The Toolbelt Masters
With gumption, insight, and brilliant use of social media, a few guys in Virginia built an operation that makes what could be the world’s finest toolbelts.
Story by LORRAINE SANDERS
Photography by SOPHIA BAIN
By the spring of 2016, Connor Crook was exhausted. For the last 13 years, he’d been working as a litigator in Charlottesville, Virginia, a small, southern, college town with an easy view of the rolling Blue Ridge Mountains. After spending his days mired in civil and criminal conflicts that left him, “grouchy, not wanting to be social, not wanting to be around people, drinking a lot,” he was looking for a way out.
Crook’s first move was to try consulting, which led him to a childhood friend named Michael Williams who happened to be in the tool business. While working together, the two men ran across a small company in Alaska called Diamondback Toolbelts that was up for sale. Diamondback, they soon learned, was founded, in 1993, when a San Francisco-based master carpenter named Jim Skelton injured his back on the job. In order to keep working, Skelton needed a safer, ergonomically correct toolbelt, so he built one himself.
When the old Diamondback belt arrived, it was blue, incredibly worn and streaked with stains. Still, Crook’s first thought was, “Wow, that’s a tool belt. It looks like it will last forever.”
At this point, 23 years after the company started, Diamondback was grossing only about $125,000 a year. And despite a roster of unfulfilled orders, the company had stopped producing new belts. Digging deeper, Crook and Williams found a Diamondback Facebook group, where used belts and accessories were changing hands in a matter of hours, if not minutes, in countries from New Zealand to Germany. Even more curiously, the Facebook group turned out to be the only place where it was still possible to buy a Diamondback belt.
Growing up around the job sites for his grandfather’s construction company, Crook didn’t much like tool belts. They tended to be uncomfortable, and he avoided them whenever he could. But something about this scene looked promising. Crook contacted a member of Diamondback’s Facebook group and, somewhat begrudgingly, bought his used belt for $350.
When the belt arrived, it was blue, incredibly worn and streaked with stains. Still, Crook’s first thought was, “Wow, that’s a tool belt. It looks like it will last forever.”
Two months later, despite the complete absence of any existing inventory, Crook and Williams bought the company and moved it to Charlottesville—although, technically, there wasn’t anything to move. Crook did receive a series of videos with instructions for making the belts, but it was incomplete. There was also no manufacturing partner, or any clear procedure for how to relaunch the line.
FROM BELTS TO BATHROOM READING
One of the few tangible items that came with the Diamondback purchase was a document listing past sales. Crook noticed a handful of orders from customers with Virginia addresses. “I called all of them,” he says. “I was like, ‘Hey, I just bought the company. I want to meet you and find out more.’”
Soon, Crook was gathering customer feedback while hanging out at a job site west of Charlottesville in a neighborhood called The Rocks, where five- and six-bedroom homes with three-car garages look out on lawns lined with boxwood bushes. His next stop was a suburban job site near Richmond where a past customer gathered some of his buddies for some extra feedback. “I had, like, four guys there who all had Diamondbacks. They were telling me, ‘Yeah, I really like this feature, that feature needs improvement.’”
As the detective work continued, Crook talked to anyone he could find with clues to Diamondback’s past. A magazine editor Crook befriended on Instagram dug into Fine Home Building magazine’s microfiche archives from the late 1990’s and emailed old Diamondback Toolbelt ads marketing “back belt tool belts.” Priced under $100, they look like back braces flanked with saddlebags.
Sometimes, new information came from the unlikeliest of places. “We’d be talking to someone and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got one of those catalogs, but it might be somewhere in my bathroom. I’ll go dig it up for you,’” Crook says with a laugh, because a few people actually did this.
On Diamondback’s social media pages, the company’s fans call their toolbelts “rigs,” largely because of the way the belts are systems, designed to be almost infinitely adjustable.
As they pieced together the Diamondback product line, and found manufacturers to fill back orders, Crook and Williams had some good luck. First, Diamondback’s URL—toolbelts.com, a fabulously search-friendly domain name—came with the sale (Skelton had shrewdly purchased the name back in the company’s early days). Second, through Williams’ well-established industry connections, they won a contract to create radio belts for National Football League coaches to wear on their hips. It was a short-lived partnership, but it buoyed the company and resulted in good early press. Third, their purchase coincided with a new era in the trades, one where commercial and residential builders, woodworkers, and hobbyist craftspeople alike were flocking to social media in search of a community with its own culture, celebrities, and cult products.
