In a quiet unit block in Adelaide's eastern suburbs is the workshop of Buck!t belts creator, Craig Northam. On the surface, Buck!t converts used bicycle tyres into belts, watch straps and wallets.
Spending time with Craig reveals something far more profound: a man with a relentless commitment to quality, sustainability, and an attention to detail that makes him peerless in his craft.
Craig is no opportunistic hobbyist capitalising modern consumer appetite for up-cycled, quirky, or handmade novelty items. He's an artisan striving for perfection in everything he produces.
Words - James Raison Images - Jack Baldwin
"My products are more expensive than pretty much anyone out there, but for good reason."
Craig came to be in his exceptionally well-ordered Adelaide workshop by way of Cape Town via the United Kingdom. A potential career in cycling was cut short by a chronic fatigue diagnosis in 1996 as Craig's body couldn't handle the colossal 30,000km per year training loads, coupled with an intensive architecture degree.
Degree finished, Craig worked as an architect in South Africa, then the United Kingdom before the global financial crisis sparked a move to Adelaide. Here, he re-visited a project from years earlier when he blew out an aesthetically pleasing track tyre, and decided to fashion it into his first belt, applying his professional skills.
"I'd heard of the idea [of making belts out of tyres] before. I applied my brain to it as an architect and I designed the details that I wanted. I worked out the idea of getting a chain link from track chain. I bought a buckle off eBay, used a bit of an inner-tube and that was the first one. I never though about making more until I was in Adelaide."
He disappears briefly to forage around, returning with the belt in question. It's well-worn, but is impressively polished for his first attempt.
"What I decided at the start, being a designer, was that everything had to be really well finished, well thought through. I agonise over small decisions. They're all part of design decisions that make my product good."
His early belts were sold from cafe counters and market stalls with limited success. A breakthrough came with help from a friend working with the Radioshack Leopard Trek team racing at the Tour Down Under. He asked Craig to make belts for the team, made from tyres they'd just raced on. Soon after, belts were mailed out all over the world to Matthew Busche, Ben Hermans, Haimar Zubeldia, Fabian Cancellara and Jens Voigt. Appreciative tweets from Matt and Ben led to a flood of enquiries through Craig's Facebook page. Three days later Craig had built a fully functioning website and belts were being sent around the world.
There's a plethora of belts to purchase, as well as wallets and watch straps. I'm more interested in one of Craig's other offerings: custom belts. Customers can send Craig their own tyres for crafting.
"The first time I did it was for a friend of mine. He'd ridden in Italy and wanted something to commemorate his trip over there. He'd done the Stelvio and the Mortirolo. After some consultation, I made a belt with the outlines of the Stelvio and Gavia stitched into the belt keepers."
I'd recently completed a ride, and wanted to commemorate it in the same way. Unlike other customers, I was lucky enough to witness the transition from tyre to belt.
First, the belt is cut clean through. There is no automation in shaping the belt, it's all cut by hand. A few buckle widths are tried before settling on 25mm. I watch in silence as Craig cuts the belt to exact width using titanium scissors.
Next, cardboard templates measure out where holes will be punched for the chain link. A converted metal punch is the only machine used in the whole process. Even that struggles to punch through the kevlar layer of the Continental 4 Seasons tyre I've brought.
"Continentals are the reason I have RSI in my shoulder"
Craig grunts as he forcefully pulls the crank on the punch. He's not kidding about the RSI. Punching tens of thousands of holes in modern puncture-resistant tyres have taken their toll on his body.
A tape measure, and a different template come out to mark the holes at the other end of the belt. That means punching more holes. This time the pain on Craig's face is more pronounced. Here is a man suffering for his craft.
The end of the belt is rounded, again with scissors. This takes several minutes as Craig makes many passes around the curve, each time only taking off a millimetre of rubber.
The next stage is the most extraordinary. The track chain that holds the buckle in place must sit completely level with the surface of the tyre. So a chain link-shaped template marks an outline before a craft-knife is used to delicately cut the top surface rubber down to the kevlar. He then separates the top layer until a chain-link shape has been carved out of the surface of the tyre. After the buckle is in place, he uses tweezers to clip the chain link into its carved recess. It sits perfectly.
The Buck!t logo and belt number is then hand-drawn onto the back of the belt. The custom embroidery I've requested on the belt keeper will take more time than Craig has to spare, so I leave.
The belt I now wear carries the story from my biggest cycling achievement to date. It also carries Craig's story. That story is of a peerless, principled craftsman turning a discarded product into something beautiful and functional. Tyres and tubes are considered a waste product by many. The fact that Buck!t customers proudly wear waste products around their waist, attached to watches worth tens-of-thousands of dollars, and holding their valuables in their pockets is a testament to just how good Craig is.
Check out some more of Craig's wares and workshop below or go to the Buck!t website.
Watch photos by Craig Arnold.