A Trip to the Toolbelt Factory

This is a view from the driveway. On the left is a newish warehouse building; on the right is the remaining part of the lumber mill--recognizable as a lumber storage shed--that Thurner turned into a factory.

It's easy to forget leather is a natural material until you see how irregular it is when it arrives at the plant. Each piece is from a single hide.

Few Occidental products are entirely leather; most contain leather plus synthetics such as neoprene and this foam sandwiched between pieces of industrial nylon--which will be folded and sewn into a pouch.

The leather used by Occidental is produced-to-order in domestic tanneries, and must meet strict specifications regarding color, thickness, water repellency, fat content, and temper or "hand." A chemical and mechanical process, tanning is far more complicated than most people think.

These "suspender" straps were cut from slightly larger strips of leather using one of the die cutting presses in the background. Note the many dies that are stored on or near the machines in this room.

The press operator places a die over the piece of leather that is to be cut...

...and then activates the hydraulics, causing the head of the press to push the sharp edges of the die through the leather. A press of this kind can apply in the neighborhood of 50 tons of pressure. It has happened more than once that someone accidentally left scissors on top of the leather and the punch pushed them completely through the material.

The operator peels the finished piece out of the die after the press punched it through. These suspender straps will pass through buckles—hence the many holes for adjusting their length.

This is one of my favorite images from my tour of the factory--a laundry cart full of tool bags waiting to be sewn and riveted to belts.

This is the area where Thurner makes prototypes. The ancient machine in the foreground drives a "hammer" against an "anvil" and is used to crease folded material prior to stitching.Thurner doesn't do market research in the usual sense--he designs products based on what he thinks tradesmen will like and find useful.

An industrial sewing machine in the prototyping area. The best such machines are made in Europe--this one's from Germany.

It takes a powerful motor to drive a needle through multiple layers of leather. The large motor on this machine has a clutch, which fills half the space in the housing.

A seamster—the gender neutral term for one who sews professionally—folds and stitches the main body of a pouch that will be attached to a tool belt. Behind her (on the wall) are samples of everything the company makes, which are there for reference.

This seamster is stitching flat pieces of leather into tool holders. It's faster to stitch them one after another and leave them connected (like a string of sausages) and then later snip them apart.

This machine operator feeds pre-cut leather through a $30,000 splitter to shave off any high spots, because variations in thickness (which are multiplied when leather is folded or layered) make it harder to do a good job stitching and riveting.

The lighter area is where a tiny fraction of an inch was shaved off the back of this piece of leather.

The bandsaw-like blade in the splitter has no teeth and is kept razor sharp by a built-in grinder. It's so sharp that they purposely dull it before removing it to make it safe enough to handle.

This machine operator is riveting leather hammer loops onto nylon and leather tool bags.

The operator positions the bag for riveting by feeding a pin on the machine through a pre-punched hole in the material. Rivets are used to reinforce areas subject to high stress.

Here is the finished connection between a hammer loop and tool bag. The top of the loop receives the most stress so they put washers under both sides of the rivet in this location.

Those hollow pins are rivets. They're placed in a hopper at the top of the machine, fed down a slot on the side, and mechanically driven when they reach the bottom.

These washers will be placed over rivets to reinforce the connection.

I included a photo of this riveting machine because the original drive belt has been replaced with one made from leather—which seems appropriate in a shop where leather goods are produced.

Leather tags after they have been embossed with the musk ox that is the company logo. More on the musk ox later.

This embossing machine uses heat and pressure to permanently press logos into leather.

Thurner fabricated these large embossing machines because he could not buy ones powerful enough for some of the company's embossing needs.

These pieces will be folded and stitched into tool belt bags. The sides are foam sandwiched between layers of nylon; the top edges and bottom are clad in leather to prevent tools and fasteners from wearing through the material.

Bags and tool holders with hammer loops staged and ready to attach to tool belts.

Leather tool holders stitched, riveted, and ready to install on tool belts. Note the holder screwed to the side of the bin; it's there as a reference to what goes inside.

Bags are stitched inside-out; these workers are turning them right-side-out by working them over a metal fixture. I've seen a similar technique used at the factory in Portland, Oregon where some Keen work boots are assembled.

Yep, that's lamb's wool fleece they are gluing to pieces of leather. But why?

The back of this Buscadero model is covered in fleece to prevent chafing, a detail adapted from horseback riding by the saddle maker who produced the earliest Occidental tool belts.

A carpenter bought these framing bags from Occidental 27 years ago and was so attached to them that he sent them in to be refurbished. I completely understand; if you wear a tool belt long enough it almost becomes part of you.

Shot in the warehouse where products are stored before shipping, this is Thurner with the newFat Lip Tool Belt.

The "fat lip" stiffens the edge of the pouch and holds it open for better access. It is created by wrapping a piece of rope in leather and then stitching it onto the edge. Note the leather tool holders and plastic chisel sheath inside.

These Oxylight bags, made mostly from nylon, are in the warehouse and ready to ship.

You've probably heard the phrase "belt and suspenders". Well here they are, belts and suspender straps ready for shipping.

Tradepeople like to mix and match so Occidental sells many components ala carte. These and others can be combined into various rigs, including setups designed for left- and right-handers.

Occidental puts its musk ox logo on everything: embossing it on leather, printing it on packaging, and building it in wood on this fence near the entry gate. I asked why a musk ox and was told it stands for strength and tenacity in the face of all odds, a fitting symbol for a company started by a carpenter who wanted a better tool belt and was unwilling to settle for what he could buy.

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