Warning: use of the tools and techniques described below require care and proper safety precautions; negligence can result in injury. Follow all instructions and warnings provided with the tools used. The author and the site publisher of this tutorial are not liable for any injuries, and or damage to property, that you may incur as a result of following these instructions. The reader assumes all risk for attempting these modifications.
X-Acto hobby knife with new blade, or a seamstress’ razor
Hobby cutting mat, or cutting board
Heat-resistant glue pad or wooden cutting board (for “hot work”)
Butane powered solder iron with hot blade and heat gun attachments, or
Butane burner or flame and a pen knife
Large coins (2)
Small hobby clamp or vice
About the nylon military watch strap
Nylon watch straps for sport watches were quite popular in the 1950s and 1960s, and were available in a variety of colors and patterns. Many were available in striped patterns attributed to club, school, and regimental (military unit) stripes. A notable example of this was the band on which Sean Connery (as gentleman spy James Bond) wore Albert Broccoli’s Rolex Submariner in Goldfinger (1964) and Thunderball (1966). The band was shown in close-up during the Goldfinger pre-title sequence, in which Bond set a delayed detonator, and then surreptitiously checked the explosion time as he entered a nearby cantina.
The bands of that time, particularly Connery’s band, were single strap bands with a fabric “keeper” to secure the loose end (called “the point”), made of the same band’s fabric. (Most watch straps have two smaller keepers, one just behind the buckle, another floating keeper to be positioned over the point of the strap.)
Production pics of Sir Sean Connery wearing the Rolex 6538(A) on nylon strap, Goldfinger and Thunderball.
The immediate appeal of such a lightweight strap is that it’s comfortable in hot weather, and doesn’t suffer abuse during active wear like a leather band. If it get dirty or damaged, it’s easy to remove and clean, or replace. Like a dive watch’s rubber band, with sufficient length it can be fitted on the wrist, over a wet suit, or even over an astronaut’s bulky EVA suit (like Buzz Aldrin’s Omega Speedmaster during the first moon landing). The light size of the band allows for these specialized uses, but also fit neatly under street cloths without the bulk or discomfort of a thick rubber strap. The single-piece strap like this is sometimes referred to as a “RAF-style strap.”
About the NATO-style band’s “extra strap”…
The NATO watch band is distinguished from the older, conventional straps by an additional strap piece that lies under the main strap, connected to the main strap with a keeper, and two fixed keepers behind the buckle. You attach to the watch by passing the main strap through the watch’s lug bars, top to bottom, then reeve the main strap through the second, shorter strap’s keeper. After buckling the strap on, the point of the band is passed through the two fixed keepers. The tip can be doubled back and tucked underneath the last keeper, or the band can be trimmed to the wearer’s size.
A common misunderstanding is that the second strap “keeps the watch attached if a spring bar fails.” Sure, it will prevent the watch from sliding all around the strap, but if the bars are big enough (i.e. 2.5mm “fat boy” bars vice conventional 1.2mm bars), the case shouldn’t slide too easily on the strap while being worn. If the watch case does slide easily on the strap, while putting it on or taking it off, it will be caught by the second strap’s keeper, instead of sliding right off the strap. Consider this before modifying the NATO strap – you might not want your vintage Rolex sliding off the strap and onto the boat deck or, worse, bouncing off into the murky depths.
These are some of the reasons to enjoy the added security of a NATO style nylon strap, but some of the distracters annoy me. One is that the distance of the buckle from the top of the watch is relatively fixed, as the watch case lugs are restricted by the second, shorter strap’s metal keeper. On my 7- ¼ inch wrist, the buckle positions close to the side of my wrist, where it is more prone to catch on things.
My preference is to put buckles and clasps at the center-bottom of my wrist, so stock NATOs annoy me. Too bad they don’t come in 2-3 sizes. An older, RAF-style nylon band lets you position the watch case where you want it, so that the buckle is centered for your particular wrist size.
Compare to Sir Sean's pics; the buckle is positioned on the center of my wrist.
Though some strap makers now offer nylon straps with cloth keepers, they aren’t always floating keepers, allowing you to keep the strap long (for SCUBA wear, for example) and still restrain the end of the strap, unless you double it back under the keeper.
Note for 22mm strap owners: a 22mm strap fashioned into a fabric keeper is plenty big, more than needed. Consider getting a 20mm NATO band, and make the keeper from that. If you get a 20mm NATO and RAF-style of the same design, the 20mm NATO will provide fabric for both the 22mm strap and the 20mm RAF.
