Hardware: An Insider Look at How to Take Your Products from Good to Great

The unsung hero of leather goods, hardware detailing rarely takes center stage. But the subtle spin these touches add to a product inevitably finesses the overall aesthetic, while too much of a good thing can render the final look overwrought and ill-considered. We spoke to designer and leather expert Stephen Jones of Black Anchor Manufacturing – a manufacturing partner of ours here at Maker’s Row – and Sean Sutherland, designer and founder of MBS MFG, for their insider take on what makes great hardware and how they utilize it.

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Stephen Jones, Black Anchor Manufacturing: Hardware 101

What is hardware, and what are the main types?

Hardware can be as simple or as difficult as you want to make it. When you break it down, hardware is a plastic or metal attachment that serves a specific function: clip, snap, rotate, hook, grab, loop. You name it, and you can find it.

Since I only use metal hardware, I’ll focus on that.

There are 84 metals on the periodic table. The metals you and I are familiar with are actually alloys; a combination of two metals to increase strength or resist corrosion. When it comes to using the right hardware these are two very important things to consider, and regrettably usually aren’t.

Imagine the possibilities when it comes to alloys, having 84 types of metals. The combinations can be limitless.

The four main types of architectural metals used for building hardware in leather accessories are zinc, copper, nickel, and iron.

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The 5 main hardware alloys that we’re familiar with: 

  1. Zinc
  2. Copper
  3. Nickel
  4. Brass
  5. Stainless Steel

Zinc

Often seen in Zinc die cast. Zinc was developed in the 1820’s. It’s one of the older metals we learned to extract and manipulate, which can tell you a lot about its quality. It’s a rough metal to work with; it doesn’t age well, and it is not very forgiving to constant wear and tear. It’s extremely light-weight, so when you pick up a piece of zinc of hardware in one hand, and the same hardware made of steel in the other, you’ll notice the difference. If you use zinc hardware, it won’t last long, and will cost you customers and brand reputation.

It does have an upside, for all of you sustainability freaks like myself. It is the most recyclable of metals, keeping 90-95% of its usability. Let’s keep zinc in mind for architectural materials for our buildings, but not hardware. I know you want to get your shop LEED certified.

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Copper

Copper is mostly seen for rivets and specialty hardware. It’s extremely corrosion resistant, and over the years will look like the statue of liberty. Thank you, France. It’s cost is high, but it lasts a lifetime, so it’s worth the investment. It’s malleable, which can be a good thing, but let’s keep in mind your application. Are you wanting to use it as a snap hook? Bad idea. Keep copper as your decorative rivets to capture that Heritage Lifestyle. Your goods will have a classic American look, and hold up to the test of time.

Nickel

Nickel is a rare metal and is commonly used for plating other materials, such as zinc or brass. It’s also an integral structural component to other alloys, such as stainless steel. When looking at Nickel plated hardware, inspect what type of metal it is plating. If it’s zinc, you already know my thoughts. Leave it in the dust. If it’s brass, you’re in good hands. Our friends over at Buckle Guy do a great plating job and primarily use it over solid brass, and occasionally solid iron.

Brass 

Brass can be named my favorite alloy. A beautiful combination of copper and zinc that will make any man swoon. Take the saxophone, for instance, I know you love Bob Dylan as much as I do.

Brass is extremely strong and corrosion resistant, which is why it is used in marine applications. It also starts as a beautiful alloy, and over time gains a beautiful patina. It’s a win-win.

The two downfalls of Brass can be its availability in designs and cost. At Black Anchor we focus on minimal design and premium components, so solid brass is the perfect hardware alloy for us. If we were cheap, we would have gone with brass plated zinc, but we aren’t, and you shouldn’t be either.

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel is considered the cream of the crop. It does not corrode, rust, or stain, and is extremely strong, making it a premium material to work with. Its cost is high, but its dependability is even higher. If you want a silver finish, can find the style of hardware you are looking for and have the capital to invest, don’t think twice. Just do it.

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What are some ways to innovate with hardware?

The best way to innovate with hardware is to get creative. Order some great looking hardware, lock yourself in a room, and just start making anything. You’re bound to come out with something creative.

As a manufacturer, what are some trends you see in hardware this year? 

The hardware trends I see so far this year are oversized buckles and clips, chain handles, metal frames, or hidden hardware. None of these together, or else our clutches would look like Mr. T’s necklace, but each on its own. As a fan of simplicity, I can appreciate these trends bringing focus to specific elements of the accessory, but I am the biggest fan of the hidden hardware. It takes a design genius to master the construction.

5 tips on including exciting hardware details in your product: 

  1. Talk to your hardware manufacturer and find out the quality of their metals: You can often reach out to your hardware manufacturer to find out what alloy goes into your hardware. Call them up, and ask them the hard questions. If they don’t know, they aren’t worth working with. If they do, you’ll have peace of mind moving forward on your order. If you’re using a large distributor, it may be challenging to get this information.
  2. Spend the extra money for quality hardware: When I first started out this was a hard concept to grasp because I was always on a tight budget. As time went on, and capital grew larger in my account, I decided it was time to put out the highest quality hardware on my products. Instead of hearing zero feedback from my customers, I get a lot of “heck yeahs!” and “oh mys!”
  3. Stick to one alloy, or find hardware that is from the same manufacturer so your silhouettes are exactly the same: When sourcing hardware, it can be a challenge to find quality, and even harder to find the same hardware in multiple finishes. Even if you start with one alloy, shop around for a manufacturer that produces high-quality hardware in multiple finishes. You can always add another color to your palette this way, and you don’t pigeonhole yourself into mismatching hardware.
  4. Have a large budget? Work with an engineer (industrial and/or mechanical) to get exactly what you want. I still have yet to get to this point with Black Anchor, but finding a really great engineer to design your ideal hardware could be the best option for you. It comes with a price tag, but with volume that price tag is minimized. Finding the right manufacturer for your custom hardware will be tricky, but I promise if you put your head to the ground and do the research, you’ll find them.
  5. Think outside of the box: When it comes to design, your goal is to make a piece that stands out from the rest. You have to focus on form and function. Don’t sacrifice form for function, but test your boundaries. You’ll fail, but after fifty to a thousand fails, you’ll come out with something extraordinary.
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Sean Sutherland, MBS MFG: Designing with Hardware

How do you brainstorm interesting zipper designs?

Sean Sutherland: I’m not much of a traditional ‘sketcher’ per say, but at times I’ll start with a rough rendering on the computer. From there I’ll order swatches or hardware and visualize what the end product could be.

How can unique hardware designs really boost your leather product?

Sean: One of the things that I like to do is see what people aren’t doing. Try and put a spin on something traditional by using hardware or fabrics that are slightly peculiar.

Any new hardware projects in the works? 

Sean: I’ve started the process of a duffel bag that will utilize similar hardware to the pouches. I’d like to alter our current tote bags to be zipped so to keep the hardware similar across the board makes sense.

Sean’s rapid fire 5 tips on designing with hardware:

  1. Be Unique
  2. Research, Research, Research
  3. Source Local
  4. Define Your Brand’s Aesthetic
  5. Have Fun

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