WORKING FOR THE GRAM
A year into business, Diamondback’s sales were growing month after month (although Crook says his take-home pay then was less than his teacher’s salary right out of college 20 years earlier). Prices for a Diamondback belt start at $315 and climb from there to $450 for a belt called The GRRande, developed with industry influencer Kyle Stumpenhorst of RR Buildings. Add-on tool accessories can easily push prices hundreds of dollars higher. The reason that Diamondback’s customers pay such astronomical sums for a toolbelt is that its belts— or “rigs,” as their fans call them on the company’s social media pages—are designed as systems, which can be almost infinitely adjustable.
To accelerate sales, Crook tried traditional PR and marketing, as well as social media, which was almost humorously new territory for him. “For all of the years I practiced law, the only thing that I knew about Facebook,” Crook says, was that “Facebook was the place where so-and-so said something about so-and-so and ended up in a fight. And that’s how they ended up in court.” So Crook created a company Instagram account, and quickly discovered the platform was becoming the center of the trades’ virtual universe. “Now it’s all I do,” he says, as though he can hardly believe it himself.
While stumbling around this new terrain, Crook befriended people like Stumpenhorst, Murray Kruger of Kruger Construction and Toolaholic’s Kiefer Limeback—all top construction industry influencers who have amassed hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram in the last few years. These days, Crook, who now owns the company outright, mostly uses the platform just to stay in touch with customers. He hears about doctor and chiropractor visits, how someone justifies buying $400 tool belts to friends, and new features that people want. Along with Instagram and Diamondback’s lively Facebook group, the company also maintains a YouTube channel and a podcast.
“What social media, and especially the Instagram space, has given this millennial generation of craftsmen is a space to be proud of what they’re doing,” Crook told me. “They can learn from each other, which is different than reading a magazine article written by some old guy, versus, ‘I can just check out pictures of what this guy’s doing. If I really like it, I can reach out to that guy.’”
One evening, Harrison found himself poring over everything Crook had sent him on Diamondback. The night stretched into the wee hours, but he didn’t care. “When I was done, I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God. This dude is onto something.’”
In Crook’s view, these connections open possibilities on an even grander scale. “It is creating communities that would never have existed before,” he says. “There is a problem in our country. People retreating to their corners, with liberals over here and conservatives over there.” Crook pauses to think. “When I first got into woodworking 20 years ago, there were these chat groups, and they weren’t even groups, they were like message boards where you could post a question. And somebody would always tell you, ‘Hey, you moron, somebody asked that three weeks ago. It’s under conversation 542 or whatever.’ To get from that to where we are today, where I can go to a trade show in Nashville and have 15 people walk up to me and introduce themselves knowing who I am. It’s crazy. To give people this connection with these passionate interests across all borders. I talk to somebody in at least three countries every day about tool belts. About tool belts.”
A GEAR NERD’S DREAM
By late 2017, sales were booming, and as the holidays approached, with dozens of boxes to fill, Crook realized he needed help in the warehouse. In hopes of finding someone he could trust, he posted the gig in a Facebook group he belonged to for local soccer players. At the time, one of the group’s members, Damani Harrison, was on break from his job as an education support specialist in a local school. When Harrison saw Crook’s post, he was immediately intrigued. Nine years earlier, Harrison and Crook had run into each other, quite literally, during a soccer game, resulting in a concussion for Harrison and a broken nose and stitches for Crook. And now Harrison’s old rival, the combative lawyer, was running a tool belt company?
Wanting to make a little extra money over the holidays, Harrison responded. To his surprise, Crook sent him a pile of background information on the company to review. “I thought it was weird,” Harrison recalls, “because I was just going to be coming in to be a grunt worker.” Even weirder was the concept of Harrison working anywhere as a grunt worker. Harrison was, and still is, a fixture in the Charlottesville music and arts scene, and had spent years hanging out with hip-hop stars in his early days as a journalist. From there he went on to direct a non-profit, after-school program for at-risk kids, and then to work with local schools. Something of a multi-hyphenate, Harrison moonlighted as a local radio personality, wrote and produced his own music, and briefly ran a popular soccer academy.
Nonetheless, one evening Harrison found himself poring over everything Crook had sent. He became fascinated by Diamondback’s belts, whose lightweight design differed markedly from the heavy leather belts that were traditional in the industry. By contrast, Diamondback’s belts were made from military-grade nylon; and, Harrison noticed, instead of sitting on the hips like most toolbelts, these belts were designed to sit at the waist to protect a worker’s back.