Before modifying the nylon band at all, check that your watch can be worn on one. Conventional spring bars (for attaching bracelets and bands) will suffice, but they are usually 1.2mm in diameter, and not necessarily designed for a band reeving through them, and pulling on them dynamically while worn. Bars with “shoulders” flanges (which aid in removal) on one or both ends can be caught by the band and come out of the lug holes, or (depending on your watch’s lug holes) the spring bar pivot (pin) can move about in the mounting holes and widen them. Of particular importance is that the spring bar pivot is a correct size for your lug holes; if you’re unsure, ask a jeweler or watchsmith to double-check for you.
Solution: get spring bars meant for use with NATO straps, and see if there is even room to fit your nylon strap in the gap. I recommend getting 2.5mm bars (“fat boy” bars) which don’t succumb to some of these problems, or – if you have lug holes drilled all the way through like classic Rolex watches -- Marathon style bars with no shoulder and long pivot pins. Both of these styles can hold the strap more securely against the watch case. Note: if it’s a tight, but feasible fit, you should put the band on first and then fit the bars in place. Avoid pulling the band through tight bars repeatedly, it will weaken and enlarge the buckle holes (trust me on this), and can fray the strap edges rubbing against the lugs.
For several of the following steps, a hot pen knife blade heated over a flame can be used. A problem with this is that the blade cools quickly, so maintaining consistent heat is difficult while working with the nylon band. For a neater, professional look, I suggest using an X-Acto blade or similar hobby knife for cutting, and a butane powered soldering iron with heat gun and hot blade attachments for attaching and sealing the nylon. The hot blade maintains a consistent temperature and enables more precise work. The heat gun attachment should give you a very precise “hot area” to work with, and again you can control the temperature more precisely.
Take your NATO band in hand and measure your shorter, keeper strap. It should probably be long enough to wrap around the band as a keeper with some overlap, but just to be sure.... Having verified this, take your blade and cut off the shorter strap leaving a little bit of a nub on the main strap. You can cauterize the remaining nub with the hot blade, or a micro heat gun attachment. You may want to put this step off until you’ve sealed your fabric keeper, and trimmed and sealed the end of the band, so that you’ll be more practiced in this. One slip with a hot blade, or sloppy work with the heat gun attachment, can destroy your main strap. You’d have to start from scratch (up side is that the ruined band could yield one additional fabric keeper). Maybe you should get 2-3 straps of a particular design so you have extras in case you screw up.
Using small pliers, you can bend the metal keeper out of the small loop, or simply snip it with wire cutters, taking care not to cut the fabric. Now you’ll see that you have a length of the band with a thicker end where the fabric is folded over and sealed for the keeper. I use this as the top layer of my keeper’s attachment point, as there is extra fabric to melt and join the fabric with. If you’re using a butane-powered hot blade, start warming it up now.
Cauterize (seal) the frayed end of your future keeper where you cut it off. Best way I know to do this is with a micro heat gun attachment, just melting the nylon enough to melt it into a solid seam. Don’t fall in for “the bigger the glob, the better the job.”
Wrap the short strap around your main strap. I suggest you double over your strap to measure where to join the keeper when there’s two layers of strap through it. I find this is optional, though; the fabric keeper will become a little looser as you wear it, because it will flatten out a little.
You should have enough fabric to allow the underneath layer to reach across the band. Put a large paper clip on this side; it should hold both the underneath layer, and the overlap which you’ll melt onto the underneath layer. Slide the keeper carefully off your strap, and arrange it and your hot blade onto a heat-resistant pad (a glue gun pad, or a wooden cutting board). Put the main watchband safely away to the side – you don’t want to set the heat blade on your main strap accidentally!
Using the hot blade, gently “butter” the overlapping layer’s end onto the fabric underneath. Work on only one side at a time – the base of the blade can get in the way if you work over to the far side. Be patient, and use a very light touch; pressing down too hard will cut through the fabric. As you perform this, the adjoining fabric should warm up and fuse to the melted nylon you’re “spreading.” You should end up with a melted slope of fabric from one section to the other.
After the keeper has cooled, you may find the melted seam is a bit rough to the touch. Using modeler’s fine sandpaper (available in hobby shops) or a fine-grained emory board, you can gently smooth down the melted nylon. Less is more here, so you don’t sand away your join completely.
Once the seam has cooled slide it onto your band. Try sliding the point of the band through it … it may be a tight fit. Don’t worry, that’s good! Remember, as you wear it the keeper will flatten out and sliding the point through will become easier. For this first time, hold the point close to the tip with two fingers of one hand, and secure the keeper with two fingers of the other. When you slide the point in, it may try to bend up, but if you’re holding it close enough, the only way for it to go is “through.” Another way is to hold the point stationary and gently work the keeper up and over it. This takes practice on the wrist; patience pays off.
