The Art of Hand Tooled Leather

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On August 4th, 2020, the Filson Workshop released a limited-edition collection of hand-tooled leather goods made from vegetable-tanned hides from Pennsylvania based Wickett & Craig. Each item takes hours to complete.

Don’t miss out on this rare opportunity–sign up for our email newsletter on our website or follow us on Instagram to stay up to date on the release.

Below we explore the art and history behind hand-tooled leather.

Artists have used leather as a material for their designs for centuries–the practice is as old as the process of creating leather itself by tanning animal hides. In this respect, it shares a tangible history with other materials passed down through the ages–clay, stone, precious metals, wood, ivory–which humankind has molded, carved, painted, and crafted into objects with both artistic design and utilitarian purpose.

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Hand-tooled leather has its own long history. In the United States, this includes items of everyday use like horse saddles, bridles, and other tack used throughout the old West from the 19th century to the present day. Clothing and personal items, like belts, wallets, gun holsters, and carrying cases for long guns like rifles were also popular and considered worth the time and expense of having specialized designs added to the leatherwork. Footwear for both men and women have been a staple of leather-worked designs as well.

A variety of styles and methods have been used to create handmade leather art. Color may be applied using dyes that are oil, water, or alcohol-based. Many artisans begin their work from a drawing and transfer the design using punch and mallet tools to “stipple” the design into the material. Leather may be also carved, using swivel knives to create patterns and definition. One well-known style developed in the West, called the “Sheridan Style,” uses such tools and methods to produce a distinctive and popular floral style.

The value of hand-tooled leather goods was as great a century ago as it is today.

Hours of patient focus are required to bring even the most basic items to completion.

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Historically, professional designers who worked in leather often were either employed by a local tannery that produced leather or were part of a specialized company that offered customized leather goods. One example of a long-established company that has provided the base material for these craftsmen is Wickett & Craig, begun in 1867 and located in Curwensville, PA. Today they are one of just two tanneries in the U.S. that still produce their own leather from animal hides treated with vegetable-based tanning methods, using a blend of natural tannins from the bark of mimosa and quebracho trees.

In the Pacific Northwest, leather tools and equipment were a must-have for those laborers working in both urban and rural areas, from lumber camps and farming homesteads, to cities and towns, and beyond in the remote wilderness. Before the advent of the mechanized Donkey engine for hauling out cut trees, leather harnesses were needed for the teams of oxen and horses that did the heavy lifting.

Farmers used leather-harnessed teams of horses to pull cutting and threshing machines for crop harvesting, baling hay from fields, or making supply pickups to towns. Lumberjacks wore hardy leather hobnailed boots (nails in the soles) as durable footwear to protect against a wayward ax swing or the ever-present rainfall while working outdoors.

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The tradition of hand-tooled craftsmanship in leather goods is an art form that combines durability and creativity, with a material that only gets better with time.

Barbers and butchers used leather straps to sharpen their shears and knives, while the latter wore leather aprons for protection. Merchants and municipal services alike employed leather tack for horse teams to pull wagons for deliveries. Cobblers, or shoemakers, would mold and stitch leather on cast-iron foot molds, with a different mold employed for each foot size. In the far north, dog sledding has long relied upon the leather harness for dog teams traveling hundreds of miles over ice and snow. This was a supply staple for many a determined prospector on his way to the Klondike during the 1897—1898 Gold Rush days.

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Some leather craftsmen brought their skills with them from other countries. One of these was Mathias Jansha, a “tanner” who came to Marysville, Washington in the 1930s from Austria and established Jansha Tanning as a new business in 1932. His company provided local craftsmen a source for leather tanning and produced its own line of fine goods crafted from leather. In 1981, the business changed its name to Quil Ceda Leather Company, and has continued the handmade traditions started by its founder ever since. The tradition of hand-tooled craftsmanship in leather goods is an art form that combines durability and creativity, with a material that only gets better with time.

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