Harrison was also stunned at the options Diamondback offered. Designed as modular systems with interchangeable loops, pockets, pouches, and accessories, the belts allowed builders to customize their own rigs, endlessly tweaking the configurations to fit the day’s job-site demands. There were belts in different widths, work vests, hammer holsters, gun loops, utility sheathes, phone pouches, snap-on handles, metallic clips, suspenders, nail pockets, bolt bags, lumbar pads, drill holsters, saw bags, drill-bit cases in different sizes and colors, as well as different pouch and pocket options depending on whether a worker is right- or left-handed. He was looking at a gear nerd’s dream.
Harrison’s explorations stretched into the night and on toward morning. He began to obsess, soon reading anything he could find—not just about Crook’s company but about the whole construction industry, the kinds of people they could sell to, the other products in this market niche. For a $12/hour job packing boxes, the time spent, even in Harrison’s own estimation, was “ridiculous.” But he didn’t care. “I just dove into it,” he says. “And when I was done, I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God. This dude is onto something.’”
THE POWER OF IMPATIENCE
By Harrison’s calculus, Diamondback was ahead of the curve in an industry that had seen little innovation in decades. In a sea of leather belts, there was no other product quite like it. It reminded him of a few years he spent working for a premium coffee company in the late 1990’s, before independent coffee roasters were a thing. It was a high-end version of an everyday commodity that not only started to sell, but also became the new normal.
A night or two later, Harrison called Crook. It was already past 10 o’clock, but they talked past midnight about the company, the market, the potential of it all.
Crook hired Harrison two weeks later, and he’s been there ever since—quickly moving from the part-time packing gig to manager of the company’s social media, marketing, product development, photography, podcast production, and the sometimes-prickly back-and-forth with Diamondback’s suppliers, manufacturers, and distributors. Harrison now holds two titles at Diamondback: Head of Sales and Communications and, in a nod to his self-professed appetite for aesthetics in all forms, Chief Style Officer.
“We bring completely different perspectives to the table,” Harrison says, and, at the same time, we sort of meet each other in the middle really well.” While Crook obsesses over function, Harrison focuses on the look of Diamondback products—and public relations. The same customer service inquiries and manufacturer conversations that are easy for Harrison to field can make Crook’s blood boil and bubble over.
“I’m extremely patient. Connor’s impatient,” Harrison says, as I sat talking with the two of them one morning. Crook jumps to interrupt. “I’m not impatient,” he says—it’s just that “I don’t believe in patience.”
Harrison—a writer and musician for many years—varies between quietly thoughtful and high energy, depending on the day. No matter what his mood, the rub of social interactions rarely phases him. Crook, however, is more predictably hard-edged. He appears in videos on Instagram as many as three times a day with inventory updates, behind-the-scenes company news about works in progress, questions for customers, and requests for feedback.
Crook’s messages typically fall into one of two buckets: no nonsense announcements about products and business operations (like the recent and much-anticipated re-stocking of the popular four-pocket, six-slot, three-loop Elias pouch) or sarcasm-laced, updates that sometimes turn into mock rants, like how he thinks Patagonia should give him a discount now that he’s decided to take up hiking and he might tell his friends about it. (Implicit message to Diamondback customers: don’t ask for a discount; we already keep our prices as low as we can.) Another favorite inspiration for Crook’s rants, during which he seems both annoyed and entertained, are customer service questions.
“Most of you people watching these stories already know the rules, but some of you just ain’t getting the rules,” he says in one video, sounding like a father admonishing his children to please, for the love of God, fall into line before I completely lose it. Crook then concludes, in a dramatic whisper, by imploring everyone to please, just look at the Diamondback website before messaging him with more idiotic questions.
Yelling into Instagram about your customers, and sometimes at them, would be a risky marketing tactic for most. Yet somehow it works for Crook. Despite his irritations, Crook seems to treat each customer as his equal, enjoying the push and pull, like a blustery litigator having fun with the day’s battle. And it’s easy to think Crook is only half joking when says, “I like people if I know I can get away from them.”
Harrison, on the other hand, takes a more personal approach. He maintains a separate Diamondback account, where he mixes company updates and customer reposts with snippets from his own life. While the differences between the two men have clearly helped Diamondback’s growth, Harrison believes their rivalry on the soccer field has paid the biggest dividends.
“The field of sports is going to bring out the best and the worst in people,” Harrison says. “When we came into a business working together, I had already seen the best and the worst of Connor. There was nothing that Connor was going to show me in this environment that I hadn’t already seen on a soccer field.”
