Imagine you're playing in the fire, forging iron in your blacksmith shop. You're totally immersed in the action happening on the anvil but something pinches you every time you raise your hammer. You flick, you pull, you tug, but it continues to gnaw at your neck. It's not a bug that's bugging you, its your apron!
Wearing an ill fitting apron can sure dampen your fun at the forge. Of course, going without an apron provides freedom of movement and occasionally the unique experience of discovering you're on fire. Plus, nothing says, "I'm a blacksmith", as well as wearing clothes pocked with burn holes and patina-ed with the indelible black grime of forged steel. Wives and girlfriends aren't so fond of the look but other guys really dig it. Another benefit of going apron-less is the unplanned body piercings!
Okay, so wearing an blacksmith apron does have an upside but how to choose one that will be comfortable. Here are 5 tips for choosing a comfortable leather shop apron.
Choose X or Y: We're not talking algebra here we're talking about the strap system that holds the apron on. Neck straps are convenient but as you bend your head down to focus on the anvil, the weight of the apron places pressure on your nerve root causing strain. An X-strap system, places the apron weight on your shoulders while a Y-strap system allows your hips to bear a greater portion of the weight. So, if you work in the shop for more than an hour or two at a time, an X or Y strap system will be much more comfortable to wear.
Leather type: If you are wearing and apron just to keep your clothes from getting dirty, your wife's French maid apron would work just fine but a blacksmith shop holds real dangers so, leather is the best material for a shop apron but not all leathers are created equal. For great protection that also provides comfort, nothing beats chrome-tanned, super-soft leather. Chrome-tanned leather is tanned using chromium salts; think water-softener. The result is a softer, more pliable leather versus vegetable tanning. After tanning, super-soft leather is lightly oiled and tumbled to achieve the super-soft feel; think of the difference between clothes dried outside versus being tumbled in the dryer.
Oil tanned hides are also made using the chromium but are infused with oils for preservation. They are stiffer and heavier than super-soft leathers of equal thickness due to the absorption of the oils; think about forging in full metal armor with a knight's shield swinging between you and the anvil. You'd look manly but wouldn't be cool or comfortable. Super-soft leather moves with you; think Kung Fu.
Lastly, top-grain leather versus split or bonded leather; top grain includes the denser, more fibrous epidermis layer which provides greater penetration protection and apron longevity. The only comfort this fact provides is comfort in knowing.
Thickness: Remember Goldilocks and the Three Bears? Leather weight is measured by ounces. One ounce is 1/64ths of an inch thick or .04 centimeters. Knife sheaths and gun holsters requires a thick, somewhat stiff leather so, a 7-9 ounce is a common thickness for them; too firm and heavy for a blacksmith apron to be comfortable. Purses and clothing need flexibility so, they are made of leather that is 2-3 ounces thick; too soft for a blacksmith apron. Whereas, 5-6 ounces is thick enough to provide good penetration protection and not roll up like a burrito in a wire wheel yet it's still flexible so, a 5-6 ounce weight, about the thickness of a nickel, is just right.
Apron fit: Hands down, the most comfortable blacksmith apron out there is one that fits YOU. The standard welding apron measures 36 inches long with a 10 to 11 inch wide bib that flares to 24 inches. If you are under six foot tall and weigh less than 180 lbs, that apron will work for you all day long. The other 80% of you will find it uncomfortable. It will bind, squeeze and shift awkwardly on your body - especially if there is limited adjustment in the straps. The most comfortable blacksmith aprons on the market have fully removable, adjustable straps based on your shirt size so, even though the apron itself is a standard size, the straps will make it fit you comfortably. Better yet is an apron manufacturer that up-sizes the actual apron to provide better coverage. The less comfortable the apron, the less likely it is you'll wear it so, invest in one that fits.
Ergonomics: Simply put, ergonomics is the process of designing or arranging products so that they fit the people who use them. For comfort, look for wider straps or aprons with epaulets that help disburse the weight over a greater area. If the strap is thinner, does it have padding that helps cushion the pressure and relieve pinching?
Ergonomically, an apron that hugs your body doesn't interfere with or restrict your movements. Design features like leg splits, with or without leg straps, allow for tongs to be used between your legs while forging. Pockets and tool loops add convenience. Wear strips add another layer of protection increasing both the apron's longevity and the safety by adding another layer of protection.
Little things like quick release snaps that get you in and out of the apron faster, fully adjustable straps that allow you to transition from summer clothing to winter clothing and top grain leather with it's smooth, finished surface so slag just slides off are all ergonomic benefits that add to the overall comfort and protection of your blacksmith apron.
Ultimately, any protection is better than no protection but if you are in the market for a quality leather shop apron, using the tips above will help you choose an apron that is comfortable so when you are in the shop, all of your attention can be focused on the action at the anvil.
April Witzke owns and operates Forge-Aprons, a leather apron manufacturer who caters to the metal trades. Their apron designs focus on comfort, function and style. When you work with them, you know you are in good hands. Best of all, you'll have the peace of mind that comes with knowing your shop apron has been designed by blacksmiths for blacksmiths and is backed by our 100% satisfaction guarantee. Visit Forge-Aprons.com for more info.