A trick I have at this point is to soak the band (with the point circled around and fed through the keeper) in tepid water, press dry in a towel, and let it air dry overnight. This will help set the keeper into its new shape.
Take off both metal keepers? Decisions, decisions....
While you’re letting your fine new fabric keeper cool off, think about the two remaining metal keepers on the main strap. Do you take them both off and go totally “buckle ‘n fabric keeper?” You’ve got some considerations to think over.
If you want to leave your strap long, you can take off the second keeper away from the buckle. Your fabric keeper will do this keeper’s job, and better because it will slide over the end of your strap – you no longer need to turn the band back on itself and be tucked in.
The first (fixed) keeper is another matter. Its job is to keep the band flat near the buckle, otherwise the strap could come unfastened from the tongue of the buckle. If you remove it, and have a long band trimmed by a fabric keeper two inches away, you risk your strap coming off. Bad idea if you’re engaged in diving or sports. If you trim your strap pretty short so that your fabric keeper is close to the buckle, then you can take this first keeper off. I like this look, it keeps the buckle and the keeper together on the underside of my wrist. But do this only if your fabric keeper is quite snug on the strap, so that it doesn’t slide away from the buckle, and you trim your strap to your wrist size with minimal expansion length.
The result can be very neat, but as this is a DIY project, follow our own tastes.
Length of the strap end (“Get a haircut, son”)
If you plan on diving or blowing up drug smugglers’ facilities like Mr. Bond (I’m joking, please don’t blow up anything), you need an inch or so expansion to go over a scuba suit. Here’s where you’ll need to measure very carefully. You need to leave sufficient strap length to accommodate a wet suit, AND long enough to clear the buckle and have at least 30mm left to go under the fabric keeper, but trim short enough so that the fabric keeper doesn’t have to drift too far from the buckle. (If you’ve made our fabric keeper snug enough, it won’t slip and slide, and it won’t accommodate a long band being doubled back and under like with the NATO keepers.) An old, carpenter’s axiom is worth highlighting here: “Measure twice, cut once.”
I’ll say it again. “Measure twice, cut once.”
On the NATOs I’ve converted, the point where I cut off the short strap … is just about where I position the fabric keeper, and can cut the strap to just come out of the keeper. Your mileage may vary. Measure and customize to match your own taste (and wetsuit).
Cauterizing the ends
The point can be cut and “sealed” to a shallow, or rounder, shape to preference. I find using a US half-dollar (Kennedy) piece gives a nice shape for a shallow cut; that coin’s diameter is 1.2” (30.6mm). A rounder shape can be achieved using a smaller US five-cent (Jefferson) piece, 0.83” (21.2mm). The smaller, rounder cut might be more authentic, but is less practical for bands that are doubled over through a keeper.
Using one coin as a mask you can cut the end with a tailor’s razor blade or X-Acto hobby knife. To center the coin, find two markings along the circumference that, bisected, cut through the center. Line this centerline up on the strap’s holes, or the center of a striped pattern. When measuring where to cut, leave 2-3mm where you’ll cauterize the end. You may wish to leave more if you haven’t done this often. You can also use a hot blade directly, which gives a clean, melted cut. Matter of preference, really. You can always clean up rough cuts with a mini heat gun or cigarette lighter. For the smaller coin’s shape, I found that making at least five straight cuts at various angles closely matched the curve. (If you’re experienced with using a compass cutter, you may wish to use this, with the cutter’s pivot point centered in one of the bands holes.)
… For sealing the ends, I used my butane solder iron’s “heat gun” tip. To ensure the edge kept the proper shape, I clamped the band between two of the coins. This acted both as a guide, and the coins also served as heat sinks to protect the rest of the band. Fine hobby clamps like that pictured are available at most good hardware stores. (See above under Recommended tools.) Snip away loose strands with fine scissors; leave sufficient material to melt and form an edge without sticking to the coins. If you use a butane blowtorch or heat gun like I did, put it on lower heat, and pass it over the fabric in a constant, even motion. You might want to use watchmaker’s magnifying glasses to see up close. Keep the tip moving, tilted to one side. When the strap end starts melting and getting glossy, keep moving, getting that side melt-y, then the other side. By this time, the end should be pretty well cauterized. Pass over the top for a few seconds to make sure, and then remove heat, let it cool, and remove the clamped coins. Feel the edge … it should be one, continuous hard edge. If there’s a rough edge, a little judicious smoothing with hobbyist’s sand paper can remedy that.
