Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Tack Tips--Photo etched buckles

I am just old enough to remember when one of the first and most important skills a model horse tack maker had to learn was making buckles. There were no commercial sources for them back then, and most people made their own by bending straight pins into a sort of squared off figure 8 shape. Persistent and talented tack makers were able to do this quite well with professional looking results. However, not everyone was so skilled. Large, lopsided and oddly shaped buckles abounded.

All that changed in the late 1980's when Carol Williams and Rio Rondo revolutionized the model horse tack world. The hobby embraced Rio Rondo's kits and premade hardware with open arms and now--some twenty years later--tack made with handmade hardware has become something of a rarity. Photo etched buckles are everywhere and it's no wonder, really. They are inexpensive, easy to use and pretty. Better yet, they come in a multitude of size/shape/color options. What's not to love?

In this tutorial, I'm going to show you prepare photo etched buckles for use. The first thing you need--obviously!--is buckles. The ones I'm using here are 1/8" silver ovals from Rio Rondo ( They come in strips (or sheets of strips) looking something like this.
Here are the tools I use to cut and finish buckles. From left to right: photo etched metal snips, round tip jeweller's pliers, needle nose pliers, and wire cutters. I also use fine grit sand paper and 26 gauge wire. All these things can be found at just about any hobby shop with the possible exception of the snips. I found mine at a store that sold a lot of model train and boat parts, but if you couldn't find them locally, I'm sure MicroMark has something similar.
Use the snips to cut the individual buckles off the sheets. You can do this with wire cutters, but the snips do a much better and neater job. It really is worth the investment as most tack makers use a lot of photo etched parts. Cut as close to the buckle itself as you can. You do not want to leave a little metal stem sticking off the top and bottom edges of your buckles.
No matter how closely you are able to snip the buckle from the flashing, there is going to be a bit of roughness. You can get rid of that by gently sanding the cut edge with fine (220 or higher grit) sandpaper.
Once the buckle edges are smooth, you want to gently bend the buckle into a slight U shape. This will allow straps to pass through it more smoothly.If you like the simplicity of friction buckles, you could stop now. This buckle is perfectly usable in its current state. Personally, I very much prefer the added detail of tongue buckles and use them on almost all my tack items. Happily, it's not a difficult upgrade.

Use the wire cutters to cut off a length of wire for your buckle tongue. I use 26 gauge wire on all my buckles except girth buckles. Those tend to get a lot of use so in that case I use a slightly heavier gauge (24).The next step is to use the round jeweler's pliers to shape the wire into a buckle tongue.
This is the shape you're trying to achieve.
Fit the buckle tongue's looped end around the cross bar of your buckle and gently squeeze it closed with the needle nose pliers. This can be a bit tricky, particularly on smaller buckles. Try not to get frustrated--it does get easier with practice! Using the wire cutters, trim the pointy end of the tongue so it's flush with the edge of the buckle. Tada! Your buckle is finished!Just for comparison's sake, here's a picture of both "raw" and finished buckles in action. See how much flatter the strap lies after the buckle has been shaped? It may not seem like a huge difference, but it's small details like these that will make your tack look and fit better. Thanks to my son Ryan for his help with the pictures and hope this was helpful!


  1. This is an awesome post - mainly because it confirms that I do it the same way as somebody else! Yay! Also, I just got a pair of those shears from micromark - LIFECHANGING! I used to use mini wire cutters for everything, and I would have to hold on to both sides while I nipped, otherwise one part would go flying into the abyss. AKA my carpet.

    Anyway - I love your instructional posts! Thanks!

  2. GREAT TUTORIAL! I'm going to try to make some english bridles, and this will help so much :(

  3. I was trying to make some buckle tongues the other day and was struggling with getting the tongue to behave in order to attach the buckle to a strap. That would be a great added tutorial or even just a diagram!

  4. Leah--what kid of wire are you using? I use 26 gauge stainless steel wire for bridles and halters and 24 gauge (slightly heavier) for girths. I use regular needlenose and round jeweler's pliers to make the shape, and have never had the least bit of trouble. At a guess, I'd say you're using the wrong supplies/tools...?

  5. I'm using tiny wire (26 gauge, I think) since I work in LB/SM/MM scales. I think my main trouble was threading the leather on properly once I had the buckle tongue on so that the tongue was still operable and the leather sat well.

  6. Jennifer, how are you bending the buckles? Each time I try they keep snapping in half. I have giving up before I waste anymore!

  7. Hmmm, that's strange. I almost never break the buckles when I bend them!

    I hold one side of the buckle with my flat jawed needle nose pliers and gently bend the other side of the buckle with my fingers. I then repeat the process on the other side to make it even. If it's crooked or *too* bent, I place the buckle on my table and flatten it out a bit with my finger.

    What kind of buckles are you using? I mostly use rounds and ovals. If you're using squares, that might be the problem. Those always seem a bit more fragile to me.

    Hope this helps!

  8. Ohh I am using square buckles! Maybe that is the problem? I will have to try some oval ones. I picked up some really small round-nosed pliers; those seem to be working better, too! Thanks :)

  9. I honestly don't think squares break that much easier than ovals. Also, I'm terrible at making these and don't have the right wire, so I'm about to make a rio rondo order and do you think those tongue buckles would work, too or do you not really recommend those?


    1. Honestly? I've never used them!

    2. Wow, Really? Well, I guess I'll buy them and update you later on how well they work!

  10. Awesome post, super helpful!