprehensive resource for leather braiding. One such item already exists... the Encyclopedia of Rawhide and Leather Braiding, by Bruce Grant. This book is remarkably complete, and I strongly suggest everyone interested in braiding acquire a copy. You'll find page and diagram references for the book (all references are to the First edition, 1972, fifth printing, 1994) throughout this section.
As good as the Grant book is, I've heard lots of complaints... it is quite comprehensive and detailed, and a better Braiding 201 than Braiding 101. As a recent beginner having learned from this book, I concur.
It is my hope in this section to get you started. The web provides some advantages over print, and I'll use them. On these pages, you'll find lots of colored pictures that hopefully make the braids themselves very clear. The little tricks I've learned along the way will be here too. In braiding, the process itself isn't as important as the end result... an ugly way to get something done still achieves the goal. We'll be focusing on braids and related techniques common or useful for BDSM toymaking. I hope to provide enough instruction to make many, many toys.
As I said, I'm a beginning braider. If you find something wrong, confusing, or missing entirely, please let me know. That said, let's get started!
Here is a very incomplete dictionary of the words we'll be using on these pages. I've tried to remain consistent with Grant's usage where other options exist.
A braid is, for our purposes, anything made of one or more thongs interlaced together.
Braiding is the act of making a braid. It's also a specific way of doing so, manipulating all thongs at the same time (as opposed to weaving).
Weaving is a specific way to make a braid by manipulating a single thong at a time, generally incorporating a fid.
Strand is the word I've chosen to use to identify a single narrow length of brading material. Other terms include lace, plait, and thong. Plait is also synonymous with braid, and used in this context only when identifying the number of strands in a particular type of braid (i.e. 16-plait).
A core is something a braid is made around, so that it ends up at the center of the braid. Cores can be stiff (wood, metal, fiberglass, etc) or not (leather, rope, another braid, etc).
The flesh side of leather is the inner or rough side, as opposed to the hair side which is finished. You generally want the hair side to be visible when you're done. The shoelaces used to illustrate braids here have a black or silver line to indicate the flesh side.
Flat, round, and square braids describe the finished shape of a tightenned braid. Really, it's the shape of the cross-section. We'll spend the most effort on round braids.
Movement is a term I've found useful in describing braids. A movement is a series of steps that form a repeated process. Braiding a given braid is just the repetition of that style's movement. Typically, you can't end a braid mid-movement.
Standing and working ends refer to ends of a single thong while braiding. The standing end is secured and does not move. The working end is the one you manipulate.
A fid, as described above, is a nail-like tool used in braiding. The tip is typically not very sharp, since you don't want to punch holes with it. Sometimes refered to as an awl or Marlinspike.
Tightenning is the process of closing a braid into its final shape, usually by pulling and positioning individual strands from the standing to the working end.
Buttons are woven knots used on braided gear, usually to cover and secure the ends of a braided section or the transition from one braid to another. Often seen at both ends of a flogger handle. The two most popular are the Turk's Head Knot and the Pineapple Knot, although many others exist.
A lacing needle is a flat needle split at the back end. An end of lace can be placed within the slit, where it is held by small teeth, and woven without a fid.
A mandrel is a cylinder used to weave buttons. Completed buttons are removed from the mandrel, placed in the desired location, and tightenned.
Skiving means cutting away some of the thickness of a skin, usually in a taper over a inch or two. By skiving two laces where they meet, they can overlap while maintaining the consistent thickness of a single strand.
The rolled-up side of leather in the picture above (A) is "classic lining split" in black, from The Leather Factory. I have found this to be an excellent all-around braiding leather. It has a very fine but pronounced grain, and is thin and firm. This side is about 1.5oz, and ran roughly $2 per square foot. This side will produce a lot of lace.
Item B is a fid. This one is homemade, from a short length of oak dowel and a carpet needle. I like it better than commercially available fids. The carpet needle has just the right sharpness, a nice little curve near the end, and a flattenned area near the tip that is perfect for tightenning a braid.
C is a skive, used for skiving of course. D is black leather dye and an applicator, used to color the edges of lace after cutting but before braiding. Don't use EdgeCoat, which tends to flake off during braiding.