If you didn’t seal the nub where you cut off the shorter keeper strap, you can do that now with the confidence earned doing the other steps. Either just cauterize the end, or very gently smooth it into the main band. Take care, a slip or bearing down too hard and your band’s shot.
Half measures: putting a fabric keeper on a NATO
If you have multiple bands and want to put a fabric keeper on a unmodified NATO band in lieu of the two metal keepers but with the short strap and keeper still present, no problem. How to get the fabric keeper over the metal keeper of the short strap? Put a near 90° twist in the strap just after the short strap’s metal keeper, then another just before it. Your band will look a little like a twisted rope with the metal keeper sort of parallel to the direction of the band. Gently ease the fabric keeper up the band and over the twists, making sure that it ends up with the seam on the underside of the band. I wouldn’t do this too many times as it puts a little stress on your homemade fabric keeper’s seam. The end result can be nice; you could even remove the fixed keepers (behind the buckle) for the benefits of the NATO strap but with an old school fabric keeper look.
Regardless of which particular customizations you choose to do, you can always try variations on different straps. That's the joy of nylon straps ... there's always another kind or color or pattern to try out on your favorite watch.
That’s it, you’re done! “Congratulations, Senor. Do not go back to your hotel....”
Postscript: About the Bond strap regimental (?) stripe pattern
With the advent of higher resolution media (DVD, Blu-Ray Disc), and the digital restoration of Goldfinger, it’s been possible to correctly identify the pattern of the band on which Goldfinger’s wardrobe or prop master put the Rolex reference 6538(A) Submariner. Presuming that it is comprised of two olive or hunter green stripes, each bordered with maroon, on a black or midnight blue ground, I searched period references for a regimental tie, stable belt, or commendation ribbon that would match. I took for granted that the watch band was procured locally, and with little concern for the actual source of the pattern; it was possibly what was on offer from a local source for immediate use on-set. (Some presume it was custom-made for the production, but without any statements from those involved, I find that farfetched. Besides, why was it 2mm too small if made for that Rolex?) Since the secret agent was depicted on a covert mission, with the band worn outside his “dry suit,” a darker, low contrast band was likely selected to “blend” better with the costuming. I’ve allowed for the possibility that the band was a lighter color, put through a “wash” of black to tone it down.
Many of the references I found gave me close misses. Laver's Book of Public School Old Boys, University, Navy, Army, Air Force & Club Ties (1968, Seeley Service) had a couple of candidates. The Royal Irish Fusilier’s tie had red-bordered green stripes, but on an alternating ground of blue and black; the border was also thicker. This was confirmed with two examples at Stablebelts.co.uk. A pre-1950s belt features darker colors (the navy color is almost black), with a narrower red border. The Queen’s Royal Regiment (West Surrey) is another close match, green stripes with red border, on a navy ground. The corresponding stable belt at Stablebelts.co.uk appears to have a black ground, though it’s cited as navy. No others in this reportedly definitive reference had anything close to a match.
The Stablebelts site also features a belt for King Edward VII’s Own Gurkha Rifles (The Sirmoor Rifles) with a black ground, but narrower green stripe and a bolder border. Not really close when you compare with the on-screen strap.
None of the above feature what I would call a pencil-thin border. Also, the stable belts all feature a single, central stripe, not twin stripes. Commendations (medals and ribbons), and campaign ribbons, typically feature a single stripe, but occasionally feature dual-stripe designs. I continued my search for such a pattern.
Using an authoritative British medal and ribbon reference, I found the following candidates. The Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Long Service & Good Conduct (since 1908 ) and Royal Naval Wireless Auxiliary Reserve Long Service & Good Conduct (1939) medals match the colors (broad central green, edged in red with blue ground) with the latter a better possibility, but both were given to enlisted (Bond was a CDR, and I think a commissioned UDT frogman during WWII). The movie band has a darker look (maroon/cranberry border, midnight blue or black ground), again making me speculate if they died it darker to limit contrast to the "dry suit" costume that Connery wore.
Oddly ... I've never found any medal or stable with twin stripes. All the medal ribbons and belts that are close candidates have a single, central stripe. Again, twin stripes aren't common, but perhaps a strap maker thought it looked "neater" with dual stripes.
Of course … the pattern could be made up, just a design by a strap maker modifying something he or she had seen.
I hope this tutorial is useful to forum members. Feel free to comment with your own success stories or innovations.
Thanks to Mike at Corvus Watch Co. for some second hand straps for demonstration purposes in this tutorial.