What makes a good leather watch strap?
You can change straps on pretty much all watches, and with so many options, we thought we’d cover the basics here.
Choosing a Compatible Strap
The important measurement here is the width of the watch strap at the point where it connects to the lugs (the two protrusions at the top and bottom of the watch which join the watch to the strap) - generally straps come in 16,18,20,22mm widths. As long as the distance between lugs is the same as the width of the strap, it’ll fit. One exception to this might be if the original strap was curved at the top to mirror the shape of the circular dial, in this situation it’ll need to be replaced with the same style of strap. Most watches don’t have this curved end.
Attaching the Springbar
To remove or attach a strap you need to lever the springbar - the metal rod which goes through the strap and connects it to the watch. Spring-bars are hollow tubes with a spring inside which pushes out smaller metal rods at each side. These rods can be squeezed inside the tube while you position it between the lugs, they then pop out into the small hole inside each lug, locking the strap in place.
The easiest way is to lever a springbar in our out is with a strap tool, we designed our own Paulin Strap Toolkit to have interchangeable heads which deal with spring-bars as well as screws and drilled lugs (where the springbar is poked from the outside through a small hole going all the way through the lug). Our tool has a larger, rotating, rounded head to be more comfortable in the hand if applying pressure, it’s also machined from stainless steel and has heat treated tips so they don’t burr. You can get cheap ones off amazon or ebay if you’ll only use them once or twice.
The other methods of attaching a springbar include screws (where the bar is hollow and threaded and a small screw secures it through one lug. This requires two small screwdrivers, one on each end otherwise the bar with just rotate rather than unscrew.
‘Drilled-through lugs’ are common on vintage watches, especially more outdoorsy ones, and they continue the small hole on the inside of the lug which the bar sits in, all the way through to the outside of the lug. The idea being that the springbar feet have more depth to sit in and can be removed by pushing a pin in from the outside to compress the feet.
We didn’t know a huge amount about leather when we started Paulin, but one thing we all agreed on was that watch straps tended to come apart with prolonged wear, and we didn’t want this to happen with ours! We booked into a residential leather course with a saddle-maker in the Scottish Highlands, and when we returned we all agreed there was only one leather for our ‘house’ straps - English Bridle. Bridle leather was developed for horse bridles and is sturdy, beautifully finished and incredibly long lasting. What’s best about it is the character it develops as it ages - a sign of a good leather. The great thing about using bridle for watch straps is that there’s only one layer of leather, so it can’t come apart. The ends are skived (thinned down) and folded over before being glued and saddle-stitched.
A customer came into the shop once saying he’d been wearing the same bridle leather belt for 25 years - the materials and construction we use is the same, so it bodes well for longevity!
The process that turns animal skins into leather is called ‘tanning’, and there are two types; chrome (or ‘mineral’) tanning and vegetable tanning. While there are some situations where chrome tanning is advantageous, some industrial or extreme weather situations, it’s not the way you want leather which’ll come into contact with your skin made. It’s a cheaper, faster and more chemically intensive process. Chrome tanning takes a day, whereas vegetable tanning takes 2 months, meaning veg tanning is more expensive and only makes up 10-20% of leather produced.
The easiest way to tell the difference is by smelling; veg tanned leather smells like leather, whereas chrome tanned won’t, and will smell of chemicals if anything. You can also scratch the surface with your fingernail and a veg tanned leather will buff out easily, unlike its chrome tanned counterpart.
When it comes to the finished leather itself, there are some important phrases to understand;
‘Reconstituted leather’ is rubbish - it’s mashed up leather pulp put back together, to be avoided. This can legally be marked ‘100% leather’ or ‘Genuine leather’ etc. and normally is.
‘Corrected grain’ is leather where the top layer has been mechanically removed so there aren’t imperfections showing. It’s not leather we’d use or buy as a lot of the strength and character is in the top layer, but it’s very common and most shoes on the high street will be made from this.
‘Full grain’ leather. This is the best bovine leather, it’s what we use and what we’d recommend you use whenever you’re looking for leather goods. It can have marks and blemishes, but it’s a natural material and it just adds to the character.
Types of Strap Construction
Straps, like watches, range from simple and rustic to ornate and dressy. It’s amazing how changing a strap can alter the whole appearance and feel of a watch. Here’s a simple guide to strap construction:
Paulin Whole Bridle Strap
This is what we call it anyway, it’s the method we developed to create the most robust leather strap with the sturdiest leather and simplest, most robust construction. It’s only possible with bridle as other leathers will stretch too much without reinforcement or layering.
Our Italian leather straps are made like our bridle leather straps; a single piece of high quality full grain leather.
Cut Edge Strap
The most common type of strap; a thin piece of leather on top, a synthetic filler in the middle and a thin strip of leather underneath. We don’t use any filler in our straps, so they’re not technically Cut-Edge, but our stingray and suede use a high-quality nubuck leather lining. We’d personally avoid any straps with filler, as we find using leather or natural materials gives a better result over time.
Two other variations on the Cut-Edge strap are the Semi-Remborde and Remborded Straps, both of which use paper thin leather and filler too. Semi-Remborde is when the thin leather on top is glued to the sides of the strap too.
A Full-Remborde sees the leather on top tucked and glued under the filler and above the lining, so that the top leather and lining are both visible from the side.