Item E is a roll of pre-cut lace, 1/8th inch wide. This 50 yard roll sells for about $25, but is of high quality and has pre-beveled edges. Cheaper rolls are available. F and G are two tools used to cut lace: an Australian Strander and a Lace Cutter. More on both in a moment. The two dowels near H are mandrels, used for tying finishing knots. More on these and their use if I expand this section to that topic.
Other braidable materials deserve some mention. Anything strand-like and somewhat strong can be braided. Horsehair is a common choice, braided in strands consisting of many individual hairs. Screen spline, a rubber ropelike material used to hold window screen into a frame, can make some vicious toys. Rope, weed-whacker line, shoelaces, nylon webbing, and strips of naugahyde can also be braided.
Braiding is neither difficult nor complex. It can be confusing, but only before you know how to do it well. It is detail-oriented, but mistakes are generally easy to fix or adapt, and quite time consuming. Don't rush, because in the end it doesn't pay.
Passing a strand about itself or multiple strands about each other sounds simple, and it is. Braiding may involve holding a large number of strands in particular order in your hands, and tugging with muscles you're not used to using. If your hands cramp, relax (and practice remaining relaxed while working). Weaving, on the other hand, doesn't have these issues but is more tedious. Learn both techniques.
If you decide to buy pre-cut lace, good for you. Without lots of practice, you can't rival the quality of machine-cut lace. A 50 yard spool should be good for several toys, and if you compare its cost with that of the toys you're still saving a ton by doing it yourself.
Cutting your own does have financial advantages, though. A $15 side of leather might provide several hundred yards of lace... that would be well over $100 for the good stuff. More important, by cutting your own you can have many different widths of lacing. Commercial spools are readily available in 3/32" and 1/8", but that's about it. When you need 1/16th or 3/8", you won't have much choice but to cut your own.
Many tools could be used to cut lace. The most common two were pictured above, but others include a strap cutter, stripper, homemade rig (Grant includes several), or just a razor cutter. Many of those more skilled than I use a cutter and their thumb... I've seen a man cut beautifully smooth yards-long tapers with this method. I can't ;)
The best tool for a beginner is the Lace Cutter, G in the picture above. It's shown here in use. This little plastic stick holds a razor blade at very slight angle to keep leather against the guide edge. To use, cut a roughly circular piece of leather (I often use the bottom of a one-gallon paint can). Cut a smaller circle, perhaps 2" in diameter, from the center of this piece. Stick the cutter through the smaller hole, select the right groove (there are four), and rotate the leather into the blade. Once the cut strand is long enough, grab it and pull gently. This causes the leather disk to spin as the single thong is cut. The Lace Cutter is fairly limited in terms of thickness of leather and width of strand.
The Aussie Strander is not. This little cutter slides onto your index finger. It holds a razor blade, and has an adjustable fence that guides leather in for the desired strand width. It'll cut strands up to about 1/2". This tool takes more practice... it's easy to let the leather edge pull away from the fence, resulting in overly narrow areas. Adjust the cutter carefully before beginning, not only for strand width but also for leather thickness.
I don't know if they're all like this, but the fence on my Strander required some modification. The thickness adjustment, an off-center cam, would not go down enough for the thin leather I cut because the fence was too tall and got in the way. I pulled it off and reshaped it using a Dremel. Problem 2: the fence seemed a bit undersized. It would pull up from the platform, allowing thin leather to slide under it. I glued a shaped little piece of rigid plastic onto the fence face, which solved this issue. Unfortunately, I now can't quite get a 1/2" strand out of the thing. I use a strap cutter for this width. I understand that experts can get a finely tapered strand using the Strander by manipulating the fence wheel while drawing down a piece of leather. I haven't seen this done.
Store cut strand carefully to prevent kinking. I bought a piece of 2" PVC water pipe and cut off several 6" chunks. I wrap my cut strands around this pipe for storage. Storing them this way for a day or so also seems to diminish the curved shape of the initial passes cut with the Lace Cutter.
Braid done without a core can be done with strands of any width, although larger-stranded round braids may collapse into themselves and flat braids may fold over along their length. When braiding over a core, however, the width and number of strands is important.