The comfort between the two men may have also made for smoother navigation through the tricky, iterative process of product development, where Crook will disappear into the company’s workroom and return with a prototype, or an improvement to a work vest he’s been fussing over for months. “I’ll look at it,” Harrison says, “and tell him everything he doesn’t want to hear about it. This is wrong, and this is ugly.” Connor will then revise, return, and say “‘Now tear it apart. Say everything that’s wrong with it, because before it goes out on the market, it’s got to be perfect.’”
RAISING THE TRADES
The more I got to know Diamondback, the more I found people under one roof who, at first glance, seemed to have very little in common (one example being Tim Whitehurst, a white-haired, devout Southern Baptist hired in 2018 to manage inventory). It’s almost like the Diamondback team is a bunch of misfits who somehow found each other and formed their own group. And now, this odd group is riding a whole new set of social and economic waves.
Thanks to a now industry-wide skills gap, change is happening rapidly in the building trades. In 2018, there were reportedly twice as many available jobs in construction as there were people seeking them. Explanations for this dilemma are rooted in the industry’s lean years following the 2008 financial crisis, when jobs dried up overnight and many tradespeople left their posts, never to return. At the same time, more people have been avoiding college, with its albatross of debt, looking instead for livelihoods that let them use their hands, exercise their creativity, and develop their entrepreneurial skills. Meanwhile, enterprises like #KeepCraftAlive have come along, encouraging young people to build careers in the trades, where they can take pride in their own physical skills and achievements.
“Trades that have often been under-appreciated are now having their work seen, valued and celebrated by the community,” says Rob Yagid, who founded #KeepCraftAlive. “That’s empowering for individuals and energizing for the community. When you see exceptional work, whether it’s at the hands of a framer, electrician, plumber, painter, cabinetmaker, roofer—the list goes on—it inspires you to bring your best to the job site.”
“This thing is a beast, more than enough room in the pouches to swing the proverbial cat!!”
This momentum has brought fresh respect for the trades in a society that, for decades, has equated success and social clout with fancy degrees and white-collar jobs. “Fixer Upper” personalities Chip & Joanna Gaines are now household names far beyond their former confines on HGTV, “tiny houses” have become a movement, and otherwise regular guys who build stuff are amassing Instagram followings in the hundreds of thousands. And with the construction industry being declared “an essential business,” and thus exempted from COVID restrictions, in some communities this work is the only kind still humming along.
All these trends have created an entirely different workforce than the one Crook grew up with on his grandfather’s job sites. “Workers would come and go,” he says. “There was never this dedication to like, ‘I’m gonna make myself the best trim carpenter in the world.’ And that’s a very different population. The people that we sell to, they’re not talking about what other job or career they have. This is their passion.”
“THIS THING IS A BEAST”
Nowhere are these enthusiasms more evident than on social media. Scroll Diamondback’s Instagram account, and you will meet foremen, carpenters, electricians, contractors, and high-end hobbyists posting passionate comments, questions and reviews in English, German, and Korean. To expand these comments one by one is to unbox an ebullient corner of the Internet at a time when so much social media is a swamp of discontent. The discussions display a striking level of pre- and post-purchase analysis and read as if written in a special tool-beltian dialect all its own.
This thing is a beast, more than enough room in the pouches to swing the proverbial cat!!
The hammer holster means drawing the M1 feels more like going into battle with Excalibur!
Is there a photo of the inside of the pouches on the GRRande?
Does the Milwaukee stud tape measure fit in the ox tape pouch?
Really tight, in the Wingman, any suggestions on making it slack, quick?
Among thousands of images posted of belts and rig components, the majority feature men young and old in the middle of their work, some bearded and tattooed, others clean cut. They favor close-ups of tools, emojis, hashtags, action shots of cutting wood, climbing ladders and routing wires. They applaud others’ deft skills, and regularly admit to project envy. This is a crowd into tool belts like others are hooked on football or vintage stereo gear.
In the Facebook group, which operates almost autonomously from Diamondback itself, people trade as much information about gear as they do the gear itself. There seems to be a virtuous cycle born of a never-ending social media feedback loop, where Diamondback benefits, but then, so do the members. Recently, one member who had looked at the belts for a while asks whether they’re worth it. Another member quickly responds:
If you want the absolute best then diamondback is the way to go – i’ve had dewalt and occidentals and all kinds of others but the diamondback is well above them all – yes the price is high but if you are dedicated to your job and need a tool belt wont take long before you realize diamondback is well worth the money.
