A good handmade belt buckle can add character and charm to an essential item of clothing.

As a craftsman and lover of wood, making and wearing my own belt buckles gives me a lot satisfaction.

As I write this, I am wearing a buckle that I have had for over 18 years.

The buckles shown here are fairly ornate, but simple designs featuring a letter or motif can also be effective. Wood of outstanding colour and grain, such as cocobolo or olivewood, can also look good and even expensive woods are viable considering the small size of the project.

For the pirate’s head I used pear wood, which allows me to carve nice detail, but is hard and dense enough to stand up to

I traced the drawing onto a 75 x 75 x 12mm piece, with the grain running from top to bottom. Because the piece is very small, I cut out the profile on a scroll saw, which enabled me to cut very accurately with no danger to my fingers.

Photos 1–6 show how things progressed. To hold the piece in a carver’s vice I glued a 30mm cube of wood through paper to the back of the pear wood profile.

The paper allows easy removal after the carving is completed. This project doesn’t require a large number of tools and those I used are shown below left.

Relief carving creates an illusion of depth using techniques such as undercutting, overlapping, emphasising adjoining areas and even colouring.

I used a small V-tool to cut in the top of the collar and the bottom of the three-cornered hat brim. I rough-shaped the edges of the whole profile with a couple of small fishtail chisels.

Paying careful attention to levels and not touching the high points, the lower areas, nose, eye socket, mouth and areas around the ears were carved and shaped with No.9 and No.11 small gouges.

A very narrow bladed knife was best for shaping the back of the head and cutting in the head scarf and knot. I systematically worked over the whole head several times using small chisels and gouges, paying careful attention to the drawing and using dividers to check the exact position of all the features and levels.

Once I had developed the carving enough, I used a rotary tool with several round diamond ball burrs, blending the shapes, forming the ear and earring, and further developing the front of the face and the end of the scarf. This works well to clarify the carving and brings it into clear focus.

I changed to fine tools to refine the detail of the eyes, nose, mouth and ear. The scarf and pigtail were carved with appropriate creases, and I used the fine-tipped knife to cut in the skull and crossbones and lower the collar level around them to emphasise this feature.

To finish the carving I used fine rifflers, a dental scraper and a wood engraving tool to bring everything into sharp focus.
Lastly, I sanded with fine abrasives, ending up with micromesh.

Once the carving was done, I blackened the eye patch with spirit dye and coloured the scarf with a diluted
brown spirit dye. It is wise to try out the colour on off-cuts first.

I carved the separate pirate’s sea chest lid from a piece of sandalwood 95 x 55 x 5mm in size. This wood is lovely to carve and offers a light contrast to the pirate’s head.

I used a V-tool and knife to cut the simple detail, then sanded to finish. After I glued the head in place with epoxy, I applied an oil-based sealer, then finished with wax and a lot of rubbing with a cloth to bring up a nice lustre.

The backs of buckles need to be gently curved to fit the waist. It is easy to buy the metal fittings from craft outlets, but if you are a skilled metalworker you may be able to fabricate your own.

The fittings are simply screwed to the back of the carving, which in this case also secured the pirate’s head more strongly to the sandalwood backing.

Leather for belts is inexpensive and available from leathercraft suppliers. It is not difficult to make a simple belt and it is easy to stitch or rivet to the buckle fittings.

A useful option is to use a press stud for attachment, which allows buckles to be changed. Another option is to buy a finished belt at a market and have the dealer attach your buckle in a couple of minutes.

Both of my other two buckle examples shown below were carved in boxwood.

The prancing horse measured 45 x 45mm and I coloured it with spirit dye.

I carved the Art Deco lady aviator in the same way as the pirate, except that she has no background.

 I hope these will show design possibilities for carvers to explore and perhaps encourage some to try this interesting field of carving.



Donald Powell is a wood sculptor and lives in Maleny, Qld.

Phone: 07 5435 2363


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