The total width of strands should generally be equal to or slightly greater than the circumference of the core. Therefore there is a relationship between core size, number of strands, and width of each strand. You need to decide two of these variables and calculate the third. For example, perhaps you want to cover a certain size handle with an eight-plait diamond braid. Divide the handle circumference by eight to get the width of each strand. A method first brought to my attention by Fred Norman goes like this: [[[description]]]
Most braiding is best done with the standing ends secured to something, either temporarily or in their final position. Many options are available to do this. My favorite is a rubberband. You might also use a twist-tie, wire, or pipe clamp.
Tightenning your braid is greatly simplified if you do this as you work. With some practice, you will learn to free-hand braid while keeping tension on each strand, the ideal approach. Beginning braiders will get hand cramps, however. An option is to stop every few movements to tighten your work. You might try a tight rubberband around the braided portion, moved down every few passes. This prevents unintentional loosenning and makes it simple to put the work down for a while. In any event, a pass of tightenning (perhaps several) will be necessary after braiding to length. This process is often called fid work.
Fid work is using a fid and your fingers to tighten and adjust a braid. It's hard to describe how this is done, but try for a while and develop your own style. You probably want to hold the fid in your dominant hand and the work in the other. An approach that works for me on a diamond or herringbone braid...
Start from the top of your work. Use the tip of the fid to push up (towards the standing ends) each place strands cross. Turn the work while doing this, and circle it completely for 3 or 4 rows. Working back ver the same area, slide the fid under an individual strand and clamp it in place with your thumb. Tug firmly, perpendicular to the handle in the direction this strand leans. Continue well beyond the section you pushed up. Repeat, moving down the handle.
In addition to the tightness of the braid, pay attention to twist. Most braids have a distinct line of intersections that are supposed to line up down the handle. Particularly in weaving, this line may spiral around the handle. This can actually be done intentionally with nice effect, but in this case you still must ensure that the twist is consistent.
I've tried to make the linked pages that follow easy to understand. There are a lot of pictures, and I hope these will be clearer than Grants drawings. To show how each strand travels in a given braid, I have used colored shoelaces. Each shoelace is marked on one side with a silver or black line... the side with this line is the flesh side, which in actual leather is rougher, less attractive, and should end up concealed. [[[picture]]]
Don't pay much attention to the position of my hands. That's not important at all. Make the strands go where they're supposed to, using any means necessary. I have tried to lay the strands out to look similar to Grant's drawings, and following along with both my pictures and his book will probably allow you to get it more quickly.
By the way, leather isn't the easiest material to work with. Shoelaces and screen spline are both more manageable while you're learning. You might want to run through all of these braids a few times with one of these materials before picking up leather.
Three-strand flat braid
Flat braid of three strands, useful for straps and flogger fall.
Four-strand flat braid
Flat braid of four strands, useful for straps and flogger fall.
Three-strand trick braid
Slit braid of three strands, in which the three strands are left attached at both top and bottom. Traditionally common for belts and bands. Useful for straps and flogger fall.
Five-strand trick braid
Slit braid of five strands, in which the five strands are left attached at both top and bottom. Traditionally common for belts and bands. Useful for straps and flogger fall.
Extending the trick braids
Ways to extend the trick braiding process to more and different numbers of strands.
Four-strand round braid with core
The simplest round braid. Forms a distinct diamond pattern. Shown here over a core.
Four-strand round braid without core
Done without a core, this braid is an easy way to make miniature floggers. Also useful for round-braided flogger fall.
Six-strand round braid
Done with six and more strands, the diamond round braid starts to get useful for flogger handles.
Eight-strand round braid and diamond braiding with more than eight strands
Here is an approach to diamond round braiding that can be used with any even number of strands, four or more. Depicted using eight strands, a braid omitted from Grant's ELRB.
Eight-strand herringbone braid and herringbone braiding with more than eight strands
Very similar to diamond round briading, this approach to herringbone round braiding can be used with any even number of strands, four or more. Depicted using eight strands.
This is a very different style of braid, originally made popular on flogger handles by the amazing Fred Norman. Sometimes referred to as a spiral braid.
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WWL Hardware: The BDSM Crafter's Supply
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