To another member wondering how comfortable the brand’s suspenders will be for roofing on hot days, responses are remarkably detailed.
I wear a Denali after switching from my Oxy master carpenter rig. I used my stronghold suspenders for months before getting the deluxe suspenders from diamondback. I can tell you the stronghold are comfortable but heavier than the Diamondback and I sweat more in the strongholds than in my Diamondbacks.
Then another chimes in:
Most of their products seem to wick sweat rather than absorb it. Even when I washed my bags to get em broken in and stretched out, they dried in like half an hour…
A third enthusiast is even more vehement:
Delux is the GOAT in the suspenders game. Had oxys and some Home Depot ones and they all suck compared to the DB delux.
One post shows images of a follower’s 24-year-old belt made by Diamondback’s original founder, Jim Skelton, along with a new belt he just received. The older belt is threadbare, faded, and ripped, but still functional.
I honestly think that they are better than Jim’s versions. Ordered it on Tuesday and received it on Friday. Can’t wait to try them out!
Comments like these are a goldmine of information for Diamondback, where product improvements are constantly in progress. Sometimes the tweaks are minor (a sewn-on hammer holster becomes a separate modular add-on); sometimes they usher in a new item designed to keep up with changing demands (like a belt for women and a new hanger accessory for cordless tools).
As one illustration of how fruitful this feedback loop can be, one of Diamondback’s newest distributors, Canadian chain Prime Fasteners & Tools, picked up the product line after repeated customer requests (likely prompted by Crook, who often tells social media followers to contact local stores and request Diamondback). In the first four months of 2020, the distributor had to restock three times, increasing the order volume each time to carry what now is almost Diamondback’s complete product line.
“The quality is top notch and is the best in the market,” says Prime Fasteners’ Jordon Paul. “We understand that it’s not for everyone, but when I’m talking to a customer about their product, I tell them to think of it as an investment. That tool belt is going to make you money, and you will not have to keep on replacing it with another belt in a year, possibly ever.”
In May of 2020, Diamondback Toolbelts had its best sales month ever, and revenues for the year are on track to top $4 million. Those may not be Silicon Valley startup numbers, but they are head-turning for a one-product-line company operating alongside secondhand stores, artist studios and an evangelical church in a small, Southern college town.
ANYONE WANT A DRINK?
One day, as I’m sifting through Instagram, I discover a San Francisco-based startup named Hammr. Its founder is Brek Goin, the 25-year-old Instagram influencer behind @builders.of.insta, which is an account filled with pictures of homes and buildings and followed by close to 200,000 people. When I get Goin on the phone, he explains that his company is essentially like LinkedIn, but specifically for the trades. His aim: “empowering the next generation of people who build.”
A contractor’s son, Goin started going to job sites with his dad on Saturdays around the age of five. In his twenties, Goin got into the habit of screen-shotting images of cool buildings and sending them to his father as a novel way to stay in touch. Trying to make the task easier and thinking others might share their interest, he started @builders.of.insta on Instagram in 2017. More than just eye candy, the images he shared captured something bigger—a shift in the trades from being the source of geographically rooted, physically demanding, solitary jobs to one offering a respectable career and a community.
“With this age of social media and empowering people to connect, it’s not as localized or as lonely as it was before,” Goin tells me. “Construction is looked at as such a dirty industry. Everybody’s known construction to be a few guys crammed into a pickup truck with dents all over the truck, and I think we’re kind of at a breakthrough point with the stigma.”
Goin’s comment reminds me of a story that Crook likes to tell about the annual meet-up the company hosts each year in Charlottesville (pre-pandemic). The event usually draws mostly from Virginia and North Carolina, but this past year, someone drove up from South Carolina, a six-hour drive on a good day. But what surprised Crook more than out-of-state diehards was what the men did when they arrived.
“I’ve been around doctors and lawyers for the last 20 years who are a bunch of drunks,” Crook says with a laugh. With this crowd, “they come here to talk about how you get your crew to do this or that or ‘Hey, man, which hammer do you use?’ People will come in here and bring any kind of exotic tool they have. It’s like show and tell.”
To keep the community spirit going, Crook always buys a couple of cases of beer for the meet-up’s attendees. Searching for a way to prove how serious these builders are, Crook points across the room, “Go look in that refrigerator. They’re all still there.”
© 2023 Lorraine Sanders. All rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of any part of this article is prohibited by law.