Thursday, July 14, 2016

Attaching micro beads

Anna Helt is the model horse hobby's premier mini scale tackmaker. Her saddles and strap goods are so perfectly proportioned and detailed, the viewer can't help but wonder, "How does she do that?" Fortunately, Anna is as generous as she is talented. She's written an English saddle tutorial, which is available for purchase. Additionally, she's published several good how-to articles on her blog. Here's a recent one that I found particularly helpful. Thanks, Anna!

Attaching Micro Beads

by Anna Helt

In the hobby, micro beads are usually used to simulate the nail heads that are commonly seen as decoration on life-size western saddles. Metal pieces for nail art, which are typically domed with a flat back, have also been used for this, which is brilliant and possibly more in scale for those working in larger sizes. Larger sizes use micro beads on bridles, breastplates, etc etc with great success. I've also seen Arabian costume makers use them on the ends of tassels. 

For Stablemates, micro beads make great nail head studs for decorating western trees and bridles; they also work well to simulate screws on halters and other strap goods where a dot of silver paint just won't do.
The biggest problem with these little guys is getting them to stick. I've found that it's less about the glue and more about the sealer after, but here's my process.

You'll need:
 Whatever piece of tack you're applying the beads to
Micro beads
An awl, heavy needle, or tiny hole punch
Super glue (I prefer the gel)
A toothpick for glue application (I usually carve the point a bit more sharply)
Smooth needle or flat nose pliers
A piece of thick chipboard or a cutting mat
Sealer (Tandy Eco Flo Satin Sheen used here)
The basic technique is called countersinking. It's used other places, too - woodworking, jewelry, etc. You create a small hole or indention in which to set the bead so that 1) there's maximum contact with glue, 2) there's less of the bead above the surface of the leather to be snagged and knocked off.

As a note, I'm using a piece of unskived scrap leather. This is at least twice, probably three times the thickness that I use for saddle making. 

I have an assortment of pointy objects for hole making, and I've given you a bit of a comparison below. Left to right: sculpting tool 1, sculpting tool 2, 0.3 mechanical pencil converted to a hole punch.
As you can see, the sculpting tools create a smaller hole than the punch (which for this purpose has been pressed into the leather without punching through). The punch creates a more secure divot in which to place the micro bead, and I think I'll be using that from here on out.

Whatever tool you use, pick something with a similar diameter to your micro beads. Dampen your leather before punching and place it over a piece of thick chipboard or a mat; this will help your tool create a deeper, more lasting impression. If you are using an awl or anything besides a punch, I recommend going all the way through the leather. A surface mark won't allow the tapered end of your tool to create a wide enough hollow for the bead.

I've made a row of five marks with each tool, in the same order as above, though I'll only be using the mechanical pencil marks on the far right.
 Allow the leather to dry before applying glue. Your leather shouldn't be soaked; a small, clean brush dipped quickly in water is sufficient for most purposes and dries in minutes. 

I'm using Gorilla Glue's gel formula. I think I might prefer Loctite's gel formula more, but it's a very small difference and I haven't had a problem with the Gorilla Glue's hold.
I squeeze a little bit out onto a piece of tape so that I don't have to keep uncapping and recapping my glue.
I carve the tip of my toothpick down to a needlepoint for added control. Dip carefully into the glue; you don't want much, because super glue discolors leather and there is no going back. I've tried to illustrate it below, but it's difficult! Click to zoom in on this one if you need to.
 Once you have the glue on the toothpick, it's time to move fast. Since we're using the gel you have a little bit more working time, but the longer you take the weaker the bond is going to be.

If you're using an awl and have punched through, thread the tip of your loaded toothpick into the hole and wiggle it around just a little bit to really coat the inside. If you've used the mechanical pencil, place a dot of glue in the depression.

In the photo below, I've just placed my dot of glue in the top depression on the far right. You can already see it discoloring the leather a little bit! (I haven't let my leather fully dry...shame on me. Do as I say, not as I do, and all of that)
 Once your glue is down, use your tweezers to grab a micro bead and place it gently in the hole, pressing it lightly into place.
 I use very pointy tweezers for this and try to keep the micro bead as close to the tip as possible; this increases accuracy and decreases the chances that you'll get glue on your tweezers and have to soak them in nail polish remover (what, no - I've never done this!).

Once the bead is down (you might have to gently nudge it into it's spot), you can use the clean end of your toothpick to quickly scoop up any glue that might have squelched out around the sides.

Then use a pair of smooth needle nose or flat nose pliers to push the bead firmly into it's hole. Be careful with the pressure - these beads are tiny drops of coated glass and WILL shatter with too much pressure. Then you have to dig the little shards out of the hole and start over.
 And here we have our little friend, all snug in his little hole.
As you can see, there's barely any of the little bead above the surface of the leather. This is perfect; absolutely ideal. It's much much less likely to be knocked off by every day use when there's so little of it sticking up, and the sealer will have a much easier job of holding it into place.
I've placed the other five beads and now we're ready for sealer. I'm using Tandy's Eco Flo Super Sheen because it's what I grabbed for this demo, but I normally coat my tack with satin sheen.
If you've ever left your bottle of sealer open for more than an hour or so (again...shame on me....), you'll have noticed that a rubbery, flexible skin forms over the surface of the liquid. It does the same thing over the surface of your leather when it dries. This is what REALLY keeps those beads in place once they're glued down.

Use at least two, probably three to four, thin coats of sealer to really secure the beads. Thin coats are better than thick; thick tends to pool around the base of the bead and can create a slightly odd, cloudy appearance. I've laid it on a little thick in this photo, but I wiped my brush off and went over it again to clear off some of the excess.
While that dries...this is closer to the thickness that I use for saddles.
It behaves a little differently than the thicker leather. There's not as much "squish" to it, for lack of a better word, and the beads are simply not going to sink as far - there's less for them to sink into.

In the two following photos, you can see where I've dampened my leather and then punched it, first with the large sculpting tool and then with the mechanical pencil. In the second photo, you can see that I have, indeed, gone all the way through.

In the following photo, I've glued my bead in place and pressed it down with the pliers. You can see the bead poking through the back of the leather just a little bit - this is GOOD. I've found that beads sunk like this stay much, much better than ones that don't go through.
I've tried to illustrate how far out the micro beads sit in a piece of saddle-skived leather; it's kind of rough to do that one-handed, so bear with me.

 And now our first piece is dry! Hopefully you can see how well it's passing the stretch test:
I've been sitting here, idly picking at the set micro beads, and having no luck prying them off with my thumbnail, even under substantial pressure. Done well, this method should insure that your work will hold up to normal use. I do recommend picking at them gently and bending the leather as much as the piece will allow to make sure that they're all secured before you ship a piece to a customer.

The applications for these beads are unlimited; bridles, halters, saddles, etc. Have fun playing with them!

Here are some considerations that I didn't mention before:

Avoid placing micro beads where they're absolutely sure to get a lot of bending and contact. I never place them directly on the corner of a western saddle skirt, for instance, and avoid placing them directly in the center of a browband. Those are areas that naturally see folding and creasing, and undue stress just isn't good for these beads.

Micro beads are coated glass, and super glue CAN take the finish off. This isn't a problem, since only the bottom of the bead comes into contact with the glue and is hidden by the leather. The only time this might be an issue is if a bead needs to be moved while still wet; you may end up with the uncolored side up. I recommend getting a new bead.


  1. I just bought some micro beads from Hobby Lobby after reading her tutorial. I'm looking forward to trying this new technique. Thanks for sharing this again!

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