We continue our Finding Your Flow series with a video that takes you into the meditative sounds and sights of the Leather Smith. This video is a visual exploration of MFS Leather Smithing Instructor Jason Gold creating a steampunk top-bar briefcase.
The Leather Smith
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What sounds like a sneeze and is made of leather? A shoe...
Several men were in the locker room of the gym when a cell phone on a bench rang and a man put it on speaker and begins to talk. Everyone in the room stopped to listen.
Woman: Hi honey, its me. Are you at the club?
Woman: I’m at the shops now and found this beautiful leather coat. Its only $2000: is it OK if I buy it?
Man: Sure, go ahead if you like that much.
Woman: I also stopped by the Lexus dealership and saw the new models with the custom leather seats for only $90,000.
Man: OK, but for that price I want it with all options.
Woman: Great! Oh, and one more thing. I was just talking to Jane and found out that the house I wanted last year is back on market. They are asking $980,000 for it.
Man: Well, then go ahead and offer $900,000. They’ll probably take it. If not, we can go to the extra $80,000 if that’s what you really want.
Woman: OK. See you later! I love you too much!
Man: Bye, I love you too.
The man hung up. The other men in the locker room were staring at him in astonishment, mouths wide open.
He turned and asked, “Anyone knows whose phone is this?”
Role of the Leather Smith
Leather is one of human’s earliest and most useful discoveries. Primitive human hunted wild animals for food, then made clothing, footwear and crude shelters from the hides. Wall paintings that date back to 5000 B.C. indicate that leather was used for sandals, clothes, gloves, buckets, bottles, shrouds for burying the dead, and for military equipment. During this period, a basic technique, later named tanning, was discovered that employed the use of animals fats and/or brains to permanently alter the protein structure of skin, making it more durable and less susceptible to decomposition. The ancient Greeks are credited with developing tanning formulas using certain tree barks and leaves soaked in water that preserve the leather indefinitely, if maintained well. This process later become know as vegetable-tanned for its use of natural materials to persevere and create leather. By the year 500 B.C., vegetable-tanned leather became a well-established trade in Greece. Within time the process was coveted by the Romans who used it to make advanced footwear, clothes, and military equipment including shields, saddles and harnesses.
While leather tanning is an art and skill in and of itself, the process of transferring the leather into a useable product is the job of the Leather Smith. Over time leather workers divided into specialities and adopted new monikers. A Tanner is the person that process the skin into leather. A Bottelier is a crafter of leather water and wine bottles, while a Vaginarius made scabbards for swords. In shoemaking, a Cordwainer was the maker of the shoe and a Cobbler repaired it when needed. Head-ware was crafted by a Hatter and a leather clothing, including jackets and gloves were crafter by a Leather Smith. If your specialty was carving portraits or designs on piece of leather you would be called a Purogravure. Some of those carved pieces were used by the Saddler or Lorimer who created the most elaborate horse tack. Years ago people traveled with a leather luggage trunk made by a Malemaker who employed the straps and belts that were crafted by a Thonger. All of these trades have storied history found in leather books created by Bookbinders. And, from the 14th century onwards, the Leather Smith was combined with the furniture maker to fashion a new monikered position, called the Craftsman, or more appropriately the Craftsperson. Eventually, this term became synonymous with all form of crafts.
By the 19th century, the process of tanning was greatly sped up through the discovery of chromium tanning. By using chrome salts and mercury, leather workers were able to radically improve both the production quality and the time that it took to process leather. First the process of production was changed from using tanning pits in the ground to huge wooden rotating drum. These developments improved the efficiency of the tanning process from the typical 12 month process of Vegetable tanned leather to just a few days for chromium. Nowadays most leather goods are made from chromium tanned skin and used to make handbags, business briefcases, travel bags, car seats, couches, shoes, jackets, and wallets. Yet, many dedicated Leather Smiths still prefer to use vegetable tanned leather for their items because of the thickness of the leather, the durability, the pliability, and the finish, not to mention that the tanning process is chemical and toxic-free and much better for the environment.
The Leather Smith Finds Flow
For the some people, pursuing a state of flow works works better than more traditional relaxation or meditative techniques. Crafting to find your flow is called a “moving meditation.” Whether that person is cooking, sewing, running, or designing a new vacuum cleaner, it is, ironically, activity that enables the stillness of the mind. The Leather Smith is first confronted with the intimidation of a large blank leather hide. It is that large canvas that the Leather Smith must measure, cut, punch, shape, and stitch into a functional piece. Through the stillness of the mind the Leather Smith can achieve an extreme focus that enables doubt and worry to fall away and in its place possibility and clarity of purpose guide the artisan. This sounds so lofty and romantic, yet once the state of Flow is found, the absence of the negative enables the positive to craft the ideal item pictures in the mind of the Craftsperson.
Words from Jason Gold, MFS Leather Smithing Instructor
Once completed, a quality leather good becomes a heritage item; looking even better with age when well-maintained. Yet, the true story of a leather item is embedded in its physical and crafted history. This is the story that the customer does not know. It is the esoteric tale that is kept by the people who handled the leather along the way. From the life of cow in the field, to the tanner loading the skin into giant roller drums of the oak-tannery, to my leather studio, where I forever transform an empty canvas into a functional and cherished item. In this deeply meditative state called Flow, I speak to the leather. Not with words, but with techniques. I cut the leather in the same way my ancestors did thousands of years ago. I punch the leather with the same type of tool used by Leather Smiths of the middle ages. I stitch in the same manner as all of those Saddlers who crafted the saddles of the cowboy era.
Jason Gold, 2020
“There is something deeply satisfying in shaping leather with your hands. Proper artificing is like a song made solid. It is an act of creation.” (Patrick Rothfuss)
“I live in a beautiful place, I craft something I love everyday, I make enough money to live, and my demands on the world's resources are very meager. What's unusual about this idyllic circumstance is that there is plenty of room for more to join.” (John Brown)
Leather Smithing Lingo
Awl – A tapered and pointed tool used to either make or enlarge holes in leather, usually for stitching.
Burnishing – Is the method for finishing edges of leather. Burnishing tools are used to rub the edge until it has a nice smooth finish.
Edge Beveler – Tool used to round over cut edges of leather. This is used in the edge finishing process.
Harness Needle – Needles that have a rounded tip. Harness needles are used for hand stitching leather that has holes already punched and are not meant to pierce the leather.
Moon Knife - A half-moon shaped knife used for cutting and skiving.
Rivet and Burr – Are usually copper or brass. These are used either in addition to or instead of stitching. Rivet and burrs are a very strong and effective way of holding two or more pieces of leather together.
Saddle Stitch – A method of hand stitching. One length of thread is used with a needle on either end. Both needles are passed through the hole from opposite sides and pulled tight.
Skiving – Is a method of shaving the edge of a piece of leather with a knife so that it can be folded over, or so that it can be attached to another piece without increasing the overall thickness of the piece.
Veg Tan – Is the most common type of leather, especially for beginners. It is inexpensive and is best for any tooling.
Waxed Thread – This is the best thread to use for hand stitching. The wax on the thread makes it easier for the thread to pass through stitching holes. The thread is smooth and resists stretching or breaking.