For about thirty years now I’ve been using four-strand braids to create leather goods such as dog leashes, horse reins, hatbands and key fobs. The four thong braid technique produces a round length of leather cord that is strong, flexible and durable. I learned to do this braid from an old cowboy. Braiding leather for use in horse tack is an ancient art.
Braids can be made incorporating up to twelve thin leather strips. There are so many different types of knots (each with its own colorful name) possible to be tied that whole books are written on this skill alone. I usually stick to a four-thong braid and a simple Turks Head Terminal knot in my work. Using thongs of two different colors results in a pretty variegated item that is popular.
The craft of braiding leather has been traced back to at least the Phoenicians though the Moors and then the Spaniards who brought it to the Americas with the men who cared for the horses. Leather crafting and particularly leather braiding is closely associated with those who keep horses and depend upon them to earn a living. The tack for controlling a horse is made mostly from leather. American cowboys and their more southerly counterparts, vaqueros and gauchos, were and still are often skilled in leather braiding. Therefore, it is not a surprise that an old cowboy should know the craft or that he would want to pass his knowledge on at the end of his life.
With his patient tutelage, I quickly learned the basics of four thong braiding. I made my first set of reins for my horse, and never looked back. Over the years I’ve created hundreds of items, especially dog leashes that I sell in my online stores. People are always asking for custom braiding and it is gratifying to hear how happy they are with the lead, key fob or hatband I have made them.
The process of making a dog leash or other hand braided leather piece begins with a superior leather hide. I am lucky to be near a tannery that has a shop with great deals on whole hides and scrap pieces. A full cow hide can cost $100 or more depending on the size, finish, thickness and quality. Leather hide is mostly sold by the square foot although scrap can be purchased by the pound. I have a large inventory of fine leather in many colors and thicknesses. There is even some lambskin and bison hide in my stash. Lamb is very thin and fine, great for hatbands and bison is soft, tough leather that I use to form high quality, up-market dog leads.
For the metal fittings, I use the best available, solid brass, bronze or stainless steel. Because braided leather will last for years, the metal wears out before the leather. For a long-lived dog lead, set of reins or key fob, cheap zinc or chrome plated base metal will not do.
To begin the process of making a dog leash, I select a nice piece of hide, preferably from near the back or side of the animal where the skin has less flex, and I cut a circular panel at least a foot in diameter. Odd-shaped scraps can be used, but getting as close to a circle as possible will result in less waste. I use my strap cutting tool to cut a long, thin, continuous thong of leather. The cut should be on a gentle curve, avoiding sharp corners so the strap will be flat and straight. I trim the thong if there are any rough stringy bits along the edges so it is smooth. Now I have the basic material to make braids.
Four thong braids around a metal fitting are done with two strips of leather, a little more than double the length of the final product. To make a lead, the leather is passed through the eye of the bolt snap and pulled until the length is even and the ends meet. The snap is secured to provide a solid anchor for pulling against to create tension. Now there are four thongs in your hand.
A four-foot-long dog lead with a braided-in handle requires two thongs about 12 feet long. One-quarter of the length is lost during the braiding process as the strips wrap around each other. Extra length must be calculated to form the hand loop, including the ends for braiding in to hold the loop from slipping.
Braiding four strips instead of the usual three is not very complicated. It requires a little concentration and plenty of hand strength to hold the braid and keep each turn tight. Not enough tension will result in a loose braid. For each turn of the braid, the loose thong highest on the braid is brought around the back and placed between the second and third thong. Care is taken to keep the leather finished side out. The final round braid should be closely woven with no gaps between the thongs.
During use, all the thongs work together to hold the strain, effectively quadrupling the strength of the leather. A 1/2″ diameter braid is more than sufficient to form a rein to control a horse. Most dog leads are 1/4″ to 3/8″ in diameter. The diameter of the braid is determined by the width of the thong. To make 1/2″ diameter braid from a moderately stiff piece of leather 1/16″ thick, with not much stretch, each thong is cut approx. 7/16″ wide. The thickness of the leather is added to the width to equal 1/2″. For very pliable leather, the thong must be cut wider since some width will be lost as the leather stretches during braiding.
Once the braid is finished, the ends are temporarily secured to hold them. The braid is then rolled under the hands on a hard surface to seat the thongs and make the braid even and smooth. Then the ends are either knotted or braided in so they do not unravel.
To braid the ends in, a fid leatherworking tool that looks like an awl is used to widen the space between the braids. An end is passed through the space and pulled tight, then the process is repeated until the ends are held and can not slip out. The thongs are cut flush with the braid. I like to secure the ends with a dab of super glue to help hold them. The finished leash is now ready to take some lucky dog for a walk. The leash below is bronze leather with a 3/8″ diameter braid and a solid bronze snap.